March 9, 2010
If you need to find an assistant gymnastics coach during the months of January to April, you would normally check the gym, the office or someplace around the hotel if it's a road weekend. But, on Thursday, Feb. 26, if you needed to find fourth-year Air Force assistant coach and 2004 Olympian Brett McClure, you had to look up.
Oh yeah, and don't blink ... because he's that speck of silver in the sky that just went supersonic.
The day began innocently enough, as the Air Force men's gymnastics team loaded up an Academy bus and headed out for a dual meet at Arizona State. Soon, the squad was secured onto a Southwest Airlines plane for an uneventful flight, direct from Denver to Phoenix.
But, McClure knew what was coming.
"I remember looking out the window, staring down at our beautiful terrain," McClure said of how he spent his time on the two-hour flight. "Then, I imagined breaking the sound barrier, heading directly at it. It was a bit terrifying, imaging the capabilities of the incredible F-16 Fighting Falcon. I was immediately taken back with nervous anticipation of what was to come."
Air Force's flight landed in Phoenix around 0830, and McClure and six gymnasts were ushered into a whirlwind of activity. McClure was joined on this memorable excursion by freshmen Tory Brown and James Okamoto, as well as juniors Dan Klimkowski, Nash Mills and Aaron Zaiser. The gymnasts earned this reward based on their performance in both the gym and the classroom.
Once through the gates of Luke Air Force Base, the Falcons met up with their guide, Maj "Skid" Greer, and were moved from one station to the next, getting briefed, trained, fitted and prepared for their 1600 take-off time.
This wasn't anything like the basic "how-to-fly" instructions that they received just hours earlier, while still parked at the gate outside of DIA. There was no flight attendant standing at the front of the aisle, showing them how to buckle a seatbelt. At the head of a conference table, were pilots with hundreds of hours in the air, teaching their soon-to-be passengers the important information that would be needed before climbing the ladder into the cockpit.
The Falcons were prepared on how to handle every possible scenario, including the ones a typical commercial passenger wouldn't even imagine. McClure and company received parachute training, learned G-force breathing techniques and understood the identifiable signs of hypoxia. The Falcons were also fitted for their G-suits, helmets and oxygen masks.
"Nervous anticipation was in full effect at this point," McClure recalled.
Finally, after being briefed, trained and suited up, the Falcons were ready to go. McClure, Brown and Okamoto were going to be traveling with pilots from the 308th Flight Squadron, while Klimkowski, Mills and Zaiser were going up with members of the 62nd Flight Squadron.
Guided by their pilots, the contingent of excited Falcons headed out to the flightline - a vast expanse of cement with markings that make sense to only the most-trained eye. There, in the distance, was what they had all come to experience.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon.
To an average citizen, the F-16 can most easily be recognized as the red, white and blue featured aircraft for the Air Force aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. But to the men and women that call its cockpit home, the F-16 is the ultimate aircraft. In its most basic terms, the F-16 is a single-engine, supersonic, multi-role tactical aircraft; a "workhorse" that supports air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
Zasier thought that nerves wouldn't be an issue, as he'd flown in an F-15 as a part of his Operation Air Force experience in Japan over the summer. But he was quick to point out, "That all changed when we accelerated down the runway for takeoff."
"There is nothing like a max vertical climb with afterburners immediately after take-off," McClure explained of his flight with his pilot, Elton `Elvis' Davis. "You're pulling 4.5Gs to get used to the Vipers' capabilities. I have spent many hours thumbing through a dictionary and I cannot find a single word that describes what I experienced."
The gymnasts, who are used to moving through the air on tumbling passes or dismounts, were now soaring through the air, creating formations, practicing aerial combat maneuvers (aka "dogfighting") with their teammates' jets, dropping missiles into the test zones and breaking the sound barrier with ease.
"Before the flight, you're a little nervous," Klimkowski admitted. "But once you take off, it's all thrill. There's nothing cooler than going over 400 miles-per-hour, upside down, while dogfighting other jets."
While his counterparts were careening through the air over the Arizona landscape, Brown's afternoon was cut short due to maintenance issues with his aircraft. However, considering that six 500-pound MK 82 bombs were strapped to the undercarriage of his plane, prepped for a drop at the Luke AFB test site, Brown may have had the one of the most unique taxiing experiences ever.
Once you take off, it's all thrill. There's nothing cooler than going over 400 miles-per-hour, upside down, while dogfighting other jets.
Okamoto had prepared himself for the trip, by reading up on the aircraft and its capabilities. However, once the engines roared to life, the youngest of the Air Force fighter-pilots-in-training, quickly realized that no book, website - or even his own imagination - could have prepared him for what was about to take place.
"Reading about the F-16 was impressive," he said. "But getting to fly one was an experience of a lifetime that I'll never forget. I expected something similar to an intense rollercoaster ride, but the F-16 was on another level completely. Pulling Gs, while dropping laser-guided bombs was one of the most thrilling and exciting moments of my life."
Words don't seem to do justice to the adventure that McClure and his gymnasts were able to experience that special morning in February. However, Klimkowski was able to sum it up the best, when he simply stated, "You can't know how memorable an F-16 ride is until you've had one."
Once back on solid ground, the team and their pilots returned to the locker room to unwind after their flights. This gave Zaiser a special insight into his future plans in the Air Force.
"The greatest part of my experience at Luke AFB was hanging out with the pilots after the flight," he acknowledged. "I loved the camaraderie within the pilot community. Having chosen a job as a pilot, it was reassuring and exciting to know that not only did I enjoy flying, but also the lifestyle and people involved in it."
For the gymnasts, their experiences aboard the F-16 helped reaffirm their career choices and reminded them of why they lead such a unique life, getting up before dawn, taking overwhelming class loads in majors like aeronautical engineering or systems engineering management, and following a strict schedule that most college students can't even fathom.
"While at the Academy, it's easy to get lost in academics and lose focus of the Air Force," Klimkowski said. "The F-16 ride gave me a renewed motivation to start my career."
"Being in an operational Air Force environment really opened my eyes and re-motivated me towards my goal of becoming an Air Force officer," Okamoto agreed.
"Since I was very young, it has been a dream of mine to be a pilot," Mills said. "To be able to get a ride in a fighter jet was an amazing experience. The F-16 gave me a tidbit of the excitement and challenges that I can't wait to dive into after graduation."
While the experience on board the F-16 solidified the futures of the Air Force gymnasts, McClure achieved another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only has he stood on the podium of the Olympic Games, with a medal around his neck, but he has been harnessed to one of the military's finest aircraft and surpassing the speed of sound. The opportunity also gave McClure first-hand experience at what his athletes work so hard, day-in and day-out, to achieve.
"I have competed in the sport of gymnastics at the highest level there is, winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics," McClure concluded. "This was another one of those lifetime experiences I will never forget. After having experienced the ultimate in aircraft acceleration and maneuverability and having been physically tested in the "nine-g" environment, I have come to the conclusion that if I was presented with an opportunity such as this while making a decision on which college to attend ... I would be flying right now!"