Western graduate prepares to soar to new heights as U-2S pilot
U.S. Air Force Major Matthew Elmore cites WCSU education as ‘defining period’ in his life
DANBURY, CONN. — U.S. Air Force Major Matthew Elmore arrived at Western Connecticut State University in 2000 still searching for direction in his career and his life. Three years later, he left with a biology degree and an education that will help him to soar to new heights as he begins training this fall to join the elite Air Force corps who pilot the service’s U-2S surveillance aircraft.
“My education at Western was one of the defining periods in my life,” said Elmore, a 20-year Air Force veteran who left Western to rise through the ranks as an aircraft and flight commander, training officer, aerospace studies professor and instructor pilot. This November he will enter the yearlong U-2S pilot training program at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, preparing to join the Air Force squadron of pilots who fly missions as long as 12 hours at altitudes above 70,000 feet at the fringes of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The Southbury native, who dropped out of high school and later joined the Air Force in 1996 as an imagery analyst, completed an associate’s degree at the Community College of the Air Force and enrolled at Western with “a little bit of trepidation,” yet determined to earn a college degree that would clear his path to become an officer and a pilot. “The only thing that held my attention in high school was science,” he recalled, and soon he had set course in his studies to achieve a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in mathematics.
“What I discovered at Western was a diamond in the rough, in its small class sizes and the incredible professors I studied with,” Elmore said. “I felt that my education was not about being lectured to, but rather receiving the opportunity to work and have conversations about my studies with my professors.”
Among the WCSU faculty mentors who strongly influenced Elmore during his studies at Western were Dr. Chuck Rocca in the Department of Mathematics and Dr. Frank Dye and Dr. Mitch Wagener in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. Wagener recalled Elmore as “one of the favorite students I have had in the past 20 years, a bright and science-minded young man who has a ‘grasshopper’ kind of mind and a passion to explore lots of different things. He is the kind of guy who will pick up on things and then research them on his own, who is self-motivated to educate himself.”
Dye recognized a similar passion for learning in Elmore’s student-initiated research study in the Western professor’s laboratory comparing cytoskeletons of normal and malignant cells and the implications for arresting metastasis. “He demonstrated that the eclectic nature of his mind extends from aerodynamics to mathematics to cancer research,” Dye remarked. In a 2009 letter of recommendation for Elmore, he wrote, “Matt appreciates his teachers and the opportunity to learn. In addition to looking for applications of what he has learned, he also very much wants to know for the sake of knowing. In my 42 years of teaching undergraduates, Matt is one of those students who makes it all worthwhile.”
Wagener noted that Elmore’s passion for flight led him during his Western studies to “rent a Cessna at the Danbury airport and go flying on good weather days,” and he finds it completely in accord with Elmore’s spirit of inquiry and exploration that he should pursue the challenge of flight “on the edge of space.” During U-2S missions, Elmore will be spending long periods at an altitude so high that pilots must wear astronaut-style suits as a precaution against a sudden loss of cabin pressure, which would expose them to unforgiving conditions above the “Armstrong Limit” where the rarified atmosphere leads to boiling of bodily fluids, loss of consciousness and death.
“Matt may be the first Western alumnus ever to reach the fringe of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Wagener remarked. “The Air Force is looking for certain characteristics in the flyers it selects for U-2 training. You have to be able to enjoy, or at least tolerate, extreme conditions that most people would not be able to withstand,” including parachute drops from high altitudes simulating bailout during a U-2S mission.
“Flying the U-2 is a very technical and very specialized assignment,” he added. “You must have very high qualifications to land that aircraft without tipping the wings and crashing it.”
Elmore will begin his U-2S pilot preparation by flying the T-38 Talon training aircraft to enhance his proficiency in instrument controls, flight patterns, takeoffs and landings. Upon completion of his T-38 training, he will graduate to operational missions — initially with an instructor in one of the limited number of two-seat U-2S aircraft available, but within a short period of time on solo flights in the standard single-seat model. There he will gain experience in handling an aircraft whose extreme light-weight structure and wide wingspan more closely resemble a glider than a conventional jet plane. Photo, optic, infrared and radar imagery taken during flight will generate information for analysis at Air Force centers such as the Langley, Virginia, unit where Elmore began his military career.
Wagener noted that U-2S missions not only serve national defense and intelligence purposes, but also make frequent contributions to scientific study in fields such as climate change from the vantage point of high-altitude observation. Elmore anticipates that flight at a near-space altitude that reveals the curvature of the Earth and the sweeping view of land masses and oceans below will deepen the appreciation he has gained as a pilot for humanity’s place and impact on the planet.
“Even when you are flying at conventional altitudes as a pilot, it gives you an incredible perspective on life on Earth,” he said. “As human beings, we are two-dimensional creatures who live out our lives on the Earth’s surface. Generally, people think that the Earth is vast and the amount of available air and natural resources to sustain our life is unlimited.
“But when I’m flying close to 30,000 feet, I get to see pockets of humanity all over the Earth and observe their impact on the environment,” he added. “I imagine that this realization that we are all together on this one small rock will be even more pronounced when I view the Earth and the division between the atmosphere and space at more than 70,000 feet.”
Wagener has remained in touch with his former student through social media and through their visits at Western when Elmore has returned to his home state over the past 13 years. The Air Force major requested a one-year reassignment in 2013 to serve as commandant of cadets at Detachment 115 of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and assistant professor of aerospace studies at the University of Connecticut, which allowed him to be near home in the final months of his father’s struggle with cancer. In 2014 Elmore assumed his current position in San Antonio, Texas, as an instructor for Air Force personnel preparing to teach new pilots.
Elmore, who enlisted in military service “because I needed to do something with my life” after leaving high school, expressed gratitude for the career opportunities that the Air Force has provided.
“The Air Force has been life-changing,” he observed. “I work hard, and I don’t take for granted the opportunities my service has given me in traveling, meeting people and making personal connections all over the globe. It has made the world a smaller place for me.” He also has enjoyed the opportunity to share his passion for flying as an instructor to pilots in the Air Force: “Teaching new student pilots is very rewarding – they’re very bright and very motivated.”
Elmore also credited the Air Force for financing an education at Western that continues to serve him well in his military service, whether in understanding the impact of climate change on the biosphere or making critical mathematical calculations to check instrument and computer readings during flight. Wagener described Elmore as an exemplary role model for present and future students in Western’s biology department.
“It’s a great story to tell our students,” Wagener said. “Matt is serving his country — and he is doing something really cool!”
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