JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Two Raptor Brigade alumni are still making a difference in the lives of military and civilian aviators, and their families, worldwide well after their departure from the unit. For Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brett Kroll and Capt. Spencer Payne, aviation isn’t just a job, but a lifestyle.
The two former active-duty aviation officers, turned National Guard aviators, are UH-60 Black Hawk pilots that started their careers assigned to 2-158 Assault Helicopter Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2015.
Both aviators arrived at the unit at about the same time, Kroll from the United States Military Academy, and Payne from the United States Merchant Marine Academy. They became fast friends, and their social circle of pilots and crew members became nicknamed ‘the Brotallion.’
Payne, an east Tennessee native and now UH-60 Black Hawk pilot in the Tennessee Army National Guard was surprised at how quickly what started as a nickname gained traction.
“Before we really knew what was going on, we decided to incorporate ‘Brotallion’ as sort of a joke,” Payne said. “Before you knew it, we had a social media account that was devoted to highlighting all the hard work the Soldiers in our organization were doing. We just wanted to give back to the community that we loved being a part of so much.”
CW2 Kroll echoed this sentiment.
“If it weren’t for the people and command climate in that unit, 16th CAB, I don’t know where we’d be today,” said Kroll, a Rochester Hills, Mich. native and now UH-60 Black Hawk pilot in the Michigan Army National Guard. “It wouldn’t be possible without the time I spent at JBLM.”
The pair credited their success as pilots to the environment that the 16th CAB trains in.
“If you want to train on something, you can do it there,” Kroll said. “You can train in international and national airspace, ice in the winter, dust in the summer, high-altitude, over the ocean, you name it JBLM has it. The routes are great and there is no better place to go to train if you’re a pilot.”
Payne added, “It’s unbelievable the amount of training we could do, because we never had to go far away to do any specific type of flying. I’ve done night vision flying in a white out, multi-[aircraft] flight, as a brand-new pilot-in-command and platoon leader because the leadership climate there, they really do hand you the keys and cultivate a climate of trust.”
“There were so many different customers that you just don’t get everywhere. We had Special Forces, Rangers, the Stryker Brigades, and all the other functional units at JBLM that have given me a wide base of experience that I was able to parlay into a position as an aviation officer with 3rd [Special Forces] Group after Captain’s Career Course,” Kroll said.
The two deployed to Afghanistan with 2-158 AHB in 2017, Kroll as a platoon leader for Alpha Company in Kandahar, and Payne as a platoon leader for Bravo Company in Mazar-e Sharif. That is where their nickname Brotallion was inspired from just a friend circle and social media community to aviation influencer and apparel company.
“We had these awesome unit shirts that I finally wore out in 2019, and I couldn’t get a replacement,” Payne said. “Usually, you can’t get a one-off reprint or find whoever made the design after the first run, and we wanted to change that, and that’s when we decided there was a gap that we could fill.”
With permission from their chain of command, the two started building Brotallion into a legitimate apparel business that has since grown well outside of Army aviation and has given the pair the chance to give back in other ways.
“When I was assigned to 7th Special Forces Group, we lost a servicemember in combat and I remember one of the first things the commander said was ‘had anyone reached out to the Green Beret Foundation yet?’,” Payne said. “I talked with the Brotallion team and realized that this great support foundation for families of fallen Green Berets could be replicated for the families of aviators that are killed on the job, be it in combat or aviation accidents.”
That’s when their Brotallion Blue Skies Foundation was born, a 501-3c charity dedicated to raising and distributing funds to family members of fallen Army aircrew members.
“The other services had charities or support foundations for their fallen aviators, but none existed like that for the Army. It was a little challenging getting started, but the other foundations really helped show us the ropes and get us on our feet,” Payne said.
After an Army aviation fatality at Fort Polk, La., the Blue Skies Foundation was able to raise over $13,000 for the family of the fallen Soldier. Since it was founded in 2019, the foundation has disbursed over $80,000 to the families of fallen Army aviators.
“Everything we do is for the aviation community… our business, the foundation, the social media, all of it. It combines our passions that we found while being part of that amazing Army aviation community at JBLM,” Kroll said.
While they now find themselves far away, both professionally and geographically, from where they started as Raptor Brigade Soldiers, Kroll and Payne still place their 2-158 AHB and 16th CAB plaques, displays and awards in places of prominence in their office.
“It didn’t matter if you were on staff, line, new arrival, or pre-career course, the push to get people to make pilot in command and get through progression was ingrained in the culture there,” Payne said. “There’s really no better place that we’ve been to become a well-rounded aviator, and what we did there set us up to be where we are today.”
The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade is committed to putting people first by fostering a climate of training Army aviators, aircrew members, and support Soldiers to be “Above the Best” through tough, realistic training and while also promoting an active lifestyle off-duty in all that the Pacific Northwest has to offer.