by Joyce A. Mitchell
FORT WORTH, Texas – Marine Corps aviators will fly the newest, hottest fighter plane in 2012, but Hayden High school graduate Maj. J.T. Bachmann flies the future today.
Bachmann is the first Marine test pilot to fly the F-35 Lightning II.
The Lightning II is destined to be the next fighter jet for U.S. armed forces. The Pentagon plans to buy 2,400 for the Navy, Air Force and Marine fleets. Bachmann’s job is to tell the Lockheed-Martin designers what works.
“Really, really smart people design airplanes,” Bachmann said, “and I tell them if it’s good or bad.”
After graduating from Topeka’s Hayden High School in 1992, Bachmann went on to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, then to flight school for the Marines. Hayden classmates will remember him as Ty; other pilots call him “OD,” short for Overdrive.
His family attended Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish, and the Marine major calls his Hayden education “absolutely phenomenal.” Hayden had a sense of caring, and that has stuck with Bachmann. The small, close-knit community — his graduating class totaled 82 — very much parallels the camaraderie he found among the Merchant Marines and then in the Marines, he said.
Because his teacher Rick Strecker — now Hayden president — taught physics and chemistry so well, “when I got to college, I didn’t have to do a single lick of homework,” he confessed.
Bachmann played tight end and linebacker for the Hayden football team under legendary coach Tom Stringer.
“He put a lot of faith in me and gave me the opportunity to excel,” said Bachmann.
Stringer, who coached the Hayden Wildcats for 24 years — 15 as head coach—was “an amazing motivator,” said Bachman.
“He leads by doing and is very animated,” recalled Bachmann, who visited his mentor during his last trip to Topeka, where his stepfather Matthew Dowd still lives. His mother, Mary Kay Dowd, now deceased, was the encouraging force during his college years, he added.
Home now, at least on the weekends, is Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, with wife Jill and sons — Drew, 8, and Brady, 6. Being in opposite parts of the country doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, he said, after spending months away on two missions to Iraq.
As the only active military test pilot, he provides the feedback for his brethren in the ranks.
“It’s very humbling and pretty amazing,” Bachmann said of his work.
He is one of just five who are flying the new Lockheed designs.
“The other pilots are all way older,” said the 35-year-old. “The next youngest is 45 or 50. They are all very distinguished, accomplished former military fighter pilots.”
Bachman’s love for aviation came from his dad, Mark Bachmann, who flew Army helicopters in Vietnam. He passed away before his son earned his pilot’s wings, but Bachmann carries a memento from his dad whenever he is flying.
“He gave me a patch the day I was selected to be a Marine pilot,” said Bachmann. “It goes with me on all flights.”
He has flown two versions of the F-35 — one for standard runways and the other for aircraft carriers — and will take the third model, a hover-landing unit, to the air this summer.
“There’s not a lot of time to think about how dangerous it is,” said Bachmann, who loves his time in the sky.
“Up there is my church,” he said. “It is calming and unbelievably blue.”