From the time I was a small child, the sounds of Air Force planes and family jets were as common as the sounds of my family’s voices.
I am a proud Air Force "brat." My father, Rick, joined the Air Force in the early '70s and started his career as a fighter pilot. So, when the United States Thunderbirds offered me the chance to fly with them, I jumped at the chance.
The excitement was already building as I filled out the paperwork to see if I would get approved. I had to take measurements of my height, weight, shoe size, chest size and then head to waist and hip to knee. All of these needed to get the proper flight suit and see if I would fit into the plane.
Once those measurements were taken, there was one more item needed -- a note from my doctor giving me the OK to fly. All of those items were sent to the Thunderbird's Flight Surgeon, Major Michael Carletti, and it was time for me to wait for the call.
After a few weeks, word came in that I was approved for the flight and should start to prepare. Along with the information of what to wear for my flight came some very important instructions from TSgt Diddle with the media relations contact with the Thunderbirds.
Here is a portion of her email to me:
“Now, some things to keep in mind to make your flight as enjoyable as possible:
There are a few things you can do to minimize the possibility of you being airsick during your flight – Hydrate, sleep and eat.
Starting right NOW -- hydrate. Drink more water than you normally do… then drink some more. Hydration combats motion sickness, so this step is key. Please do this only until the evening to avoid the need to use the restroom every few hours during the night, as sleep is important as well. Try to get a good night’s rest -- at least 7 hours if possible. The day of your flight, we want you to have food in your stomach, but nothing greasy and nothing spicy. I’d recommend fruit, bread, bagels, oatmeal, light sandwiches, or (my personal favorite) peanut butter and banana toast. Please also bring some kind of light snack in case your flight is delayed. The day of the flight, minimize caffeine and carbonation. Both are diuretics and will counteract your hydration efforts.”
Let me tell you, I was drinking away and drinking more and more water and then some. Once the work schedule was figured out, I called my Dad and told him my exciting news. Since my Dad was a pilot in the Air Force and worked through his career to make full colonel and eventually be the base commander of Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores, I wanted him by my side for my dream flight.
Dad hopped on a plane and landed at Miami International Airport around 7 p.m. the night before my scheduled flight. After picking him up, it was time to head home and sleep. I was instructed to get a good night’s rest but the adrenaline was already pumping. Couple that with working a morning shift and I didn’t get the full eight hours of sleep.
The Day of the Flight:
At 1:45 a.m, yes you read that correctly, 1:45 a.m., the alarm went off and I was up for the day.
A quick walk of my dog, Chloe, and time for the shower occupied the first 25 minutes of the morning. Then I had to decide what to eat for breakfast. I thought about this a lot, considering I might see it later that morning. I stuck to my usual protein shake. I finished getting ready and Dad and I left for the office.
I worked the morning shift from 3 a.m. until about 6:45 a.m. and then changed and high tailed it to the Homestead Air Reserve Base.
Google maps lead me directly into the middle of a palm tree farm but after a quick call for directions, we arrived at the front gate.
If you area military service person or a family member of a military service person there is nothing like driving through the front gate of base. The officer on duty checked our ID’s and with a sharp salute to my father, Colonel Rick Padgett, we were on base headed to meet the Thunderbirds team.
Once there, I was off and running to my briefings and there was a lot to learn. First up was my briefing with Technical Sgt. Craig Hall. Since I was drinking so much water my first question was, "Where’s the restroom?”
"Right down the hall and since you are going there, here is your flight suit and boots to change into," he replied.
With a quick thank you I was off to “take care of business” and get into my flight suit.
Once in my flight suit, it was time to be fit for my G suit. This is the suit that helps combat the G forces that I would experience in the plane during my flight. By the time TSgt Hall was finished, that G suit fit like a glove.
Next it was time for the harness that would attach me to my parachute, seat and pretty much keep me in place. That also fit like a glove and for a man standing up in that is not very easy.
At this point, I was thinking, "I hope I don’t have to stay in this gear for the next few hours." Thankfully, I didn’t and TSgt Hall told me that the G suit and harness would, “meet me at the plane later on.”
During that process, however, TSgt Hall briefed me of the safety measures of every latch that I needed to know. I was getting nervous, but also feeling very safe.
Next up was the fit of my helmet and the proper method to unlatch the mask and raise and lower the visor. I was shown my ear plugs which went in my left bicep zipped pocket, my vomit bags which at this point I was thinking I wouldn’t need (foreshadowing), my water bottle and gloves. With all of that taken care of, it was time to learn about my parachute, seat kit and the safety measures of each of these items.