CHAMPAIGN — Joel Nogle has come a long way from learning to fly in a single-engine Cessna to piloting an F-18 fighter attack jet in a mere 11 years.
But his experience landing on the short, narrow strip at the Tuscola air field as a teenager has served him well as a Navy pilot landing on aircraft carriers.
"That runway is much longer than what I have to land on," Nogle said of the 2,600-feet air strip that looks like a sidewalk on approach to landing.
On Sunday, if the weather cooperates, the 27-year-old Champaign native will get to show off his aviator skills at the beginning of the Bears-Packers game at Soldier Field in Chicago in a fly-over with one other Navy jet.
"We have to be 1,000 feet above the ground. If the clouds are 1,000 feet or better, we'll be good," he said.
Nogle is a Navy lieutenant currently stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and took the initiative to contact the Bears organization in the summer to tell them that he would be interested in performing a fly-over for Sunday's game.
"Mostly because I'm a Bears fan, secondly because my wife's whole family is from Chicago, and because the Bears-Packers is one of the biggest games of the year. That was the first game we could logistically get to since we just returned from deployment a month ago," said Nogle of his reasons for contacting the Bears.
Nogle served on the USS Enterprise CVN-65, the Navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It was just decommissioned by the Navy Dec. 1 after 51 years of service, including participation in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Nogle said almost "immediately" the Bears said they would be "more than happy to work with us."
Nogle, the son of Jim and Gayle Nogle of Champaign, said his parents; his younger brother Jeffrey Nogle; his wife of four years, Liz; and her family are all planning to be at the game.
Nogle and his weapons systems officer will take off in the two-seat fighter jet from the air field at Gary, Ind., where there is a National Guard Unit. After the fly-over, they'll return to Gary, get in a car, and hopefully be able to meet up with the family by halftime. They're supposed to be introduced on the field.
"It's not every day we get to show off what we do, especially at a nationally-televised event," said Nogle.
Pretty heady stuff for a modest but successful young man who knew almost from the time he could walk and talk that he wanted to fly jets.
"For longer than I can remember," said Nogle, who went to St. John's Lutheran school in Champaign through the seventh grade, then Judah Christian for high school.
After graduating in 2003, he entered the University of Illinois, committing to the Navy through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
Coincidentally, four of his best buddies from high school with whom he played basketball and baseball for several years also joined the Army and Marines.
Nogle spent two years at the UI Institute of Aviation where he earned his professional pilot certificate and two more years working toward a bachelor's degree in finance. After graduating from the UI in May 2007, he began his Navy pilot training in Pensacola, Fla. After additional training in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Meridian, Miss., he got his wings in April 2009.
Nogle got his private pilot's license as soon as he turned 16.
"In June 2010 we moved to Virginia Beach where I started learning to fly the F/A-18F Super Hornet," he said.
Nogle said there's no question his family history played a role in his current livelihood.
His paternal grandfather, Charlie Nogle of Champaign; his father, Jim; and his uncle, Jud Nogle of Savoy, are all seasoned private pilots so Nogle grew up around airplanes.
Charlie Nogle, a member of the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame, has been credited with saving the T-34 Mentor, a military trainer produced in the 1950s by Beechcraft, from extinction after it was no longer used by the military.
"I've always been fascinated by aircraft, whether at air shows or the movies. I knew I wanted to go in the military no matter what I did to serve my country. I researched in high school which branch of the military I felt suited me best and I knew naval aviators have to land on a very small boat and that challenge excited me," he said.
Nogle owes the Navy another 4 1/2 years of his life and will decide at the conclusion of his 10-year commitment what's next.
"It will come down to the job market at the time. A career in the military is becoming more and more of a likely possibility," he said.