Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Harden is training for the Navy’s fighter pilot program.
The Coral Sea, just off the coast of Australia, is a long way from the familiarity of Bluff Park. But for Airman Evan Harden, currently stationed there aboard the USS George Washington, it couldn’t feel any more like home.
A 2009 graduate of Hoover High School, the soft-spoken and humble Harden is steadfastly working his way toward selection as one of the U.S. Navy’s fighter pilot elite.
After stints at UAB and Jefferson State Community College, Harden realized his passion was outside his current path. Fast forward three semesters of school, and Harden finally answered the call that had been nagging him for years.
“Family legacy was definitely a part of it,” he said, adding that both his grandfathers, George Hardin and Jess Pierson, served in the Navy.
And his father, Bluff Park Village shopping center owner Ken Harden, would have done the same, were it not for an unexpected cancer diagnosis that resulted in an arm amputation.
In February of this year, Harden joined the V1 USS George Washington Flight Deck Crew, where he managed the process of aircraft maneuvering, directing flights and aircraft transport.
“The main goal is to launch and recover aircraft safely,” he said, describing a soup-to-nuts role encompassing everything from parking to traffic control to deck-to-deck elevator transport.
“The aircraft elevators are huge – about the size [required] to hold two jets simultaneously – and they move aircraft from flight deck to hangar deck level,” said Harden, noting that the majority of his five-month stint in V1 was to run these elevators, a meticulous, multi-step process.
According to Harden, the majority of aircraft movements take place at night. At times, he moved as many as 18 aircraft in the course of one 12-hour shift. He said it takes approximately 90 minutes per aircraft for a team of eight to properly prepare and transport each unit.
“We have a lot of aircraft on board, [and] they are not always where they need to be,” he said. “A lot of times, we’re having to piecemeal the process of getting the aircraft there.”
What Harden describes with modesty, Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman expresses with precision: “[Airman Harden] played a key role in the flawless execution of more than 7,010 aircraft launch and recovery sorties, 16,016 aircraft moves, and 3,046 aircraft elevator runs to maximize flight deck operational efficiency with zero safety mishaps.”
Of the experience thus far, Harden candidly admits it’s a structure he wanted and needed.
“I didn’t really like [the idea of] going to college and not doing very much until I actually get my career lined up,” he said. “Why not do something where I can work and go to school at the same time?”
While the USS George Washington is on patrol, Harden takes instructor-led courses via Central Texas College. Back in port on the coast of Japan, his options are much broader. As Harden has learned the system and formed his long-range plans, he’s considering a major in either aviation or aeronautical engineering, all the while with his eyes on that pilot distinction.
In January 2014, Harden will return stateside, transferring to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. While he is not yet eligible to apply for the program, by the time he’s established at his new command at Tinker, he will be.
“You can only apply once every year, and it could be a very long process,” he said, emphasizing the stiff competition and selectiveness of the program. “But it never hurts to be ahead of the game. I’m doing my best to put everything together that I can.”
Regardless of what happens, Harden is very clear about one gift the Navy has already given him.
“It’s forced me to grow up and actually be an adult. I feel like I’ve gained a lot of life experience, and I’ve gotten a lot of good recommendations from people that I worked with in V1.”