For the young members of the Florida Wing’s 89th MacDill Aviation Cadet Squadron, Lt. Col. David Panzera brings a valuable added dimension to Civil Air Patrol activities For the young members – including one vivid lesson from his days flying in Antarctica, a far cry in more ways than one from the squadron’s Tampa location.
A CAP command pilot and former U.S. Air Force pilot with over 6,000 hours in Air Force aircraft, Panzera is the squadron’s deputy commander. The married father with five children and another three in guardianship flies as a Boston-based first officer for JetBlue Airways. He’s qualified as an Airbus 320 and Airbus 321 pilot with over 1,560 hours of experience in these aircraft.
But Panzera considers himself lucky to be a pilot at all. He nearly didn’t make it.
“I was a weak student coming out of high school. I often jest that I came out of high school dumb as a box of hair,” he recalled. “My graduating year in ROTC only got seven pilot slots, whereas the year before had over 40.
“I was denied. I was denied a second time and started looking at Air Guard units. I applied to five of them and did many interviews, getting nowhere closer.
“Then, on the third interview with the 109th Airlift Wing in Scotia, New York, I won the day. I will never forget that feeling. It’s the feeling I want every cadet to experience for themselves,” Panzera said.
He draws on that background in emphasizing the importance of perseverance and determination for the MacDill squadron’s cadets.
Panzera, who has a master’s from Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, excelled in the military, serving more than a dozen years as an instructor pilot, followed by three years as bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa.
Later, he was chief pilot at the 139th Airlift Squadron at the Air National Guard Base in Stratton, New York, and finished as chief of the 109th Airlift Wing Integration Office there.
“During every encampment and several times at the squadron level I often talk about missions I flew as a LC-130H pilot in Antarctica,” Panzera said, “And when discussing servant leadership, I go into a few examples in history of figures most everyone knows. I then talk about how at least once a week down in Antarctica when we got back to McMurdo Station at the end of the week, I would leave all my things at the pilot seat as others were packing up and getting ready to head to town from the skiway.”
He then got to the point.
“I would go into the back of the aircraft and unstrap a small stainless steel case from the front wall of the cargo compartment. I would ask the cadets what they thought it was. They were always amazed when I would tell them that it was everyone’s contribution from the bathroom.
“’Why is the major or lieutenant colonel doing this?’ Of course, being youthful cadets, the thought of the whole thing is ‘yuck’ or worse. However, a discussion of what is happening is revealing to all in the room.
“I declare that ‘the aircraft cannot fly if the bathroom is not clean.’ I ask them to then consider those at their schools who do this for them and what they should now think of those humble and hardworking people, or their mom or dad who cleans their house.”
Such lessons have left a deep impact on young members like Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Mikka Kritzer, the MacDill squadron’s cadet first sergeant, who cites “immeasurable influence on my life.”
After joining Civil Air Patrol in January 2020, Kritzer said, ”every time I went to a squadron meeting, I returned feeling inspired and ready to change my life for the better, due to Lt. Col. Panzera’s active teaching and leading style. He knows how to grab the attention of people and use it for their own good.”
“He introduced me to the idea that becoming a leader was a possibility in my future … I saw Lt. Col. Panzera as a true leader who could inspire people to do what was difficult – because they wanted to do it.”
“Time and time again he has shown a dedication to young cadets, trying to connect to them and raise them up. I can say now, as a cadet first sergeant and cadet battalion commander in Navy Junior ROTC, he is the reason I am who I am today.
“He is who I want to be when I grow up,” the cadet said.
Along with lessons he shares from his military career, Panzera also influences cadets by using what he calls “Challenge and Response.”
“I do this all the time, but especially at encampment. I yell out. ‘Cadets, where are you going?’ The response is ’All the way, sir!’
“I then yell, ’What are you going to do when you get there?’ Their reply is ‘WIN THE DAY, SIR!’
“And just before I introduce the keynote speaker at their graduation, I tell the cadets that the speaker is hard of hearing. ‘Cadets, where are you going?’
“And they properly respond. The speaker is always revved up by this and some have even done the challenge and response before they finish.”
When Panzera retired from the Air Force in 2018, he was given a so-called fini flight, a military aviation tradition marking a pilot’s retirement. After completion of the flight, tradition calls for the pilot to be sprayed down or doused with water and a bottle of champagne upon leaving the aircraft.
Panzera’s fini flight made Air Force history.
“I had my fini flight in the LC-130 and elected to have it a month early so I could have my final flight be one of the flights at the 2017 New York Wing Encampment,” said Panzera, who was then a member of that wing’s Schenectady Composite Squadron. “
Because of the rules, I was allowed to have two special people on board. One was a character development instructor, my father (Capt. Joe Panzera), working at encampment, and the other a cadet at the flight academy for that year, my son Philip.”
And other than flying in a ski-equipped variant of the C-130 Hercules used in the Arctic and Antarctic, what made this Fini flight one for the history books?
“I am the only man in Department of Defense history to conduct his official fini flight in uniform in a military aircraft with his father and his son on board,” Panzera said. “It was one heck of an honor and event.”
Lt. Col. Steven Solomon
National Public Affairs Officer
This article on Lt. Col. David Panzera, the former U.S. Air Force pilot who serves as deputy commander of the Florida Wing’s 89th MacDill Aviation Cadet Squadron, is fourth in a regular series of articles showcasing how CAP and its members make an impact throughout the nation.