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NEWS & MEDIA

TILLMAN TUESDAY: Weather Enthusiast Forecasts Future Assisting Veterans Through Drone Technology

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh, Communications Manager   |   December 6, 2016
John Van Horn is not only a dream chaser as he tried out for the NFL but also a storm chaser, having experience with the Air Force Hurricane Hunters

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we learn more about 2012 Tillman Scholar John Van Horn who attended middle school and high school in the Washington D.C. area before joining the military. John graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree and passion for Meteorology in addition to earning a roster spot on the football team as a punter. With a desire to become an Air Force Hurricane Hunter, John’s interests changed after following a passion with benefiting veterans with drone technology. He recently attending the Inc. 5000 conference in San Antonio this year and this passion for helping wounded service members grew.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY?

“My mom always wanted me to go to college so I went to freshman orientation, but left in the middle of it and went to the recruiter station. When I came home my mom asked how freshman orientation was and I said, ‘Great, I’m joining the military!’ Being her only son, she freaked out a bit. My first official meeting with the recruiter was at noon on September 11 but it was obviously postponed.”

GIVEN WHAT HAD HAPPENED ON SEPTEMBER 11, DID YOU HAVE ANY SECOND THOUGHTS OR REGRETS IN JOINING THE MILITARY AT THAT POINT?

“My feelings were completely opposite – I was mad and wanted to join even more. Both of my grandfathers served in the military and I wanted to join to serve our country knowing that when I made that decision I was saying good-bye to my college football chances (which I was being recruited for). It was important for me to give myself to my country rather than just football.”

HOW MANY YEARS DID YOU SERVE AND HOW DID YOU SERVE?

“I joined the Air Force in 2002 and served six years active duty. I served as a Crew Chief on the C-5 Galaxy (the largest aircraft in the U.S. Military). I grew up working on cars and loved the idea of becoming an aircraft mechanic. The idea of not only working on a plane but managing the maintenance of an entire aircraft for an entire mission was attractive to me. For two of the six years on active duty, I was selected to join a special duty, as a Flying Crew Chief (FCC), where I would fly with the plane and do maintenance as we completed missions all over the world. A few months after flying, towards the end of my enlistment, I deployed to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait.”

THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME SPENT IN THE MILITARY, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN PRIOR?

“There are many things I learned about myself throughout my time in the service but the thing that pops out to me is my threshold for patience. No matter how fast or how hard you have to work, you’re always going to have to be patient with whatever it is you’re doing.”

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AFTER SIX YEARS OF SERVICE, WHY DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO SEPARATE FROM THE MILITARY?

“I felt the phase of my life as a Crew Chief was over and I was ready to move on to explore the curiosities I had about the civilian world. At the age of 24 I liked the idea of being a civilian, going back to school and having the ability to expand my horizons. I also decided to help my sister out and move to New York City and take care of my nephew for a year while she worked – I just love helping people.”

AS A HELPER FOR YOUR NEPHEW, WHAT CHALLENGES WERE YOU FACED IN THAT ROLE?

“The most challenging part about helping with my nephew was that I couldn’t get a consistent job while I was in Manhattan so I became a mobile mechanic. I would load up a briefcase full of tools and take the subway to places to work on cars. I was able to make some money as well as retain the flexibility and control the timing.”

YOU WERE 12 YEARS OLD WHEN YOU BEGAN WORKING ON CARS, WHERE DID YOU LEARN ALL OF THE SKILLS OF A MECHANIC?

“My father and grandfather were mechanics. My grandfather on my mom’s side of the family taught my father mechanical skills when he was a teenager. My father actually worked on my grandfather’s small NASCAR circuit when he was growing up so he also learned at an early age. My parents divorced when I was six so when I would see my dad during the summertime he would put me to work in the shop with him because I was small, and had skinny arms which came in handy working on vehicles. I absolutely loved getting my hands dirty, scraped, and bloody – it felt like I was a part of the man club! Growing up with two older sisters and my mom, having that time with my dad was a great bonding experience.”

COMING TO THE MILITARY WITH YOUR MECHANIC SKILLS, WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO LEARN ADDITIONALLY TO BE A CREW CHIEF?

“To be a Flying Crew Chief (FCC) you had to go through an advanced course where you study nothing but aircraft systems in the classroom. Additionally they had simulators that we would practice on – it was very intense applying classroom lessons to hands-on tasks.”

WHAT HAVE YOU ALSO DONE IN YOUR COMMUNITY TO GIVE BACK?

“One thing I always liked about Pat was how he drove the same old pickup truck. I had an old car as well, and I loved that car! I fixed that car as much as it needed to last me 13 years. One situation in which I enjoyed giving back was for a Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Hurricane Katrina obviously caused severe damage throughout the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. A volunteer opportunity presented itself, years after the hurricane, where people could help veterans rebuild their homes that were affected by Katrina. I was living in Mississippi at the time and found out the day before about a volunteering opportunity that started at 8:00 AM the next day. I decided to fix my car that day and leave at 1:00 AM to make the six hour trip and get where I needed to go to help with the rebuilding efforts. I love the randomness of learning about a short-notice event and just doing it, especially if it’s going to add value to someone – why not?! I don’t care if I had to drive all night, it was about giving back. Fulfillment is one of the biggest motivators to me; knowing I helped someone.”

AT WHAT POINT DID YOU DECIDE WAS THE RIGHT TIME TO GO TO COLLEGE?

“I was living in New York City looking to go to college after helping my nephew, and one of my best friends from the military that was living in Atlanta offered me a place to stay while I started school. I moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Kennesaw State and took all of the core classes for two years before realizing my hidden passion growing up was Meteorology – I was really fascinated with it. I searched for Meteorology degree programs and pursued them.”

WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE AS A MECHANIC COMING FROM GROWING UP WATCHING YOUR DAD AND YOUR GRANDFATHER AS A MECHANIC, WHERE DID YOUR FASCINATION WITH THE WEATHER COME FROM?

“I think it came from living in different areas of the country. I remember being in Savannah, GA as a baby and there was a tornado warning and people were taking shelter, etc. I didn’t know what a tornado was when I was a young kid so I was looking out of the window waiting to learn what this thing called a ‘twister’ was. I soon realized it was a lot bigger than I thought it was! I guess my fascination with weather stemmed from that experience as well as snow events – which I absolutely love! Whenever there is snow I would (and still do) wait for the first flake to drop. I would watch it for a while, as it was just amazing to me to see weather happen.”

WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL IN EARNING YOUR DEGREE IN METEOROLOGY?

“For me it was more of figuring out how the weather works rather than just finding a job. I wanted to know why does it rain for ten minutes across the street and it doesn’t rain at all at my house. Or, why does it rain on the east side of Washington D.C. while it’s snowing on the west? I had so many weather-related curiosities, which is why I pursued the degree, and it turned out to be more science than I bargained for.”

WHILE EARNING YOUR METEOROLOGY DEGREE, WHAT DOORS WERE OPENED?

“Once I started learning meteorology I decided to volunteer for Team Rubicon as they did a Hurricane Sandy relief effort. I contacted them and volunteered by sending daily forecast updates to assist in their efforts. It was great having the feeling that thousands of relief efforts could plan their day based on my forecasts. I was putting as much knowledge and time as I could into those forecasts, because I wanted them to be accurate and help thousands of relief workers. I actually set up meetings with one of my meteorology professors to get feedback on forecasting wind gusts”

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE YOUR MASTER’S DEGREE?

“I interned with the Air Force Hurricane Hunters the summer between my junior and senior year. The Air Force Hurricane Hunters are a reserve group that fly directly into hurricanes and drop sensors, which will record data as it descends. I thought, ‘flying into hurricanes?’ Yes, please! At that point I wanted to be a Hurricane Hunter so I waited to interview during my senior year, but they ended up freezing all hiring in 2013. I was a little stressed out because of the hiring freeze and the fact that I was graduating without a job lined-up. So, I decided to chase another dream; playing in the NFL. I decided to train after my senior football season and tryout for the NFL in the spring of 2014. The training and tryouts were a great experience, but I assume a 30 year old rookie punter was not an attractive prospect. I started looking for a typical job and as a result considered exploring the Master’s degree route. The idea was to start my Master’s degree with the intent of interviewing with the Hurricane Hunters after their hiring freeze. What happened before starting grad school was unexpected. My thesis advisor at Mississippi State approached me with a NOAA-backed research assistantship using drones for hydrometeorology. I enrolled and started grad school.”

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU WERE SELECTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR AND TASKED WITH CARRYING FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY?

“Before that, during the final phone interview, I was on my way to football practice at Mississippi State and the call was getting to be longer than I anticipated so I kindly said I had to head to football practice. Overall, I was pleased with the final phone interview, but I was still really nervous about the amount of people applying. Later that summer, I received the call that I had been selected as a Tillman Scholar while I was driving in Washington D.C. and I almost crashed. I was screaming and just so happy that I almost dropped the phone. It is one of the biggest honors in my life.”

WHAT HAS BEING PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY MEANT TO YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?

“At first when I received the scholarship the initial thought was the financial support it would provide, but when I actually learned what it means to be a scholar it was incredibly intimidating. I think that mindset is natural when you get a bunch of Tillman Scholars together because the group is so amazing. What I learned is that the financial support for school is such a small part of being a Tillman Scholar. It’s about doing something bigger than yourself and I truly believe in that. It’s unbelievable what some of us do in this Tillman Scholar community.”

WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE PAT TILLMAN LEADERSHIP SUMMIT?

“It was terrifying, comforting, and motivating at the same time. It’s a heavy load to carry being in that family environment at the leadership summit, meeting new scholars and learning of the impact they’re making in the world. After initially being immersed in the environment at the summit, wherever I saw a Tillman Scholar the rest of the day, I felt like we had known each other forever. When I left the summit I was walking down the street towards the train station in Chicago and I realized the strangers that I met at the summit were not strangers but family. I was sad leaving my family after being so inspired at the summit.”

HOW HAS BEING A TILLMAN SCHOLAR CHANGED YOUR LIFE AND YOUR CAREER PATH?

“After receiving the scholarship it made me want to do more and it’s safe to say the majority of Tillman Scholars feel the same way. It was a really hard decision when I was offered the job with Hurricane Hunters, in 2015, as to whether or not to take it or to pursue my idea of a business that I didn’t know where it was going to go; which I was flying blindly in order to help people out. I felt selfish if I were to take the job as a Hurricane Hunter because then I wouldn’t be able to help people out in the same capacity as my business idea. It was certainly a fork in the road moment.

When I was interning at an NBC affiliate for meteorology in the summer of 2015 I was also working with an electrician in D.C. My thesis was comparing drone imagery with satellite imagery for hydro meteorological applications. We were using drones; which this new technology really sparked my interest after learning there are so many applications that can be used to help the community. As I was on my way back from the scrapyard I was thinking about all of these ideas of how I could use drone imagery. What I realized was that I was thinking about my ideas for the wrong reasons, I was thinking about them from the sole context of making a lot of money, but that’s not my sole thing. The idea that hit me was to use the drone applications I learned to help people, and then I thought about which population I would want to impact. I decided I was going to train wounded and disabled veterans in drone technology so that they can use those applications to continue their service. The thought process is to leverage the rising drone industry to provide veterans with a way to serve the community and have that fulfillment. For example if someone were to get lost in the woods and you throw a thermal camera on a drone it’s going to greatly reduce the amount of time the search party goes out with people on foot carrying flashlights. Instead of a search party, fly a drone over, monitor the heat signatures and find the lost person. If you were to train a transitioning veteran to do that and they save a life, that could change their life and make them feel like they’re making an impact again. There are so many drone applications our veterans can use to make an impact.”

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HOW DID ATTENDING THE INC 5000 CONFERENCE CHANGE YOUR INITIAL BUSINESS PLAN?

“It changed a lot of my initial thoughts of starting a nonprofit. After engaging and speaking with various CEOs that were at the conference, not one of them said it was a great nonprofit idea but rather a great for-profit idea. What I learned is if I do this for-profit route then not only am I going to be able to help veterans, but actually help more in the long run with my business model. Instead of just having a one-man drone program, we’re going to make it part of our business. A lot of our business will go towards initiatives to get veterans trained and applying what they learn towards drone operations. INC 5000 gave me a lot of knowledge but it also broadened my thinking.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

“Continue to fail forward. I was steps away from putting my 501c3 application and fees towards the IRS before the INC 5000 opportunity came along and brought my business back to the drawing board. We now are going full force into a for-profit drone service business model. We will be offering commercial drone services in the Atlanta and Denver areas in order to build a high-level brand and gain capital for our lager business. A portion of our proceeds from this smaller drone business and the future larger drone business will fund the veterans’ initiative. The veterans’ initiative will have two main functions; to assist veterans in drone technology training and to organize drone operations for these veterans to serve their community. Our business will allow veterans to have free reign on the direction they want to take when it comes to drone technology.”

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?

“In five years I still see myself thinking of the newest way I can help people through innovation and marketing. If I’m building a business to change the lives of veterans I’m always going to need to innovate and market as much as I can to have a sustainable business. Having said that, in five years I see our business known as an established drone operation that will be a major asset for the drone community as well as veterans wanting to pursue the drone industry. My business partner, Chris Zarzar, and I are moving full steam ahead to get this business off the ground. Throughout the years I’ve learned that an idea is as only as good as the actions taken to build it. I’m in a position in my life where I’m not afraid to act on those ideas.”