Brandon Hanner’s passion for aviation began when he was about six years old.

“My grandfather took me to my first air show,” said Hanner, a 24-year-old first generation student who graduates Saturday, May 6 from the University of Central Florida. “I saw all the planes and I was fascinated, but when I saw one of the military fighter jets, I just fell in love.” When he asked his grandfather if he could fly a jet like it, he was told, “You can do anything you want, as long as you work hard.” From that point on Hanner dreamed of becoming a military fighter pilot.

His dream coupled with a great love for family and tremendous drive and determination have led him to a defining time in his life.

Just days after earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and completing the United States Air Force ROTC program at UCF, Hanner will be commissioned into the U.S. Air Force and shortly thereafter begin pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. He’ll be one of just 341 pilot trainees selected from a pool of about 1,200 applicants. He’ll also be the first member of his family to enter the military.

Hanner’s wife Ashley and their two-year-old son, Ethan will join him in Mississippi. The couple met in middle school in Port St. Lucie and have been together ever since — a period of nearly 10 years that includes their marriage in 2013.

“Ashley and Ethan – that right there is what lights Brandon’s fire and keeps him striving for success,” said fellow graduate and friend Miller Trant.

Hanner didn’t fully realize he could pursue aviation professionally until he entered high school. “It’s not one of those jobs that you see and hear about, or that you know people in it or how to achieve it,” he said.

Fortunately, he learned about aviation careers in high school when he dual enrolled in a college-level aerospace course offered through Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. His professor was an ex-military pilot and a commercial airline pilot who told Hanner about the various paths he could take toward becoming a military fighter pilot.

Hanner knew he had to go to college to be a fighter pilot, but there was another driver as well. “I saw my parents and their parents always struggling,” he said. “I wanted to further my education because it was something no one else in my family had done or had been able to pursue. I wanted to pave the way.”

Hanner entered UCF as an aerospace engineering major in 2011 and joined the Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program the following year. About two years in he faced “the biggest challenge” of his college career: staying focused on physics and calculus courses while two family members battled life-threatening health problems. He switched his major to criminal justice and enjoyed the program so much that he’s now pursuing the master’s degree in criminal justice as well.

“Brandon always came to advising sessions very prepared and with a plan,” said undergraduate criminal justice advisor Marva Ellington. “He’s just an exemplary young man, both in thought and deed.”

As a member of AFROTC at UCF, Hanner has been one of an average of 200 cadets a year who take classes and laboratories designed to develop leadership, team-building, decision-making and critical thinking skills. He said the experience has given him “a big boost of confidence.”

It’s also led to strong friendships such as the one he formed with Trant, who also is headed to pilot training at Columbus. “We both want to fly jets for the United States Air Force, so it makes it pretty easy to obtain your goals when you surround yourself with likeminded people,” Trant said.

Hanner knows that pilot training will be challenging but he thinks he’s well-prepared. He and Trant need to complete the 55-week pilot training program and rank high enough to earn the aircraft they want. But Hanner also knows that a positive attitude and hard work can take you far — wisdom once shared by his grandfather that’s proving to be right.

To say Hanner is excited about entering the Air Force and beginning pilot training is an understatement. Yet his excitement is for much more than himself. He knows what his career will mean for his family.

“In the future, when my son says to me ‘dad, can I do this or can I do that,’ I’ll be able to say, ‘yes, you can do anything you want,’” he said.

In addition to his bachelor’s degree, Hanner is graduating with a Minor in Homeland Security and Emergency Management and a Minor in Aerospace Studies. As a UCF student he also completed six certifications offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and the U.S. Air Force’s Field Training Officer School.