• Published
  • By Senior Airman Brieana E. Bolfing
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affiars

Amelia Earhart once said ‘everyone has oceans to fly, if they have the heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?’

As children we are told to dream big. For some kids that dream is being tall and for others it’s being a professional athlete. But for a young Justine Wells, her dream was always flying.

To Wells the incredible feeling of soaring over towns and seeing people and cars moving below her has always stuck out. While life seemed to have different plans, this dream stayed close to her heart.

Recently, U.S. Air Force Maj. Justine Wells, 35th Surgical Operations Squadron labor and delivery element leader, at Misawa Air Base, Japan, overcame adversity to realize her dream to fly as a U.S. Air Force pilot.

Wells was first exposed to the possibility of accomplishing her dream while in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing.

"I went on my first incentive flight with the Civil Air Patrol," Wells recalled. "The instructor pilot let me fly the plane, which I thought was insane. I had never been that close to flying an aircraft before, but he still gave me the reigns and let me fly it. It was an incredible feeling."

During that flight, the dreams Wells had as a kid of soaring above the clouds flooded back to her. From that moment, it became more than a dream; it was an ambition.

Wells went to her ROTC leadership to figure out what her options were to become a pilot, but to her surprise, they laughed and stated she was in nursing school so a nurse was what she would become.

While this was the first “no” Wells received, it wouldn’t be the last on her journey to achieve her dream.

She completed her nursing degree and commissioned into the U.S. Air Force in 2013. Upon entering the nursing field, Wells was given the career route of obstetrics (OB), teaching her an important lesson about following her heart despite the perceptions of others.

"People told me not to go OB nursing," Wells said. "They claimed that 'once you do, you're going to get stuck’, but I decided this time I would stick with my gut: I went for it.

"I got many opportunities people told me I wouldn't. It was my first lesson in going for what I wanted."

Wells continued to pursue opportunities many said would not be possible, and after nine years in the nurse corps, the opportunity she was waiting for finally revealed itself.  

"One of my friends, who was also a nurse, told me he was dabbling with applying to be a pilot," Wells said. "I asked him, 'what do you mean you can leave the nurse corps?' Because similar to what people told me about OB nursing, I assumed once you are in the nurse corps, you're kind of stuck in the nurse corps."

Her friend replied that was not the case, which prompted her to look and pointed her in the direction of exploring her dream.

"After getting to Misawa, I was driving along the road from north base to main base, and I saw those F-16s fly over me," she recalled. "I just knew I had to apply to be a pilot. This was my dream, and I decided to give everything I had to make it happen."

The first step for Wells was having a good Pilot Candidate Selection Method (PCSM) score comprised of two major sections: the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT), which has sections that test aviation knowledge, and the Test of Basic Aviation Skills (TBAS), which tests hand-eye coordination, memorizing, concentrating, reacting and prioritizing skills.

She had yet to take the TBAS, but took the AFOQT before and knew she had to test better to accomplish her dream.

Initially, due to COVID travel restrictions, Wells was unable to travel to Yokota Air Base, Japan, to take the TBAS, but with the help of her leadership, she received special approval.

The next step, her flight physical, turned out to be a little more complicated because of an incident in 2018 where Wells experienced some wheezing while running a 5K that required her to go to the ER. It was documented as exercise-induced bronchospasms.

"'I am sorry, you are disqualified,' was the first thing I heard when I walked into flight medicine in January 2021," Wells said. "He told me that based on the notation in my medical history, I was ineligible, even though I never had any other breathing issues before or after that event. I felt the tears start to stream down my face as I broke down and cried in front of him, realizing that my journey would stop just as quickly as it had started.

"He told me he could try and submit a waiver but informed me that he had never seen one get approved."

Despite the warning, Wells decided to pursue the waiver. She turned to a women's active-duty group on social media for advice from anyone who had similar experiences.

The feedback she received that could increase the chances of her being accepted was attending the Rated Preparatory Program, which provides interested individuals the opportunity to gain and strengthen basic aviation skills including flight hours, and completing a Methacholine Challenge test, which evaluates symptoms suggestive of asthma to help diagnose whether an individual has asthma.

Wells went to her medical provider the next day, pushing for the referral for the test, which were only being conducted stateside due to COVID. The doctor agreed to submit the referral.

Wells was informed that she had a less than 1% chance of getting the waiver approved even if she passed the test and medical could not justify using Air Force money to send her on a medical temporary duty travel.

"So again, I suffered more disappointment, but I was not going to stop trying to accomplish my dream," Wells said. "I talked to my leadership about my situation and asked, 'what if I just go there while I'm on leave back in the states?'

"I had leave coming up back in the states, near one of the approved locations. They ultimately said that it was something I could do if I were set on trying."

After receiving this sliver of hope towards accomplishing her dream, Wells received another setback; low manning became an issue preventing her from leaving for the Rated Preparatory Program.

"They were only doing the program once a year at that time," said Wells. "But they started offering it more often once they saw the program's success. The program told me I should apply for the next one, which would happen in the fall. I talked to my leadership, and they agreed to block the books for me in case I was accepted again."

With the hope rekindled, Wells went on her leave and was able to take the Methacholine Challenge test. She passed the test, and circumstance seemed to be trending positively as she received a call from her commander that she had been selected for the Rated Preparatory Program, again, and this time nothing was going to stop her from attending.

"I got 13 flight hours while at the program," Wells said. "Flight hours that I didn't think I would get but would also greatly help my overall PCSM score." 

Wells returned from the program with the AFOQT scheduled the next day. Despite the jet lag, she had no hesitations about taking the test. Her resolve showed when her score increased from 55 to 96 out of 99.

With her new scores being a testament to the progress she had made throughout her journey, Wells did the only thing she could do next which was to submit the application and wait.

"And in January 2022, my commander handed me my first set of wings with a congratulation," recalled Wells.

Wells left Misawa Air Base headed to pilot training school, down the path of her childhood dream to soar in the sky.

"I have learned from this process never to give up," Wells said. "I had this wild dream that I was finally chasing, despite constantly getting shut down. I want everyone who has a dream to know that if during your process somebody tells you no, go to the next person and make them tell you no.

"If it's something that you're truly passionate about, keep fighting for it because I honestly thought this journey would be impossible, but here I am, ready to take to the skies."