The Ascender: One Sailor’s Journey To Reach New Heights

After joining the United States Navy at 18, in an attempt to bring stability and structure to his unsteady life, Lieutenant Aric McGee began building his future. Coming out of a rocky childhood riddled with frequent moves, constant school transfers, and no real father figure, Aric found himself associating with unscrupulous peers. The Navy offered him an opportunity to change his life for the better. This is the incredible story of Lieutenant Aric “Boogie” McGee, who elevated himself from Aircraft Electrician to Pilot for Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 49.

A Turbulent Start

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Aric McGee spent most of his youth living there with his single mother. His mother, wanting to move to the East Coast where she grew up, packed the duo up and moved them out to West Virginia towards the end of Aric’s elementary school days. Relocating became the norm, making it difficult for Aric to form stable and enduring friendships with his peers.
From time to time, and regularly during the Summer, Aric would visit his grandparents in Sugar Land, Texas to escape the turbulence back home. It was here where Aric first heard the stories of his cousin Charles McGee, a legendary African American pilot who was part of the Tuskegee Airmen, enlightening him to his family’s history with aviation. Though Aric thought it interesting, he never seriously considered it as a career path.

“You think about it statistically, with your background, your struggles, people like you don’t make it far in life.”

~Lieutenant Aric “Boogie” McGee

Colonel Charles McGee

Aric would not be the first of his family to take flight. Long before Aric came into existence his great-grandfather’s brother, Charles McGee, served as a Tuskegee Fighter Pilot. Eventually serving as the first African American in the Air Force to be the Commander of a Squadron at a base and later receiving the rank of Colonel, Charles flew a total of 409 missions through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Originally Charles took part in the Tuskegee Project; a pre-World War II effort when the military started considering African Americans for flying jobs in the Armed Forces. People did not view them very favorably. Many didn’t think that the Tuskegee Project would work; there was no way African Americans would be good pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen made glorious fools of the naysayers; they are now remembered as some of the best pilots that the Armed Forces has ever seen.

At 98 years old, Charles continues to give motivational speeches around the country.

A Crossroads Moment

After graduating high school and moving back to live with his mother in West Virginia, Aric realized that the group he had previously associated with were heading down the wrong path in life. Feeling as though college wasn’t an option due to his lack of planning, discipline, and guidance, Aric was in search of a way to gain that which he lacked.

Aric knew he needed to make a change in his life to learn discipline. When he finally committed to the idea of joining the Armed Forces, he did his research: the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army, Air Force. He interviewed at all of them – looked at all the job opportunities. In the end the Navy recruiter’s personality won Aric over and, at a crossroads in his life, Aric made the decision to join the Navy.

Joining the service would help catapult his life into something more. Initially he planned to join the service, do four years, get out, use his GI Bill, go to school and build a career in something else. Only he didn’t…

“I remember checking in to my first squadron as an electrician and I walked into the hanger bay. Showed up to Virginia Beach super late and walk in and everything is really dark and all I see is the silhouette of this F18 as I’m walking around not knowing where I’m going I just remember the smell of the jet fuel and the oil and the grease and it just has this really unique peculiar smell when you walk into an aircraft hanger and I just kinda knew I was where I’m supposed to be.”

A New Beginning

Fast-forward a few years: one of Aric’s colleagues shared that he had originally applied to the STA-21 Program, which is designed to enable active-duty sailors to get a college degree and become commissioned officers. The gentleman shared a heartfelt story with Aric that he later pulled his application, and that it was the biggest regret of his career. Aric confided that he recently had considered the STA-21 Program, in which his colleague urged him to attempt.

Being exposed to the aircrafts, the pilots, and the camaraderie, Aric began to truly fall in love with life in the Navy. He was going to stick with it and make it a career. After all, he’d defied the odds already by getting himself on the straight and narrow. With the support of his family, Aric set out on a journey to take his love of aviation to a new level. He enrolled in the STA-21 Program, where he made the decision to become a pilot.

The Transition

Aric recalls, “I started working on it, just kind of did it all on my own, I pulled up the instructions and figured out what was required, what needed to happen, re-took my SAT’s, dug up all my old high school transcripts and created this application package for the Navy to look over and make a determination to see if I’d be a good fit for this program.”

He applied to be a pilot and soon enough Aric, now married and a father to two daughters, moved with his family to Rhode Island for Officer Training. After that he began Aviation School at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona beach Florida where he learned Aeronautical Science.

There’s a misconception that all pilots and officers come from perfect backgrounds; Aric was originally unsure if somebody from a troubled background like his could truly fit those roles. However, his worries proved irrelevant. Rather than his background, the Navy acknowledged and respected Aric’s dedication, passion, and efforts; he was soon a qualified Pilot.

The Life Of A Pilot

As a pilot of MH-60 Romeos, you will engage in antisubmarine warfare, intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, search & rescue, vertical replenishment and sea control missions. This is just a glimpse into a career as a Naval Aviator. Pilots may also find themselves flying some of the most innovative and high-tech aircraft in the world, providing vital attack, defense and logistic support to the Fleet, and controlling and maintaining all internal and external aircraft systems. Navy Pilots are important components in an exclusive, world-class group of Officers. The job requires you to perform at the best of your ability at all times.

Training & Advancement

Those entering aviation programs must first attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, R.I., and then complete a six-week air indoctrination course at Naval Aviation Schools Command, in Pensacola, Fla. From there, prospective Pilots attend primary flight training.

Pilots and NFOs then request an aircraft pipeline and enter the intermediate phase of flight training, which builds upon basic flight and navigation training. The final phase is advanced naval flight training, focusing on mission specifics. After completion, Pilots are awarded their “wings of gold” and report to their respective Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRSs) for further training specific to their aircraft.

“The next step for me is becoming a Flight Instructor. I want to be able to help young recruits become the best versions of themselves. I got a lot of help along the way in the Navy – now it’s my turn to give back.”

To say that the life of Lieutenant Aric “Boogie” McGee has been a rollercoaster is an understatement. He has experienced what it’s like to be down-and-out, and he has tasted success.

Now an accomplished MH-60R Pilot stationed in San Diego, Aric’s life has truly been shaped by his time in the Navy. He’s made amends for a childhood that was anything but stable. He’s become a better father, a team player, a world traveler; a man his friends, family and colleagues look up to as a role model. His childhood set him up for failure, but the Navy made sure that didn’t happen. It took him in and made him a part of their family.  No one has to be defined by their past experiences, especially when there’s a safety net to catch them. For Aric, that safety net was the Navy, and it changed his life forever.

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