From rotors to wings
Black Hawk pilot selected for Army fixed-wing program
By LARISSA COPELAND
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
DURANT, Okla. – For a man who grew up in Durant on what he calls, “the wrong side of both tracks that run through the town,” Michael Beck has made quite a life for himself and his family while serving in the military.
Beck, a 32-year-old U.S. Army chief warrant officer stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, is a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot who has just been accepted to the Army’s fixed-wing flight program – a feat achieved by only 180 soldiers annually, according to the Fort Rucker Public Affairs Office at Fort Rucker, Ala., a very small selection compared to the nearly 4,000 soldiers the Aviation Training Brigade trains as helicopter pilots each year.
Beck is excited and understands the odds were against him when he decided to apply for the program. “It was actually a huge surprise because not many pilots in the army get to do this,” he said. “I fly a Black Hawk right now and after this I’ll be dual-rated to fly both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for the military.
“Only a small percentage of people in the military are accepted to flight school in general,” Beck continues. “But then within the fixed wing community in Army aviation, it’s an even smaller number of personnel that are chosen. I was incredibly surprised and very blessed that they selected me.”
Beck is scheduled to attend the three-month Fixed Wing Qualification Course at Fort Rucker next summer. At the school at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Beck will be trained on a number of aircraft but will specialize in piloting the Beechcraft C-12 Huron, the military variant of the twin-engine turboprop aircraft commonly known outside the military as a Beechcraft King Air.
“At the school, they put you through multiple airframes to teach you different maneuvers but then you specialize in one,” he explains. “My training will culminate with the C-12 qualification.”
Before he goes to the school though, Beck is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan, which he’ll leave for later this month. It will be his third combat deployment overseas.
“I was in Iraq for the previous two [deployments],” he says. “I was there for the initial invasion into Iraq and then I went back again in 2006.
“The first time I worked on Apache attack helicopters as a crew chief,” he says. “The second time I went out I was running a quality control office as a technical inspector at Camp Taji. Basically, we were the guys who inspected the work of the guys who work on the helicopters.”
This deployment will be quite a bit different for him than his first two – it will be his first since training to be a helicopter pilot three years ago. As opposed to being one of the soldiers on the ground working on or inspecting the aircraft, he’ll be one of those flying the missions.
“We will do a combination of air assault, which is putting troops into the battle space of the enemy, and ‘med chase’ missions, where we fly as the gun ship for the MEDEVAC helicopters, being their wingman.
“We will probably also be doing a lot of moving of personnel and equipment to central locations since at the end of the day we’ll be shutting down [the U.S. presence in] Afghanistan,” he says. “It’s kind of weird because I was there for the initial invasion in Iraq and now I’ll be there when we close up [combat missions in] Afghanistan.”
Beck says he is excited to be able to go back overseas, however, there is one major drawback – his family. “When it comes to deployments, I don’t mind going. The only thing that bothers me is having to leave my family behind.”
Beck and his wife, Melanie, have three children, Gillian, 13, Grayson, 4, and Madelyn, 1-and-a-half.
It was, in fact, his family that led him to choose a career in the military. While his family life and career are both great and exactly what he wants now, that wasn’t always the case for Beck. The life he leads now is one far removed from the life he had as a child growing up in Durant.
“I grew up in a very poor family,” he explains. “My mother was 15 when she had me and she didn’t know who my father was. She was a drug addict and was in and out of prison my whole childhood. I bounced around a lot, ended up in a couple of foster homes, even lived in a junkyard on Ninth Street for a while. It was pretty bad.
“When I was a kid living on the east side you could walk down the street and there was used drug needles, a lot of violent people and drug addicts around me when I was younger, and most of them were my family members,” he says. “When you grow up in an environment like that, it changes you and who you are. You know, if you don’t start to fit in, if you don’t start meshing with that group of individuals…well, they’re violent. They will beat you until you start beating back and once you start beating back you’ve basically become a similar individual. It’s unfortunate.”
Attending school as a child early on was never a problem for Beck though. “I’ve always done really well at school but I never had anyone in my childhood tell me why it was important.”
When it came to his education, food was often his incentive for attending. “Most of the time I went to school because they had food there. In the morning I would get breakfast and then I’d get lunch,” something he might not have received at home.
“Just to give a background,” he elaborated, “there was a guy named Mr. Crawford who owned a pig farm in town when I was little and he would go around to the local grocery stores and pick up the produce or bread or whatever that was out of date or expired. Before he would go to his pig farm though, he would drive really slowly in front of my grandmother’s house and all the little kids would run out yelling ‘Mr. Crawford! Mr. Crawford!’ We’d all jump on the back of his truck and he’d act like he wasn’t going to stop but he always did. He’d let us get up there in the back and dig through the stuff and pick out any fruit or food that we wanted to eat. Food was always a big motivator for me. They had food in school so I went to school.”
Beck attended Jones Academy for a short period of time during his fifth grade year. “I actually enrolled myself there because I thought it’d be a good place to live. They had food, entertainment, a place to live…but I didn’t stay there too long.”
Beck went back to Durant Public School and attended from elementary until his sophomore year of high school.
“Whenever I got into high school, well, I never really talk about this, but there were bullies in school, and for a long time I kept getting in fights. There would be people picking on other little kids and so I always got into fights when I was in middle school and in high school. When I was in 10th grade I decided I wasn’t going to let other people dictate what I did or didn’t do,” he says.
“No one really hung out with me in high school,” he explains. “I came from a bad family. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have let my kids hang out with me either. That’s pretty bad!”
When he was 12 years old, his life took a turn. His mother went back to prison and he ran away from home. The state also came and took away his sister and three brothers.
“I think the thing that stood out between me and the rest of my family was that I never thought that the way they were doing things was right,” he explains. “I thought ‘why are people acting this way?’ The way I rebelled as a teenager was that I said I was never going to do drugs, drink alcohol, never going to smoke cigarettes, never going to do these behaviors that they were doing. I never liked it there and that’s why I ran away. Shortly after that, the state took the other kids away. Since I was gone I was never included in it or something, I don’t really know. ”
It was during his early high school years that his life took another abrupt turn. “During my ninth grade year, I was about 14 years old, my mother was back and she talked me into moving back in with her. She’d met a guy and they were going to get married so we moved down to Victoria, Texas, close to Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico.
“So, I trusted her, I moved back in with her and we headed down to the beach. Within two days, he left her. We were stranded.
“I had to get a job so for my first ninth grade year, because I missed so many days I had to repeat it, I worked at a Viking Inn motel that was being repaired. We lived out of our truck until I got the job at the motel and they let us stay in one of the rooms while I helped with the construction and my mom helped out in the restaurant.
“I also worked on a shrimp boat out on the Gulf of Mexico until we earned enough money to come back to Durant.”
Beck was supposed to graduate high school in 1999 but that didn’t happen.
“I didn’t quit school though, I was kicked out,” he says, for causing trouble at the school. Looking back though, I understand why they did that.”
He moved around a lot after getting kicked out of school, living with friends, one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends, family and eventually living in a rental property owned by the Rawls family, a family who “adopted” him.
“I never lived with them but they helped me out a lot. Basically I helped take care of their rental property and they let me live in a trailer house of theirs. I maintained their property and helped with their businesses.”
Charlotte Rawls is the one who prompted Beck to go to college.
“I was literally sleeping on a piece of plywood in a garage when Charlotte came in. She knew my mom had recently gone back to prison and a bunch of my friends were in trouble and she said, ‘I know you’ve never thought about it but I’ve paid for you to take an ACT test.’ I didn’t even know what the ACT was at the time.”
“She told me, ‘No pressure but I did some research and the Choctaw Nation will help you pay for your school while you go because you’re Choctaw. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to this time.’ So I thought about it and thought sure, I’ll take it since she paid for it and then I took the test.”
And he did well…very well.
“Apparently, I’m really good at taking tests,” he says with a laugh. “I got into Southeastern [Oklahoma State University] without a GED because I scored pretty high. They accepted me based off of my ACT score. They said if I can score that high on the ACT then I’ll have no trouble with the GED. So they let me start college. I think I was in class for two weeks before I ever took the GED test.”
It was there at Southeastern that he met his future wife, Melanie.
“I went there for only a semester and that’s when we were blessed with a little baby, so I had to get a ‘real’ job,” he says. “That’s when I joined the military. I was determined that my kids wouldn’t have the same upbringing that I did.”
He joined in January 2001 and has rapidly moved up the ranks, excelling at all the endeavors put in his path, earning numerous awards and commendations along the way.
“I joined initially because I needed to get some stability, mature and to have a job for my kids.
“It’s funny though because with all my trouble growing up, once you get to the military, they don’t know all that,” he says. “They judge you based on how well you do there. Since I’ve been in the military I’ve graduated at the top of every school that I’ve been in.”
He says when he joined the military he told his family in Durant he was leaving and never coming back…and he didn’t for about five years.
Now, he and his family make it back to visit several times a year. “Normally, whenever we go back to Durant, I’ll go over to that side of town and I’ll talk with the little kids. I’ll visit the school and tell them about the things that I’ve done. I’ll see kids in my old neighborhood out playing and we’ll walk up to the gas station; I’ll buy them drinks and just talk to them. I let them know that there’s more to life out there.
“There are so many places and things I’ve seen since I’ve been in the military that I would have never got to see if I hadn’t joined. There are a lot of moments, just different places around the world where I see something new that I would have only read about or seen on TV. It just changes your perspective on the world as a whole.”
As for his relationship with his mother, he says, “I’m older now so I try not to hold a lot of that against her. She was 15, basically a kid, I guess. But there are choices that people make in their lives and I don’t think she ever chose any that were to the benefit of her children. I had a problem with that for a long time.”
Beck doesn’t dwell on this though; that dark past is now behind him, and his future continues to look bright.
“I plan to slowly transition out of that full-throttle [rotary wing] mentality and spend extra time with my family,” he says, “while gaining a whole new extra skill set that will be more marketable when I get out of the military, so I think it’s a blessing. I think it’s going to be really, really great.”