'Learning to lead': A Class of '15 graduate shares Academy experience

Second Lt. Jon Kay, a 2015 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, stands with (from left to  right) his father, retired Lt. Col. Bob Kay, a 1978 Academy graduate, his brother Josh Kay, a rising junior cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, and his mother Ellie Kay, after the Academy Class of 2015 graduation ceremony at Falcon Stadium May 28, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Second Lt. Jon Kay, a 2015 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, stands with (from left to right) his father, retired Lt. Col. Bob Kay, a 1978 Academy graduate, his brother Josh Kay, a rising junior cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, and his mother Ellie Kay, after the Academy Class of 2015 graduation ceremony at Falcon Stadium May 28, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Second Lt. Jon Kay might be a newly-commissioned officer, but military service is nothing new to his family.

The 22 year-old 2015 Academy graduate comes from a military family. His father, retired Lt. Col. Bob Kay, a 1978 Academy graduate, served for 24 years as an Air Force fighter pilot and is a former air officer commanding at the Academy. His brother Robert, 26, is a 2011 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Marine and his younger brother Josh, 20, is a rising junior cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. 

"Our family has had one kid at each service academy and people tend to find that pretty fascinating," Jon said. "I'm really proud of all of them. Robert deployed twice and Josh is pretty crazy. He's always up to some scheme to do spirit missions or something of that sort. My dad is my hero, of course. Growing up around him and the pilot community definitely moved me toward the academy."

Jon said he's wanted to be a pilot for as long as he can recall.

"Once I started understanding what college was and how to commission, that's when the Academy became my primary option. I had other schools as backups, but the Academy was my first choice."

Bob never pressured his children join the military, Jon said.

"He was really good at not pressuring us to join so it was always our choice to begin with," he said. "When he was AOC, he had to deal with some incredibly dramatic issues when it came to parents forcing their children to be at the academy and he never wanted us to feel that. While he didn't pressure me, he was a motivating factor in my decision to apply for admission to the Academy."

Graduating with a bachelors degree in applied math May 28 was a surreal experience, Jon said.

"It was an almost unreal feeling," he said. "I'd sat through the Academy graduations before mine, but to actually be up there saluting the superintendent and the secretary of the Air Force was more than I thought it would be. I think the first time it really hit me that I wasn't a cadet was when I got saluted at the Academy's South Gate and called 'lieutenant.' I saluted back and I could not stop smiling. It's an honor to be saluted.

"Watching my friends graduate was fantastic," he said. "It was awesome to see them be selected for graduate school and medical school and commission and graduate. Seeing everyone else be happy is rewarding in its own unique way. After spending four years with them, you really begin to be proud of them too."

Jon's parent's attended the Class of 2015 graduation ceremony, where Bob recited the Oath of Office to his son.

"His commissioning was extremely emotional as I watched him throw his hat in the air, vividly remembering doing the same thing 37 years ago," Bob said.   

Jon's elation as a newly-minted officer is a far cry from the initial shock he said he endured when he arrived here for basic cadet training in 2011.

"I remember my first thought being an expletive, quickly followed by 'What? I can't carry my backpack on my back?'" he said. "Then I just tried blending in, but this massive cadet saw me looking at him and that's when the fun started."

This shock gave way to excitement when Jon became involved in the Academy's extracurricular activities.

"I was really involved with being a Soaring instructor pilot at the 94th Flying Training Squadron," he said. "That took up the bulk of my time. I was also very involved in my Special Program in Religious Education group (SPIRE), an Academy program designed to encourage religious respect and allow cadets to freely exercise their faith, and ended up taking part in three spring break humanitarian and mission trips. I also participated in community outreach, volunteering for science, technology, engineering and math events, and tutored with the math center a little bit. I also did a lot of nap taking. I think there was a club for that, but I always slept through the meetings."

Jon said his Academy experience was very demanding but very rewarding.

"My first (parachute) jump in Airmanship 490 and my first (glider) solo in Airmanship 251 were really challenging," he said. "The action started immediately. I had no time to mess around and relied on what my instructors taught me. My major was a big challenge as there were a lot of pretty rough classes, such as Real Analysis. But I think the biggest challenge to overcome here is learning to lead."               

Leading classmates with more experience can be difficult, Jon said, but it's a lesson he learned here that he plans to apply during his career as an officer.

Jon was assigned to Cadet Squadron 38. His air officer commanding was Maj. Christina Vile and his Academy military trainer was Master Sgt. Chris Lanchoney.

"Jonny was a joy to have in squadron," Vile said. "He was a hard worker, involved in daily squadron activities like training, discipline and leading his flight.He was an active participant in the Airmanship programs and in the local community as a youth soccer coach. I am thrilled he has the chance to attend Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training. Jonny will buckle down and focus on his primary job of becoming an exceptional pilot. I can't wait to see him lead in our Air Force."

Lanchoney called Jon a "phenomenal cadet."

"He excelled in everything he put his mind to here and was well-respected among his peers and fellow all-stars cadets," Lanchoney said. "From my standpoint as his AMT, 2nd Lt. Kay exemplifies all-star people, all-star professionalism and all-star pride. As a young  officer, he will go far. He told me he wanted to be a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot and eventually chief of staff of the Air Force, both of which he could easily achieve based on his personality and drive."

Jon said the NCOs comprising the Academy's air military training corps were invaluable to his Academy experience.

"They showed how important NCOs are in terms of their knowledge, leadership and completing the Air Force mission," he said. "I developed close relationships with a few of my AMTs. They mentored me through my time as a cadet not only on professional issues, but personal issues as well."

Jon is scheduled to arrive at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, in July, for Undergraduate Pilot Training. He said he hopes to become a fighter pilot and attend Weapons School. 

He left the U.S. June 8 to travel to Japan, Cambodia, Guam and Hawaii.

"We're backpacking through a lot of these places," Jon said. "We're spending three days in Cambodia for humanitarian work - working on orphanages, schools, churches and other things."