Sunday, January 17, 2016

Navy flight instructor said scouting helped prepare him for the military

Lt. Ty Kerstiens talks Saturday in Muscle Shoals about his job with the Navy.

Lt. Ty Kerstiens talks Saturday in Muscle Shoals to Domenick Crocitto, second from left, about the T45. Lt. Kerstiens, who was an Eagle Scout, met with Boy Scouts and showed off his plane.

MUSCLE SHOALS — Lt. John Tyson Kerstiens said there is nothing routine about landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier, even if it’s something you’ve been doing for years.

You’ve flown your mission and now you’re approaching the carrier at 120-150 mph, then come to a sudden stop.

“It’s definitely violent,” the Killen native said. “It takes every bit of focus.”

And he’s done it nearly 300 times.

Kerstiens, 30, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and a U.S. Navy flight instructor, shared some of his experiences with a group of Shoals Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts on Saturday afternoon at the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport.

He’s about to be deployed to Bahrain to work with the Fifth Fleet, but for the past three years or so, Kerstiens has been training new Navy pilots at the Naval Air Base in Meridian, Mississippi.

The new pilots, Kerstiens said, already have primary flight training when they arrive. What he and the other instructors teach is intermediate and advanced jet training, which involves becoming familiar with the aircraft and their instrumentation, landings, the basics of weapons delivery, flying in formation and low level tactical navigation.

At the end of the training, the new pilots get to land on an actual aircraft carrier.

In all, the training takes about a year to complete. Kerstiens said the instructors each usually have four to eight students.

“We get a new class every month,” he said. “We’ve got somewhere around 140 students in training at any one time between the two squadrons in Meridian.”

Flying fighter aircraft is something Kerstiens has wanted to do since he was a boy. He enlisted in the Navy after he graduated from Brooks High School.

He is also an Eagle Scout and believes scouting helped him prepare for a career in the military.

“Yes absolutely, the discipline, working through advancement, the merit badges and ranks, from the tenderfoot ranks to eagle scout,” Kierstiens said. “I thought that it prepared me well for the military.”

Kerstiens was accompanied by another flight instructor, Matt Axley, 31, a graduate of Bradshaw High School in Florence.

Axley has been in the Navy for seven years. He said he always wanted to fly and flew solo the first time out of Northwest Alabama Regional Airport. While he always wanted to fly, he didn’t know if it would be for the military or a commercial airline. His decision was made after a visit with a Navy recruiter.

Both he and Kerstiens have flown combat missions in the Middle East.

Kerstiens explained that once you’ve spent three years on a ship or in a combat zone, the Navy lets you come home and spend some time with your family, then spend another three years training new pilots.

While Kerstiens has completed his stint as an instructor, Axley is just beginning his.

Axley began flying when he was 14 in Bristol, Virginia.

Like Kerstiens, Axley said landing an aircraft on an aircraft carrier “is a blast.”

“Just about every one is white knuckle,” he said.

After he and Kerstiens spoke to the scouts, they took them outside to see the T-45 Goshawk training jet they flew to Muscle Shoals. One by one, nearly 50 kids climbed up and peeked into the cockpit and talked to the enthusiastic pilots

Wesley Smith, 16, an Eagle Scout from Rogersville, took his first solo flight in August. He started flying when he was 15. He is a member of Troop 53 in Rogersville.

Smith said he’s interested in a career in aviation, but is unsure if he wants to be a commercial or military pilot.

And yes, Kerstiens and Axley both have call signs or nicknames. Kerstiens is “Scooter” and Axley is “Baby Bear.”

Axley laughed when asked how much of what he and Kerstiens do is like the movie “Top Gun.”

“That’s classified,” he said.

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