If you talk to anyone I knew as a kid, they would have told you, “Mike Vogel? He’s gonna be a fighter pilot.” I just knew that’s where I was headed. From the time I was about 7 or 8 years old, my parents would take me over and drop me off at the fence of the reserve base near where we lived, and I would sit there all day and just watch the flight ops come in, go out, come in, go out. It got to the point where I could just hear the airplane flying over and I wouldn’t even have to look up to identify it. “Oh, that’s a P-3 Orion. Oh, that’s a A-10 Warthog. Oh, A-4 Skyhawk.”
My senior year in high school I was lazy and turned all my paperwork in late for the Air Force Academy. I then had to defer and go somewhere else for first semester, and in that time, I started acting and modeling, and that took off so fast that the Air Force avenue died. But the dream to fly never did.
I still remember my first solo flight, taking off out of Van Nuys Airport—272 Sierra Papa was the tail number. I dropped my instructor off, got clearance to taxi to the active runway, then away I went.
The second I lifted off, I looked over and there was no one in the right seat next to me, and I burst out laughing uncontrollably. A lot of emotions happen while you’re flying, but I’m never more focused than when I’m in an airplane cockpit. I’m constantly thinking and problem solving, and scanning instruments. There’s checklists, there’s rhythms, there’s synchronization. All these things are happening that are causing your thoughts to focus themselves into a cohesive and concise pattern. I’ve gotten to fly some amazing places over the years, all throughout Southern California, Big Bear and out here where we are filming The Brave in New Mexico—it’s some of the most beautiful flying I have ever done. You get to see what makes our country amazing from the sky.
On my first flight in New Mexico, the FAA instructor was a former scientist. We got up in the air above Albuquerque, and he said, “Look around, what do you see?” I said, “I see a lot of amazing-ness. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at, but it looks incredible.” He said, “All of this used to be covered by ocean. These mountains that you see around here, Mount Taylor, they are all dormant volcanoes, and if you look around here, and here and here, those things that you see sticking up, those are vents coming up out of the ocean floor, that was a volcanic vent.” All of a sudden it was like one of those pictures that you used to stare at in the ’90s, where, if you looked at it long enough, it takes shape into something. You could just see this picture of what it all looked like from the sky. It never ceases to amaze me, every time I go up.
On my ultimate day of flying, I had a day off from filming Pan Am, and I went up in a P-51 Mustang, the fighter that won World War II for us. I got to go up, in formation, with a B-25 bomber from World War II, and there was a gentleman onboard the B-25 who was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen—he hadn’t been up in a B-25 since 1946.
Here we are in formation, over Long Island Sound, up off of their wing, and I look through the bubble window of the B-25, and he’s staring out of the window at me and he just salutes.
We got back on the ground, and he said, through tears, that it brought back all those feelings—what it felt like to look off the wing and see the fighters out there, knowing that they were our vanguard, they were our safeguard that was going to shepherd us home. It gave me chills.
In one day, I checked off every single flying bucket list item, and got a really great dose of history. It was just a humbling experience getting to share it with that gentleman and thank him for his service to our country. The nerves of steel that these guys had—that’s bred in someone. It may be there beforehand, but it doesn’t come out until you’re forced by the fire.
That’s just something that’s in every pilot. There is such a quiet confidence and an independent spirit. It’s a terrible pun, but it literally can’t be held on the ground.
Mike Vogel stars in The Brave, airing Mondays on NBC.