Fly Into the Wind (With Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, Fighter Pilot, and PGA Pro)

Lt. Col. Dan Rooney is a PGA golf professional and an F-16 fighter pilot with three combat tours in Iraq. He founded Folds of Honor, a non-profit organization that provides educational scholarships to military families. And if that isn’t enough already, he recently published a book, Fly Into the Wind: How to Harness Faith and Fearlessness on Your Ascent to Greatness.

I was blessed to get to know Lt. Col. Rooney when we worked together on a documentary for Folds of Honor. In it, we share the story of how the organization emerged from a poignant moment with the family of a fallen soldier and grew into awarding 28,000 scholarships worth 138 million dollars to date.

Dan joined me on my “Now to Next” podcast to share some of the “life storms” that inspired his book Fly Into the Wind and the code of living he uses to overcome them. Humble and heartfelt, Dan is a fantastic person and someone I’ve been lucky enough to call a friend.

Big Dreams

Dan was 12-years-old when he met the first really cool adult of his life: a pilot. In an instant, Dan knew what he wanted to be: a golf pro and a fighter pilot.

The next day, as he was playing golf with his dad, he shared his dreams for the future. His dad responded by asking a question, “Son, can you tell me which way an airplane takes off?”

Dan responded, “Into the wind.” He understood his dad was telling him there were headwinds between him and his unlikely dreams. To succeed, he would have to fly into the wind.

At the University of Kansas on a golf scholarship, Dan decided to get a private pilot’s license to prepare for Air Force flight school. Flight school is an 8 million dollar per person training with an astronomical attrition rate. Applicants go through extensive physical and psychological tests to qualify. Only 4.8 percent complete the program and become fighter pilots. To put that in perspective, over 10 years more people will play in the NFL than fly a fighter jet.

Go Before You’re Ready

With 60 pre-training flight hours, Dan had fulfilled the minimum requirements when he entered the program. Starting with him were commercial pilots and other more experienced students. The program was not at all an ordinary training program; students sometimes died. After the first day of training, Dan thought about the class of 45 people and how everybody looked like they were smarter and stronger than he was. He went home, feeling his chances of making it through were slim to none. He decided the next day to get up 30 minutes earlier than usual and pray. It’s a practice that has supported his life since then.

Students started with a month of simulators followed by several rides in a two-seat version of the F-16, where the instructor can sit behind the pilot. After a few flights with the instructor, the pilot faces a make-or-break solo flight.

Dan remembers sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet on his own for the first time. He looked down at his legs and his boots with a surreal feeling and thought, “This is me right now, manifesting my boyhood dream.”

In the next moment, it hit him that he didn’t know what half the buttons and the switches did and that this flight would determine the rest of his life.

Dan’s flight was successful. He landed in Phoenix in 110-degree weather. But when he rolled up the canopy, it felt like cold air was hitting him. His level of focus was so intense he was hotter than the desert.

At that moment, the lesson changed him for the rest of his life: Go before you’re ready. He would have never gotten in that jet and flown it alone. He was forced into that situation, made to choose between fear and faith, and he chose faith. It showed him that we are capable of more than we think we are.

Today, Dan is the only person in the world with the dual job description of golf pro and fighter pilot.

We Are Defined by How We Respond

One principal Dan lives by is this: We are defined by how we respond when things don’t go our way.

Dan learned this the hard way. After his initial success as a fighter pilot and pro golfer, he came against circumstances he couldn’t control that plagued him and threatened his financial well-being for years. 

The challenging period started in a moment of complacency that almost killed him. Dan had just returned from his first combat mission, where he had performed at the highest level. Back in the fighter jet on a runway in Tulsa, he took off in front of a group of his peers. Because he pulled his landing gear in one second too soon, the plane scraped the bottom of the fuel tank along the ground. A slim layer of metal stopped 370 gallons of jet fuel from blowing up underneath him.

For the better part of seven to nine years, Dan faced daily struggles outlined in his book. His near accident, financial difficulties, and other factors comprised a life storm that transformed Dan, in his own words, from a pretty arrogant guy to a patient and more reflective person. 

What emerged during this time is Dan’s code of living, which also creates his book’s framework and something we’ll just scrape the surface of now.

Lines of Effort

Lines of effort (LOE) is a military battle term. Going into battle, there might be fighter jets bringing in one LOE, C-130s with another LOE, and a Marine quick reaction force all coming together in a coordinated and meaningful way to accomplish the goal.

The “magic” of LOEs is how they come together in a more meaningful and effective way than a single effort by itself. In his book, Dan outlines several LOEs and how to apply them to attack and overcome challenges in your own life.

Service Before Self

One of Dan’s LOEs is service before self. It is also one of the three pillars of the United States Air Force. The act of service over self  unlocks the beautiful, irony that exists when you give of yourself, sometimes you receive even more than you are giving. I know it well in my work as a documentary filmmaker, where I get to spend time with incredible people, share their stories, and develop myself as I unlock the treasures of their lifetime of work in a few conversations.

There is so much more to what Dan offers than what we have room to share in this blog. I recommend you watch the movie and buy his book. But for now, I’ll leave you with this remarkable story of how Dan got Budweiser to sponsor Folds of Honor.

At the time, Dan ran Folds of Honor out of his garage. He was a Budweiser fan and loved their Super Bowl commercials. He decided Budweiser would be perfect to sponsor Folds of Honor.

Without an appointment or any warning, Dan booked a flight to St. Louis, walked into Budweiser, and asked for support. They were kind, but their response was, “We get thousands of requests like this a day, and most are not run out of someone’s garage. So no offense, but we don’t want to see you back here again.”

For most people, that would have been the end of it. It was a pretty big kick in the teeth, but life is defined by what we do when things are not going our way.

Dan resolved himself to keep trying. He went back to St. Louis and the Anheuser-Busch office every six months for the next three years and was turned away each time until he finally got a meeting with CEO David Peacock.

Dan almost missed the meeting because of a problem with his flight and ended up chartering a plane to get there. Nothing was stopping him. In the room with David Peacock, Dan shared his story. David was moved by Dan’s passion and faith and agreed to support the cause.

That day sparked an eight-year relationship that changed tens of thousands of lives. Budweiser has donated 19 million dollars to Folds of Honor. And, as you may have seen, they display the Folds of Honor logo on their beer during every summer with a special commemorative beer.

This just goes to show, if you’re on the right path, there is a jet stream that will come behind you. It might take longer than you hoped, but we are defined by what we do when stuff doesn’t go our way. Think of all the lives changed with a few visits to Budweiser by someone who refused to accept rejection in the face of a spectacular cause, and that’s pretty darn good. 

Find out more about the Folds of Honor organization that gives educational scholarships for military families. Buy Dan’s book, Fly Into the Wind, How to Harness Faith and Fearlessness on Your Ascent to Greatness, or check out his golf clothing line designed by Puma called Volition America. Proceeds support Folds of Honor. Or, to catch the full interview I had with Lt. Col. Dan Rooney on “Now to Next” you can watch it on YouTube or your favorite podcast listening platform.