As a child, West Salem local Michael Ebert had an insatiable desire to take to the air and serve his country.
“My grandfather flew in World War II,” Michael said. “I did a history project about him in fourth grade and decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living.”
This month Michael’s dream came true when he left to attend the U.S. Air Force flight school in Texas. There he will learn to fly the T6A-Texan II, a single-engine aircraft that looks more like something out of a war movie than a modern aircraft.
“Proud is the best word to describe it,” Michael’s father Ray Ebert said.
Michael who graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado this spring, said his dreams of flying jets began after he was assigned a history project focusing on someone from Wisconsin. He chose his grandfather, Edwin Ebert.
By attending the academy, Michael was following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
This dream, however, almost didn’t happen. Michael’s application to the academy was initially denied, and he’d resigned himself to joining the Merchant Marines.
“I had a chance to go to the academy, which was really cool, but I didn’t get in right away,” he said. “I had a no letter.”
He said each academy only has so many slots. Everyone who applies will either be accepted, given a maybe, or declined.
Not every applicant’s first choice is the U.S. Air Force. Many apply to several academies in case they don’t get their first choice. This opened the door for Michael to get into the Academy despite the rejection letter.
“They worked through their yeses, they worked through their maybes and they started on the nos,” he said. “Me and a couple of other guys got to go because of that.”
For Michael, joining the Air Force was a natural decision.
He’d grown up in a military family. His father, Ray, now a La Crosse County Board member, spent four-years in the air force before serving the U.S. Coast Guard until Michael was born.
“It’s good to see someone follow in your foot steps and go even further,” Ray said, adding Michael also followed in his father’s footsteps.
Michael said, “The military seemed like a good job and what your family did and that became the dream.”
Ray said his son is now, “living the dream.”
Michael, however, didn’t attend the academy to learn to fly. Most cadets do very little flying at the academy and only a select few are chosen to instruct the glider program.
But that didn’t matter much to Michael, who by this point was already an accomplished pilot. He had received his private pilot’s license at the beginning of his senior year thanks to his involvement with the La Crosse Civil Air Patrol.
“I got the chance in seventh grade to join the civil air patrol,” he said. “It was a good way to try out the whole military thing.”
La Crosse Civil Air Patrol Squadron leader Todd Mandel said he had no doubt Michael would end up in pilot school.
“I was there the day he got the call from the Air Force Academy,” he said.
Mandel said it’s not uncommon for cadets to go on to serve in the armed forces, but it’s much rarer for them to attend the Air Force Academy.
“Statewide, we have maybe five cadets in the academy,” he said and added cadets like Michael make the Civil Air Patrol special.
“Being able to work with young people is the reason I do it,” he said.
The Civil Air Patrol allowed Michael to do more than learn how to fly. A few months after joining the Civil Air Patrol, Michael learned that he couldn’t really start flying until he was 15.
“You have to be 16 to solo an airplane,” he said.
Instead, he focused on learning about the planes, the military codes of conduct and the rank structure.
Michael also learned skills like search and rescue.
“Fifteen came around and I started to learn to fly with the squadron,” he said. “My parents decided to foot the bill for me to learn how to fly, because it’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper with civil air patrol.”
Mandel said Michael has become the poster child for the La Crosse Civil Air Patrol and a role model for new cadets to aspiring to become pilots.
When Ebert left to basic training and later the Air For Academy, he didn’t expect to struggle academically. He’d been a good student and had never struggled to get good grades in high school.
He learned just a few months into the Academy that finishing wasn’t going to be a cakewalk.
“I struggled a lot of my first years at the academy,” he said. “I was on and off of academic probation.”
After two years of hard work learning to study and prepare his classes, Ebert had a choice to make. His first two years had been free, and his second two would be too, as long as he completed the program. If he quit or failed, he’d have to pay back the U.S. government.
“Once you walk into class the first day of junior year, you sign a piece of paper called ‘commitment’ that says, ‘I will graduate or I will pay the U.S. government back, either in time as an enlisted person or in cash,’” he said. “The first two years you can walk away no questions asked, take your credits and leave, but the first day of junior year gets really expensive.”
After four years at the academy, Michael’s conviction remains unchanged. He still wants to spend his life whipping through the clouds faster than the speed of sound.
“I’m glad I figured out school when I did,” he said.
After completing his training on the T6A-Texan II, Michael will be ranked. The top pilots will get first pick to fly either jets, cargo planes and support craft or helicopters.
No matter where he lands, he’ll be pleased.
“Every second I get to spend in the air is a good second,” he said.
He’ll need to know every system on the air craft if he wants to fly jets.
“If it was just about flying, I would have no trouble walking there,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable with flying; there a lot of academics that go into it too.”