Interview: Jeremy Chapman, helicopter pilot, toy maker, LA badass

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You were a marine?

Yes, I was a Marine.  You should always capitalize Marine.

When?

Technically from May 23rd, 1997 until July 15th 2006.  But being a Marine is as much a state of mind as anything else.  I decided I wanted to go into the Marines in ’95, I was in the Naval Academy and so I started my indoctrination before I was formally a member.

What sent you towards the marines?

Ha!  Well, I wasn’t mailed there or anything.  The Naval Academy has an incredibly large focus on leadership.  They teach a great deal of leading by example, driving forward, setting goals and driving toward them; yet many of the Naval officers there completely failed to meet these incredibly high standards.  I think a major reason for this is that the Navy officers come from various backgrounds:  ship drivers, pilots, supply, legal, medical, etc etc etc.  The Marines are all Marines.  There are of course all sorts of specific jobs in the Marine Corps, but the officers at the Academy work together to present one message.  They had their shit together, and that earned my respect.

What was training like?

Long.  Seriously!  The Academy starts in July before your Freshman year.  It’s essentially an 8 week bootcamp that runs into your first year.  The entire first year you are still in military training.  It would take forever to explain, but there is almost no time “off”.  You are only allowed off campus for 12 hours on Saturdays.  After 4 years of gradually getting more responsibility, you graduate and then go out to learn your specific job in the military.  For Marines that means 5-6 months at The Basic School (TBS), then 3-24 months learning your Military Occupational Specialty.  I was a pilot, so that meant 24 months in Pensacola for Flight School, then another 3-4 months at a Fleet Replacement School where you learn your specific aircraft.  Then, you finally get to the fleet so that you can do your job and… spend the next 2 years learning combat tactics in your aircraft and getting qualifications so that you can lead missions and actually be useful.  In essence, I was in training for about 11 years straight.  The only time I wasn’t training was when I was actually in Iraq fighting the war.

You shot machine guns and all that?

Yup.  Pistols, M-16s, .50 cal machine guns, mini-guns, and my personal favorite:  the automatic grenade launcher.  BOOM!

Tell me about some of the crazy stuff you got to do.

Crazy?  What makes you think it was crazy?  This was highly structured government training!  There’s nothing crazy about it.  I will admit it was a step or two more exciting than training to be an IRS auditor, but we were severely reprimanded if we tried to do anything crazy.  Of course, if the Commanding Officer wasn’t around… we were flying million dollar aircraft with 3000+ HP of thrust… I flew around Iraq at 140 mph, 15’ off the ground, while people were shooting at me.  There’s a fine line between stupid and crazy.

You became a pilot?

Yeah, coming out of the academy if you wanted to go into the Marine Corps you had two options:  Marine Air, or Marine Ground.  At the end of TBS, depending on what was available and what your instructors thought of you, your specific Ground job was given to you.  But if you went Marine Air, then you were guaranteed a slot at Flight School.  I figured if I didn’t like flying, then I could easily transfer to a ground job.  In a way, it was me ensuring that I had the most possible options.

You flew helicopters?

Yeah, I never wanted to fly jets.  It just didn’t appeal to me.  I knew that if I flew jets I would almost never interact with the guys on the ground, and that seemed crazy to me.  The whole point of being a Marine was all of that leadership and junk that I heard about at the Academy, you can’t do that by yourself in a cockpit at 30,000 feet.  Actually, through a quirk of timing, I was offered an attack helicopter position on the East Coast.  But, since I wasn’t supposed to get assigned for another 2 weeks, they gave me the option of putting my name back in the “basket”.  They knew I wanted to go back to the west coast (it is SO much better on the west coast), so they gave me an option.  That was almost unheard of.  I was extremely lucky, because I ended up flying CH-46 helicopters on the west coast.  They do assault support (troop inserts, medevac, etc), and it suited my personality much better than an attack helicopter squadron would have.

What kind?

I flew the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight.  It is a large, grey, school bus-looking, blender, with two large rotors on top.  Kind of the little brother of the Chinook.  The youngest CH-46 in the fleet was built in 1978… only 3 years younger than me.  They are being de-commissioned now and replaced by the V-22 Osprey (the tilt-rotor aircraft).  There’s just nothing like the 46 though…

Where? When?

Where and when did I fly helicopters?  I flew in Pensacola for flight school.  That was cool, I did a lot of my solo flights as trips due east along the beach into Panama City, Florida.  It was a fun because you cruised right along the beach, couldn’t get lost, and there were always chicks on the beach in bikinis willing to flash the helicopter.  You could never really tell if the girls were hot or not because you were too high up, but the idea of it was still fun!  After flight school I was stationed in Oceanside, CA (really close to San Diego).  I flew there for 6 years (minus 3 months were I was flying in Korea, 15 months I was in Iraq, and various other periods where I was in Arizona or Nevada or flying cross-country to North Carolina).

What’s some stuff you saw while flying?

I saw a huge sink hole in the middle of nowhere in Texas.  I saw poor little shepard boys in Iraq get run over by their sheep when we flew over at 20’ and scared the shit out of them.  I saw rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, and tracers flying by.  I saw sharks, 23’ alligators, sphincter-clenching thunderstorms, and chicks in bikinis in Florida.  I saw dust storms in Arizona and Iraq.  I saw the inside of clouds pretty much everywhere.

What were your missions like?

Mostly casualty evacuations.  You would fly like a madman to get to a dot on the GPS, you’d land and guys in dirty uniforms would run to the back of the helicopter carrying a stretcher, then you would take off and fly to another dot on the GPS.  Meanwhile the corpsman in the back would try and keep the patient stable.  The night one of my friends crashed his helicopter we flew his co-pilot out to a medical ship in the Persian Gulf.  That flight sucked, it was 3am and there was a solid overcast of clouds.  Over the water, miles from any lights and no moon or stars… it was like flying in tar.  You couldn’t see anything and it was incredibly disorienting.

What happened after your tour of duty was over?

I resigned my commission a month before I started grad school.  So I chilled out for a few weeks, and then jumped into an educational grinder.

You lived in LA?

I live in LA.  I moved here a few weeks before I started grad school.  It was an exciting move because I hated Oceanside (nothing but military guys there), and San Diego bored me.  LA held such promise and adventure!  It has mostly lived up to my imagination.  More so if I were rich enough to do everything that LA offers.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in the Reno/Tahoe area.  We moved around a lot when I was a kid because my mom liked getting married.  I went to Reno High School my freshman year, and then we moved up to Incline Village, NV which is on the north side of the lake.  It was gorgeous; but, being a teenager, we never thought there was anything to do.  You know, besides hiking, swimming, skiing, sledding, boating, etc etc etc…

What’s LA like?

LA is what you make of it.  If you want to hang out with douchebags, they can be found pretty easily.  If you want to hang out with normal people, you can do that without too much effort either.  LA gets a lot of imports from around the country and the world, so there is an incredible amount of diversity in the people here.  I love that about this place.  The downside is that many of them come here chasing some “Hollywood” dream they have in their head.  This means you get a lot of hot morons, and you get a lot of bottom feeders taking advantage of them.  Hollywood has built a bit of a foundation of bullshit, so a lot of people “make it ‘til you fake it”.  The reliance on looks and lies can get a little annoying if you hang around that crowd.  There can be a lot of superficiality, and interest in other people solely based on what you think they can do for you.  There are also a lot of people who just like being creative, a ton of people who just love the weather and outdoor activities, and… well, to be frank, who doesn’t like hot chicks???

You design toys? Tell me about that

Actually, I don’t.  Not technically.  Technically I am a Brand Manager.  I research the market to determine opportunities.  I try to figure out what’s missing, figure out what that gap in the market is worth, then work with a big team of people to fill that gap and make millions of kids happy.  It doesn’t always work.  Usually because kids are stupid and only want what their friends want.  The designers I work with are incredibly talented, I wish I could design like that.  Hell, I wish I could sketch ideas one tenth as well as they do.  As it is, I just make sure they make stuff that fits the strategy that I laid out to fill the hole in the marketplace.

Imagine for a minute that Hot Wheels didn’t exist.  Imagine that there are all sorts of toys, but no toy cars.  I would be the guy who walks around the toy aisles and has an epiphany, “oh my god, there aren’t any toy cars!!”  I would do some research and realize that one out of four kids between the ages of 3 and 11 thinks that cars are super cool, and they would buy 5-6 cars each if they were available for $1.  I do some math and talk to a Chinese factory and discover that I could make and advertise toy cars for $0.80 each.  There are about 2 million boys for each age, and 9 ages in my target market… holy crap!  That means I could sell 5 cars to 18 million boys and earn a profit of $0.20 on each car every year!!  And now you know why Hot Wheels is like printing money.

So, anyway, I do a bunch of research and try and figure out what could work.  I then outline a strategy and make sure that Design, Engineering, Manufacturing, and Marketing all build the right toy and make sure that the right kid hears about it and gets excited about it.  I make kids happy by telling smart people what to do.  😉

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4 Replies to “Interview: Jeremy Chapman, helicopter pilot, toy maker, LA badass”

  1. That was a great interview. I know a little about JC through his posts, and have met him twice. Could have enjoyed twice as much if you continued on.

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