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A quest to make his dreams take flight

May 24, 2010

An ASU engineering doctoral student sets off to become a military aviator and, maybe someday, an astronaut

This is an edited version of an article originally written by Corporal Fredrick J. Coleman, U.S. Marine Corps, the public relations representative for the Marine Officer Selection Office in Phoenix.

After four years of study and thousands of hours reading aerospace engineering  books at Arizona State University, Philip Wheat seemed on an almost certain path to an aircraft design job with a major manufacturer.
In 2009, however, the Tempe, Ariz. native veered from the course in the hope of becoming a military aviator. Now he’s on his way to Officer Candidates School at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., beginning in June.

“Other branches of the armed forces gave me their sales pitch on why I should join and none of them sparked my interest,” says the 27-year-old. “I chose the Marine Corps for the challenge, and the opportunity to use my previous training to accomplish my goal of becoming an astronaut or NASA mission specialist.”

As a child, Wheat recalls that his attention was captured by commercials, documentaries and movies about the Marines.  Films about astronauts, soldiers and pilots -- The Hunt for Red October, Top Gun, Gladiator and Apollo 13 – are among his favorites.

“After watching pilots perform timed-in turns in The Hunt for Red October, and seeing my father do the same thing in an airplane, I knew I wanted to be a pilot for the rest of my life,” Wheat says. “The movies and commercials I watched had a significant impact on what I wanted to do when I got older.”

Over the years, he has worked with his father as a flight instructor for the family’s business.  He has logged more than 800 hours in the cockpit of his red, white and blue Cessna airplane and instructed people pursuing private and commercial pilot licenses, certification in instrument ratings, and flight instructor certificates.

But Wheat says he knew becoming an aviator and an astronaut would require a college education.

After graduating with honors from Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Ariz., in 2001, he went on to ASU. He graduated with honors in 2005, earning a bachelors of science degree in aerospace engineering – and more than $100,000 in scholarships and grants to support his pursuit of a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering.

He says he plans to eventually earn the Ph.D., “but I think that being a pilot is what I was born to do.”

By becoming a Marine fighter pilot with an engineering degree, Wheat says it “will definitely help me in my quest [to become an astronaut]. “I want to be able to say that I played a part in the nation’s history in space by becoming one of the first to walk the surface of a celestial body.”

His motivation is fueled by the support of wife, Stacy.  She is encouraging him even though going to officers school could mean her husband will miss the birth of their third child.

“I couldn’t be prouder of him and his decision to become a Marine officer,” she says. “I know he is going to do great things for this country while he is in the service, and after he leaves.”

While waiting to start officers’ school, Wheat is continuing his studies, keeping up his physical training and spending time with his wife and two daughters, Kaitlyn, 3, and Danielle, 2.

“It’s important for me to make the most of my time with my family before I leave school,” he says. “I want my children to have someone they can look up to.”

Wheat has been training with Marine Officer Selection Station in Phoenix, including participating in tests such as an 18-mile hike through the Grand Canyon.

“He is the most qualified Platoon Leadership Course candidate I have ever worked with,” says Capt. Mark Beasley, the station’s selection officer, “and quite possibly [the most qualified] in the country.”