Heroic heights

Thanks to Chris Cisneros' love of flying and nerves of steel, U.S. soldiers are alive today.

By Doug McPherson

Publish Date: February 18, 2015

Chris Cisneros' heroism earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor — the highest military award specific to aerial flight. Photo: Raymond Geoffroy

Chris Cisneros (B.S. aviation technology ’01) spent much of his youth in Southern California with eyes skyward, watching the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds dart through the heavens in their trademark diamond formation.

“My parents would take me to air shows at military bases, and I loved the precision of it all and the pilots’ professionalism,” Cisneros said.

And he recalls fondly flying to Sioux City, Iowa, to visit his grandmother on holidays, peering out the window seat at the passing circles and squares of land below.

“From a young age, I was always interested in aviation,” said Cisneros, who today is a commercial pilot with United Airlines flying international routes to Rome, London and beyond.

It’s when you learn about his flights with the military, however, that Cisneros’ story takes a dramatic turn — not to mention a heroic one.

During an internship at American Airlines in his senior year, he met pilots who flew part time in the Air National Guard. “I was always very interested in military aviation. The potential of pursuing an airline career while flying and serving in the military seemed like the best of both worlds, so I applied and was lucky enough to get selected as a pilot at the 104th Fighter Squadron in Maryland, flying an A-10 Warthog,” he said.

His unit deployed in 2007 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and in 2010 and 2012 to assist Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He was happy to volunteer for them all.

During the deployments, Cisneros faced plenty of danger, but one mission in 2012 took an especially harrowing turn. He was in his Warthog, flying above special operation forces that had become cornered in an ambush on the ground. Despite a severe thunderstorm, Cisneros found the troops, fought off the enemy and saved all 90 U.S. soldiers that day.

His heroism earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor — the highest military award specific to aerial flight.

Friend and fellow pilot Michael Brickle (B.S. criminal justice and criminology ‘03) calls Cisneros a natural leader. “Some people are comfortable with the stresses that come with a leadership role. Chris is one of those guys.” 

Cisneros is humble about it all. “Compared to the brave men and women on the ground, our job as pilots is easy. They risk it all every day. It’s an honor to support them,” he said.

In an interesting twist, Cisneros got to meet the soldiers he saved that day. “To hear them say, ‘Were you the A-10 that stayed when the weather got bad? You saved our lives,’ will probably always remain the highlight of my career.

And speaking of careers, his advice to today’s MSU Denver students: “During your career, some people may tell you that you can’t do something. Remember this: Only you set the limits to what you can achieve.”