Lieutenant General Andrew Croft ‘84 on His Journey to the Air Force

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“I don’t think anyone in high school would’ve thought this would be my career path,” said Air Force Lieutenant General Andrew Croft ‘84. “I was a little scrawny and immature in high school. I was always social and active, though, and I would hate a job where I’d have to sit at a desk on a computer all day.” Croft has since become a three-star general in the Air Force, with assignments all over the globe from Miami to Iraq.

Croft and his two younger siblings grew up only a block away from M-A’s campus. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be so close to school,” he said. “I could walk one way to Encinal and the other way to M-A. I could even ride my bike to Laurel when I was in third grade.”

At M-A, Croft tried water polo for a year, but found that he was “too small for the brutal sport.” He spent the rest of his high school years on the tennis team, which he recalls being “reasonably decent at.”

After graduating from M-A, Croft attended UCLA. “At the time, you could only apply to one UC, and I didn’t really like the vibe over at Berkeley,” he said.

Do things that are out of your comfort zone because you learn the most from those experiences. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one area of expertise.

Croft didn’t know what he wanted to study but thought it would be smart to become a doctor. “I inadvertently signed up to be a biochemistry major,” he said. “If you’re a physics major, you take the hardest physics and maybe the hardest math, but not the hardest chemistry or biology. But if you’re a biochemistry major, you have to take the hardest of all the science courses, which is like taking four majors at once.”

He continued, “I got a 1.9 GPA during my first quarter at UCLA. If that were to happen again, they would kick me out. So, I needed a class in the next quarter that could help me get my grades up.”

When looking at the UCLA course schedule, a class called History of Airpower caught Croft’s eye. He decided to sign up. “I’ve always been a fanatic of airplanes and military history,” he explained. “In high school, I had model airplanes and remote control airplanes. I also liked to shoot fireworks off in the backyard, which you were allowed to do back in the day.” His fascination with airplanes also came from his dad, who was once a military fighter pilot and brought home copies of Aviation Week, a space and air travel publication.

On the first day of the course, Croft was surprised to walk into a classroom full of students in service dress uniforms. He remembered, “I was standing at the door looking like an idiot in my flip-flops and shorts.”

The class turned out to be an Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) course. After the instructor—who happened to be the colonel who ran the UCLA ROTC program—confirmed that Croft was in the right place, he took a seat in the back of the class and soon found his prior knowledge from Aviation Week helpful. “The funniest part was that a couple of weeks into the class, I was the only one who knew anything,” he said.

Upon noticing his expertise, Croft’s instructor asked him if he had ever considered flying for the Air Force. Croft soon signed an ROTC contract and, after graduating from UCLA in ‘88 with a degree in History, became a commissioned second lieutenant in the Air Force. 

“I was sitting at home in May of ‘89 after hearing nothing from the Air Force for a few months, when I suddenly got an order to go to Columbus, Mississippi,” Croft said. He loaded up his parents’ old station wagon and drove across the country, where he joined about 30 other men for pilot training. By the end of the program, only 17 were left.

“The training was super intense,” he said. “We went to work every morning at 6:30 and were there until about 5:30. The first two months were all for academics: airplane systems, weather, and how mission planning works. Then, they put you through a series of simulators, where you learn how to fly before ever getting in a real airplane. When you finally get in a real plane, you have a lot of check rides where we are judged on our performance.”

About ten months into the program came “assignment night,” where pilots were either assigned to become instructor pilots or assigned to the type of plane they’d be flying in the Air Force, including two coveted fighter plane spots.

He explained, “The night was super stressful, but they liked to screw with us and make assignment night into a game show like Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy.” Croft, who was ranked third in the group, was assigned to be an instructor pilot in Mississippi, a disappointing announcement as he would have to spend three more years in Mississippi instead of flying fighter planes.

But the disappointment didn’t last for long. He explained, “I tried really hard during the remaining two months of the course, and I did really well on the last few check rides. The guy who got second in the class and was supposed to go fly fighters did really poorly on those checks. So, three days before our graduation, they told us that they were reversing our assignments. I’d never seen that happen before. And it changed my life.”

Croft continued his training in the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, before heading to New Mexico for fighter pilot training and then a six-month program for specific F-15 training. He said, “I’m now flying this monster fighter that’s way bigger than anything I’d ever seen or experienced, and you’re all by yourself in it. It was way more stressful than all of the stressful training I’d gone through before.”

He then received his first assignment to an active-duty fighter squadron, where he had to go through even more training. “It seemed like I was always training, always working towards the next level,” he said.

At his first fighter squadron, Croft’s job was to run the snack bar. He explained, “You start at the bottom of the totem pole. And if you’re competent enough to run the snack bar, you’ll build trust with the rest of the guys.”

Croft was promoted to a captain in 1993, a colonel in 2009, a brigadier general in 2015, and a lieutenant general in 2020. In all, he flew over 3,100 hours for the Air Force. He has received numerous awards for his work in the Air Force, including a Joint Service Commendation Medal and an Aerial Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters. 

Three days before our graduation, they told us that they were reversing our assignments. I’d never seen that happen before. And it changed my life.

“My most memorable assignment was probably when I was fighting ISIS in 2017 and 2018,” he recalled. “We were trying to eliminate an enemy that was basically embedded into the civilian population, which is not easy to do. We were trying to support the Iraqis, who were the ground force, as we were overhead.” Croft lived in Baghdad during the assignment, working 14-hour days. “It was super stressful and difficult, and it was also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

It was super stressful and difficult, and it was also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—the intensity and stress of being in the Air Force, many of Croft’s closest friends and most fond memories come from his assignments. “All fighter pilots have a callsign, which can come from you doing something stupid or having a funny last name,” he explained. His callsign was Sparky, which all of his closest friends and family still call him today. “I always had a lot of energy—I probably would have been classified as having ADHD when I was younger, but we didn’t have that classification back then,” he said. “One time, a navy exchange pilot in our squadron said ‘That guy runs around like a little dog, like a little sparky,’ and it just stuck.”

Towards the end of his career in the Air Force, Croft was the deputy commander of the Southern Command, one of eleven unified combatant commands in the U.S. Department of Defense. He said, “At this point, I was working in headquarters and running the whole show.”

After 34 years in the Air Force, Croft officially retired in 2023. He now does consulting as well as special advising and lives near M-A with his family.

Croft’s advice to M-A students: “You will always be proudest of the hardest things you’ve ever done. Do things that are out of your comfort zone because you learn the most from those experiences. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one area of expertise.”

Croft’s advice to students interested in the Air Force: “Call me.”

Ben Siegel is a junior at M-A and in his second year of journalism. He is an Editor-in-Chief and manages Bear Tracks, the M-A Chronicle’s weekly newsletter. His opinion piece calling for improved Holocaust education was recognized by CSPA as the best personal opinion about an on-campus issue in 2023. You can find more of Ben’s music journalism at Riff Magazine.

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