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Student sets sights on Air Force career

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When Mac Barnes says he wants to be a general in the Air Force one day, it’s not just wishful thinking.

The teenager is outlining his plans for the future—plans that included getting his private pilot’s license when he was 17 so he would be one step ahead of others who want to fly fighter jets one day.

Mac Barnes pilots a Cessna 172 over Shannon Airport recently. He hopes to attend the Air Force Academy. PETER CIHELKA/THE FREE LANCE-STAR

“I consider it an investment,” Barnes said about the $8,000 his family spent on flying lessons. “And it looks great on college applications.”

Barnes isn’t just focused, he’s also a bit of a Renaissance man. And his list of accomplishments isn’t limited to flying solo at an age when some kids still don’t drive by themselves.

The 18-year-old senior has a 4.2 grade-point average and is in the top 5 percent of his class at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford County.

He has a black belt in tae kwon do and several medals from national competitions.

He plays tenor saxophone in two of the school’s premier bands.

Barnes also became a certified lifeguard over the summer.

“Mac seems to have a very clear focus for his life and works relentlessly to attain those goals,” said P. Duane Coston, his former band teacher and the current associate director of athletic bands at the University of Virginia. “He has quite a bit going on, and in my experience, the busiest kids are more focused and stay out of trouble.”


Barnes also is one of the politest students Coston said he’s ever met.

Deidre Walker, Barnes’ chemistry teacher last year, said he’s just the kind of guy she’d like one of her three daughters to bring home. Considering they’re 3, 9 and 11, “they better not bring any boys home for a few more years,” she said.

Walker said she wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Barnes had stars on his uniform one day.

“Mac is a wonderful young person with a bright future ahead of him,” she said.

All he has to do is get through high school. Grades aren’t the problem; the “tedious” dramas that seem to consume people his age are.

He keeps it in perspective.

“I understand high school is a necessary checkpoint for getting on with everything else,” Barnes said.

His parents, Brent and Kristen Barnes of North Stafford, said he can get as silly as any 18-year-old when he’s hanging out with his friends.

And mature and focused as he is, he still needs to be reminded to do his chores.


The young flyer has Marines on both sides of his family tree. His maternal grandfather, Bill Paulson, flew jets and choppers in Vietnam, and his father, Brent, wanted to do the same during his eight years of service, but didn’t pass the vision test.

Their love of flying was passed along to MacLean Barnes.

Mac Barnes, 18, goes through a preflight check on a Cessna 172 before taking off from Shannon Airport recently. Barnes, a senior at Colonial Forge High School, is working toward his goal of attending the Air Force Academy. PETER CIHELKA/THE FREE LANCE-STAR

“Ever since he was old enough to hold a toy airplane, that was it,” his mother said, remembering his fondness for anything with Blue Angels on it. “It’s just the cut of his jib.”

But Barnes didn’t inherit his military style from his family. Even in jeans, he carries himself like someone in uniform—in posture, demeanor and the way he answers every question with “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am.”

He looks like someone off the set of “Top Gun,” a movie about a school for advanced fighter pilots.

His parents said they were never that focused.

“Honestly, I have no idea where it came from,” his mother said. “Martial arts must have pounded it into him.”

Barnes earned his black belt in tae kwon do and also studied jiujitsu for two years. Practicing martial arts helped cement his plans for a career in the military.

“I like discipline and the whole military type of environment,” Barnes said. “I feel very comfortable with that.”


Barnes and his family are working on college applications. He’ll need a nomination from their senator to get into a military academy.

Barnes’ first choice is the Air Force Academy, followed by the Naval Academy. If neither pans out, he’d like to attend James Madison University or Virginia Military Institute, hopefully on a ROTC scholarship.

His goal is to get a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force after graduation, fly fighter jets, then climb the ranks to general.

If he can’t stay in the military as long as planned, he’s already checked the forecast for commercial pilots. He says there’ll be a shortage, as current pilots retire and Asian markets continue to grow.

Jim Stover, who runs JLS Aviation at Shannon Airport, said Barnes was one of the better younger pilots at his school. Unlike other people, especially teenage boys who tend to get sidetracked by girls and cars, Barnes never lost his focus.

He mastered the different phases of flying, equipment checks and weather readings in 50 hours. The national average is 70 hours, Stover said.

If Barnes can apply the same dedication to his career, people will be saluting him one day.

“There’s no reason why he can’t meet all those goals,” Stover said.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425