Is he really retired?
An F-14 fighter jet disturbs the quiet of a remote Iranian desert as it whips up a dust storm at 550 mph just a few feet above the sand and streaks into the distance. Cue the theme from “Top Gun” as pilot Joe Becker pulls back on the control stick, throws the throttles wide open and sends a blur of silver hurtling into the clouds.
“It’s strange, because I have a real fear of heights,” Becker said. “You put me in a tall building and I won’t go anywhere near the edge.”
Becker has spent the last 50 years seemingly impervious to fear. You may remember him as the tenacious Maitland detective who twice campaigned for Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger’s job and nearly won. But before he took his first step onto the public stage in 1996, he had already spent the better part of three decades quietly living in a dangerous dream world.
But three Hollywood movies’ worth of careers after his first gut-busting launch off the deck of an aircraft carrier, Becker may finally be cutting the afterburners on his life.
As of the start of August, the 71-year-old was officially retired. That term is used loosely here.
A Renaissance cowboy
There are retirements and then there are retirements. Becker doesn’t stay retired for long.
A few years after ditching medical school and earning a degree in linguistics in 1962 — picking up three foreign languages on the way — Becker sent his life on a turbulent journey that would span five decades, six continents and a gantlet of real life hero careers that would make Tom Cruise blush.
“If you look at the things he’s done over his lifetime, he’s had several careers worth,” Maitland Police Chief Doug Ball said. “Usually one is enough. He was just that way. He really cared about what he did.”
But if you ask Becker, he could very well have been a teacher or an architect if it didn’t come with a heaping helping of captivatingly humble confidence.
“I’ve had a pretty good run,” Becker said, absent any nods to the severity of the situations he’s managed to survive unscathed. “I’ve enjoyed my life.”
Becker’s direct, no-nonsense military bearing comes from decades of experience in combat zones across the globe. The firm handshake and intent stare are born out of years of fighting for the upper hand.
He fought in the Vietnam War from the sky. He flew secret missions in the Middle East. He trained the next generation of fighter pilots in war zones. He helped run one of the largest military aircraft manufacturers in the world. He patrolled as a Seminole County deputy, then quit the force to run for sheriff — and nearly won. To stave off boredom, he volunteered as a detective on Maitland’s police force, then solved more cases than anyone in the department. He teaches friends how to pull dog-fighting moves in the sky as a hobby. He builds airplanes as a side job for fun.
Becker’s military career started with a shouting match in a hallway.
As the Vietnam War approached and a draft seemed imminent for Becker and one of his close friends, they decided to talk to a recruiter to improve their chances of getting an assignment they wanted.
“I already had my mind made up that I was going to be a Marine,” Becker said. That plan was derailed when a loud interruption changed the course of his life.
What played out in that dimly lit hallway of the armed forces recruitment office in Jackson, Miss., started with a string of expletives and ended with Becker walking away from the doorstep of the Marine Corps and signing up for the Navy with an intimidating behemoth of a master chief staring him down, he said.
Within a few months, he was sailing around the world.
“I’ve been on destroyers, subs, aircraft carriers, you name it,” Becker said.
From the start of the Vietnam War until 1993, Becker did things that children only dream of in dangerous corners of the world that he ripped across at Mach 2. Before Hollywood dreamed up Maverick and Ice Man, he was flying the unfriendly skies in guerilla dogfights against Vietnamese MiG fighters.
Escorting bombers through Vietnam, he watched as fighter jets popped up out of nowhere, guns ablaze, then dropped to just above the ground and sped off beyond the border of a no-fly zone. He tangled with other fighters and won, but the one that got away became a recurring theme in Becker’s life.
Most of his 20s and 30s are a secret, played out in political powder kegs in South and Southeast Asian war zones.
“It was a highly classified level of service,” Becker said.
A hand in history
There are only two militaries in the world that ever flew the F-14 Tomcat. Becker flew for one of them, and in the 1970s, working for military contractor Grumman Corporation, trained the other in the run up to a conflict that defined a region.
In control by a monarchy until the late 1970s, Iran grew increasingly unstable until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. By then Becker had already helped train a group of Iranian fighter pilots to fly the F-14 under the reign of the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was friendly with the United States. The timing was poor, Becker said. Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Iran, which was then considered hostile.
“I left the day (revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeni) came back,” he said.
He would work both as a Navy officer and as a contractor for Grumman until 1993, ascending to captain while running Grumman’s Southeast division. Then after 30 years, he left it all behind.
When he retired, he said something was missing.
“There’s a certain camaraderie you get in the military that you just really can’t find in the civilian world,” he said. “The closest it comes is law enforcement.”
At age 53 he signed up for the police academy. After decades in the military, he had stayed fit. To this day, he runs five miles daily. He trains for marathons in his spare time.
“It’s unbelievable how physically fit he is,” Ball said. “When I first met Joe, I thought he was much younger than he is. He can probably run farther than most of us half his age.”
Four months after starting at the police academy, he was a deputy sheriff with Seminole County. But soon that didn’t sit well with Becker. He disagreed with the way the department was being run and decided he wanted to be in charge. Rather than run against his boss, he quit the force, went to work as a volunteer detective for the Maitland police department and launched a campaign to become Seminole County sheriff.
Becker would lose that campaign despite exit polling on Election Day indicating that he would win by a landslide.
He would stay with the Maitland force for 17 years, closing more cases than anyone on the force. That’s a record that Ball confirmed.
“He had the highest clearance rates in the Maitland Police Department,” Ball said. “And it was just a part-time job.”
But for Becker, it wasn’t just a job.
“It gives you a good feeling to know your work paid off, especially in crimes against people,” he said.
He worked every type of case, from bank robbery to murder. He has his favorites, when he knew justice was served.
In one case, a crooked plumber robbed an elderly woman’s house. It took months for Becker to find the evidence he needed to take the suspect down and find the stolen jewelry.
“The whole time he was so confident, smiling like he was untouchable,” he said. “He’s in prison now.”
But then there’s the case that he can’t forget — the one he never solved.
In 1997 a man was gunned down in Maitland’s The Hamlet neighborhood. Suspects were questioned, but there was never enough evidence to charge them. The killer was never found.
“Those people lost their son,” Becker said. “That was a shame. But you can’t solve them all.”
He closed more than 300 cases by the time he was finished, including a dozen major felonies including murder and rape.
Plotting a new course
Now that he’s done with another career, he’s at yet another crossroads.
“He’s not the kind of guy who goes home to sit on the front porch and watch the sun come up,” Ball said.
He still flies the plane he built with his own two hands, taking off from his small airfield in Geneva and circling the skies above Lake Harney.
He also bought some land in Montana near the Canadian border. The views run for miles toward mountains in the distance. A river runs through it.
Maybe he’ll put a camper there some day then explore the land, he said. He doesn’t quite know yet. He plans to take off to somewhere soon, destination unknown.
“I guess I’m kind of in a holding pattern,” he said. “But Central Florida will always be my home.”
And while he waits, the skies above it will be his playground.