What you eat does matter–particularly before a ride with the USAF Thunderbirds.  Air Force Secretary Deborah James recently experienced a “technicolor flight” with the Air Force demonstration team (official USAF photo).

Air Force Secretary Deborah James paid a visit to the Las Vegas area last week.  And, unlike her counterparts at the GSA, there was questionable or wasteful about the trip; Las Vegas is home to a pair of major USAF installations (Nellis AFB and Creech AFB) and missions that essential for the service. 

Creech, for example, is a major hub for Air Force drone operations around the world.  Many of the Predator and Reaper sorties flown over places like Afghanistan are actually directed by pilots and sensor operators stationed at Creech.  Nellis has been a key hub for USAF tactical training for decades; it is home for such major drills as Red Flag, Green Flag and the Joint Forcible Entry Exercise (JFEX), staged on the vast range complex, located north of the base.  The base also houses the USAF Weapons School (formerly known as the USAF Fighter Weapons School), which produces tactical experts in all platforms–and disciplines–related to air and space operations.  Our total air dominance in recent wars can be traced to the lessons taught (and practiced) at Nellis. 

So, it made a lot of sense for Secretary James to make a trip to Nellis, and it’s a safe bet she’ll return again before she leaves office.  According to the Washington Times, Ms. James saw–and experienced–quite a bit in Nevada, flying missions with crews of the E-8 JSTARS surveillance aircraft, and with rescue crews in HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.  She also got a look at training at the weapons school; as a graduate of that institution, I believe it should be high on every SecAF’s visit list, given its impact on modern warfighting. 

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But there was one other item of James’s agenda, and apparently, it didn’t go quite as smoothly.  To get the “full” Nellis experience, someone decided it would be beneficial for the Secretary to take a spin with the Thunderbirds during a training sortie.  The Air Force aerial demonstration team is also based at Nellis; due to recent budget cuts, the Thunderbirds were grounded last year, along with their Navy counterparts, the Blue Angels.  While the demo teams are back in the air again, it was decided that giving the SecAF a backseat ride might be helpful in securing future funding.

So how did it go?  Here’s how Secretary James described her experience: 

“While at Nellis, I also was fortunate to fly along with ‘Thunderbird #4’ and actually participate in a scheduled practice with the entire USAF Air Demonstration Team. They are tremendous Ambassadors in Blue, performing in front of more than 100,000 in Oklahoma last weekend. I also learned to wait to eat lunch until after Thunderbird practice is complete!”

In other words, she barfed.  That raises an interesting question, namely, who cleaned up the backseat after her last meal reappeared in flight?  Protocol says if you puke, you clean it up, but its hard to imagine the pilot–or a a crew chief handing–some cleaning supplies to the SecAF, and saying “it’s all yours, ma’am” (even if it was). 

But you’ve also got to wonder who decided to send Secretary James up in the wild blue after lunch.  Her experience took me back to my own days at the Weapons School; back in the 80s, the Air Force decided it would be a good idea to send non-rated types (intel officers, weapons controllers) through the program, and Your Humble Correspondent was lucky enough to be selected.  Sure enough, my class was the first to get back-seat rides in both F-15s and F-16s. 

As luck would have it, I was slated to be the second student to go up; one of my classmates was the first on the schedule, and his F-15 ride was very similar to what Ms. James experienced.  Making matters worse, he didn’t switch off the intercom, so as the F-15 instructor (and his student) are going to the merge, all he can hear is Mr. Non-Rated in the backseat puking his guts out. 

After that, my mission became crystal clear.  Everyone–from my instructors to the F-16 IP I was scheduled to fly with–offered very straight-forward instructions: “whatever you do, don’t puke.”  And it was more than a matter of keeping the backseat nice and clean.  The Air Force was investing thousands of dollars in our training, including the flying hours associated with our orientation flights.  If the non-rated guys kept tossing their cookies, the backseat rides would end and (potentially) our presence at the school.  Back in those days, there are more than a few folks who believed that certain individuals who weren’t pilots or WSOs didn’t belong at the weapons school and they were looking for data to support that contention. 

With all that riding on my stomach, I took my F-16 flight a couple of days later.  We practiced lofts and laydowns, favored delivery profiles for nuclear weapons.  I had a blast, and managed to keep my breakfast (a granola bar) where it belonged.  I’m not sure if the non-rated folks still get backseat rides at the school, but at least I preserved them for a while. 

To be fair, the Thunderbirds do more maneuvering on a practice mission than I experienced, so you might say that Secretary James got a much “richer” experience.  Still, the profiles flown by the demo team aren’t exactly a state secret, so you think that someone would have briefed her on what to expect, and cautioned against that giant salad or killer burrito at the Nellis O Club before the flight.

Then again, we’re not sure that Ms. James would have listened to such advice.  According to the Washington Times, a recent media profile disclosed that Secretary James earned the nickname..err, callsign…”Sledge” during her days as a staffer on the House Armed Service Committee for the approach she took to the job.  Maybe she figured if mere fighter pilots could handle a big lunch followed by high-G maneuvering, she could, too. 

Obviously, Ms. James figured wrong.  Pulling Gs is requires acclimation, and its best done without a full stomach.  However, we do give her credit for admitting that she barfed; more than a few VIPs have filled up an airsick bag (or two) in the back of an Air Force jet, and never admitted their “moment.”  Chalk one up to a lesson learned the hard way, and we’re still waiting for the Air Force to tell us who had the unpleasant task of cleaning up that backseat.                         

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