U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
The oldest-living Air Force Academy graduate checked-off his No. 1 bucket-list wish May 22: to fly with the Air Force Thunderbirds.
Retired Maj. Paul Lasen, 83, is a 1959 Academy graduate and career pilot who still flies today. By all accounts, he felt right at home in the backseat of a Thunderbird's F-16D Fighting Falcon aircraft when the team took-off over Colorado Springs to prepare for their May 24 graduation day performance over Falcon Stadium.
“It’s an honor and privilege I never thought would be coming my way,” Lasen said. “I just hope I represented my [Academy] classmates and the pilots well.”
Lasen is from Kansas City, Kansas. He joined the Air Force in 1954 at Lackland Air Force Base where he learned flight navigation. He completed his training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1955.
This was all fine and good, Lasen said, but he wanted more: he wanted to join the first class of cadets to enter the Academy. He was so serious about becoming an Academy grad, he resigned his commission July 11, 1955.
“I said, ‘Well, it would take me four years as a navigator to go to pilot training,’” he said. “I’ll just go get my education at the Academy, get a degree, and still go to pilot training. And it worked out.”
After graduating from the Academy, Lasen’s dream certainly came true: he learned to fly. In fact, he became a fighter pilot. In all, he flew 128 combat missions from 1969-1970 during the Vietnam War while assigned to Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base.
Lasen served in the Air Force for 20 years before working as a flight instructor for private companies.
“I’ve been flying for 63 years,” he said. “It’s where I belong.”
Capt. Erik Gonsalves, a 2008 Academy graduate and Thunderbird’s pilot, controlled the F-16D with Lasen in the back seat -- but not for their entire flight.
“I let Paul fly,” he said. “He has 5,500 hours in Air Force aircraft and he still flies today. He took to it like fish to water.”
Gonsalves said chauffeuring Lasen at high altitudes was a poignant experience.
“It was a very emotional, cool day to be flying over the Academy with the oldest living graduate,” he said.
“It’s tough to put into words.”