Newly graduated from the , Nathan Barton stood on the bridge of a 500-foot research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, piloting the ship close enough for scientists to tag whales.
This was the career path he chose, and one month removed from Kings Point in the summer of 2002 he could see himself driving ships far into an endless horizon that was his future.
“It’s good money and a stable career,” Barton said. “I have an unlimited tonnage license to drive merchant vessels.”
But Barton also wanted to fly. He applied to naval flight school in Pensacola, Fla. And not long into his stint aboard the research ship, Barton’s application was accepted.
A decade later, Lt. Barton, 32, is an accomplished fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. He’s also returning to where his flying career began. Barton was recently selected to fly with the elite Blue Angels stunt team.
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What makes this all the more remarkable is that Merchant Marine Academy graduates are trained to drive ships, not planes.
“That’s definitely not a common [path],” said Navy Lt. Dave Tickle, a fellow Blue Angels pilot.
In fact, it’s unprecedented, Barton said.
“Most people go to the Merchant Marine Academy to learn how to drive ships,” said Barton, who relocated from Whidbey, Wash. to Pensacola this month to join the team. “Very few people go to a school with the words ‘Merchant Marine’ with the intent to fly.”
But Barton did. He was selected from about 30 Navy and Marine Corps applicants for two spots on the elite Naval flight demonstration team. The Blue Angels squad features seven pilots; six actually fly.
Barton will fly.
He relocated his wife, Janelle, and two young boys to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where he will pilot an F-18 Hornet for the Blue Angels beginning in 2013.
“One of the things that’s great about the Merchant Marine Academy is there are so many options,” Barton said. “I have a buddy who is a nuclear engineer in Phoenix, another in New York City in sales and I’m in the military.”
Everyone who crossed paths with Barton while at USMMA knew he would excel. A native of Hummelstown, Penn., Barton was a four-year starter on the USMMA basketball team and named 2002 Skyline Conference Player of the Year.
Even he had no idea he’d eventually become a pilot.
At the time he was living for weekends so he could spend them with his girlfriend, now wife. They’d venture into Great Neck for Italian dinners and catch a movie.
“Great Neck is really special place for us,” he said. “We have a lot of memories hanging out, being part of that community.”
Now the Blue Angels will bring him back. The team performs at the each Memorial Day weekend.
Barton ultimately spent a lot of time at sea. He flew sorties over Afghanistan and Iraq from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. It just wasn’t the career he anticipated when he arrived at Kings Point as an 18-year-old.
“As it turned out I ended up spending a lot of time on ships anyway,” Barton said. “It just turned out to be an aircraft carrier.”
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