In Memoriam: Kaleb Estes

I was moving some boxes this weekend and came across something that made me want to put pen to paper. I’m writing today to honor a fine young man and aviator who died earlier this year in a skydiving accident, Kaleb Estes.

I had the pleasure of flying with Kaleb on his first T-53 (Cirrus) sortie. He was eager to do some flying, because hitherto his flying had been done almost exclusively in the back, readying to jump out. What’s more, he shared with me some of his BASE jumping and wing suit-ing adventures, and as I sat wondering about the legality of these jumps, I also thought to myself, this guy does life right-his own way. Once we flew, he exhibited some of the same strong basic flying chops that was common among his peers on the Academy’s skydiving team. I swear there is some analogue to flying an airplane with experience steering one’s body through the air. Kaleb was clearly on the right track for becoming an Air Force officer and pilot.

Furthermore, Kaleb was a man with passion. He had gone to another university for three years before coming to the Air Force Academy. Transfer students to the Academy do get transfer credits for their previous studies, but they still have to do the full four years, and have to maintain a minimum course load of 5 classes per semester. In other words, Kaleb was fixing to finish college twice over when he died just before graduation. And again, while I thought to myself what a crazy bastard he was for doing all of this, he had a goal, and worked to achieve it.

Kaleb was an English major, which is fairly rare at a STEM school like the Academy. But because the History department where I worked was next door to English, I had the pleasure of seeing Kaleb periodically after we flew together. After his death, I found his website, on which he had expressed interest in publishing a collection of short stories this year and a novel afterward. I even found a kickstarter for his book, which humorously collected all of $10 out of $20,000. Although he had updated his site in his fourth year at the Academy (and his seventh year in college!), he kept the picture, plainly in pre-USAFA days with his scraggly hair and blonde beard, of him atop a very tall antenna, preparing to make a questionably legal jump.

I have a memento from Kaleb that I will treasure forever. It is customary in the Air Force for a student to give his or her instructor a dollar bill on the first or “dollar ride” in a particular aircraft. Often the student gets really elaborate with their dollar bill art; Kaleb’s to me wasn’t elaborate but rather reflects his lighter side, one that isn't overly concerned with convention. Under the printed "In God We Trust" he wrote simply “Especially when shit goes wrong."

Kaleb seems to me a man who would not be owned by anyone. His independent spirit exhibited a freedom and self-actualization that is very hard to find among most of the cadets I knew. He was a breath of fresh air, and I have no doubt his outside-the-box life and lifestyle would have been a great asset to the Air Force’s officer corps. He is and will be sorely missed, and I am honored to have known him and flown with him.


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