Written by Michael Kolligian on January 5, 2015 | Herald-Tribune
From 2nd base to fighter pilot
SARASOTA, Fla. – When a promising Sarasota High junior named Ian Desmond beat out the senior incumbent for the Sailors’ starting second base job in the winter of 2003, two extraordinary career paths began to take shape.
While Desmond set his sights on Major League Baseball — where he would go on to become one of the top shortstops in the game for the Washington Nationals — the player he replaced had some lofty aspirations of his own.
Meet Captain Jared "Roam" Aschenbrenner, an F-16 fighter pilot in the United States Air Force.
Captain Jared Aschenbrenner, a former Sarasota High baseball player, stands in front of the F-16 that bears his name at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Currently stationed in northeast Italy at Aviano Air Base, Aschenbrenner is a member of the Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing, an elite, dual-squadron outfit charged with the mission of protecting U.S. interests, protecting NATO interests and deterring aggression. The 31st FW is the only U.S. fighter wing south of the Alps, making it a critical military presence in NATO’s southern region.
“I love it. I think it’s the best assignment in the Air Force,” says Aschenbrenner, whose exposure to the films "Top Gun" and "Independence Day" sold him on a career as a fighter pilot by the age of 12. “I’m living in the Italian culture, but I’m within two- or three-hour driving distance of six countries. “I don’t think there’s a better way to live life than to do what I’m doing. I don’t think there’s a better job.”
From Sailor to fighter pilot
Aschenbrenner’s ascent from Sarasota High to the European skies was a multi-legged journey that started at the University of South Florida. An impressive GPA and extensive athletic background helped him secure the school’s lone, annual Air Force-sponsored ROTC scholarship.
“Whatever Jared decided to do, I knew he was going to fight his way to the top of the class,” said Desmond. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
After compiling a stellar academic and leadership record at USF that earned him a first-in-class ranking, Aschenbrenner was awarded one of the school’s three pilot slots at the start of his junior year.
“If I were to rate the happiest days of my life, that would definitely be one of them. I had accomplished my first goal,” says Aschenbrenner, who phoned his parents, current Sarasota High athletics director Mark Aschenbrenner and physical education teacher Shirley Aschenbrenner, immediately after the class to share the news.
“It was a great conversation,” he recalls. “A great moment.”
A race to the top
After graduating from USF as a commissioned Second Lieutenant, Aschenbrenner was assigned to Pensacola’s Whiting Air Field, where he would put in 50 hours flying turbo prop airplanes along with college graduates from every Air Force and Navy ROTC program in the United States, as well as graduates of the Air Force and Naval Academies.
“We all started at ground level in Pensacola. It didn’t matter what you did before. You start over and now it’s just a race for who’s the best pilot,” says Aschenbrenner, whose experience as a Sarasota High baseball player proved invaluable throughout the training process.
“When we used to take the field in baseball it was, ‘Game On,’” he said. “There was a lot of pressure on you, and you had to perform.
“Every time I took the air during training, I had to perform as well. Everything else didn’t matter. I had to be able to execute without any hesitation.”
“Jared was always a very hard-working young man and he was also highly, highly intelligent,” recalls Sarasota High baseball coach Clyde Metcalf. “He set his future path right out of high school by making some pretty mature decisions, and obviously it’s worked out very well for him.
“I didn’t necessarily know that Jared would become a fighter pilot but I did know this: He was certainly going to be a very successful young man.”
When his Pensacola training concluded six months later, Aschenbrenner was ranked once again at the top of his class, earning him an assignment to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
Life as a "Top Gun"
Training would now be limited strictly to Air Force pilots, and take place in T-38s — the same jet that served as the fictional MiG-28 in the opening scene of "Top Gun."
He excelled in the T-38, enabling him to rank his choices of aircraft in the fighter community. He ranked F-16s at the very top of his list, and the Air Force rewarded him with his first choice.
“That was the best day. I don’t think anything else would have topped that,” he said.
F-16 training, which lasted a full year, was conducted in Arizona at Luke Air Force Base. Aschenbrenner — by now a First Lieutenant — and his fellow pilots learned to fly the basic missions that are performed in the F-16, operating solely as wingmen.
“We flew a lot of different missions during that year. It was an intense training program and a great learning experience,” he says.
Upon completion of his F-16 training, Aschenbrenner was assigned to Korea and his first combat operational base, where he was stationed for a year and a half.
Korea was a highly productive assignment, as it was during this time that he was named a captain, and learned to direct missions at the head of the formation in the challenging Flight Lead slot.
Korea was also where Aschenbrenner received his call sign, ‘Roam’.“All the older pilots that are at the base say, ‘OK, what do we name this guy? What has he done? Give me stories!’ and they try to get dirt on you,” said Aschenbrenner.
“They start brainstorming and then on Naming Night they bring you up and list all the possible names for you. All the guys in the crowd can suggest anything they want and then they create a whole song based on you that contains nothing but spoof names and then finally, at the end they come up with the name that they call you.”
Another, more subtle career milestone also took place in Korea that proved to be immensely gratifying for the young pilot.
“During F-16 training, my buddies and I would always talk about the future and what’s next if you actually make it. What we thought was going to be awesome, the thing we really wanted to see was having our own name on the side of a $40 million airplane — a U.S. asset, really.
“To be assigned your own jet, to see that your name’s on the jet and that you’re flying your own jet? That’s the moment when you’re just like, ‘Alright, I’ve made it,’” said Aschenbrenner, who has two years remaining at Aviano and plans to continue his Air Force career as long as he’s assigned to the F-16.
“That’s what I joined for, to be a fighter pilot,” he says. “Once you fly this jet, you can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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