Maj. Nathan Yerrick poses in front of an F-18 while attending Air Force Test Pilot School. (Courtesy of Nathan Yerrick)
Maj. Nathan Yerrick poses in front of an F-18 while attending Air Force Test Pilot School. (Courtesy of Nathan Yerrick)

Faith was 'right stuff' for graduates of test pilot school

Baylor University graduates who completed the Air Force’s elite Test Pilot School say their Baptist roots provided the foundation for facing challenging situations in the air and in Afghanistan.

By Jeff Brumley

More than 10 years in the Air Force and successful completion of test pilot school have given Maj. David Aparicio the tools he needs to endure massive gravity forces, evaluate state-of-the-art aircraft and even disarm improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.

What it didn’t prepare him for was having to preach a Sunday service at a forward operating base in the combat zone. So the Baylor University graduate relied on his Baptist upbringing and faith to help him with that daunting mission.

“I had never done that before in my life,” said Aparicio, currently stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. “You have to pray that God will give you the tools to do it right.”

AparicioMiG15The importance of faith as an ingredient in “the right stuff” was highlighted recently as Aparicio and three other Baylor graduates completed the Air Force’s Test Pilot School at Edwards.

Two of the four officers spoke with ABPnews/Herald about attending the elite school, their careers and how their Baptist roots provided much-needed spiritual lift through difficult and challenging situations.

‘Swagger and macho’

One of them said the atmosphere in today’s Air Force is very accommodating to people of faith, making a career pushing the envelope of flight compatible with Christian belief and practice.

In fact, the late-night partying and hard-drinking lifestyle depicted in films like 1983’s The Right Stuff are largely a thing of the past, said Maj. Nathan Yerrick, a 2003 Baylor grad.

“That’s definitely the old culture,” said Yerrick, a flight test engineer and wing executive officer at Edwards. “The swagger and the macho persona — that’s mostly just Hollywood now.”

Yerrick said he’s pleased about that. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, attending both Baptist and non-denominational churches, and currently attends a non-denominational church.

Always prepared

Not having to negotiate the bravado that typified previous decades of flight testing officers enhances the ability to focus on demanding and sometimes-dangerous assignments, Yerrick said.

As a flight test engineer and flight test conductor, it’s been Yerrick’s job to plan and monitor the testing of aircraft, weapons and various avionics systems. Sometimes that means running the show from the ground, communicating with pilots, and other times it requires being aboard the aircraft.

“You have to be prepared to handle any emergency,” he said.

‘Very tense situations’

And there are plenty of chances for things to go wrong.

“Test Pilot School was a once in a lifetime experience,” Aparicio said. “I flew 25 different aircraft in 48 weeks.”

Aparicio, who graduated from Baylor in 2003, grew up in Texas where he attended Sugar Land Baptist Church near Houston and, while in college, First Baptist Church in Woodway, Texas, outside Waco.

The beliefs and practices he adopted in those and other congregations prepared him for the rigors of a military career. That was especially the case when he was tasked with disarming IEDs in Afghanistan.

“My faith in God made the job easier and he took care of me in some very tense situations,” he said. “He provided a sense of calm in the storm which allowed me to do my job and lead.”

And it helped with that one Sunday when the unit’s chaplain had to visit another post, leaving Aparicio just a couple of days to write, and then deliver, a sermon.

It “gave me a great appreciation of what a pastor must do to prepare,” he said.

And which was more frightening — disarming IEDs or delivering a sermon? “Both were intimidating,” Aparicio said.