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When he was young, Air Force Major Joel Neeb didn t dream about flying. For Neeb, flying represented entrapment inside a small space high -- very high -- above the ground. It was a nightmarish prospect.

Even after earning a full scholarship to the Air Force Academy, his perspective hadn't changed. I was deathly afraid of flying, he said.

Neeb now serves as the assistant director of operations with the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. In other words, he instructs the instructors -- the newest cadre of pilots the Air Force selects to teach the next generation how to fly bombers and fighter jets.


S.A.'s flight heritage

San Antonio and the Air Force have been partners since the Air Force was known as the Army Air Corps (it wasn t until 1947 that the Air Force became a separate branch of the military). Planes started flying out of Kelly Field and Brooks Field in the early 1920s.

What is now Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph was dedicated in a 1930 ceremony attended by 15,000. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Randolph was the site of all basic flight training for the Army.

Before coming to Randolph, Neeb s assignments included flying as part of the fighter escort for Air Force One and President George W. Bush.

The planning was the highlight for me, he said. We got the call and had only 24 hours to quickly determine our available assets and come up with a plan.

Once Air Force One landed, Neeb and his squadron patrolled overhead until the president departed safely.


Overcoming fear of flying

Neeb had no intention of flying an F-15 or anything else after he graduated from the Air Force Academy. The Academy ranks cadets based on leadership qualities, academic performance and athletic ability. Only those ranked at the top of the class receive an invitation to post-graduation flight school.

Neeb earned a spot and decided to give flying a try, and he stuck with it as he confronted the fears that had kept him out of the cockpit.

You re going 250 mph and you re upside-down and only a thin sheet of glass separates you from a four-mile fall, he said.

At first the fear was almost overwhelming. It was almost a panicked feeling, but after spending hours in the simulator, your hands start to move, your subconscious takes over and you re almost watching yourself fly.

He made it through the milestone assignments: landing in bad weather, flying just three feet from another plane and an always-dreaded exercise:

They put a hood over your cockpit, and you have to fly 100 miles just off your instruments, he said. That one makes a lot of people throw up beforehand.


Winning the cancer fight

Neeb and his wife, Marsha, and their two children have been stationed in San Antonio for more than four years, an unusually long time for an Air Force officer to stay in one place.

The reason: a diagnosis of stage 3 cancer a few years ago. There was surgery and then chemo, but what followed was a medical pronouncement that he had only a slim chance at surviving, let alone flying ever again.

Neeb credits the support of his family -- including his extended Randolph family -- for pulling him through.

Military families streamed in and out of the Neeb home with meals and anything else the family needed. It made a lasting impression.

I ve never been anyplace as supportive of the military as San Antonio, Neeb said.

He not only beat the disease, but Neeb makes a point to mention that he set a record for fastest time back into the cockpit after cancer. (Apparently there is nothing that doesn't get measured and ranked in the military's competitive culture.)


Educating pilot instructors

Because Neeb has a slight risk of a cancer recurrence, he is ineligible for deployment. That means he and his family will stay in San Antonio for now -- an opportunity they welcome.

San Antonio has been a real pleasure, he said. There is a lot of heart and soul in this city.

Every four months, he welcomes a new class of instructor trainees cycling through Randolph. He ll coach them through roughly 60 flights, almost two dozen simulator missions and numerous hours of class time.

Neeb s flying fears are a long-distant memory, and he embraces the key role he now plays for a new generation of pilots.

I get to enjoy flying just for the pure joy of it, he said. I make a point every time to look down and to remember and appreciate the fact that I m sitting in my office.

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