JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
When I had the opportunity to visit my family a few years ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on my family’s journey. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of my family, I have the opportunity to serve as a pilot in the United States Air Force.
My family is from a small country called Bangladesh, located east of India. My extended family lives in small villages in the middle of the jungle and they don’t have any of the amenities we enjoy in America. During my visit, I felt like I was teleported to a world outside of National Geographic. The village had no electricity, no telephone, no drinking water and a very low literacy rate. Over a meal of rice from the local paddy field (served on a banana leaf as they don’t have plates), I was asked what I wanted to do for a living.
I had a hard time explaining that I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. It’s not that my family wasn’t smart enough to understand, but it’s disconcerting for a villager, who has no electricity, to understand the intricacies of a 340 million C-17 Globemaster dollars. It’s just as incomprehensible to explain how lucky I am. My story is only possible because of the hard work of my family.
My grandfather was born and raised in the village of Bethagi. He grew up as a farmer, but after losing livestock to tiger attacks, he moved to the capital, Dhaka, to find a better opportunity for him and my grandmother. The money he earned, he sent to support his family. As a result, my parents also grew up in extreme poverty. For much of their lives, my parents had no electricity, no running water, and few opportunities. Through a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and multiple attempts, my father finally had the opportunity to leave Bangladesh.
My dad has an amazing story. Although he grew up in poverty, he learned to speak English on his own and later earned a doctorate in pharmacy. His education earned him the opportunity to immigrate to America. Unfortunately, once my father was finally allowed to immigrate, his employer in America was unable to fund our family’s travel expenses. Determined to pursue the chance for a better life, my father moved to America without his family and worked for free. In America he worked extra night jobs and after a few years he brought my mother and me from Bangladesh. My father left his whole family indefinitely without money, traveling to a country whose language he did not speak and had no accommodation. Her story says a lot about how long people will go for the amazing opportunity to live in America. I owe my father so much.
After a few years in America, my father saved up enough money to take the three of us back to Bangladesh to visit my grandparents. When I was young, there were no restrictions on who could enter the cockpit, so during a long flight across the ocean, a flight attendant asked me if I wanted to look in the cockpit. Little did she know she would change the trajectory of my life. Once I entered the cockpit, I was mesmerized by being in the clouds.
At that point I knew I wanted to be a pilot for the rest of my life. Growing up, I realized that I specifically wanted to be a military pilot. The high standards, discipline and sense of purpose drew me to a career in the military. In high school, I worked hard, but didn’t do well on the SAT for admission to the United States Air Force Academy.
Although not getting into the Air Force Academy was a setback, I learned that you can also compete for a pilot position through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. During the University of Utah ROTC program, I learned about the pilot selection process, the Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT), and the Basic Aviation Skills Test (TBAS) that make up your PCSM (Pilot Candidate Selection Method) score. The PCSM score, along with the commander’s rank, fitness score, and field training performance were used to calculate a raw score for each candidate.
Although I performed well on the TBAS, I bombed the AFOQT. Unfortunately, my PCSM score was 47 out of 100. Things weren’t looking good for Cadet Khan’s riding aspirations. Although my poor PCSM score was another setback, the ROTC cadet commander told me that flying hours would help increase my PCSM score. This created an additional challenge because, like most students, I had no money. Determined, I found that the local university had an aviation program where flight time with an instructor was $182 per hour, a small fortune for me. I found a landscaping job that paid $10 an hour. After battling the sun and digging ditches in the Utah heat for many months, I finally saved enough money to get my private pilot license and raised my PCSM score to an acceptable level. A few months later, I was selected as a pilot candidate. Since then, I have been blessed with an incredible career, with the opportunity to serve as a C-17 evaluation pilot and a T-6 instructor pilot.
Although I have experienced some setbacks, they pale in comparison to my family’s struggles. But through these hardships, I have the chance to live in America and serve in the US Air Force. I am deeply indebted to my grandparents and my parents, who sacrificed so much so that I could live the American Dream.
Khan is currently the Chief of Special Projects for the 19th Air Force, where he executes 19th Air Force Commander Projects, Coordination, and Executive Support in the Air Force’s largest numbered air force.