KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Staff Sgt. Jim Cagle is not your typical E-5. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, he’s taller than most of his fellow staff sergeants, but that’s not what makes him stand out. At nearly 60 years old, he has more gray hair and a few more wrinkles than most other E-5s, but that’s not it either. His Facebook page features videos of him playing the piano and singing, but even that’s not what makes him so atypical.
What makes him so unusual is that nearly 30 years ago, Staff Sgt. Cagle was Capt. Cagle, an F-15 pilot for the Louisiana Air National Guard.
Now you may be thinking that such a discrepancy in rank would mean a reduction in service or misconduct somewhere along the way, but you’d be wrong. Cagle’s story is more about opportunity, unwavering patriotism and, well, certain rules regarding an officer’s date of commission in relation to rejoining the military.
After graduating from Columbia High School in Columbia, Mississippi, in 1978, Cagle enlisted in the Mississippi Air National Guard and was off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic military training.
While working as an enlisted member in the 172nd Aerial Port Squadron in Jackson, Cagle started working on a college degree with his sights set on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test and commissioning.
Following commissioning in December of 1980, and after rigorous undergraduate navigator training, land survival, water survival and fight lead-in training, followed by F-4 flight training, Cagle’s first assignment came as a weapons system officer on the F-4C Phantom II with the Louisiana ANG’s 122nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in New Orleans.
During this time, Cagle was often on Air Defense Alert orders and flew as an adversary for fighter units training in Gulfport, Mississippi. His outstanding performance in his position afforded him recognition from his peers and the opportunity to attend undergraduate pilot training, where he graduated in the top 20% of his class and was awarded the UPT Leadership Training Award.
After completing UPT, Cagle was selected for a position as an F-15A Eagle pilot with the 122nd FS, where he served for several years.
Fifteen years after his Air Force career began, Cagle embarked on a new journey – starting a family. With a new marriage and the prospect of children, Cagle said the fighter pilot lifestyle – which he likened to a “supersonic biker gang” – did not exactly fit into the equation. In addition, the economic advantages of pursuing a career in the commercial airline industry were enticing.
As a result, in 1993, at the rank of captain, Cagle said farewell to the Air Force.
For a while.
Fast forward to 2015. With his two children now grown and his civilian employer revamping its retirement system, Cagle began toying with the idea of returning to the military and completing the five years he needed to retire.
Initially, he contacted an officer recruiter, but there was nothing the recruiter could do for him unless he wanted to be a chaplain, where there was a shortage.
Cagle had pretty much given up on the idea of rejoining when a recruiter called him out of the blue and asked if he was still interested in returning to service.
“I made this life decision all of the sudden, and it was the best decision I’ve made,” Cagle said.
With his 55th birthday fast approaching and the age limit for enlisted members at 60, the recruiter had to hustle to meet Cagle’s deadline. But he was able to get the job done.
On March 17, 2015, 37 years after he first raised his right hand, Cagle was once again an enlisted member of the Air Force, this time as a Reservist.
For the past five years, Cagle said he has had the best of both worlds as he continues his career as a commercial airline pilot while serving his country as an air transportation operations center controller with the 41st Aerial Port Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
While he said he had forgotten a lot of what he learned when he first worked in the career field, much of the knowledge eventually came back as he trained with the 41st.
While being an ATOC controller is a far cry from pulling nine Gs in an aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier, Cagle said he is happy to be here. And his own experience on the ground has made him appreciate the flight line crews he encounters in his civilian job.
“When I’m in my civilian job as an airline captain, I do the pre-flight walk around a lot, even though it’s the co-pilot who is supposed to do them,” he said. “I am always sure to talk to my ground crews. I have a better appreciation of what they do now.”
In addition to having to adapt and learn the job part of his Air Force career, Cagle said it has been interesting to see how much society has affected how the Air Force operates in general.
“It’s interesting to see how society has changed,” he said. “Young people are a little different today than they were back then and the Air Force has accommodated that. They tend to take people’s feelings more into consideration now than they did back then. Mental health issues were swept under the rug, and now we’re more geared to being open about things that are going on. Overall, the way things are done now is a positive.”
Cagle was scheduled to retire from the military in March, mere weeks shy of his 60th birthday. He said he plans to continue flying until it’s not fun anymore or until he turns 65. After that, it’s all about family and traveling.
“I’m happy to be here and it was the best decision I’ve ever made to come back. It almost didn’t happen. I’m really glad I told that recruiter, ‘You know what? If you can make it happen, let’s rock and roll.” #ReserveResilient
(Pittman is assigned to the 403rd Wing’s public affairs office.)