F-16 Pilot Beats Cancer, Gets Back in the Cockpit

By Sara Bondell - November 06, 2023

Capt. Charles Boynton was speeding through the sky at 400 miles per hour. He was riding with a pilot from Belgium whose call sign was Jimmy Hendrix. He was 25 years old and on top of the world in more ways than one. He was training among the top fighter pilots in the world at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. The flight lead for his class, he was locked into his mission to become a military fighter pilot.

As the plane cut through the clouds reaching top speed, Boynton couldn’t push an overwhelming thought down: This could be the last time I fly.

Nosediving from the top
Ask Boynton’s mother and she will say her young son always wanted to be a “starfighter.” But Boynton says he didn’t truly find his passion for the skies until later in life.  

After leaving community college early and bouncing around jobs, Boynton felt lost. A friend’s dad suggested he join the Air Force and become an officer. He enlisted in the reserves and then enrolled in University of South Florida and joined ROTC. He was ranked in the top percentage of officers when he graduated in 2017 and was sent to Texas to train at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training, the Air Force’s premiere joint fighter pilot training program.

“I was at the top of the top,” Boynton said. “I am at the top of my game at 25 years old with this awesome career. There is always something to look forward to, like the next promotion.”

Capt. Charles Boynton had just started the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training when he noticed unusual levels of fatigue.
Capt. Charles Boynton had just started Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training when he noticed unusual levels of fatigue.

However, a few months into training, Boynton started to feel constantly exhausted. He struggled to balance his coursework and physical training and felt he was losing his drive. When he started to have testicular pain, he saw the doctor on the base. An ultrasound showed two masses, one in each testicle.

“I started crying. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Boynton said. “I always thought of the military as saving my life when it turned me from a kid to a man. I wanted to give back as best as I could so this was kind of a big kick in the pants. Obviously, the fear of survival is there, but the fear of never flying again was almost worse."

He took what he thought could have been his last flight, then returned home to Tampa for treatment.

New mission
While testicular cancer usually has a good prognosis and survival rate, Boynton’s case was rare. He was referred to Dr. Wade Sexton at Moffitt Cancer Center.  

“Presenting with bilateral testicular tumors is really devastating for a young man,” Sexton said. “He also had a type of tumor that was almost like a cancer within a cancer. That type of tumor doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation. The only thing you can do is surgically excise the malignancy.”

Boynton's surgical oncologist, Dr. Wade Sexton, also served in the Air Force. Both spent time training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.
Boynton's surgical oncologist, Dr. Wade Sexton, also served in the Air Force. Both spent time training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

Boynton’s mission was to get back into a jet and he had the perfect co-pilot. Sexton is an Air Force veteran and even spent time at Sheppard Air Force Base as a staff urologist.

“I had an understanding of his goals and what he was up against—that he has to be cured and physically fit to be able to operate in that environment,” Sexton said. “We were able to connect in that way that was beneficial for both of us, that may have allowed him to say, ‘OK, he gets it, he knows what to do and what it will take to get there.’ And I wanted to share in those same goals.”

Boynton placed his full faith in Sexton and right before his 26th birthday underwent surgery to remove both of his testicles. A month later, he went back for a major abdominal surgery to remove dozens of lymph nodes to ensure the cancer didn’t metastasize.

After a challenging recovery, Boynton set his sights on his next hurdle: getting permission to fly again. Because he hadn’t earned his wings yet, it would be a lot harder to get back into the training program. He began a medical waiver process that would take two years.

While he waited to be cleared to fly, he helped jump start innovation at Sheppard Air Force Base. His team created a virtual reality training program that included simulators and 360-degree videos to enhance training for pilots. He tried to stay positive as he watched his former classmates graduating and deploying on missions.  

At the end of 2020, Boynton’s medical waiver was approved, and he was put back into training. After over two years out of the cockpit, his flying skills were rusty. Little by little, his skills sharpened, and he realized he could stop putting so much pressure on himself.

“I used to say if you survived basic training, you can this. Now I was saying, you survived cancer, you can survive this,” he said.

Gaining wings
In May 2021, five years after he started, Boynton got his wings and left for F-16 Initial Qualification Training where he learned to fly a combat capable fighter aircraft. He is now a mission-qualified wingman stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina where he earned his callsign, ATLAS.  Just like the Greek god, Boynton had to carry the weight on his shoulders to beat cancer and fight his way back into a jet.

Boynton got his call sign ATLAS in 2023 after the Greek god who carried the heavens on his shoulders.
Boynton got his call sign ATLAS in 2023 after the Greek god who carried the heavens on his shoulders.

“I appreciate that I can walk on this planet and feel confident and competent in the ways I can handle things,” Boynton said. He now wants to serve as a mentor for other cancer patients and others who want to become a pilot.

“I am excited and full of joy, thankfulness and gratitude to have been able to participate in his care and some role in how he got here,” Sexton said. “I am proud of what he’s accomplished and the uphill battle and how he faced it. He embodies the core values of the Air Force; Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do.”

Boynton returned to Moffitt this November to be honored at the cancer center’s annual Veteran’s Day Ceremony.  

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Sara Bondell Medical Science Writer More Articles

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