Rejected from the Air Force five times for poor eyesight, Capt. Eric Schultz finally won a commission after earning a doctoral degree in aeronautics and undergoing eye surgery.
The Annapolis native is preparing for overseas combat missions in an F-15 fighter jet and training other pilots.
Nominated by his fellow officers, Schultz, 33, was honored Saturday by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of its Ten Outstanding Young Americans this year, an award that honors those who exemplify the best attributes of Americans ages 18 to 40. Past recipients include presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
Schultz, who has contributed to cutting-edge research in aerospace engineering and expects to be deployed to the Middle East in January, attended the 68th awards dinner in Indianapolis. He viewed the award, and the ceremony, as an opportunity to meet talented people with tremendous potential.
"It's just kind of amazing and humbling at the same time," said Schultz said, who is not a Jaycee.
Other recipients this year include Joey Cheek, 27, a speedskating medalist at the 2006 Winter Olympics who donated his $40,000 prize to an international humanitarian organization that helps children; and Miss USA 2004 Shandi Finnessey, 27, who helped raise more than $30 million for breast and ovarian cancer research.
Schultz, an aspiring astronaut, traces his inspiration to his childhood in Annapolis when he watched the Navy's flight-demonstration team, the Blue Angels, soar through the sky during the U.S. Naval Academy's Commissioning Week.
"I can remember watching them go overhead ... just a thrilling kind of feeling," Schultz said.
The Annapolis High School graduate majored in aerospace engineering at Pennsylvania State University.
After the Air Force ROTC rejected him because of his poor eyesight, he landed a cooperative internship as a flight test engineer for the U.S. Navy's flight test center at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Once he graduated from Penn State in 1995, he applied to Officer Training School. Again, the Air Force rejected him. The Department of Defense, however, paid for Schultz to earn a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1997 from the University of Washington.
While he was there, he worked on the ram accelerator, a powerful gun-like device that can shoot objects into outer space. Once perfected, the accelerator could someday be used in place of expensive shuttle missions to transport equipment to a space station, Schultz said.
Schultz underwent laser eye surgery and applied to Officer Training School in 1999. He was rejected again
Schultz earned his doctorate in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 2000. He received a National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship to support research on advance propulsion systems and safety at nuclear waste storage facilities.
His work as a graduate assistant got him noticed by Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace engineering company based in Connecticut. Erik Christofferson, a deputy general manager at Pratt's Washington office, persuaded the company to hire Schultz.
"He had the right combination of technical background and communication skills," Christofferson said. "He was engaging and sharp."
At Pratt's Seattle Aerosciences Center, Schultz worked on the development of detonation engines.
Schultz was about to submit an application to NASA to become an astronaut when he learned the Air Force was granting waivers to recruits who had corrective eye surgery.
He was admitted into Officer Training School in August 2001, only to face another rejection for a commission. Finally, the Air Force chief of staff granted him an exception and allowed him to fly.
Today, Schultz leads F-15 training missions with the 391st Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Boise, Idaho. Schultz flies the F-15E, a two-seat fighter jet that can shoot missiles at ground targets and perform air-to-air combat.
Lt. Col. Brian Kirkwood, Schultz's squadron commander, and other officers thought that Schultz would be a great candidate for the Jaycees award. Schultz has volunteered at various organizations, including Habitat for Humanity and Friends of Youth, a program that helps the homeless.
Most of Schultz's peers in the squadron went directly to flight school after graduating from college and are younger than Schultz, Kirkwood said.
"He's a great role model for motivation and long-range goals," Kirkwood said. "Normally you don't see that level of mentorship until a much higher rank."