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An ‘O-flight’ to remember

  • Published
  • By Retired Chief Master Sgt. Dee Sullivan
  • North Penn High School JROTC Instructor
The alarm goes off; it's 2:30 a.m. Memories of the old days working in medical evacuation flash by. Soon I realize I'm awake because of my new mission - teaching the next generation. Today I get to take 40 of my Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. cadets on a KC-10 Extender orientation flight at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. As I start my hour-long journey to my new family at North Penn High School, my thoughts wander as to how the day will unfold. Will my students admire one of the missions that helps defend our country? Will they develop a better appreciation of being an American or will it just be another field trip? Several cadets were already waiting for me at 4:30 a.m. even though our show time was 5 a.m. I knew we were in for a wonderful adventure full of excitement and thought-provoking experiences.

The enthusiastic questions began.

"Chief, is my uniform and hair in regulations?"

"Will we get to fly the aircraft?"

"What type of aircraft will we refuel?"

"Where will we be flying to?"

Of course, as more students showed up, there were more questions and a few "oops, I forgot my hat or can I replace my ribbon? Normally, the multitude of questions would begin to get under your skin but how can you get upset with conscientious students wanting to wear the uniform properly and with pride? You can't, you just smile and help them along. As the time neared to load onto the bus, we accomplished a head count. I was happy to hear that there was only one no- show. Not bad for a bunch of 14- to 17-year-olds reporting with the rooster at 5 a.m. Who says this generation isn't motivated?

The bus rolls away and we begin our adventure. When we arrive at the passenger terminal, we are greeted with several aerial port personnel who were aware of our arrival and ready to help. The cadets were thrilled when they announced we would have two KC-10 aircraft that would be refueling each other. Passing fuel to each other's airframe sounded so cool to them. I had to break the news that although JB MDL has gone to great lengths to support our orientation flight, we were just one of the numerous objectives for today's mission.

As each phase of the day unfolded, I enjoyed watching my teachings come to life. The value of teamwork and the understanding of all the spokes in the wheel that are needed to make a mission a successful would be one of today's lessons. Students were able to witness the success of teamwork first-hand by observing the exceptional collaborative efforts of numerous agencies within JB MDL. Every Airman we encountered had a positive professional spirit. From our first encounter at the passenger terminal, getting our in-flight meals, to boarding the bus, we experienced hard work, professionalism, flexibility and the need to have a sense of urgency. Once onboard the aircraft, the cadets witnessed a tremendous amount of energy and commitment from the aircrew members. Their exceptional insight to recognize they had 40 cadets hoping to be the one chosen to sit in the flight deck for take-off or landing led to the next best alternative - tracking to ensure every cadet had the opportunity to sit in the flight deck and boomer area. They succeeded and lifelong memories were made.

During the mission, there were two exceptional inspiring acts of kindness which truly contributed to the extraordinary day. First, the encouragement and extra effort provided by Staff Sgt. John Darby. His determination provided a young man the ability to overcome his fear which as we all know, will go way beyond today's experience. Of course, Chief Master Sgt. Mark Redden probably is unaware of the impact he gave to a young cadet by the innocent gesture of giving him a coin. I spent nearly the entire bus ride home trying to explain the significance and tradition of coins within the services. His dad personally came in the next day to thank us and share how much the gesture impacted his son.

Our orientation flight was a powerful experience for our cadets. For some, it was their first flight; truly testing their ability to meet a new challenge. For others, the day solidified their desire to pursue a career in aviation. Others opened their eyes and minds to the multitude of fabulous opportunities available to them in the Air Force. I truly believe experiences such as this orientation flight help our youth recognize untapped desires. Once these goals are recognized, students tend to channel their energy and harness hard work which ultimately leads to stronger academics that aids them to reach their dreams.

In closing, I would genuinely like to thank the JB MDL public affairs office. Their team was instrumental in bringing this experience to reality. We continue to receive accolades from the parents, faculty and most importantly the cadets. JB MDL made a difference.