I took a tour the other day. Out to Luke Air Force Base, about six miles from my house as that mythical crow flies. Might not be important to you at the moment but, humor me. Read on.
Luke is our nation’s main training base for pilots flying F-16 fighters and the newer F-35's. The F-35 is a single-seat, stealth aircraft. Twin engines with afterburners and, probably, the loudest plane in the USAF inventory. Pilots from at least 18 nations have been - or are being - trained at Luke. To qualify, training takes at least a year. Sometimes, more. Buy an F-35 and you train here. No matter the country.
The F-16's' and F-35's fly over our house almost daily. If landing in the usual pattern, the noise level is low. But, if the wind shifts to the Northeast, as it can do, the afterburner-takeoffs can rattle windows and wake the dead. It’s that loud! And, remember, our house is about six miles away.
During the tour, I stood on a catwalk outside the control tower - about 150-feet up. Two F-35's took off about 200 yards away. The noise level was the worst I’d ever heard. And I spent nine years in the Strategic Air Command so I was familiar with aircraft noise. Even the B-52 with eight engines doesn’t come close.
On the base, there’s a large concrete block building housing several multi-million-dollar virtual reality cockpits for both aircraft. The F-16 is a two-seater so an instructor can eventually fly with the student. But, the F-35 seats only the pilot. So, on that first flight, the trainee had better get it right! Hence, a year of practice.
In another building, we learned about parachute rigging - both for the pilot and for the aircraft. Drogue ‘chutes are used to slow planes at touch-down if the runway is shorter than those at Luke, which are two miles long. The same young airmen also prepare and package the most complete survival pack I’ve ever seen. Even an inflatable life raft the looks like a huge shoe. Packed, it’s no bigger than football.
We learned ejecting from the F-35 at 700 mph shrinks the pilot’s spine a half -inch. Permanently! If he/she has to do a second bailout, it’s another half-inch shrinkage and the pilot is removed from flight status. Period!
Oh, and one more thing. The helmet each pilot wears is custom-made for that one person who will wear it for the balance of his/her career. And, it costs - wait for it - $500,000+. Each one! Covers the entire head and face. Computers inside. Heads-up displays. Wearing one can be like living in another world. But, it works!
Maybe the best part of the tour was meeting TSgt Cantu. Short stature, wearing the most bulky fatigues I’ve ever seen. Her long, black hair tied tightly in a bun under her fatigue hat. The fatigues were shapeless. As the Sergeant said, “The Air Force doesn’t want a girl to look like a girl.”
Sgt. Cantu retired last Friday - three days after our tour. It was learning her story that made the tour memorable.
When she graduated from high school 24 years ago - like me 66-years ago - she had no idea what to do with her life. College wasn’t affordable, good jobs were scarce and she had no goals. So, like me and hundreds of thousands of others, she joined the Air Force. 1996.
Over those 24 years, she was stationed in England, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Iraq. Promotions and new responsibilities came. Life experiences were learned. Travel, housing, health care and other military benefits accompanied her experiences. Pretty good life.
Oh, and she studied for - and received - a BA degree. And, currently, she’s halfway through her Master’s program. All paid for by Uncle Sam. Accomplished by determination and motivated by goal-setting learned in her Air Force training.
For several months, she’s been interviewing with major corporations in the Phoenix area, looking for a spot in corporate communications. Given the personality I observed in those bulky fatigues and, noting the sincerity and the confidence of someone who’s developed her own career path, my money is on her. She’ll be just fine.
In retirement, she’ll receive about $1,700 a month retirement pay, access to free medical and dental care, shopping at the base exchange and dropping by the NCO Club from time to time while pursuing a well-paid civilian career. A pretty good life.
When I related Sgt. Cantu’s story to wife Barbara, her response brought me up short.
“When I graduated from high school in a small Idaho town 58 years ago,” she said, “women, at the time, had few career choices. Maybe nursing, teaching, being a secretary. Or, a stay-at-home wife and mom. That was about it.”
“But, what this young woman’s done is a great example of how women’s lives have changed,” she said. “Careers in almost every field are there. And, if women pursue those careers with the same determination as the Sergeant, their lives will be so much more fulfilled.”
And that, my friends, suddenly became the most important part of my interesting military adventure. The comments from my wise wife made the point. All the whiz-bang, Buck Rogers equipment I had been so impressed by suddenly took on less importance. What really matters is the young people. The ones who made a choice to learn, develop, travel and settle into a meaningful career.
Good luck, former Sergeant Cantu!