Soaring through the sky is a dream for many children, especially those who grow up surrounded by the roar of jet engines. For 17-year-old Tristan Dowse, a recent high school graduate, living in the west valley of Phoenix, Arizona has made him one of those young dreamers. He’s spent his entire childhood watching fighter aircraft rip above the desert, day and night. That atmosphere has strongly influenced his vision for his future.
“My interest came from living by Luke [Air Force Base],” Tristan said. “Seeing and hearing the planes fly over all the time – I was like, ‘that’s pretty cool. I want to do that’.”
Tall, slim, and equipped with aviator sunglasses, Tristan is laser-focused on securing a seat in the F-35 Lightning II cockpit. He’s drawn to the jet because of how advanced it is and in a tone you might expect from a bright-eyed teenager, describes the stealth capability as “pretty cool!”
His dad, Tech. Sgt. Anthony Dowse, 944th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle operator, says Tristan has wanted to be a pilot since he was three years old – as Tristan puts it, “As long as I can remember.”
Dowse transitioned from the U.S. Army to the U.S Air Force Reserve almost 20 years ago. He believes his service and base specific programs has also played a role in his son’s decision.
“We’d go out to the base and watch the jets fly around and he’s been drawing pictures of planes since he was about three or four,” Dowse said.
Having a parent in the Air Force has also encouraged Tristan by giving him access to his dad’s network, to include pilots like Maj. Jalen Whitener, 69th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot. Dowse introduced his son to Whitener, giving him a look at what it takes to fly the Air Force’s most advanced aircraft to date.
“Going onto a website and getting information is way different from hearing it from [Whitener],” Tristan said. “It was definitely way personal and I think he was able to elaborate more and give his experience.”
Whitener took Tristan onto the flight line to see the F-35 up close so that he could appreciate the size and complexity of the jet. Whitener said being able to provide that access while being surrounded by an active fighter operation is very valuable. They also talked about what it’s like to be a pilot and what a typical week looks like.
Whitener can understand Tristan’s curiosity because his passion for flying also developed at a young age.
“My folks took us to an airshow and I can remember being hooked after that,” Whitener said. “I was pretty focused from then on by doing things to build my resume – sports, academics, Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and as many leadership opportunities as I could find all through school – in order to get into the Air Force Academy.”
While the Air Force Academy was, in Whitener’s mind, the most promising path to the cockpit, it’s not the only way to get into a flight suit.
“There are many roads to getting into pilot training,” Whitener said. “Each is effective but no matter where you go, it’s competitive. Build your resume early. Learn the process. Actively seek information on how to apply to the program you want – whether it’s the Air Force Academy, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Officer Training School, etc. – and what each program values in an applicant. Early decisions are always good.”
Tristan has already mapped out his next steps. He plans on attending Northern Arizona University as an Air Force ROTC cadet, majoring in Applied Sciences. The guidance he received from Whitener taught Tristan to be persistent in his efforts and to push hard to reach his ultimate goal.
“It was really valuable, hearing it from an actual pilot,” Tristan said. “It made me realize I have to start doing my part.”
Whitener believes it’s important to embrace opportunities like meeting Tristan, and to mentor the next generation of Airmen.
“Whether it’s in flying or life in general, people are all interested and gifted in different things,” Whitener explained. “These types of conversations are critical to making good decisions as young adults get started with life on their own.”
Perhaps it won’t be long before an older Tristan Dowse steps out of an F-35 cockpit and inspires a young mind, fascinated by flight.