The scene, a fall evening in Callaway Gardens, a sprawling, manicured 6,500-acre complex located in Pine Mountain, Ga.
In an area of the gardens festooned with yellow ribbons in support of U.S. military troops, an admittedly nervous young man took the hand of his beloved and asked her to marry him.
Of course, this was some two weeks after the couple had already exchanged vows and rings in a ceremony before a judge.
Their wedding was somewhat spur of the moment.
“I decided to postpone the proposal until later, to make it a little more special,” he said. “Even though she had already said yes and we had done our vows, I was still nervous. You never know.”
This somewhat unusual beginning of the life journey of Niall and Brandi Brown is rather fitting, since the next chapter of their lives will be out of the ordinary, as well.
The Browns, you see, are not only both seconds lieutenants in the Air Force, are not only both serving at Vance Air Force Base but are both preparing to enter pilot training.
Niall, the son of Army officers, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but grew up in Tampa, Fla., while Brandi was born in Tulsa and grew up in Atlanta. They met at Georgia Tech, where both were in ROTC. She was the wing commander of their ROTC unit, while he was the operations group commander.
“We were friends for about three years, then we started dating,” said Brandi.
She was a biology major, while his field was mechanical engineering. As their college careers progressed, both decided they would make a bid for a slot in flight training.
“I thought if I don’t get it, I won’t be totally heartbroken,” Brandi said, “but I’ll be heartbroken if I don’t try.”
Niall graduated in May before Brandi got her degree in December. He initially was assigned to pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, in Mississippi, while she was assigned to Vance, which prompted their somewhat impulsive nuptials. After they were married last October, they learned both would be coming to Vance.
The months since their marriage have been hectic, with the move to Enid and the early stages of their flight training journey.
“It’s been fun, though,” said Brandi.
“It’s been an adventure,” Niall said. “It’s still an adventure.”
Niall already has been through Initial Flight Screening in Pueblo, Colo., during which potential student pilots are introduced to flight training in single-engine Diamond DA-20 aircraft. Brandi left in mid-March for her month-long stay at IFS, then both will begin Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance sometime later this year.
Air Force rules will not allow the Browns to be in the same pilot training class. Until their classwork begins, they will work in other jobs on base, classified as officers awaiting pilot training.
They haven’t experienced it yet, but Niall said he expects having both of them in pilot training at the same time to be “pretty hectic.”
“It will be like compressing college into a lot shorter time period,” he said.
“I think it will be nice because you will have somebody who understands,” said Brandi. “Not that a civilian spouse is bad, but I have Niall, and he understands.”
The Browns are not only Air Force officers but both are members of the base Officers’ Spouses’ Club.
The Browns expect that whichever of them is assigned to pilot training first can give the other pointers on what to look for and what to do and not do.
“He goes and makes the initial mistakes, and I learn from them,” she said, smiling.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” he said.
After living in Atlanta, the move to Enid was “a bit of a shocker,” said Brandi. But they are adjusting well, helped by some friendly locals.
On their second day in town they went to eat at a local restaurant. During the course of their dinner they struck up a conversation with another couple.
“We were talking with them the whole meal, they bid their adieus, we went to get our check and they had picked it up,” said Brandi. “It was a really warm welcome, and stuff like that would never happen in Atlanta. Everyone here is really nice and welcoming and friendly.”
As a married couple who are both Air Force officers, the Browns said the key is “keeping it professional.”
“Our commander in ROTC didn’t even know we were dating,” said Niall. “He didn’t even know until I told him after we got married. He was really surprised, and a lot of the cadre members were really surprised.”
“There’s a time and place for everything,” said Brandi. “When we were at work, we were at work. When we were dating, we would date.”
Both hope to make the Air Force a career, but Brandi has had a dream of becoming an astronaut, “since I was in the womb,” she said. If she makes it, she will follow in the footsteps of Eileen Collins, one of the first female pilot training students at Vance who went on to become the first female space shuttle pilot and commander.
During a trip to the Kennedy Space Center earlier this year, Brandi by chance met retired astronaut Thomas Jones, who went through pilot training at Vance.
The Browns realize when their pilot training days are over, the aircraft to which they are assigned could cause them to be based in different locales.
“It’s based on the needs of the Air Force, and we understand that,” said Brandi. “We talked it over before we got married, and we might be separated for some period of time. But we’ve got to give it a shot.”
Being friends prior to dating has strengthened their relationship, said Brandi.
“When you work with someone you know how they lead, how they think, how responsible they are,” she said. “He was always on point, you don’t have to worry about him.”