WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Their last flight at Whiteman Air Force Base was supposed to be special.
U.S. Air Force Captains Lacey and Stephen Orians planned on commemorating their departure and final scheduled training missions, their so-called fini-flights, at the same time. Together, they looked forward to symbolically waving goodbye to their teammates, unit and former home in central Missouri from the sky: wing-to-wingtip.
Like so many times for dual-military couples, however, this didn’t work out quite as planned – but the two aviators are no strangers to changed flight plans.
The young couple met early in their Air Force career but were assigned to different aircraft upon completion of undergraduate pilot training. Lacey was assigned to fly the B-52 Stratofortress and Stephen to the A-10 Thunderbolt II. While both were passionate about their budding careers as Air Force pilots, selection to these airframes made an assignment together all but impossible as the two combat aircraft don’t share any common bases.
Before arriving at Whiteman AFB, the couple was separated for two and a half years. While both gained valuable leadership experiences as young officers, they knew that as a couple they had to find a way to better align their flightpaths.
At Whiteman AFB that was finally possible and meant a jump to the T-38 Talon fighter platform for Lacey, which still allowed her to remain in the bomber community as an instructor pilot, working with B-2 Spirit stealth bomber pilots who utilize the smaller jet to maintain peak Airmanship when not flying bomber missions. Stephen was able to continue flying his beloved A-10 with the 358th Fighter Squadron, which operates as part of the 495th Fighter Group, an active associate unit of the Air Force Reserve’s 442nd Fighter Wing at Whiteman AFB.
“A dual-pilot life requires constant communication with leadership and a lot of hard work and creativity to find the best assignment for your career, your family, and the Air Force,” Lacey said.
Unfortunately, an Air Force pilot’s career is all but stagnant and after more than two years in Missouri, the couple knew their next move was coming soon. In order to align their next assignments, Lacey and Stephen coordinated actively with their assignments managers and command teams over the course of 10 months to align the needs of the Air Force mission with those of their families.
After some nail biting, the two finally found a solution: Lacey will be training to fly the HC-130J Combat King II at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, while Stephen will remain with the A-10 and spend a year unaccompanied with the 25th Fighter Squadron at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. The two aircraft have a bit more compatibility when it comes to assignments and the couple hopes that while this assignment again means a lengthy separation, the move will bode well for their joint future in flight.
“Being a pilot-pilot join spouse couple is dynamic,” Stephen said. “You are constantly chasing an equilibrium of requirements between continuation training flights, temporary duty assignments, deployments, upgrades, the responsibilities for your job outside of flying, and most importantly your family. It takes patience and perseverance from both members to understand the demands and constraints of being pilots and constant communication to paint an accurate picture of our professional and personal desires for the future.”
The unique requirements for pilots and other aircrew to retain all their qualifications to fly, ranging from physical fitness and mental health to accumulating enough flying hours in their aircraft; the limited slots for pilots at each base and mission requirements all complicate the process to retain that balance.
“While this balance can be difficult and daunting at times, it has fostered and bolstered our combat capabilities and friendships at Whiteman,” Stephen said. “Being join spouse has allowed us to cross unit boundaries and collaborate across the Air Combat Command, Air Force Reserve Command, and Air Force Global Strike Command, allowing our respective communities to make connections at the personnel level that probably would have never existed.”
In addition to these connections between units, pilot couples are able to connect over their shared experiences much like other military couples – but through the uniquely focused lens of flying.
“It’s been rewarding in its own ways as well though,” Lacey said. “It’s so awesome to be able to share the highs and lows in a unique way, to be able to understand the stresses of going through another upgrade, the excitement of a fini flight, the pain in being supervisor of flying for the day or the bittersweet feelings in a deployment.”
Throughout their Air Force journey, Lacey said they received support and mentorship from their command teams and especially other pilot couples. The best advice they received was to figure out how to prioritize their family in relation to their careers. Most importantly, that one spouse shouldn’t make all the sacrifices and career changes as that can lead to resentment.
To help other pilot couples through the challenges they face, Lacey and Stephen highlighted the best advice they have received from others as well as the most valuable lessons they learned along the way:
-Know your priorities. Discuss with your partner what your goals are as an individual as well as jointly and continue to discuss them as they evolve.
-Keep your commanders involved. Ensure each of your commanders knows who you are and what your situation entails.
-Educate yourself. Know the join spouse regulations and instructions, how assignments work, anything you can to help you understand the inner workings. You can better advocate for your career if you understand how the underlying assignments system functions.
-Tell your story to anyone who asks. You never know who has the power to change things for you or who has knowledge of niche assignments or temporary duty travel assignments that could put you together. Nobody can help unless they know what you’re going through.
-You are your best advocate. It can feel like a fine line between being appropriately involved and preemptive in your assignments and coming off as annoying, entitled or impatient. It’s about balance. The best ways the two pilots have found to mitigate this is to write down dates of communication/emails sent and try to be cognizant of leaders and administrative offices’ workloads when asking for updates or information.
-Be organized and concise. We have found that including a bottom line up front and creating a table of the information you are trying to present is best.
-Work hard. The mission always takes priority – you are a military professional first and others rely on your continued focus and performance.
Much like their shared success in the Air Force, their last flight at Whiteman AFB took the right coordination. Despite conflicting unit flight schedules, Lacey and Stephen flew their fini flights as members of Team Whiteman June 4, 2021. While their flights didn’t line up in the air as planned, they still were able to greet each other at the end of their respective flights and celebrated together with their unit members and family who welcomed them as they landed.