FORT RUCKER, Ala. — He gets six weeks to make a difference in a young aviator’s life.
And that, coupled with an obvious passion for being part of something greater than self, is the fire that motivates Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thomas K. Henderson, a Black Hawk helicopter instructor pilot and section leader at E Co., 1-212th Aviation Regt., 110th Aviation Brigade at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
“I think what every man fears at death is that your life meant nothing. I want my life to have meant something big,” Henderson said. “I just don’t want to be average.”
To get the chance to have an impact on somebody’s life may be a dream to some people. To get to have that impact at several hundred feet above ground is an ordinary day for Henderson.
An “ordinary” day like Nov. 2: it’s contact checkride day for two students, 2nd Lt. Morgan Hill and 2nd Lt. Mike December, who are learning to fly a Black Hawk.
As the flight line at Fort Rucker heats up in the morning sun, so do the nerves for the student aviators as they board a bus at the base of the air traffic control tower at Lowe Army Heliport for a quick taxi out to their assigned Black Hawk helicopter.
It is a big day, and “checkrideitis” can get the adrenaline pumping in the most experienced flyers.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Henderson asks questions of 2nd Lt. December (foreground) and 2nd. Lt. Hill as they preflight a Black Hawk helicopter for their contact checkride at Lowe Army Heliport on Fort Rucker, Alabama, Nov. 2. (Photo Credit: Kelly Morris)
As Hill checks the purity of the fuel, December works his way around the aircraft, checklist in hand, and together they inspect every inch of the A/L model Black Hawk helicopter they are about to fly. Henderson engages the students in almost constant question-and-answer dialogue during the seamless teamwork of preflight.
Henderson sat in their seat as a student only six years ago; now he is the model of what right looks like. He also knows something the young aviators don’t yet fully believe — that they’re going to do fine today.
For the next three hours, Henderson monitors carefully as the Soldiers, who just completed a 45-minute academic exam, demonstrate their flying skills mastery in the skies over lower Alabama.
“You’re a mentor, a coach and a teacher, and a bit of a psychologist to try to figure out what’s working in this [person’s] head,” said Henderson.
No two days are alike, and no two students are alike, which keeps him on his toes.
“Instructing is a good fit for me. It’s a lot of pressure, but if I do it right, I set them up for success with a solid foundation,” Henderson said.
By the time students like Hill and December meet Henderson, they have already completed the primary phase in the initial training aircraft (TH-67 or UH-72), an instrument phase, and Basic Warfighter Skills.
“The [students] come to me after the Army says, ‘Yes, they are going to meet the basic qualifications to become a pilot.’ They’ve been selected to fly the Black Hawk,” Henderson said.
He takes motivated students who have never sat in a Black Hawk before and trains them to fly in visual and instrument meteorological conditions.
“We teach everything again they’ve already learned, only now in a Black Hawk, and start applying the Army standards instead of the flight school standards,” Henderson explained.
Approximately 120-140 students come through his section per year, with their Type A personalities in tow.
“This is an inherently risky game,” Henderson said. “There has to be a little bit of swagger in what we do. But there can’t be real swagger until there is competence,” Henderson said. “I need them to be confident and competent. We strike that balance about three quarters of the way through the course.”
To Henderson, instructing is like coaching a sport, and the goal is maintaining the trust with the Soldier on the ground in harm’s way.
“Being a team member is what we do. That is aviation. Always flying for the guy on the ground. Everybody has a role to fill. My role now is coach,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s first specialty was Infantry.
He joined the Army in 1997 as an infantryman and separated from the Army in 2001 to go to college and work in the civilian sector. After talking it over with his wife, he later returned to the Army in 2009 bound for flight school.
“I knew my job wasn’t done,” Henderson said.
That job included a deployment to Afghanistan with the 3-25th General Support Aviation Battalion, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade in 2012.
“A medevac pilot has a certain specific brand of experience. When that radio clicks at 3 o’clock in the morning — your heart immediately jumps out of your chest when you hear the squelch break,” he said.
Looking back on his 12 years in the Army, Henderson believes the seemingly random way he found the service was no accident.
Acting on a tip from his dad that the airlines were hiring, Henderson picked up the phone book with the intent to flip to a U.S. airline and hopefully a job. What he found on the page was the U.S. government and where he belonged.
“Whether you believe in God, or universe stuff — I know what I believe, and this is absolutely the right fit for me,” Henderson said.
“The Army is an honorable profession, to be willing to give up years of our life so that everybody else around can continue with theirs. The Army is a nation to its own. We can do anything,” he said.
Henderson answered some questions directly:
Q: What is your hometown?
A: Stockbridge, Ga.
Q; What were you like as a child?
A: I was a typical boy who played outside often in a safe neighborhood, played sports. I always did well in school.
Q: What was your family life like when you were growing up?
A: I’m the middle of three boys. The oldest got what he wanted, the baby got babied, so I had to fight a little bit. If I was kept busy, I was in pretty good shape.
Q: What did your family think of you joining the Army?
A: When I told my dad I was joining the Army, I think that’s when I became a man in his eyes. We are service minded. Your job is to improve your foxhole, improve what’s around you, no matter what that is. My brother is a major and is currently a logistician at Fort Hood, Texas.
Q: Tell me about your family now.
A: My wife and I are both from the Atlanta area. We have been married for 12 years. We have three children.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Music, coaching, golf. I play drums and piano for church, and the kids are involved in sports and choir. I coach my son’s football team in Enterprise.
Q: What’s your preferred stress release at the end of the day teaching students?
A: Sharing with my wife. The buy-in is big, and she knows how important this is. Stephanie is truly a blessing to me and our family. She’s the most amazing person I know. She’s the heart and soul of our family — my rock, my love, and my best friend.
Q: Did you have your eyes set on Infantry when you enlisted?
A: I had good scores on my ASVAB, but I had no idea what this stuff meant. The recruiter said, “Do you like camping?” I loved camping. Going camping with someone yelling at you the whole time is a different kind of camping!
Q: What made you choose aviation when you came back to the Army in 2009?
A: It beats walking! There’s a reason everybody dreams about flying. I knew about the Army’s flight program because my last year I had been a recruiter.
Q: What’s the best thing about your job?
A: As an aviator: Knowing the life you’re changing on the ground.
As an instructor: I like that I get to be part of the foundation. You’ll never forget your IP (instructor pilot) from flight school.
Q: What is something that stands out to you about this generation of students?
A: It’s what I call “preflection.” When you tell me something bad you’re going to do, before you do it, because of some reason like ‘because I’m hot,’ that’s somebody else’s fault.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Did I give them everything they’re supposed to get? Did I say it the right way? Is my best good enough for that kid?
Q: What’s the best thing about your military training and experience thus far?
A: Camaraderie and esprit de corps are something that if you’ve not been in the military, you cannot grasp it. There’s something about those shared experiences that can’t be duplicated. You have that common bond of — you’ve lost the internal locus of control, and how do you still deal with this.
Q: Do you feel like the Army has grown you personally?
A: What we do with the Army Values — that’s just being a real man. If you do those things in your life, you’re going to be a pretty solid human being. You realize this is not about you, or what you want to do, or making somebody laugh, and it’s just not about money. If you can do things the right way, then the outcome is always right. You don’t chase money; you do your job and the money will come.
Q: What is one of your strengths and a weakness?
A: My charisma is my strength and my weakness. I’m super passionate about everything I do. Sometimes I feel like I get more fired up if I feel like you don’t care as much as I care. So I’m trying to show you how important this thing is. You’ve got to balance out the fact that things are important, but everything is not the most important thing. I’m a train wreck when it comes to that.
Q: What’s your future plan?
A: I don’t want to get out. I like it here.
Q: What advice would you offer the generation coming up behind you?
A: Yeah, don’t be so self-important. There’s more important things than your feelings, there’s more important things than your opinion. Follow the law, follow the rules, follow the books — be a man or a woman of character. Be responsible for you. Then I think that you’d find out life is not that hard. You’ve just got to keep plugging along.
Q: Looking back, would you change anything?
A: The only change I would make is I would have never got out (of the Army), because it’s a perfect fit for me.
Pictured above: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Henderson (right) asks questions as 2nd Lt. Morgan Hill (left) and 2nd. Lt. Mike December preflight a Black Helicopter at Lowe Army Heliport on Fort Rucker, Nov. 2.