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They just might be superheroes

  • Published
  • By Katina L. Ventura
  • Hilltop Times staff
On May 25, the commander of the 421st Fighter Squadron, Lt. Col. Paul Schulze, welcomed Wasatch Front Make-A Wish kids to be pilots for a day; a program proudly coordinated by Electronic Combat Pilot Capt. John Loveman, also from the 421st FS.

Schulze spoke proudly of Loveman and the squadron of pilots who have been working with the kids, "It has been a great opportunity for our squadron -- and most importantly the kids that are here with illnesses -- to do what we get to do day in and day out for a small period of time." The kids' experience began at a hangar with a static F-16 display allowing them to ask questions about the fighter jet and its missiles. Schulze explained that from there the excitement would only heighten as the kids would get the experience of a lifetime with F-16 simulators and just when they thought their day couldn't get any better, their final treat would be a special air demonstration by the elite team of F-16 Thunderbirds in preparation for the weekend air show.

Schulze wanted to share a story before the tour began. He explained that the lives' of his squadron had been touched by having the opportunity to work with the Make-A-Wish program.

One child they had worked with was diagnosed as terminal and the parents had told Schulze he would likely not return.

"He did return," said Schulze "and his father told me he believed it was to a large degree due to the experiences he had working with our fighter wing. It's experiences such as these that both make us proud and keep us humble."

This is the fourth pilot for a day event Loveman has planned. "This has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job," he said, "even more rewarding than flying an F-16." The two things that have always been most popular for the kids are the air demos and simulators. Unfortunately the Viper West Air Demo Team has been cut so that capability has been eliminated.

"Unfortunately this will likely be the last pilot for a day program for a very long time," Loveman said.

As the kids began their tour their excitement built. Loveman introduced the kids to Senior Airman John Cotterman describing him as "the guy that helps us see at night so we can fight against the bad guys." Cotterman taught the kids about the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), visor face plate and night vision goggles.

By the time he was finished the kids were in awe, many had tried on both pieces of equipment and there were whispers among the children equating pilots to superheroes. Superhero features indeed; Cotterman listed the tremendous amount of information made available to pilots because of the visor's capabilities: "air speed, motion sensors in and around the aircraft, missile and radar tracking and tracking other aircraft flying with you (including your teammates)." He estimated the cost of this elite technology to be approximately $150,000 and explained he custom builds each helmet and visor face plate to fit each pilot's head and face. Cotterman added,

"The visor is constructed in such a way so as to break away if it becomes necessary for a pilot to eject. This prevents the visor from shattering and therefore protects the pilot from injury to the face and eyes."

Superheroes come in all different shapes and sizes. Skyler Jeske, a 10-year-old Clinton boy has spent far too much of his childhood inside hospitals due to countless surgeries, and more that continue to be required (at least two per year) until he's finished growing, due to numerous bone fusions and anomalies. On this day though, he smiles, proudly wears a flight suit and dog tags like his mentors, forgets his troubles if only for a moment and enjoys the almost "sci-fi" characteristics of this "amazing" experience.

Although Cotterman had the kids undivided attention, he had more super-hero gear to brag about so out went the lights and the room went silent. Cotterman explained that an individual with 20/15 vision will be reduced to about 20/35 when wearing the night-vision goggles, but added,

"Although the goggles make their vision quite a bit worse, combat night flying is very dangerous, but also very necessary. This gear is essential in combat and adds about eight pounds to the head gear the pilots are already wearing."

The kids whispered to one another, "Wow! ... Oh my gosh! ... That's so cool! ... This feels like we're in the Avengers."

The pilots leading the tour, the crewman, the parents and volunteers, none of them uttered a sound. Regardless of the struggles these kids and their families had endured and would continue to, for the moment, they were just kids.

As the lights came back on and everyone made their adjustments, the 388th Operational Support Squadron Air Crew Flight Equipment Flight Commander Capt. Isaac Hipple waited for the kids around the next bend. He was ready to speak to the kids about the most simple tasks, like how pilots receive their call signs, to slightly more complex issues, such as M=V/a, which is a quantity that defines how quickly a fighter jet travels with respect to the speed of sound. Simply put, the Mach number (M) is the ratio of the fighter jet's velocity (V) divided by the speed of sound at the particular altitude (a). Right?

Hipple paused for only a moment for the crowd of onlookers to notice one another's shared looks of confusion. Then he continued.

"Do you guys know what G's are?" asked Hipple, with a laugh in his voice. When none of the kids could answer he explained, "It's a measurement of centrifugal force due to rapid acceleration. If I say I'm pulling 7 G's, which means I have 7 times the force of gravity pushing against my body. You know what that's going to do? That's going to push the blood out of my head and chest which could make me lose consciousness, or another way of saying that would be I'd be asleep when I'm supposed to be flying my jet."

While Hipple continued his discussion on G-forces he showed the kids a G-suit, let them try it on and explained how it assists fighter pilots in doing their jobs. "We wear G-suits that inflate and squeeze your legs and abdomen to keep blood up toward your head. The suit presses down on your lower body and forces the blood supply up to your heart and head so we can stay awake, alert, focused, and safely fly our fighter jet," said Hipple.

With a smile Hipple explained that all the technical jargon simply means the pilots have to be flying pretty high in the sky before they can fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon super-fast without rattling windows in the homes and businesses neighboring Hill Air Force Base; and when they're flying super-fast they have to be wearing the proper gear to keep them alert and focused on their flying.

Hipple took questions from the kids ranging from how a pilot takes care of daily bodily functions while flying to how many hours they must fly to continue to be an F-16 fighter jet pilot.

Hipple took all the kids questions in stride. He explained the active duty pilots work hand-in-hand with the reservists, who are called upon when there's a national emergency and explained that all pilots receive enough flying hours to assure they are basic mission capable.

This fighter wing had the honor of spending the day with these amazing Make-A-Wish kids to see what they had to offer the world. These Make-A-Wish kids had the honor of spending the day with these amazing fighter pilots who ensure the safety and security of their country by air each day.

Loveman then escorted the kids to the flight line to watch an aerial demonstration by the red, white and blue Thunderbirds in preparation for the 2012 Hill Air Force Base Open House and Air Show.

As the children prepared to leave, many children, parents and volunteers voiced their appreciation, "Thank you Hill Air Force Base, the 388th Fighter Wing and everyone else who helped make this happen. We had a wonderful day. Special thanks to Capt. Greg Boland for teaching my kid how to fly an F-16, to Tuff for the extra help provided and to all the pilots. We think you are awesome," said one parent, after the event in an email to the base.