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Ex-Navy pilot turns retirement into budding dental career

Jan. 29, 2013

Retirement doesn’t seem to mean the same thing to Tim Downing as it does to most folks.

When many people leave a job, they’re looking to play golf, take up a hobby or travel the world. For Downing, retirement means heavy-duty class schedules, lab work and other projects in the School of Dentistry, with a dream of a small, one-man practice somewhere in Indiana -- preferably near a lake.

Tim Downing and family

Downing and his family are seen here with one of the Navy jets he flew during his career. 

Then again, Downing’s “first job” was a bit unusual, too; he spent more than 20 years as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, flying F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, and making more than 500 aircraft carrier landings and earning a spot on a Discovery Channel program on that particular skill set.

The decision to walk away from a traditional retirement and pursue a degree in dentistry was a team effort for Downing and his wife, Brenda. “We knew I was going to retire after 20 (years)” in the Navy, said Downing, who is a second-year dental student. “We talked a lot about our exit strategy, and all of them involved grad school and the health sciences.”

Dentistry seemed a good fit for several reasons. The extraordinary hand-to-eye coordination that is a hallmark of fighter pilots was an obvious one; what wasn’t as obvious but just as important was his long-standing commitment to quality dental care. “Throughout my Navy career, I saw lots of folks who hadn’t gotten good dental care (before the military),” Downing said. “But in the Navy, it’s right there. I saw how big a difference it made in one’s health and self esteem.”

Seeing that difference clinched the decision for Tim and Brenda, who went to Purdue together, and married after graduation. But it meant a sacrifice for the Downing clan, since he spends weeknights in an Indianapolis apartment on the near south side -- “my study room, because that’s all it’s used for” he quipped -- while the rest of the family remains in their West Lafayette home. That allows daughter Elizabeth (eighth grade) and son Williams (sixth) to stay in familiar school surroundings.

“Our deal is that I do all my homework, study and projects when I’m in Indy,” Downing said with a laugh. “When I’m home, I don’t crack a book!” His career as a student has a bonus benefit for his children, he added: “They get to see MY report card. I’ve had to practice what I preach.”

Tim Downing and Michele Kirkup

Downing works with Dr. Michele Kirkup, a restorative dentistry faculty member, in a dental school lab. 

Downing believes he’ll be an effective dentist because of his communication skills. “I’ve always been able to relate to people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and get along with them,” said the North Carolina native. “You have to build a trust factor.”

Flying fighters also requires that type of trust, in your teammates, in your commanders and in the men and women who maintain the high-performance jets; in that world, one misstep, one missed communication, can mean disaster.

Fighter pilots are known for their competitive streaks, and Downing has indulged his in recent years by competing in triathlons. That isn’t his only pastime, though; he’s a classic car buff (he favors British sports cars from the 1960s). And he once decided to build a dollhouse for his then much-younger daughter; only this dollhouse had individual shingles on its roof, dormers, oak floors and working lights. Of course, he laughed, it took five years to build.

Detailed projects like that are just challenges to be conquered, Downing believes. “A big thing in the military is to see a problem and resolve it on your own,” he said. He’s well aware that such a skill set will come in handy for a small businessman running a solo practice.

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