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2018 Silver Anniversary Award: Lance Pilch

The outfielder-turned-pilot has climbed the ranks since his time at the U.S. Air Force Academy

Lance Pilch in 2009 at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Itsuo Inouye / AP Images

Lance Pilch always wanted to be a pilot, but there was no guarantee he would reach that goal when he enrolled at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Still, he was happy to dedicate himself to a larger cause.

Pilch will receive an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 17, in Indianapolis. The annual award recognizes six distinguished former student-athletes on the 25th anniversary of the end of their intercollegiate athletics eligibility.

“I wanted to serve something greater than myself for at least a period of time,” he said. “It really has helped me grow to think that I’m not doing this for myself.”

The former outfielder and leadoff hitter for the Falcons has far exceeded those expectations. He now serves as vice commander of the 7th Air Force and chief of staff of the Air Component Command at Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he leads America’s air strike forces on the Korean Peninsula at a time when a six-decade-old armistice in the region is being tested.

“What we do is prepare for the worst,” Pilch said. “Prepare for potential combat.”

Batting first …

A two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American, Pilch earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering while starring on the Falcons baseball team. As a senior, he co-captained the squad, hit .315 and tied a then-school record with eight triples. That season, he also helped guide the Falcons to a 28-22 record, the team's first winning season in nine years.

Pilch credits playing baseball with teaching him lessons about teamwork and trust — characteristics that continue to serve well in a military leader.

“The Air Force Academy prepares you really well for being in the Air Force, but particularly, I thought college athletics, playing an NCAA sport, really prepared me,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of academy or college athletes in pretty important positions in the military. And I think that’s no accident.”

Aiming high

After graduation, Pilch attended the arduous, yearlong pilot training program. He flew the F-16 at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. After two years of being named best wingman and, eventually, earning best flight lead, he was selected for Air Force Weapons School, and graduated No. 1 in his class.

“I think, really, sports helped me through that, too,” he said. “I wanted to have the best batting average and I would do my absolute best during training, but I wanted to help my teammates do their very best as well.”

Pilch went on to train others to fly the F-16 and was one of seven selected to fly the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-22. Pilch’s squadron was first to bring the state-of-the-art jet to the Middle East.

Being stationed in Florida as an instructor during production of the F-22 provided Pilch ample time to turn his attention to continuing education. He enrolled at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and earned his Master of Business Administration with high academic distinction in 2006.

Ready for duty

In June 2015, Pilch took over as commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to help ready the Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-35, for battle. 

He now is stationed in South Korea with the 7th Air Force, and his mission is to organize, train and equip warfighting forces for missions that support United Nations Command armistice preservation. Through it all, the lessons he learned during his years at the academy haven’t left him.  

“If you are up to the plate with the game on the line, that’s the most important thing to you at the moment and you’re trying not to let your team down,” he said. “Once you start going, start flying or start playing, you block everything else out and you just go back to your training and forget about the pressure.”