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Flying the Unfriendly Skies
U.S. Navy pilot Dan Parilla (WCAS95) turned his passion for flying into a career that has put him on the front line of wars the world over.
Dan Parilla
While most Americans watched the war in Iraq unfold from the safety of their homes, Navy aircraft commander Dan Parilla (WCAS95) was right in the middle of the action, soaring at 350 miles an hour through the hostile Iraqi skies searching for enemy convoys. As a Navy pilot, Parilla has turned a childhood fascination into a full-time job.

“The fact that I get paid to fly an aircraft is an incredible feeling,” Parilla says, “and I believe flying for the U.S. Navy is the most important work I could be doing right now.”

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Parilla began his love affair with flying when he visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a child. He then enrolled in a high school aviation class. During his senior year at Northwestern, where he majored in psychology and participated in the Naval ROTC program, Parilla applied to the Naval aviation program. Within six months he was training in Pensacola, Fla. — the start of a whirlwind journey around the globe.

After learning to handle the four-engine, turbo-propelled P-3 jet aircraft, he was certified as an instrument-rated pilot and in 2000 he was sent to support U.S. land troops and peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo. It was his first mission into a hostile environment. His objectives included relaying communication between ground troops and identifying enemy formations with “near real-time photo intelligence.”

After proving his mettle in Kosovo, Parilla was sent on classified assignments in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Iraq last April and May. As in previous missions, he was responsible for surveillance and communication duties. Once a target was spotted, the P-3, which can hold up to 16 missiles on board, could also be summoned to take out the threat.

Parilla earned achievement medals for heroic action in Iraq, where he faced the most treacherous conditions of any of his missions. The pilot of a P-3 could tell within 30 seconds whether a target was hostile or not, but there is always an air of uncertainty, known as the “fog of war.”

“People tend to act a lot more professional, and there’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” he says of the high-threat atmosphere. “You have to do more tasks at once and worry about smaller things that you normally wouldn’t care about.”

He returned from Iraq in May and in September began serving as the operations administration officer aboard the USS Carl Vinson.

All told, Parilla still has at least five more years of hectic mission-to-mission Navy service left.

“It’s been busy, but it’s been fun,” he says, and although wartime missions definitely rank “lower on the fun scale,” Parilla relishes every moment he spends with the Navy, from flying into fire in the Middle East to training fresh-faced recruits, which he also does now as a defensive flying instructor.

Still, among all his achievements, the greatest thrill of all is touching down on U.S. soil and returning to his wife, Lesley, and their Silverdale, Wash., home. There, in the brief moments he gets to relax, he enjoys skiing, hiking and working on community theater with Lesley.

“That feeling of coming home is just about second to none,” he says. “It makes you appreciate what you have and what you can do at home.”

— Mike DePilla (J04)

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