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Lackey said the life lessons his grandfather taught him as a child were guiding influences on the rest of his life.
East County Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015 5 years ago

Retired Air Force Colonel soars to new heights

Hank Lackey hopes his book inspires others to pursue goals.
by: Jessica Salmond Staff Writer

It was 1941 and 8-year-old Hank Lackey was chopping down weeds on his grandpa’s 40-acre field. The Illinois summer was hot, and the sweat beaded on his skin.

Lackey didn’t like that kind of work, and in those moments, he wondered if he would be a weed-picker his whole life.

He remembered, though, back to one particular moment when an unusual sound distracted him. He looked up to see a P-51 propeller-driven, fighter plane zooming overhead.

Of course, at the time, he didn't know it was a P-51. It was the first time he’d ever seen an airplane.

It changed his life.

In an instant, Lackey could see himself sitting in the cockpit, rocketing through the air at unimaginable speeds. From that day forward, he wanted to be a fighter pilot.

“Everyone told me I couldn’t do it,” he said.

The disbelief around him made him want to do it more. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953 and went into pilot training.

Now, at age 82, Lackey decided to publish a book, "Farm-boy to Fighter Pilot," about his life.

“My desire is that my story will live on to inspire others,” said the resident of Edgewater Lakewood Ranch. “I’m 82, but I’m going for 120.”

One driving force that shaped Lackey’s life was his determination. He said everyone needs to have goals in life.

“It’s important that everyone gains a vision,” Lackey said. “I got mine early, but I know people at age 50 and 60 who don’t have

one. Those people aren’t as successful.”

Lackey’s desire to be a pilot drove him through his young adult life and during his time in the Air Force.

He started in the military at Fort Breckenridge as a payroll specialist when he was 17. He was promoted to assistant manager a year later, and then his supervisor recommended that he join the Army and become an officer.

“I said no thank you, I’m going to be a fighter pilot,” he said.

Once he was in the Air Force, Lackey said he knew he could have become a mechanic or a myriad of other jobs. Even so, he never gave up the pursuit of his vision.

The Air Force suggested various fields, but fighter pilot was not one of them.

“You have to let people know what you want,” Lackey said.

Hank Lackey wears this ring from the Air Force every day. “I just wanted to fly all the time,” he said.
Hank Lackey wears this ring from the Air Force every day. “I just wanted to fly all the time,” he said.

Eventually, a young Air Force officer approached him and said, “I understand you think you want to be a pilot.”

Lackey replied, “I don’t think ... I know.”

To qualify for pilot training, he had to pass a 40-hour class with a final written exam. Twelve other Air Force hopefuls took the exam with Lackey, who was the only one to pass and the only one without a college education.

“That gave me the conviction I could accomplish anything,” he said.

Another lesson he learned about accomplishing his dreams was to persevere when he knew he was right, despite obstacles.

When he was in grade school, Lackey jumped off a swing and fractured his skull when he landed on a rock. He was in and out of consciousness for a month.

Normally, that kind of injury bars someone from eventually being a pilot. Years after that accident, the Air Force spent 10 days evaluating his fracture and ultimately allowed him to pass.

During his first flight in an Air Force plane, a Piper Cub, he had one moment of doubt. It was not only his first day of training but the first time he had ever been flying. The pilot asked him to perform an air maneuver, and Lackey couldn’t do it.

“I thought about giving up,” he said.

When he returned to training the next day, however, the pilot acted like nothing had ever happened, and Lackey was able to complete the move successfully.

Lackey hopes that people who read his book understand that it is not only important to having a vision for life, but also to choose a career that will stimulate their passion.

He loved his career as a pilot, and even though he never served as a fighter pilot in combat, he was a test pilot for the Air Force’s fighter planes and also an airplane accident investigator. If an airplane crashed, his job was to find out what caused the failure.  

During his two years of pilot training, he would go on flights about three times a day. He would have done it more.

“I just wanted to fly all the time,” he said.

Lill and Hank have been married 61 years. He calls her his movie star, because the two met outside a theater in Illinois.
Lill and Hank have been married 61 years. He calls her his movie star, because the two met outside a theater in Illinois.

He would fly to 50,000 feet, zooming through the air at 1,500 mph, faster than the speed of sound. Sometimes, he said, he would push the plane a little further, going up to 65,000 feet and faster speeds. He’d return to earth in an inverted position.

“I enjoyed that so much,” Lackey said.

His love of airplanes never died. In September, Lackey and his wife, Lill, drove more than 2,000 miles around the country to visit family and friends and hand-deliver copies of his book. One of the first stops was to visit their son in Panama City. While there, the couple visited Tyndall Air Force Base. As a retired colonel, Lackey was privileged to tour the newest fighter jet model, an F22.

“I’d really like to fly that F22,” he said. 

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