Article by Chief of Naval Air Training, DVIDS.
Lt. Cmdr. Jonny Kim, NASA astronaut and Navy SEAL, earned his “Wings of Gold” during a winging ceremony, Friday, March 24, onboard Naval Air Station Whiting Field. Kim, alongside 22 new aviators in his winging class, completed advanced helicopter training resulting in his designation as a Naval Aviator.
The families of the newly designated Naval Aviators were in attendance to congratulate and “pin” the wings onto the uniform of their loved ones. Kim was pinned by his wife while his three children watched from close by.
After graduating on the “Commodore’s List” with distinction, Kim is now a “dual designator,” meaning he is one of a rare group of individuals who is simultaneously designated (qualified) as both a Navy flight surgeon and Naval Aviator as part of the Aeromedical Dual Designator Program.
Kim’s career is unique and may lead some to wonder how he ended up in a rural region of west Florida pursuing advance naval helicopter training after many years undergoing the rigorous challenges and requirements of the Navy SEAL Teams, the Harvard School of Medicine, and NASA. For Kim, his desire to be impactful and make a difference began in childhood.
“Growing up, I never thought about joining the military, but like a lot of young kids, I dreamt of being a hero and making a positive difference in the world. However, I didn’t believe in myself or have the confidence I needed to impact the world in the way I wanted to,” said Kim. “Then, at 16, I discovered the SEAL teams and the warrior spirit the teams cultivate. I thought maybe becoming a SEAL could change me to become the strong warrior I desperately wanted to be.”
In 2002, Kim enlisted in the Navy and sought out the most direct path to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.
“The quickest way to make it to BUD/S was to enlist in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman,” said Kim. “Following SEAL training … I underwent Special Operations Combat Medic training from the Army Special Forces training center [U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School], located in Fort Bragg, North Carolina … We learned how to stabilize and keep soldiers alive who were gravely wounded … until surgeons could give more definitive treatment. It was the best place to learn that kind of battlefield trauma medicine and where I really started to appreciate the gift that medicine can be.”
After completing SOCM training, Kim reported to SEAL Team 3 in 2005. He deployed to Iraq in 2006 where he engaged in over 100 combat operations which included his first experiences with combat medicine on the battlefield. His deployment experience influenced him to further his medical career with the Navy.
“We deployed to Ramadi, Iraq … in concert with various U.S.-Iraqi coalition forces in an effort to stabilize the region. Ramadi, at the time, was very unstable and we participated in almost daily combat operations, experiencing numerous firefights and suffering multiple casualties. I came back from there and thought that I couldn’t keep doing this for a long time, but I had some decent field experience, at that time, taking care of the wounded … I really appreciated that medicine could save lives, but I wanted to give back a little more to the SEAL teams, so I stuck around for another tour.”Jonny Kim
Following a second deployment, Kim began to pursue options that could elevate his impact in the medical field. He applied to the Seaman to Admiral-21 Program (STA-21) which at the time included the option to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree in order to join the Medical Corps.
“I wanted to continue serving but in a different way,” said Kim. “I made a promise to my fallen brothers that I would live my best life in a way that betters the world in their honor. For me, medicine was the answer to that.”
Through STA-21, Kim earned his undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego, then applied to Harvard Medical School. After graduating from Harvard in 2016, he focused on emergency medicine during his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and Massachusetts Brigham and Women’s Hospital, both in Boston. It was during this time that Kim first became inspired to apply his new medical profession to an organization that, in Kim’s eyes, shares similar aspects with the Navy SEAL teams.
“The reason I wanted to be an astronaut is the same reason I wanted to be a physician – both fields serve others in a way that betters the world,” said Kim, who credits his interest in applying to NASA to physician and astronaut Scott Parazynski. “He was like ‘You should really think about being an astronaut. You get to serve the public, do really challenging things and work in a small team environment,’ and I thought ‘this sounds like the special forces of science and exploration.’ Serving as a NASA astronaut would allow me to continue to serve my community and the public in an impactful way.”
Kim joined NASA in 2017 and, along with the other astronaut candidates, reported to the Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE) program at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola. Astronaut candidates complete designated portions of the NIFE curriculum, as well as underwater survival training at the Naval Survival Training Institute. The candidates then must complete 12 flight hours in the front seat of a T-6A Texan II.
Kim admits that he “fell in love with every aspect (of aviation) including the challenges of the environment, the somatosensory experiences, pulling G’s, building situational awareness, communicating effectively and the CRM (crew resource management).”
Once complete with his training in the T-6A, Kim resumed training at NASA, becoming rear cockpit qualified in the T-38 Talon. However, he began to feel that more aviation training would maximize his effectiveness as an astronaut.
“Pretty early on I realized the closest analog to space flight was aviation training,” said Kim. “I wanted to be able to extend and apply as much of the operational experience I had as a combat-experienced SEAL into space flight. A lot of my operational experience does apply to space flight but there are some aspects that I didn’t have the right perspective on because I didn’t have pilot in command experience.”
Kim began to research the possibility of further pursuing Navy flight training, and realized that NASA has a precedence for cross-training astronauts. Before Kim, the most recent Navy physician-aviator selected for the astronaut program was Capt. David Brown. After completing training as a Navy flight surgeon in 1984, Brown was designated as a Naval Aviator in 1990. He flew the A-6E Intruder and the F-18 Hornet before being selected for the NASA astronaut program in 1996.
“He was a great astronaut … There hasn’t been a Navy-physician-aviator selected since,” Kim said of Brown, who died in the space shuttle Columbia crash in February 2003. “There is significant value in being able to wear multiple hats and provide multiple perspectives that bridges otherwise independent fields such as aviation and medicine. This jack-of-all-trades approach is familiar to me from my time in the SEAL teams and is one of the reasons Naval Special Warfare produces excellent, rounded warriors.”
After being approved to commence full Navy flight training, Kim left Houston in early 2022 to begin training in Corpus Christi, Texas, with the “Rangers” of Training Squadron (VT) 28. Already a trained astronaut, Kim enjoyed the challenges of life as a student Naval Aviator (SNA).
“Despite having hundreds of hours in the back seat of a T-38, I did not initially have the stick and rudder skills to gracefully land planes,” said Kim. “Building the necessary neuro-synaptic connections in my brain to properly coordinate sensory information with appropriate movements of the flight controls in coordination with the PCL [power control lever] while handling emergency procedures, coordinating ATC comms and navigation took time, study and repetition.”
In September, 2022 Kim moved on to advanced helicopter training with the “Hellions” of Helicopter Training Squadron (HT) 28 aboard NAS Whiting Field, Florida. While helicopter training may not seem the obvious path for an astronaut, Kim asserts that it teaches several skills that are applicable to space missions.
“NASA really values helicopter pilots for their perspectives and crew resource management mentality. Space flight is closely related to aviation, and proper crew resource management allocates human resources to accomplish the mission safely and effectively. By virtue of the helicopter cockpit environment, helicopter pilots bring an abundance of CRM to the spaceflight table. Another reason is that helicopter training is an excellent lunar analog with its vertical takeoff, and vertical landing characteristics in a side-by-side cockpit CRM setup. There are plenty of fixed-wing cockpits that offer invaluable CRM training for spaceflight readiness, but helicopter training provides a different perspective that is just as valuable, which is why Apollo astronauts trained with naval Helicopter Training Squadron 8 before their Apollo missions.”Jonny Kim
Kim also addressed the challenge of advancing from the training in the T-6B fixed-wing aircraft to the TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopter: “Once I was becoming proficient in the T-6B, I moved to the TH-57 which completely ignored previously established fixed-wing flight control relationships and I had to relearn and remap what my brain wanted to do.”
Navy flight school provides students with confidence-boosting experiences that result from an unforgiving demand to be self-sufficient in the application of learned flight skills. To test their ability to operate alone and complete the mission, students must complete multiple “solo” flights in both primary and advanced flight training as the PIC (Pilot in Command).
“Accountability is a necessary ingredient for personal growth and leadership. It’s hard to get that sense of accountability when you are always flying with an instructor at your side that can fix anything you might need, anything that might go wrong. Going on those solos is a really symbolic experience for all aviators that [represents that] the training wheels are coming off. You need to rely on the training that you have acquired, up to this point, to accomplish the mission … I loved it.”Jonny Kim
Advanced helicopter students are trained to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR) in addition to visual flight rules (VFR) for both night and daylight hours. At night, helicopter students utilize night vision goggles (NVGs) to amplify the available moon and starlight to see in greater detail. This night flight experience provided Kim an opportunity to reconnect with his previous time as a SEAL.
“The NVG training in the advanced syllabus for helicopters was amazing, especially because I have a lot of ground experience as a SEAL using night vision … but I didn’t have the experience of integrating a cockpit-NVG scan with degraded visual environments … That was really challenging and formative in my growth as an aviator.”Jonny Kim
The new Naval Aviators earning their wings in late March brought the total number of individuals to earn the title of Naval Aviator, throughout U.S. naval history, to 36,416.
As Kim returns to NASA to prepare for his first space mission, he reflected on his family and how they enabled him to accomplish so much leading up to this point: “Often times when you see people accomplishing things, you don’t see the support network behind them.” Kim praised his wife and children for “always being there for me, and putting up with me through the long nights, long weekends and the many mornings I couldn’t be present to take them to school or do any of the dad things that many of their friends get to experience. I thank them, I appreciate them, and I love them.”
CNATRA trains, mentors, and delivers the highest quality Naval Aviators who prevail in competition, crisis, and conflict. Headquartered at NAS Corpus Christi, CNATRA comprises five training air wings in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, which are home to 17 training squadrons. In addition, CNATRA oversees the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels and the training curriculum for all fleet replacement squadrons.
This ‘Courtesy Story’ was first published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on April 17, 2023. DVIDS content is in the public domain.
Photo: By Bill Stafford, NASA. – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa2explore/44764444431/, Public Domain, August 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72846589