Sioux City, Iowa. --
The last thing 1st Lt. Rylee McKinney wanted to hear was that she did not qualify for pilot training. McKinney grew up with a strong military background and had been serving in the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing since 2013.
Growing up, it had always been a goal of hers to fly, unfortunately, there was one obstacle in her path, her eyesight.
McKinney has held various roles within the 185th ARW. When she first joined the unit, she started out in Services Flight where among her other duties she was charged with administering the physical fitness testing program. After working in the unit as an enlisted member for six years, McKinney was able to complete her undergraduate degree. Not long after, she was able to apply for a position as a commissioned officer.
McKinney said she had to go through a rigorous flight physical evaluation at Wright-Patterson, Air Force Base, Ohio. During the evaluation they spent hours dilating her eyes. They concluded she had an issue with her vision.
Unfortunately, McKinney was told the devastating news that she was going to be disqualified as her vision did not meet the standard.
“I saw my entire career-life and future flash before my eyes,” said McKinney, she thought her life was over.
McKinney learned that for her laser eye surgery was an option that could enable her to pass her eye examination.
She explained it was that same weekend that she planned to get the eye surgery. A couple days later she had the procedure. Not discouraged, McKinney was hopeful that the surgery would help her proceed with her goal of becoming a pilot.
“In six months, I was right back up there,” said McKinney.
The medical personnel approved her eyesight, and she was able to move forward with becoming a pilot.
McKinney began undergraduate pilot training in April 2020 where she attended training for about a year. Following her initial pilot training, McKinney attended KC-135 Stratotanker qualification training in Altus, Oklahoma where she graduated in March 2022.
After returning from training, McKinney was able to begin flying with her hometown Iowa Guard unit.
This May, McKinney had her first flight since returning from pilot training. She was able to perform multiple take off and landings and even an air to air refueling mission with F-16s from the Oklahoma ANG’s 138th Fighter Wing.
Currently, 185th ARW flight operations are being conducted in Topeka, Kansas until the airport’s runway improvements are completed. Many of the 185th ARW’s members are making weekly trips to Topeka to ensure the mission continues.
“The Operations group is on top of it,” said McKinney. “So is maintenance. They are all great.”
McKinney said military members are sacrificing time with family to make sure that the unit is getting training and missions accomplished. She also said she had a piece advice for any person considering the pathway of becoming a pilot.
“Be the best you can be,” said McKinney. “If you keep that attitude, it motivates you and keeps you hungry.”
McKinney mentioned being in the military is like having a second family.
"When you are around people who are all going through the same stuff as you, you are stressed out, and they are all pushing to be better, then that makes you want to be better,” said McKinney.
Having that mindset, McKinney was able to push past her obstacles and fulfill her goal of becoming a successful pilot.