Tom Cruise ain’t got anything on Capt. Ryan Daniel Kunce, an Ahwatukee native and 2009 Desert Vista grad who recently was picked for one of the U.S. Air Force’s premier training spots.
He’s getting ready for a six-month Weapons Instructor Course that will begin in January at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada – the same course depicted in Cruise’s iconic movie, “Top Gun,” though in real life it’s twice as long as the three-month stint Cruise put in.
“WIC is the premier course for USAF pilots to reach their maximum potential,” Kunce told AFN. “I have no doubt that I will receive the best training of my life.
“I also have no doubt that I will have to work harder and put in more hours than I ever have before. I will have to work for six days a week and will rarely work less than 12 hours a day – often more than 12.”
Hard work is no stranger to the 29-year-old son of Michael and Karen Kunce of Ahwatukee, who currently is stationed in Alaska with his wife and high school sweetheart, Brittani Nichole.
From Desert Vista, he enrolled in the Air Force Academy, motivated by several reasons.
“The main reason is that I really wanted to become a pilot – more specifically, a fighter pilot,” he explained. “There are multiple ways to become a pilot in the USAF. However, if someone graduates from the USAF Academy and is qualified to be a pilot, they have the best chance of getting a pilot slot compared to the other commissioning sources.”
Besides, he noted, “I also wanted to go to the USAF Academy because of the incredible education that is totally paid for. Not only is it paid for, but cadets are actually paid a small amount each month while they are enrolled. That amount is not much but all expenses are paid for while attending.”
Because cadets are not allowed to marry, he had to wait until he graduated in 2013 to tie the knot with Brittani.
She then accompanied Kunce to his first duty station at Columbus AFB in Mississippi, where he undertook pilot training for 13 months and then another two-month training course in fighter pilot fundamentals.
After still more training, Kunce finally got his first operational assignment, with the Hawaiian Raptors at Hickam AFB in Hawaii.
He was there for three years until last year, when he and Brittani got a somewhat jolting move to Alaska, where Kunce was assigned to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
His current job has two main responsibilities. First, he is an instructor for new F-22 pilots. Second, he is a flight commander in charge of eight other pilots.
“I make sure that their training and quality of life are optimal,” he explained.
The move to Alaska was more than a little jarring after three years in Hawaii.
“Brittani and I both really loved living in Hawaii,” Kunce said. “That will always hold a special place in our heart. We actually moved to Alaska in September of last year, which meant that winter and darkness followed shortly thereafter. Negative temperatures and only five hours of sunlight is certainly difficult during the winter time.”
Fortunately, once the sun resumed its fulltime tour of duty, things brightened up considerably.
“This past summer was filled with countless hours of daylight and chances to explore the vast wilderness,” he said. “Alaska is also going to be a place we will never forget.”
There’s more than just the glamour of being a fighter pilot that powers Kunce’s current career.
Flying for country is in his DNA.
His father flew an F-15A – the Air Force’s premier air-to-air fighter plane that was a predecessor of the F-22 that Kunce flies.
His mother’s father was a tail gunner on the B-24 and flew over 50 combat missions in the European Theater during WWII and his father’s father was a dentist in the Air Force.
“My parents have had a huge impact on me becoming a pilot and officer in the Air Force,” Kunce said. “They continue to be a huge support to me today.”
His dad separated from the Air Force in 1991 and has been a pilot for Southwest Airlines since then.
But Kunce doesn’t know how long he himself will be with the Air Force.
Pilot training locks him into a minimum 10 years with the Air Force, so the earliest he could separate is 2025.
Not that he’s thinking of leaving for now.
“Right now, I really like being an officer in the United States Air Force,” he said. “However, a lot can change in the course of five years so I will not really make that decision until the time comes.”
For now, he’s preparing for his next training stint, which will qualify him for the rank of Chief of Weapons in the Combat Air Force – making him in charge of the training plan for the squadron and the chief instructor pilot for things like upgrades in the squadron.
“My goal since I first learned about WIC was to go as an F-22 pilot, so my most immediate goal is to graduate from WIC in June of 2021,” he said. “After that, my next goals are more family-oriented.”
But his next stop won’t come without a sacrifice – one of many that he and men and women like him make in service of the country.
“We know that the Air Force will tell us again in the near future that we have to make another move,” Kunce said. “We are not sure where that will be. We will have to make another big adjustment and move thousands of miles. My wife will yet again have to search for another job. We do not have kids yet but they would have to find new friends and start at a new school.
“Airmen make a lot of sacrifices for their country, but it is also airmen’s families that can carry the biggest burdens. Brittani has always been there for me and she is always my biggest supporter. She is even pushing me to go away to WIC where we will be apart for 6 months. I could not do any of it without her.”