The newest test pilot for America’s next-generation jet fighter knows exactly where he got his sense of adventure.
“I really have my father to thank for that,” said Capt. Michael Kingen, a 1999 Gonzaga Prep graduate and U.S. Marine Corps aviator who last month became just the 54th pilot in the world to fly an F-35 jet fighter. “When my friends were going to places like Hawaii, or wherever, for their family vacations, we were doing things like going to Alaska for 30 days and hiking with grizzly bears, or to the Arctic Ocean to look at blue whales. We did 500-mile bike rides … all over British Columbia.”
Kingen, now based at Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., is part of an elite team helping prepare the developmental F-35 Lightning II, also known as the joint strike fighter, for its eventual deployment as a frontline combat jet for U.S. and coalition military forces. He’ll primarily be testing what’s known as the new jet’s B variant, which has short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.
Test pilot is a natural progression for Kingen, a 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in aerospace engineering. He’s logged more than 1,400 hours flying 17 different military aircraft, including the F-18 jet fighter. He flew 76 combat missions in Iraq and has made 26 carrier landings, which are among the most difficult and memorable procedures a pilot can face.
He applied for test pilot training in 2010 while stationed in Japan, earning a coveted spot with his first attempt.
With years of experience in an F-18 cockpit, it’s taking some time to get accustomed to the F-35.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” he said this week in a telephone interview from Maryland. “The F-18, I’ve got a lot of hours in it; I took it into combat. The F-35 is different.” Among other things, the control stick is mounted off the pilot’s left side and designed to be manipulated with one hand, instead of a center stick in front of the pilot in an F-18. “I’m getting used to it,” Kingen said.
Flying runs in the Kingen family.
His dad, the late Tom Kingen, was a Spokane lawyer who had his private pilot’s license and regularly took the family flying. And his grandfather was a World War II fighter pilot who flew alongside the famed Flying Tigers in Burma.
Kingen credits his family’s guidance growing up with helping him learn to embrace new challenges.
“Growing up in Spokane, going to Gonzaga Prep, it all gave me that important foundation,” he said. “But it’s my parents that I really have to thank for this.”