HOMESTEAD, Fla. - 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.
I learned how to pull the ejector handle if needed and how the chute would open for me. But if I had a tear, lines crossed, and inverted chute or any other complication TSgt Hall was thorough in training me for any situation. The minute we were finished with that briefing, I was then handed off to the flight surgeon.
Dad looked at me and said, "Relax you are going to be fine."
Easy for him to say!
I could tell the moment that Major Michael Carletti walked into the room that each member of the United States Thunderbirds team lives up the name America's Ambassadors in Blue. Major Carletti wasted no time in getting me ready for my flight. This was the officer that was going to teach me the proper method to deal with the G-forces and also how to combat air sickness. We first talked about air sickness.
"You won't be the first and you won't be the last," he said.
I really listened to what he had to say because I HATE throwing up. There is a phrase that was repeated a lot and for good reason. "Drop Mask, Drop Mask, Drop Mask." Frankly, Major Carletti didn't want me throwing up into the mask because that can be very dangerous for anyone flying. Remember, the mask is where I get my oxygen. First he told me how to stay cool. There is a vent that full on cool that was to be pointed at my throat area because that was the area that had the most skin exposed.
Next was where to look. Of course I wanted to look all around and enjoy. This once in a lifetime experience, but Major Carletti told me if I was feeling queasy to look at the horizon. Figure out where the land and sky meet and there is your horizon except when flying over water but we wouldn't be doing that during my flight.
Next it was time to learn about my ears. You know the process of clearing your ears if they feel clogged. So I knew the method of opening my ear canal by opening my jaw or plugging my nose and blowing. However, I learned that if your eyes are looking one way and your ears are moving a different direction then that isn't great for your stomach. Major Carletti then told me, "Look at 10 and 2."
Next was the information about if I am getting dry mouth and that feeling of Oh NO! then to turn a lever to 100 percent oxygen. This will help combat the motion sickness. From there Major Carletti moved on to the interactive part of flying which was combating the G force or the force of gravity.
When the F-16 would be doing certain maneuvers, the force of gravity against my body would increase. Remember I was fit with my G suit that has bladders that would fill with air and help squeeze my muscles and keep the blood flowing into my head. That is one part of the equation. Next was to learn the G strain technique. This is the process of flexing every muscle in my legs and also in my abdomen to keep the blood flowing. When the G force is 9 times the force of gravity all of your blood wants to settle into the lowest point. Since the seat in the F-16 is at a 30 degree angle that would be in my rear end which is also the largest muscle. So, Major Carletti told me that to flex or squeeze my calf's I needed to curl under my toes and keep squeezing, then to pretend there is a soccer ball between my legs and squeeze that together. Also to remember to keep the blood out of settling into my rear end I needed to squeeze my butt as hard as possible. Major Carletti said," If you do this properly you should lift about an inch up and if your muscles are shaking then you are doing it properly."
If I didn't squeeze properly then I could actually pass out. I learned I would go into grey out then black out and if I found my vision going then I need to squeeze more. OK, following me yet?
This is a lot of information to remember while in a F-16 pulling 9 g's. On top of all of that, then I needed to learn how to breathe. It is impossible to breathe normally when your body is weighing 9 times the force of gravity. So I learned a method of taking a quick breath and holding it in the back of my throat. I am thinking, "Heck I can do this. I can hold my breath for about thirty seconds no problem."
Well, that isn't exactly how flying in an F-16 works. It was almost like the Thunderbird flight surgeon was reading my mind because the next thing he said after I took in that quick breath was "OK let the breath out because we have to talk more." Something tells me each guest flyer tends to do the same thing at the point. The next technique I learned was the air exchange which wasn't taking another breath but doing a quick exchange of air by making the K sound and breathing back in fast. Almost like the word hook with the K start and the "huh" next. I was supposed to do this every three seconds. A lot of people that have never done this tend to breathe too much and hyperventilate or not breathe at all. Each briefing was concluded with the question, "Any Questions?" I didn't have any so it was time for a check of my lungs and after that Major Carletti was finished with my briefing. Remember this is the second of three briefings and my mind was trying to absorb all of this information while remaining calm.
I'm not a stranger to adrenaline and, in fact, love roller coasters and the tower of terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios then why was I so quiet?
I was already getting excited and nervous. This didn't go unnoticed by my Dad and he simply told me, "Relax, you'll be fine."
From the hallway I then hear, "Major Michael Fisher" I turn to look and here is the pilot that will take me into the Wild Blue Yonder and I knew I was in good hands. Everything that I would expect from a Thunderbird Pilot was met in Major Fisher. You could tell he was a pilot with the attention to detail with appearance that ran across all of the officers of the Thunderbirds. However, in hindsight this attention to detail was seen in every member of this elite team. Major Fisher introduced himself and said "Call me Mike, ‘Drago', Eight or guy up front". I could tell why Major Fisher was selected as the advance pilot/narrator. Major Fisher flies the number 8 jet hence calling him "8". We then went right into the briefing because we were already behind schedule. It didn't help that Google maps took me into the middle of a palm tree farm.
Major Fisher explained the process of what we will be doing on the ground and also while in the air. We reviewed safety for in the air and on the ground and also the proper breathing. He helped me practice my "k" "huh" air exchange and told me to "breathe when he breathes." Thank God I didn't have to remember everything because I was already overwhelmed and in the back of my mind I kept thinking " I don't want to puke, I really don't want to puke" My anticipation was growing and I think my adrenaline was already kicking in with excitement and it was hard to remain calm. You would think I would be chatting up a storm but all I could say was, "Yup". Major Fisher talked about safety in the cock pit and pulled out his I-pad to show me the instruments and what I would be seeing. This was great because I am a very visual person so to see the actual switch that would keep the mic closed or how to turn the oxygen to 100% was very helpful. Also that all important ejection seat handle was right in the middle was good to see so I wasn't afraid of hitting it or pulling it. We went over the switches I needed to know. There was the lever that needed to be raised or lowered to have my ejection seat safe or armed, the normal or 100% oxygen switch, the seat adjust switch, the mic on switch, and the air nozzle that would keep me cool. What a rush to see all of the different switches and to know what they did. Now don't get me wrong I learned about less than 10 switches and these pilots have a whole lot more to look at and know then the few I learned.\
From there Major Fisher started to explain the different maneuvers we would be performing or hope to perform. He started explaining take off and said, "You'll hear me talking to myself a lot" and that we would go from level flight pulling about six G's to straight up. My insides were saying AWESOME but all I said was "Wow." I guess I have learned when I am really excited and nervous I start to get quiet. Major Fisher did tell me to look over my shoulder if possible on the way up as the ground would fall away because that isn't a view many people get. Then we would take a "short ride" to the Lake Placid air space north of Lake Okeechobee. There we would have the air space to do the maneuvers. We would start with testing the plane's response to the G force and also my response. We would start with what I understood to be a half circle turn pulling 4-5 G's, then a full circle getting up to 6-7 G's. From there the fuel tank on the bottom of the F-16 would be empty and we could attempt the 9 G turn if I was up to the task. I am thinking, "YES! YES! YES! From there we would do a loop, then a barrel roll, then a four point roll and if I can handle all of that then the more advanced 8 point roll. We would then do some negative G's where instead of pulling the positive G's we would be in the reverse where I interpreted this as being weightless. The same feeling you get when you are dropped on the Tower of Terror. YES!! That would be awesome. "God I don't want to puke. Please don't let me puke. I want to do all of this!" I could tell we were getting close to the end of the briefing and my stomach was growling. Huh?? Why is my stomach growling? I ate a bagel on the way to the base I should be fine right? Honestly everything was becoming a bit of a blur and I was ready to get to the plane. With a few more instructions the briefing was wrapped up and it was "Time to hit the bathroom one more time." I remembered Major Carletti, the flight surgeon, saying to "get rid of everything in my bladder and bowels because that is really uncomfortable up there."
So, with one last trip to the Men's room it was time to get in the van and head to the Thunderbird. We climbed in the van with Major Fisher in the front seat and a few more Thunderbird crew members with us in the van and were off to the tarmac. We stopped before pulling onto the tarmac to make sure that the tires didn't pick up any foreign body objects like pebbles etc that could be sucked into the jet engine. Then we were pulling up in front of the sight I have seen many times over my years on Air Force bases. The line of F-16 Thunderbird planes stretched out before me and my excitement level kicked up another level. We made it to the #8 Thunderbird and got out of the van. The first piece of business was to get a picture by the cockpit of the fighter. There is nothing like walking up to a Thunderbird F-16 but I was extremely surprised to see my name on the side of the plane! What? How did this happen? My name is on the side of the plane right by the cockpit. Wow! I climbed up the stairs and struck my pilot pose and did the "hero shot". Then it was down the stairs and immediately suiting up. Remember the G suit I tried on earlier? That suit was plane side and it was time to get all of the gear in place for my Thunderbird flight.
I was already nervous and the simply task of zipping zippers was becoming difficult. Not to mention that I felt everyone was watching this process. Finally, I had all of the zippers in place and with the help of Staff Sgt. Paul Hooks. I saw him take out the air sickness bags and put them in a strap on my G-suit. I was kind of cocky thinking," I won't need those." But it was more than being cocky in fact it was fear that I would need them and I was "willing" it to not happen. From there, I put on my harness that would attach me to the seat and made sure everything was secure. The rest was kind of a blur but I was ready to climb into the cockpit.
With hands on the silver ladder I ascended into what would soon be a fantastic hour of my life. Surprisingly I was able to make it into the seat easily and then Staff Sft. Hooks was there helping me get strapped in. The shoulder harness was attached and then the side straps were attached and I was secure. I remember Staff Sgt. Hooks saying," Keep my plane clean" as he showed me where the ziplock bag was for my "full" air sick bags. Have to love a little humor to take away the nerves. From there things seemed to be happening fast. Also, my stomach growled. Crap! I was hungry. I was supposed to carb load my stomach so I would be ok in the plane and here I am strapped into the F-16 and I am hungry.
Major Fisher climbed the ladder and asked how I was doing. I said, "Great!" He then went on to show me the switches that he briefed me on earlier on his I-pad. All of it was exactly where it needed to be of course and I actually remembered what each switch was and what they did. From there it was time to unzip my left bicep pocket and get my earplugs out. Once they were securely in place it was time for my Thunderbird helmet to be placed on my head. Wow! What a feeling to put this on and actually be in the back seat of the #8 Thunderbird. Major Fisher said he would see me soon and went down the ladder to get suited up to fly.
I immediately started to aim the air vent at my neck. I looked over the switches and started to take some deep breaths. I looked over the 100% oxygen switch again and just stared to look around. There is no missing the ejection lever in the middle of your legs. Soon Major Fisher was in the front seat and getting his helmet on and finishing his final preps.
I was still breathing through the mask and finding it fairly easy to breath. I was almost relaxing just a bit but again the sequence of events seemed to move fast to me. Once Major Fisher has his helmet I knew it was only a matter of time before we lowered the canopy and started out on the taxi way to the runway. Eight told me that even with my ear plugs in place I would be able to hear him loud and clear over the microphone and he was of course correct. He said something to the effect of how are you doing back there? I of course said the only thing I had been saying all morning, "Great" He did some preps and was talking to the ground crew and the tower so I just sat an waited anxiously for the moment we would lower the canopy and get going. The canopy lowered and it was time for me to use one of the switches I learned about which was the seat adjust lever. I was supposed to keep a fist distance between me and the top of the canopy. Check! Major Fisher came over the mic and told me to "go to 100% oxygen." Check! I sounded like Darth Vader and really wanted to do a "Luke, I'm your father moment" but it really wasn't the time for jokes. After a few moments we were leaving the spot where #8 was parked and off to the runway.
The smile on my father's face was ear to ear and a sense of pride was swelling in me. My Dad was going to see me fly in a Thunderbird! We turned right out the space and taxied to the runway. Major Fisher was in contact with the tower a lot during this time so all I had to do was remain calm and keep that cool air blowing on my neck. We made it to the runway and were in hold because there was a lot of air traffic that morning around Homestead Air Reserve Base. While we taxied to the runway I asked Major Fisher if this had always been a dream of his to be a Thunderbird and through talking to the tower and his crew he told me the story about how he joined the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corp or ROTC in college and then worked really hard.
It took a bit to get out on the runway because we were being held by the tower due to the air traffic. I took a moment to pray and breathe again. Major Fisher asked," Are you excited?" I said, "Yeah, I'm looking forward to this." We talked some more and I was getting a bit more relaxed. I relied on my talent of conversation that had left me earlier in the morning to get me out of my head of getting sick and being overwhelmed. Then it was the moment. Time for take off!
We moved out on the runway, turned right and then the next moment the F-16 was speeding down the runway. I am used to commercial airlines where we pull out on the runway and pause before zipping down. Nope that wasn't this ride. While racing down the runway I had the though again, "How is this happening that I am in a Thunderbird?" Well it was happening and we were off the ground and flying forward. "When is the climb going to happen? When are we going straight up? What will this feel like?" All of these thoughts are racing through my head and then we went into the sky. Wow! We are going straight up and the ground was falling away behind me. Major Fisher told me to look over my shoulder to see this view because it isn't a view many people get to see and I wasn't going to pass this up. While doing this though all of the bladders in the G-suit inflated and were squeezing me. "Huh?! Wait I'm supposed to be squeezing? Crap, I forgot my breathing" This is a really odd sensation of having what are like chaps full of bladders and a vest that automatically inflate to keep your blood pumping. Imagine a bunch of blood pressure cuffs all around your legs and abs that all inflate at once. Within seconds we were at 16,000 feet and after a small roll were flying out over the water of South Florida. I was almost rendered speechless but was able to tell Major Fisher, "That was amazing" He said, "Welcome to my office" and what an office view! I could get used to this if only my stomach would let me. I was already feeling that queasy feeling and we just took off. Uh oh! Ok time to focus on talking and getting to know more about flying. The tower told us to go on a heading of 360 something or other and well we turned and started flying to the Lake Placid Air Space. This is a very surreal feeling to be flying in an Air Force F-16 flying at amazing speeds and feel like you aren't moving a lot.
Major Fisher asked me about how long I have been in SFL and how I made my way down here. We talked about my career so far and how I love living in South Florida. He made a few course changes according to the towers instructions and as he moved the stick I could feel every move. My ears weren't catching up to my head. Major Fisher asked how I was feeling and I told him I felt like I couldn't calm down so he told me to go to 100% oxygen. "Luke I am your father" LOL So I was breathing 100% oxygen and just trying to chill out. My mouth got dry after a bit and "Eight" told me to take a sip of water that was in my G suit pocket. I did this but was very conscious to not drink too much because that would come back up. OK, I felt a bit better and kept saying to myself," If I throw up it is OK. I'm not the first and I won't be the last." Major Fisher then told me that were a few minutes away from the Air Space we were going to and I was amazed because it felt like just a few minutes to me.
OK now it was time to do the maneuvers we talked about. I frankly couldn't remember what was about to happen and was just trying to relax and have fun. The first was the first turn to test how I would respond to the G's and to practice my G strain. Captain Fisher said "Ready?" I said "Ready!" Then he said "Here come the G's." I took my quick breath in, held in the back of my throat, curled my toes, squeezed the soccer ball, squeezed my butt to the high heavens and did my air exchange. I'm being pushed back into my seat and the G-suit is inflating and I am having the time of my life. The turn was brief and lasted maybe fifteen seconds by my estimate but frankly I am probably wrong. WOW! What a feeling. We finished that turn and I was already exhausted. We pulled about 6-7 G's. That is tough work. Major Fisher checked in and I told him I was fine. What I didn't say was my stomach was gurgglin just a bit. But I knew it wasn't that moment of "Drop Mask, Drop Mask, Drop Mask" So he asked if I was ready to pull about 7-8 G's or what I thought was 7-8 G's. I said, "ready!" "Here Come The G's" Quick breath in to the back of my throat. Curl my Toes, Squeeze the ball, squeeze my butt to the high heavens and do my air exchange. The G suit is inflated and I am seeing clearly meaning I'm doing great on my G Strain. Where did this elephant come from that is sitting on me? How did that get in the Thunderbird? Within a few seconds we were out of the turn and I said, "Man that is exhausting!" I loved every minute but my stomach was not happy after pulling G's. I was burping a bit and stayed on the 100% oxygen. It was time to reach for my first airsick bag. Major Fisher asked if I was ready to pull 9 G's and I said, "let's hold here for a minute" He quickly powered down a bit an maneuvered us around the air space where it was safe. After a few moments of flying around and deep breaths, Major Fisher asked if I wanted to skip the 9 G's and I thought, "Hell no!" I didn't come up here for nothing and I am pulling 9 G's. I said, "Let's do it" or I think that is what I said but we were on our way to pull 9 G's. The plane powered up and we were ready. You know the sequence: "Ready?" "Ready!" "Here Come the G's, short pause and quick breath in the back of the throat, curl the toes to flex the calf, squeeze the ball, squeeze the living daylights out of my butt and do the air exchange. HOLY MOLY THIS IS HARD! Every millimeter of my skin on my face is being pulled to the back of my head, I am being molded into the seat and I can't move. "K" Huh" 1,2,3 "K" "Huh" 1,2,3 SQUEEZE. No tunnel vision, no G- lock YES! I'm doing it. "K" "huh" ok we are pulling out of the turn but keep squeezing and keep breathing. Whew! Ok, done! Rock on that was awesome. Major Fisher said, " You just pulled 9 G's!" All I could say was that was awesome! And then ," I think I might get sick" Eight told me to get the bag ready and to drop the mask. I dropped the mask and was fighting the feeling of throwing up. I despise every part of throwing up. I hate the loss of control and of powerlessness. Well here was the moment and I figured to just let go and I did and up came the water! Up came the water again and then I was a bit more relaxed. I tied the top of the bag off as I was told and made sure I kept the plane clean. Once the mask was back on and Major Fisher asked if I was back with him I felt a bit better.
At this moment I was ready to call it a day before doing any of the loops and barrel rolls etc but I will never have this chance again to fly in a Thunderbird. So when the question was asked if I wanted to try a loop I of course said let's do it. The loop was simply magical. Nice and gradual and we flew right through our smoke trail. It was the easiest part of the trip so far. No drop in my stomach, no queasy feeling just a great big loop. That was a piece of cake and I could see why pilot's love flying. Next was the barrel roll. Once again we started into the maneuver and I was at ease. Major Fisher told me to look for the smoke trail and I could see the pattern we made. Next was where we would do some of the negative G moves and frankly Major Fisher and I were on the same page thinking that my stomach might not be able to handle those moves. CRAP! I wanted to do the 8 point roll and all of the tricks that I have seen them do for years. Alas, my stomach said no so we agreed to do a high speed pass over the Avon Park Bombing Range to say hello and then head home.
Here came the turn and apparently my stomach just doesn't like turns. I grabbed the second bag, got ready and more water! Ugh are you kidding me? We are turning and I am missing this great pass because my ears trying to stay level just didn't agree with the turn. Well Major Carletti told me that you don't know when it will happen but it may happen at any time so remember to "Drop mask, drop mask, drop mask." So once all of that was done I was able to put the mask back on and tell Major Fisher that I got sick again. He said to "Keep the bag handy" so I did and we headed back to base.
I felt like I had worked out hard in the gym lifting my max while running a marathon and I wasn't even flying the plane. The ride home seemed a bit longer because I was exhausted and wasn't feeling 100%. I didn't talk too much on the flight home and Major Fisher told me that we were ten minutes away and that he would take it down easy. Thank you Jesus! We were going down and I still wasn't feeling great but thankfully the cold air was on my neck and we were going to land. Man were we going down fast! Major Fisher said," It's going to get warm in here" and then the cool air went to warm air and that was not what my stomach needed. We were going down and turning at the same time over the airbase. Warm air combined with a turn didn't sit well with my stomach so I dropped the mask again and took care of business. I surely didn't want to throw up when we were landing but I did and thankfully could put my mask back on before we taxied back to the parking space. Major Fisher asked if I was ok to do a plane side interview and talk a bit and I knew I could do at least that. Finally we were back where it all started and I was still in awe that I just flew in a Thunderbird. We were there and parked. I could see my dad taking pictures with his I-Pad and video. The Canopy was raised and it was time for me to get out of the plane. Umm?? What do I do with the second bag? Thankfully someone was there to help me out of the plane and he took the bag. So, I unhooked my lap belt, the shoulder harness, took off my mask and helmet and stored that. Took out my ear plugs and was ready to descend the stairs and put my feel on the ground.
Once down the ladder I took off my G-suit and Vest and had a nice drink of water. I needed one because I was tired from the G-strain and well my extra abdominal workout provided by my upset stomach. I looked up to see the Thunderbird team standing in front of me along with my photographer from the station and my father. Major Fisher was at my side and told the team what we did that day and that I pulled 9 G's. They presented me with my VIP certificate showing the date that I flew with the Thunderbirds and also my 9 G pin signifying that I pulled 9 G's. With those presentations Major Fisher turned over the floor to me. What was I going to say to verbalize my appreciation for this once in a lifetime experience? All I could say was growing up in an Air Force family that I know the significance of serving our country and that I am grateful for your service. I thanked the Thunderbirds for my freedom and told them that I am able to go to work, to school, to the grocery store because of my freedom today. I thanked them for their service from the bottom of my heart.
I thanked Major Fisher and then I didn't expect what came next. Each member of the Thunderbird team lined up to shake my hand and in turn I was able to thank each of the team members on sight. I even was able to pass on to Staff Sgt. Hooks that I kept his plane clean.
As I reflect back on my experience with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds I am filled with so much pride to part of an Air Force family. The Air Force members that serve our country are some of the finest men and women I have met in my life. I told my dad as we drove away from Homestead Air Reserve Base that I am very grateful for his service to our country and for an amazing childhood. Because of the Air Force, I had the opportunity to live in two foreign countries and travel to many more. I learned at a young age to be able to adapt to any situation quickly and learned the bonds of friendship and family grow strong within the military. I was reminded of the dedication of our military, the attention to detail and the pride in a job well done every moment of my journey with the Thunderbirds and it is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
So when I went to the Wings Over Homestead air show a few days later and watched the Thunderbirds show I was able to say to my friends, " I went up in that plane!" and smiled at all of the memories of my childhood of watching the Thunderbirds on my Dad's shoulders to seeing my Dad smile as his son flew into the Wild Blue Yonder with America's Ambassdor's in Blue.
Thunderbirds Team Bios:
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