Hanging it up for a simple life: It’s complicated

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Carl Clegg
  • 108th Wing
Working a nine-to-five schedule and having a house with a white, picket fence is the way many perceive the American dream. What happens when you make your living at 35,000 feet in the air? Oh, and so does your husband. And you both have part time flying gigs for the Air Force and you have two children under three years of age. Life moves quickly at 500 miles-per-hour and for someone who never considered herself to be the mommy type, hitting the brakes is a new but necessary step. "It's time to simplify my life," said Maj. Sharon Gilliland, KC-135R Pilot with the New Jersey Air National Guard's 108th Wing.

"My dad was a C-130 pilot at Willow Grove Naval Air Station and my uncle was a reserve loadmaster on a C-141 at McGuire Air Force Base; I guess flying was just in my blood," said Gilliland whose flying career started at Purdue University as an aviation technology major.

A pilot for 19 years, "I've been flying since before I had my driver's license," said the decidedly young-looking major, leaving the reader to do the math on her age. As a commercial pilot for Spirit Airlines, Gilliland flies about 75 hours, or three to four days a week and when you couple that with flying five to six days a month for the guard plus drill weekends and deployments, you can see how it gets complicated.

Gilliland's husband Kiel flies commercially for Delta Airlines and recently left active duty Air Force where, for 12 years, the University of Washington ROTC grad was a C-17 Globemaster III pilot and weapons school instructor.  Kiel now serves with the 514th Air Mobility Operations Squadron. Between them, the Gillilands who met 12 years ago at flight school, have eight deployments and 360 combat sorties to their credit. At any given time, both Sharon and Kiel can be flying to opposite ends of the world, but there are two very precious reasons why more time at home is worth the sacrifice of their part-time flying gigs.

The Gillilands have a son, Garrett who is almost three and a daughter, Lacey who is one-and-a-half.
"We want to focus on raising our kids," says Sharon. "We would rather look back in 10 years and wish we would have flown [more] with the Air Force rather than ever wish we would have spent more time with our kids." But Sharon has not given up on serving her country. She has accepted a new job with the Air Force Reserve as a tanker planner with the 514th Air Mobility Operations Squadron just across the airfield from her old unit. "A tanker planner job allows me to still serve my country and be around Air Force flyers, but without all of the added time requirements of being a pilot," says Sharon.

The "fini flight" is a tradition that has been around since at least World War II and for Sharon and Kiel, it was perhaps historic. Before hanging up the flight suit for good, Sharon capped off her 12-year air Force flying career with one final flight in the 6,000 pounds of fuel a minute, aerial gas station known as the KC-135R Stratotanker.  What makes this fini flight unique is that flying the receiving aircraft, a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, was her husband Kiel, also on his fini flight. "The 108th does refueling missions with the regular Air Force and reserves all the time, but Kiel and I never flew the same mission before," said Sharon.

With a little pre-planning and some luck, the couple was able to make a little history and a whole lot of memories to last a lifetime. Cameras clicked away as the engines silenced, friends and family cheered as Sharon emerged from the aircraft crew hatch. Fellow pilots and crew members doused the pilot with water while her husband sprayed her with champagne. A soaking wet, but jubilant Sharon Gilliland was warmly greeted by her children and husband and surrounded by the people she cares most deeply about--simple really--not complicated at all.