MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --
Growing up on a small farm in Southwest Kansas, a young boy developed a love for aviation but was never able to follow his interest until he was an adult. Despite the late start, he would become a civilian and Air Force pilot flying in over 100 different models of airplanes.
Many pilots, both civilian and military, tend to get into aircraft and flying when they are young, some even earning a pilot’s license before a driver’s license. For Lt. Col. Brian Correll, 18th Air Refueling Squadron KC-46A Pegasus instructor pilot and Textron Aviation production flight test pilot, his path was a little different.
“Growing up as a kid I always had an interest in airplanes, but none of that ever came into fruition,” Correll said. “When I was in college a friend invited me to go skydiving, so it was through the skydiving club that I became more interested and exposed to aviation.”
Alongside joining the Parachute Club, Correll majored in Mechanical Engineering at Kansas State University, where he also earned his commercial and flight instructor certificates.
With over 750 skydiving jumps, Correll racked up a total of six hours of freefall resulting in travelling more than 700 miles through the air. He had participated in 60 jumps over the course of a year before he ever landed in an airplane.
“I’ve always been a mechanically-inclined person,” Correll said. “Skydiving involved that. Free fall was great because you get to basically fly your body through the air. Then once you’re under parachute, it’s really what got me interested in aviation because you’re steering the canopy, flying the pattern with it. In the newer parachutes you get to do some pretty cool stuff with it. That’s what drew me to it.”
Correll moved from jumping out of planes to flying them himself, participating in competitions to build his skillset in aerial maneuvering. In 2004 he joined the Air National Guard, later transferring to the Air Reserves in 2016, and attended Air Force Pilot Training where he finished the top of his class. He had not considered joining the military until he spoke with one of his students when he was a civilian flight instructor.
“I have always worn contacts so at the beginning I didn’t really think about the Air Force or anything like that,” Correll said. “Then after talking to [my student] I found that the waivers were pretty easy to get and started visiting the unit. Between him and my cousin’s husband who flew B-1s, they kind of influenced my decision to join.”
In the military, Correll flew the KC-135 Stratotanker all around the world, including combat missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Between his time as a civilian and military pilot, he has flown over 9,400 hours, 3,000 of them as an instructor pilot, culminating in over a year in the sky. As an instructor, Correll now pilots the KC-46A Pegasus.
“Even though I’m flying the KC-46, I’m still a little partial to KC-135 since I’ve spent so much time in it and I appreciate the history behind it and all of the engineering that went into that first generation of airliner and tanker,” Correll said. “It’s challenging to keep up with all the training [for the KC-46], but it’s very rewarding. I love the unit and the base and can’t wait to see where it’s going.”
Correll has enjoyed being a tanker pilot and all the opportunities that its mission provides.
“My advice is you want to find the mission, unit or branch that fits your goals for your career,” Correll said. “To many people it doesn’t sound that fascinating, but it’s really cool because with the air refueling mission you get to touch almost all of the Air Force assets and see a little of what each one of them does.”
Having flown and witnessing the capabilities of dozens of aircraft, his favorite is his own Pitts S2S biplane that he has modified to pursue an aspect of flying he always had an interest in.
“Once I had the ability and funds to buy my own airplane, I just always knew I wanted to do air shows eventually,” he said. “It was getting the foundation built to accomplish that.”
Having reached his goal, Correll performs approximately eight to 10 times a year, and is scheduled to perform nine times in 2022.
As an FAA-certified mechanic, Correll made changes and updates to the engine, airframe, propeller, landing gear and instruments to strengthen his aircraft to withstand the extreme aerobatic routine he does in air shows.
His plane can travel over 230 miles per hour and 60 mph backwards, with his routine involving extreme loops and turns, putting as much strain on his body as the airframe. During his routine, Correll experiences eight positive and five negative G-forces.
“In the looping portions, positive [G-forces] sink you down into the seat, so my body weighs about 1,600 pounds,” Correll said. “A lot of people can equate to that, but the negative [G-forces], if I’m upside down during that looping portion, I have about 800 pounds against the harness.
“Positive [G-forces] you have to keep the blood in your brain and be conscious,” he continued. “Negative [G-forces] you have to acclimate to because it just hurts. Now you have the blood rushing to your brain and you have to learn to relax so you don’t break any blood vessels or anything like that.”
Despite the risks, Correll said the experience adds to his performance rather than take anything away.
“That’s the part that you get a little of the adrenaline,” he said. “It’s like going out running or anything like that, once you get focused that’s all part of it and it just adds to it. Makes it more fun.”
While the excitement and thrill of his performance is something Correll thoroughly enjoys, his favorite part about air shows is getting to interact with the public and share his love of aviation with others.
“For me, and I think this goes back to skydiving too, we would do some demo jumps and maybe a 4th of July or veterans’ event, and it’s something that not everybody has access to,” Correll said. “They appreciate it and it’s great to be able to go talk to kids or kids at heart. You’ll have anything from an 8-year-old to an 80-year-old come and talk to you about what you do.”
One of Correll’s scheduled shows is the Frontiers in Flight Air Show at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, Sept. 23-25, the first to be held at the base since 2018. He is one of 11 performers planned to participate, including the Air Force Thunderbirds.
“Air Force open houses seems like a lot of work for the military people, but it’s a great way to show off what we do, to engage the public, show off our facilities, airplanes and mission,” Correll said. “I’m really looking forward to being a part of the show and I think it’s great they’re having one this year.”
From a piqued interest at a young age to a full career, Correll followed his love for flying to become a successful pilot, both serving his country and showcasing his aviation abilities to the public and proving it is never too late to follow your passion.