Living Your Dream

by Pat Wheeler

How did it come to pass that a 77-year-old man would be at the controls of a fighter jet in war games off the Southern California coast, flying only 250 feet above an aircraft carrier at speeds of close to 400 mph while making 45-degree turns? Just writing about it makes me nervous but it is a story that warms the heart with a simple theme – never give up on your dreams.

As a boy growing up in Tyler, Mark Calhoun had this dream of being a fighter pilot. Born in 1946 at the front end of the Baby Boomer generation, Calhoun soon became enamored with airplanes and thought of flying them.

“I think my love of flying began when I was only five or six years old and rode on a plane flown to Wichita Falls from Tyler by my father,” Calhoun said. “My dad was with the Army Air Corps during World War II but at a desk instead of in the air. He had the bug and took flying classes on the GI Bill. The flight to Wichita Falls was his only flight to pilot after earning his license.”

Soon Calhoun was dreaming of flying airplanes and started building model ones that hung from his bedroom ceiling. He also began to attend airshows with his father and his model building advanced to one that could be flown at open spaces like the East Texas Fairgrounds. Calhoun’s dream grew stronger with thoughts of being an astronaut as the American space program began in the late 1950s. He even named his dog Sputnik after the Russian satellite that sparked the race to the moon won by America in 1969. During his junior high and high school days at Robert E. Lee, now Legacy, Calhoun took science classes and doodled airplanes and jets and spaceships. He planned to attend the Air Force Academy and go from there but there was a major hiccup that derailed his plans.

“To fly as a military aviator, you had to have 20-20 vision in those days,” Calhoun said. “I had an accident when I was about 16 years old, and my vision was not 20-20 in my right eye. I learned that I could get into the academy but not fly jets and that just didn’t work for me.”

Calhoun’s dad Tommy was originally from Van and was stationed in Italy during the 2nd World War where he met his wife, Tina. Their two children are Mark and his younger brother Steve who is in the oil business in Tyler. Calhoun earned a bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Texas before enrolling in and graduating from the UT Law School. He then began a lifelong legal career in Dallas.

“My dad always insisted that I have a plan for my life so I decided I would become an attorney,” Calhoun said. “But I never gave up on my dream and soon began taking flying lessons while practicing law and then bought my first in a series of airplanes, as it is a progressive disease, ultimately owning King Airs and a couple of older Learjets. It’s an expensive hobby so eventually I sold my Learjet but always kept my flying license and owned less expensive airplanes.”

It was Calhoun’s transition to semi-retirement that led to his most intriguing chapter of “living the dream.” After almost 50 years as a trial lawyer in business litigation, Calhoun began to work as an Arbitration Judge and thus had more free time for flying. He decided to regain his recurrency in a Learjet as a Captain about two years ago and once he did, his life began to change.

“My phone was ringing constantly with people wanting me to fly their jet as there is a shortage of pilots rated to fly these unique airplanes,” Calhoun said. “And then one day I got a call from Norfolk, Virginia, and a guy wanted me to “reposition” their jet. They put a recently retired F-18 pilot with me as my co-pilot and in talking with him, I learned that his company had a contract to do work with the Navy and that led to some ground schooling for the pilots in Virginia and California. Then I learned about the war games at North Island near San Diego. When I met with the guys at North Island, I was told I should apply to fly missions because I was qualified.”

Calhoun said he applied as kind of a joke, thinking his age would knock him out. But he sent in his resume and two weeks later got a phone call from the chief pilot.

“We had a long conversation and I told him about my passion for flying and how I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and he ended the conversation saying he looked forward to flying with me,” Calhoun said. “So, I told my wife Angie that I think I am going to Top Gun.”

Angie, Calhoun said, was not sure what to think, her husband traipsing off to fly modified Learjets in war games. It does, in fairness, sound a little farfetched.

“I am telling my kids that I am going to Top Gun, and they think it’s great because they may be getting their inheritance sooner, but my wife is talking to our neighbors about some kind of intervention or something,” Calhoun said with a smile. “My thought was mission accomplished if I could just come away with a call sign and a flight suit.”

With his dream in full bloom, Calhoun reported to North Island and had the requisite skills for flying jets but still had to learn the Navy jargon and fighter maneuvers. He did that by cramming online for a month. 

“With the help of Google and a lot of grit, I learned barely enough in a month of what Navy pilots learned in two years and somehow passed the written tests,” Calhoun said. “My flight training for the missions consisted of seven flights, learning low altitude, formation, and military intercepts. But still I thought my age would knock me out. They told me it would be a few weeks to a month before they got clearance by the Navy for me to fly but the next day, I was told the time delay was waived and I needed to be ready to launch the following day. That is when reality set in and just like that, I flew my first mission.”

Since the initial missions, Calhoun was full time and active for close to one year. He is especially proud of his flight suit with his call sign Judge, a la Maverick of Top Gun.

“The planes are based at the same North Island naval base, operate from the same hangar and use the same runways as they did in the second Top Gun movie Maverick,” Calhoun said. “And of course, I had to celebrate my status at the same I-Bar (Navy Officer’s club) as Tom Cruise did, placing my phone on the bar and buying everyone a round of drinks.”

Such are the heady good times for 77-year-old Mark Calhoun. His story is as Americana as that of his dad, who met the love of his life almost 80 years before in Italy while serving his country in time of war. Sometimes dreams do come true.