U.S. Air Force Capt. Joseph Stenger, right, stands with Lt. Col. David Moeller in front of the 335th Flagship F-15E Strike Eagle. Stenger, a native of Barnesville, serves as an instructor on the new F-35 fighter jet.
An F-35 is seen over Maryland’s eastern shore.
Capt. Joseph Stenger's appearance on the cover of next month's edition of "Popular Science" is a bittersweet achievement.
On one hand, it highlights the rise of a small-town Ohio boy to the top of his profession as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. Operating out of Arizona's Luke Air Force Base, Stenger's an instructor on the F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation fighter coming into operation.
But on the other hand, the article points out that the plane is so advanced that it likely will be among the last manned fighter planes operated by the United States military - as the cover title next to Stenger's photo, "The Last Fighter Pilot" - indicates.
If that happens, it would render obsolete a job to which Stenger has aspired since second grade.
"I've put it on such a pedestal," the 32-year-old Barnesville native said of becoming a fighter jock. "It's hard to imagine someone else not having that opportunity. At the same time, who knows what the opportunities will be in 10, 20 years?"
Stenger did point out that the F-35 will be operational for a long time, and that future pilots who are newborns today also will have the opportunity to get in its cockpit. In fact, it's those young people that Stenger is hoping to reach.
"Because you are capable of more than what you think is possible," he said. "And definitely more than what your peers and even teachers or parents think is possible."
He said he first knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, when he saw an image of an F-16 on television.
"For whatever reason, there was that visceral connection that, when you're so young, is kind of rare to have," he said. "I'm very fortunate in that respect, because not that many people find out that early what they want to do."
But from that moment to the first time he strapped into an F-15, his first fighter, he was told that he was dreaming too big - that it couldn't be done.
"People think that Barnesville kids just don't do these things," Stenger, the grandson of George Contos, a former news reporter and region editor of The Intelligencer, said.
Although quick to point out he's not the smartest or most athletic guy in the room, he was smart enough to ignore the naysayers.
At age 10, Stenger began the process of learning to fly at the Wheeling-Ohio County Airport, doing what Sammy Hagar urged in the song "Dreams," with the Blue Angels in the background: He spread his wings and reached for the sky.
Stenger maintained his focus through Barnesville High School, where he played tight end for the Shamrocks. He left the area for college, attending Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the top university's in the nation for those looking to become pilots. As an ROTC member, he graduated with the rank of second lieutenant.
From the start, he was competing with young people from around the country for a coveted Air Force pilot spot, with many of those spots reserved for graduates from the U.S. Air Force Academy. And during his pilot training in Mississippi, he was competing with a class of 30 for his choice of aircraft.
It was a brutal selection process, to say the least.
"What has consistently set me apart is discipline, consistency and persistence," Stenger said. "So having that mixed with the work ethic has definitely been something that has allowed me to rise to the top. I think that's 95 percent of it. And 5 percent luck, like anything else."
His nine years in the Air Force have taken him to active duty in Afghanistan, where in addition to flying 330 combat hours providing air support for coalition forces, he and his fighter pilot buddies found the time to start a non-profit helping orphans and widows in Asia.
Stenger's commitment to the Air Force is up in two years, after which he hopes to go to business school and eventually return home to the Ohio Valley and continue to challenge the status quo.
He also hopes to serve as an example to another young dreamer.
"It's not easy to be a fighter pilot," he said. "It's not easy to be successful in general. But what will separate the top 5 percent from everyone else is the ability to see an obstacle and view that as the price of admission."
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