Ever since he was a boy and floated up to the clouds in a Goodyear Blimp at Chicago’s Midway Airport, Reed Schotanus has spent much of his life in the sky.
As an Air Force Academy graduate, fighter pilot, long-time airline captain and flight instructor, he was comfortable making split decisions in a cockpit, be it a Southwest Airlines jet, an F-16 or a two-seat, single-engine homebuilt plane.
So when he was diagnosed with a rare form of jaw cancer in 2018, Reed didn’t appreciate the disease clipping his wings, even temporarily. He was determined not to be grounded for long.
“As a pilot and a flight instructor, when there’s a problem, we have to fix it right away. You’ve got about three seconds to take care of it,” said Reed, 65. “When I found out I had cancer, there was no time for self-pity. It was ‘What can we do now? How do I get better?’’’
It would take nearly 12 months which included several complex operations and tough rehabilitation, before he would be at the helm of a plane again. He eventually returned to work as an airline captain for a few years before a forced FAA retirement this fall when he turned 65. But even that hasn’t slowed down his passion for flying, as he frequently takes his RV-8 kit aircraft up for pleasure rides.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. And I’m having fun.”
Fulfilling a longtime dream
Like many Baby Boomers growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, science fiction, space travel and rockets to the moon were part and parcel of Reed’s life in Libertyville, Illinois, an industrial suburb about 25 miles north of Chicago. One of four children, he excelled at science and math and built homemade rockets like other kids his age.
“I always just wanted to fly. I grew up during the Apollo missions and dreamed of being an astronaut.”
After graduating from high school in 1975, he entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that fall, the last year before women were finally admitted to the institution. Courses were tough, and cadet life could be rough (he describes it as “drinking water from a fire hose”). Still, he graduated four years later with a degree in astronautic engineering – rocket science in layman’s terms – and he headed off to the great blue yonder.
His first stop was the since-closed Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. It was a center for training student pilots for the Air Force. While there, Reed decided that he would probably get to indulge his love of flying more with a career as a pilot rather than pursuing a long-shot chance at becoming an astronaut.
“I didn’t want to become an administrator in the space program. I’d rather fly,” he said.
Once he had enough hours under his belt, he headed east to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, where he was a flight instructor, teaching and training pilots from European NATO countries. He did a stint at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle, where he flew and trained on F-15s, and there were moves to San Antonio and Florida too.
Along the way, he completed post-war combat missions in Iraq, earned an MBA, and retired from the Air Force, after which he had three simultaneous jobs that all entailed flying:
As a pilot for Southwest Airlines, as an Air Force Reserve recruiting liaison for his college alma mater, and flying F-16s for the Air National Guard.
Reed and his comrades would fly F-15 Eagles and F-16 Vipers six feet apart in squadron formation, performing precise aerial maneuvers. The pilots fly at incredibly fast speeds – up to 800 mph – and the aircrafts are extremely close to each other, only about 500 feet apart while dogfighting. While it is awe-inspiring and even a little scary for spectators, it was a thrill for Reed.
“The thing about being a pilot is, you’re the one in charge. You set the tone. You’re always planning for the what if.”
That “what if” would be coming for Reed.
Back to Colorado, and a grim diagnosis of oral cancer
When Reed and his family moved to Colorado in 2007, he had three children: two older daughters and a son starting kindergarten. He and his wife ShawNa settled in Monument, and he continued his tenure as a Southwest Airlines pilot.
Fast forward a decade or so to September 2018, and he found himself at a routine dental appointment. When an X-ray showed an anomaly in his lower left jaw, and his dentist recommended an oral surgeon for a biopsy, he thought it might be an infection and began a course of antibiotics. He was fit and healthy, an avid jogger and had even completed a marathon the year before.
He wasn’t worried.
“They told me there was only a 5% chance the biopsies would come back positive with cancer. I had no pain, and I thought I was fine. I had no indication anything was wrong. Then the call came, and the doctor said I had cancer. I don’t remember much of that conversation after that.”
It was odontogenic clear cell carcinoma of the left mandible – a rare form of cancer in his lower left jaw. Odontogenic tumors refer to their originating in dental tissue, and many of them are benign. Unfortunately, Reed was one of a small number of people to develop a cancer in his mandible, which holds the lower teeth in place and is the largest bone in the skull. He would need a mandibulectomy, which is the removal of part, or all of the jaw.
“We don’t know how he got it. It’s not something you get from eating or drinking certain foods. It was just bad luck,” said Dr. Chris Oliver, head and neck surgical oncologist at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital. “It wasn’t caused by anything he did or didn’t do.”
Almost immediately, Reed took a leave of absence from the airlines, in what would turn out to be nearly a year in length and went in for the first of three complex surgeries spaced over the next few months.
“It was such a shock, and it was a pretty severe ordeal,” said ShawNa. “He was so lucky he went in for that dental appointment, and through it all, he just tried to stay positive.”
Jaw cancer surgery: Who is that in the mirror?
In the first surgery, Dr. Oliver performed a “canoe-shaped” cut at Reed’s jaw to remove as much of the cancer as possible. When surgeons remove cancer tumors, a rim of normal tissue surrounding the cancer is also removed. The rim, or margin, helps show if all the tumor is gone. In Reed’s case, Dr. Oliver was hoping a second operation would not be needed, but to be extra safe and obtain larger margins around Reed’s tumor, they needed to return to the operating room.
In the second operation, Dr. Oliver removed an entire segment of Reed’s jaw beginning under his left ear, then down around his lower face, and then up to his right chin. He used a titanium plate to retain Reed’s jawline and between 40 and 50 staples to adhere the skin back in place.
A CT scan helped Dr. Oliver to make a model of the Reed’s original jawline for the next surgery, and in the meantime, Reed joked that he looked like a combination of “Frankenstein and the Terminator.”
When further tests showed Reed’s jaw was now cancer free, he was ready for a third operation. Dr. Oliver removed Reed’s fibula (the smaller of the two bones in the lower leg between the knee and ankle) from his left leg, along with the artery, vein, and some soft tissue. The fibula is often used in bone grafts because the larger bone in the leg, the tibia, compensates its removal by taking on a body’s weight.
Dr. Oliver used 11 screws to attach the fibula, which was cut into the shape of Reed’s missing jawbone with the help of the CT scan, to the titanium plate. The soft tissue covered the implant, and the artery and vein from his fibula were attached to his carotid artery and the jugular vein in his neck, thus keeping the bone alive.
As a result of the surgeries, Reed lost 11 teeth, along with 30 lymph nodes.
He was cancer free, but he needed to learn how to walk without his fibula, talk with a new jaw and become accustomed to a different face until dental work would restore his missing teeth. While the operations were extensive, he didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation.
“I spent some time healing,” he said.
But Reed was determined to get out of the hospital and back to his life. Within four days, he was home convalescing. He eventually returned to the gym and gradually regained his mobility and got stronger during his work leave.
“There were plenty of times I wanted to say, ‘woe is me,’ but it’s not worth it in my book.”
That summer, he completed a grueling 100-mile Boy Scout backpack trip with his son Luke, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Colorado School of Mines.
“It was important to him that he proved that he could do it,” Luke said. “Going through this whole thing, I just wanted to be there supporting him as much as I could. I’ll never tell him to his face, but he’s a pretty cool dad – the best dad I could ever ask for.”
But it wasn’t until Reed’s dental work was complete that he felt like his old self.
“I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Oh, it’s me.’ Before, it was ‘Who is that guy staring at me with the sunken jaw?’ But finally, I got my face back.’’
By October 2019, he returned to the cockpit at Southwest: “It was like riding a bike. It felt good to get back to it.”
Reed flew another two years, until October 2022, when he turned 65 and retired after nearly 35 years at Southwest Airlines. He was able to train two new pilots in the weeks leading up to his retirement, and on his last flight, his three children, and his granddaughter, were flying with him.
It’s been four years since his surgery, and he just sees Dr. Oliver for checkups.
“Dr. Oliver really put me at ease, and he treated me like a real person. I can’t say enough about him – he was always there for me,” Reed said.
His future includes enjoying outdoor adventures, spending time with family and friends, and serving as a docent at the National Museum of World War II Aviation near his home. A new kit plane, recently custom painted and named “Miss Sammi” after his granddaughter, is part of his plans as well.
The plane, painted with a WWII motif of stars and stripes, is also emblazoned with his children’s names on either side, and the view when he flies it is just as magical as the one he glimpsed from that blimp ride 55 years ago.
If Reed has advice for others, it’s “live one day at a time and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Oh, and maybe one more thing: be polite to the plane crew the next time you fly.
“Just a thank you to the flight attendants … and maybe a ‘nice landing’ to the pilot.”