My, how things have changed. Some years ago, I would have been up there leaving a contrail with six others, on the point of a formation of U.S. Air Force F–16 Thunderbirds as we sped cross-country to another airshow. The scenery there and that flying experience—so vastly different.
Leading the Thunderbirds, I was surrounded by exceptional pilots and supported by a world-class maintenance and logistics team. By the time I showed up to fly, all the planning and preparation had been done by an industrious and detailed team: routing, air-to-air refueling tankers, weather, notams all reviewed thoroughly. When I stepped out to my airplane, it had been fueled, preflighted; my bags, dropped off earlier, would be strapped in and secured. Checklist neatly placed on the cockpit console turned to the prestart page, a cold flask of water placed in my left G-suit pocket.
We crossed the country dozens of times a year, followed by a command post spring-loaded to react if we ran into problems. At our destination, an advance team had scouted every detail, alerting us to any potential risk. We’d have custom numbers stenciled on the ground to mark our exact parking spots and dedicated marshallers to park us. After shutdown, by the time we unstrapped and removed our G-suits to greet local dignitaries, the maintenance crew would be elbow deep inspecting our airplanes, checking fluids, and downloading data that would be analyzed before we finished dinner to verify systems and engine performance.
I’m frequently asked what it was like to lead the Thunderbirds. My answer never measures up. It was everything you might imagine it to be, and more. Dressed head-to-toe in the colors of this great nation, surrounded by extraordinarily talented and dedicated people to whom I would—and did—entrust my life, I flew one of the most advanced airplanes ever built to every corner of this country and received the admiration our fellow citizens feel for their Air Force. We were under no illusion that the reception we received was for us personally; it was for the power, pride, and precision of the U.S. Air Force that our operation reflected. So often I wished that the airmen and airwomen doing the tough work changing engines on a sweltering desert flight line, or guarding a B–52 on a lonely ramp in the frigid North Dakota winter could receive the respect we did; could see how proud the American people are of their Air Force, of them.
Pilots ask if I ever got tired of flying the same profile repeatedly. From their perspective, it must look the same every time. It never was. The profiles (six of them—high, low, and flat shows with various combinations of aircraft), were demanding to fly, and they were never the same. Something was always different: sun angle, wind, clouds, show layout, aircraft lineup, my disposition, any of my five wingmen’s dispositions, density altitude; the list is long. Each of them impacted our performance. Most days we handled it well. Some days, we were extraordinary; other days, not so much.
The days were full. The flying was fast, loud, exciting, stressful. There was substantial pressure to achieve perfection. Our Air Force deserved nothing less. I loved it.
Sauntering above the New Mexico desert in my Super Cub, doors open, pop music playing on satellite radio, was quite a contrast to the intensity of the Thunderbirds experience. Just me. No other airplane around for miles except those contrails high above. I did all the planning, packing, preflighting, and fueling. My Garmin GDL 52 helped with weather. I wasn’t talking to anyone; didn’t need to, didn’t want to. No one would be at the destination to meet me. I wasn’t even sure yet where I’d stop for the night. If I had to put down unexpectedly, I’d use the tent and sleeping bag I kept in the back for contingencies and call for support with the satellite transmitter or use the personal locator beacon in my survival vest.
This is blissful flying, that captures the grandeur of flight like none I have experienced. One thousand feet is high enough for perspective, but low enough to feel immersed in the surroundings. You can feel drafts when you cross a ridge and smell petrichor after a rain. Crops wave in the breeze, as do people when you pass. I go for long stretches pondering things big and small, the most frequent being how I got so fortunate to be here, in this moment, at this time. I love the freedom, the independence, the accountability of it all.
Up in the contrails, I loved that too. How fortunate to know them both, each a different flying experience, both magnificent.
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