Living the life of an Air Force pilot -- from the back seat

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alyssa Letts
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Usually I write about our superstar pilots in the skies, but for a day, I got to live the life of one.

It all started when I checked my email and found an approval letter to get an orientation ride in the T-38 Talon, the fighter trainer flown in Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base.

Most Public Affairs officers don’t get the chance to fly, but at Vance I not only get to fly, I get paid to do it. That’s because I take photographs and video while airborne.

My supervisor told me this flight was in the works, but I didn’t believe it till I saw the email. I had a pretty lengthy to-do list before takeoff.

First and foremost, I had to find a pilot willing to take me up. Maj. Ben Kemper, an instructor pilot in the 25th Flying Training Squadron, happily agreed to fly me, and my adventure was in motion.

I needed to make appointments with about five different groups on base to make everything happen. I had to get a flight suit, get fitted for a G-suit and go through egress training in case I had to get out of the aircraft in flight.

The folks at Aerospace Physiology taught me how to buckle myself in and get approved by a flight doctor. That was just the beginning.

Through all of that, I met almost 20 new people on base who all work to support the pilots in the early or daily phases of their time at Vance. I thought of all the students they have supported to become the legendary aviators in the Air Force. 

On the day before the flight, I prepped by drinking a bunch of extra water and eating a light dinner. I had people left and right telling me horror stories about lost breakfasts in the aircraft and I was determined not to be one of those casualties.

The day of my flight, takeoff time was 9:02 a.m. I showed for a brief with Kemper at 7:30 a.m. We walked through the objectives planned for the flight -- have a safe flight, experience the 25th FTS culture, retain our breakfasts and have fun. 

After the briefing, I took a deep breath. I was ready.

We walked to the 25th FTS’s step desk, where the aircrews go to “step” out to their plane. They get last minute important information about weather, other flyers and more.

Then, we suited up in Aircrew Flight Equipment. We put on our G-suits, harnesses and grabbed our helmets. 

This was my very last chance to wimp out, but my adrenaline was already rushing.

With my air-sickness bag in my pocket and a GoPro in my bag, we headed to the flight line and met up with our crew chiefs. They made sure I was buckled in tightly and helped Kemper safety check the plane.

We taxied out, waited for clearance, and then took off.

Kemper flew us to our military operations area -- otherwise known as the MOA -- and started taking us through all of the moves we talked about. 

We began with two turns to the right. This was a warm up for all of the G-force we were about to pull. Even though I had flown aerobatics before, this was my first real taste of pulling G’s. It was my instinct to scream, but I had the weight of more than five times the force of gravity pushing on my chest. 

I felt like a tube of toothpaste getting squeezed.

We practiced multiple types of aerobatics in the air, including a stall where we simply fell like a leaf towards the ground. This gave me a chance to look around and enjoy the view from above.

Next, we turned upside down and flew in a straight line while staring “up” at the ground below us. I marveled at the many colors of Oklahoma’s countryside, all while I was processing that we were upside down and I shouldn’t panic.

One of the most serene moments was when we “cloud-surfed.” We circled a huge formation of giant, puffy clouds that looked like white castles floating in the sky. When we flew into them, I closed my eyes, sucked in my breath, and less than a second later, we were on the other side.

Kemper had told me how memorable his first time flying through clouds was for him. Now I could share that memory.

The most surprising part of my flight was how taxing pulling G’s and riding in a fighter trainer was on my body. Even before we touched down, I could feel how tired I was both physically and mentally.

After landing, we exchanged fist bumps and made sure to take a selfie. Kemper told me we met all of our objectives -- including me not losing my breakfast. 

Overall, I learned how hard the instructor pilots, students, contractors, active duty Airmen and government civilians work together to make such a cool mission possible every single day.

I got to see how a bunch of special people work together to make Vance the most productive Undergraduate Pilot Training base in the Air Force.

And I am proud to belong to Team Vance, and happy to have a job that helps keep superstars in the skies over Oklahoma.