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Ex-aviator pilots through Congress

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) was headed for a pedestrian career, until he took a leap and chased a childhood dream.


Nearing graduation from Rice University with degrees in economics, business, and psychology, he was planning to follow the path of many other economics graduates from elite schools, seeking a job in investment banking.

While attending job interviews, however, he realized that the field did not excite his passions, even though it would be lucrative. Instead of heading for Wall Street, he decided to live out his dreams as a young boy and become a pilot.

“From age 5, I was drawing pictures of airplanes,” Bridenstine told The Hill. “[Flying] has just been something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Interested particularly in carrier aviation, Bridenstine joined the Navy and was commissioned as a Naval Aviator.

For the first part of his service, Bridenstine primarily flew the E-2C Hawkeye, a carrier-capable craft that provides aerial radar and helps coordinate air operations. Based on the USS Abraham Lincoln, he flew missions for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, as well as Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.

Later, Bridenstine was posted at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, where he flew an F-18 Hornet as a “Red Air.”

“I was a target. My job was to fly enemy profiles and Top Gun instructors would shoot me down,” he explained with a laugh.

Following the birth of his first child with his wife Michelle in 2006, Bridenstine left active duty and settled down back in the United States. He earned an MBA from Cornell University and then returned to Tulsa to become executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.

Though he loved the job, after a few years Bridenstine resigned to join the Naval Reserve, which led to another flying stint, this time supporting U.S. anti-drug operations in Latin America.

Returning home again, Bridenstine decided to enter the political arena, launching a primary challenge against five-term Republican incumbent John Sullivan, whom he criticized as an absentee congressman with a large number of missed votes.

Bridenstine’s primary battle against Sullivan took a bizarre turn when it became a proxy battle in the war over medical licensing.

While in Congress, Sullivan had sponsored a law requiring optometrists (who do not hold medical degrees) to provide various information and disclaimers to patients. Those requirements disadvantaged them against MD-holding ophthalmologists.

Bridenstine, believing such a regulation should be left to state licensing bodies, won the support of the disgruntled optometrists who donated heavily to his campaign.

“That was something I was not expecting. I had no idea that there was even this issue when I got in the race,” he said. “I’m not against ophthalmologists, I’m not for optometrists.”

Bridenstine’s position led to about 15 percent of his funds coming from optometrists, a valuable infusion of money which helped him to squeak out a surprise upset of Sullivan.

Oklahoma’s 1st District is deep red, so the primary win was followed by an easy victory in November.

Like many other newcomer Republicans, an intense concern about the scope and cost of government drove Bridenstine to seek office, and it also caused him to start making noise almost the moment he was sworn in.

In January, just a few days after Congress convened, Bridenstine was one of 12 Republicans who refused to vote for Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) as Speaker of the House due to his handling of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, which were seen by some on the GOP side as making too many concessions.

It was not the last time he would cause a stir within the party. In March, he coauthored a letter with Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) calling for Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to remove funding for ObamaCare from a new continuing resolution on spending.

The letter drew 28 Republican co-signers, and appears to have had a strong influence on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who began campaigning in earnest for the defunding effort just a few days after the letter was sent to Boehner’s desk.

As a result, Bridenstine can claim significant credit (or, if one prefers, blame) for instigating the Cruz-led defunding effort that culminated in October’s government shutdown.

Bridenstine was frank in admitting the shutdown had damaged the Republican brand, but also argued that it only came about because of the deliberate efforts of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“In the House of Representatives we have passed appropriations bills, including defense appropriations, homeland security appropriations, energy and water resources,” he said.

“These bills, back in June, they’d go to the Senate and nothing would happen, just nothing, which indicates to me that Harry Reid knew a day was coming when he would want to hold the entire discretionary budget hostage for ObamaCare.

“That’s not how our government is supposed to function,” he continued. “The president and Harry Reid, they’re not interested in a representative republic where all of us members of Congress have an opportunity to debate the merits of each spending provision.”

Bridenstine has other interests in Congress besides ObamaCare and spending, however. The expertise in radar picked up during his piloting days makes him relatively well-informed regarding weather bills, and this along with his origin in tornado-ravaged Oklahoma has made him an advocate for reallocating funds toward the National Weather Service for the sake of improved severe weather forecasting. He says such improvements could save lives.

“We have the technological capability today to give people lead time greater than an hour so that they can get out of the way of a tornado,” he said.

Bridenstine has committed to serving no more than three terms in Congress, so he sees little reason to play it safe going forward.

“My goal is to be the best Congressman I can be for this term,” he said, “and ask the electorate if they’d be willing to have me for a second term.”