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How a water polo player turned U.S. Air Force pilot inspires the next generation

Former Water Polo player teaches teens to fly.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Somogyi answers students' questions during a March 25 visit to the Judson High School ROTC program. The career day visit to Judson, near Converse, Texas, is an ongoing outreach effort to illustrate opportunities in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tim Gantner)

Former Water Polo player teaches teens to fly.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Somogyi (left) presents retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt a memento, recognizing his time with the 340th Flying Training Group, during a March 25 visit to the Judson High School ROTC program. Mark was the 340th FTG director of manpower and personnel. The career day visit to Judson, near Converse, Texas, is an ongoing outreach effort to illustrate opportunities in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tim Gantner)

Former Water Polo player teaches teens to fly.

An Air Force Junior ROTC student checks out a customized helmet worn by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Somogyi during a March 25 visit to the Judson High School ROTC program. The career day visit to Judson, near Converse, Texas, is an ongoing outreach effort to illustrate opportunities in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tim Gantner)

Former Water Polo Player teaches teens about flying.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Somogyi answers students' questions during a March 25 visit to the Judson High School ROTC program. The career day visit to Judson, near Converse, Texas, is an ongoing outreach effort to illustrate opportunities in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tim Gantner)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --

U.S Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Somogyi cruises through Converse, Texas, turning onto Judson Llane, returning to his alma mater at Judson High School. He's meeting with Air Force Junior ROTC students to teach them what their future could hold.

Mark Hiatt, a former colleague of Somogyi, asked his friend if he could speak to students and he didn't hesitate, saying: "I always jump at the chance to give back." 

Hiatt commands the AFJROTC program. The two have known each other for years after working together at the 340th Flying Training Group at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. Hiatt retired from the Air Force last year as a lieutenant colonel after serving 27 years. 

Somogyi's first impression of Hiatt leading the program at his alma mater is something he could see himself doing down the road.

"It's great! I hope I can continue to serve in a similar fashion after I retire," Somogyi said.

Hiatt wanted to bring in the best for his students, so he knew who to call.

"I wanted Jon to speak to the students as a way to inspire the next generation of pilots." Somogyi agrees, "It's essential to talk to young adults in the community because they are our future pilots."

The approach to speaking to teenagers about life as a pilot should be authentic and honest, Somogyi said. "I try to provide an honest look at military life without glorifying the 'good' or hiding the 'bad.' I want each person to make the best, most informed decision."

As Somogyi walks into the class, he has his hands full. He's holding his flight suit, helmet customized with a cobra, a 33mm A-10 shell, and a surprise.

The surprise happens to be a plaque he presents to Hiatt commemorating his time with the 340th FTG.

Before the presentation, Somogyi makes one thing clear, "As someone that attended Judson and grew up in the area, please know that if someone like me can become a pilot, then anyone can."

This piece of advice is something Somogyi firmly believes. He acknowledges he had no desire to become a pilot as a water polo player at Judson High School in the late 1990s.

"Can you wear glasses and still be a pilot?" asks a student in the back wearing an Air Force mask. "Yes, you can,” Somogyi said. He also recommends holding off on Lasik surgery as it may prevent you from becoming a pilot.

Somogyi plays a jaw-dropping video for the class. The students look on as Somogyi flies an A-10 "Warthog" Thunderbolt II.

"So cool," a student responds.

Somogyi passes around an A-10 shell from the plane’s seven-barrel Gatling gun that fires at about 65 rounds per second.

One student asks what kind of damage can an A-10 shell do and, without pause, Somogyi said, "It’s always a bad day if you’re an enemy of the United States and an A-10 is coming your way.”

The students chuckle.

Hiatt says it means the world to have Somogyi talk to his students because it helps them see the path to what pilots do and how they operate.

"Having someone like Jon come and talk to my class is great because doors can open, and the students realize they have many more options for their futures, like joining a branch of the armed forces," Hiatt said, especially when an ROTC scholarship to college makes all the difference in a young person's life.

At the end of Somogyi's presentation, a few high-speed cadets get up and ask him more questions about life as a pilot.

Hiatt thanks his friend when it's time to wrap up: "It means a lot to have Jon visit because he comes to talk to us and expects nothing in return."

As Somogyi packs his vehicle and heads back to JBSA-Randolph, he expresses the importance of talking to young men and women.

"There might be one young person on the fence, trying to decide whether he or she can go to college or become a pilot. I hope I can be that one extra bit of motivation."

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