HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For thousands of spectators, watching from the ground as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds roared overhead in an exhibition of speed and grace was the highlight of this year’s air show.
Becky Austad got an even more inspiring view.
The Syracuse woman sat just behind the pilot in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon on Thursday, for a spin over to Nevada with a few barrel rolls, spins, max climbs, max turns and knife-edge passes thrown in.
Before the flight, as the crew of the F-16 helped her into a g-suit designed to prevent blackouts during extreme acceleration, she admitted to being both excited and nervous.
Austad had been selected for the rare opportunity after being nominated as a Hometown Hero for her suicide-prevention work with high school students.
Suicide prevention is also a focus of the military, according to one spokesperson.
After the flight, Austad stood confidently and gave an emotional tribute to her hosts.
“When I see your dedication, the drive and passion you have for your jobs, I’m touched and deeply honored,” she said.
“I very humbly express to you my thanks,” she said, “for what you do for our country and for us and our families.”
Austad called the flight “amazing,” “one I’ll never forget,” and after admitting to getting queasy a time or two, added a telling observation about the pilots: “They have stomachs of steel.”
Davis County native Major Tyler Ellison piloted Austad’s flight over the Salt Flats and Utah Test and Training Range.
The F-16 can reach 9 gs. Because of restrictions due to body weight, he said his flight with Austad went as high as 6.8 gs, something for which she had to learn a special breathing technique to counteract the extreme weight (6.8 times gravity) on her lungs.
Ellison complimented Austad on a “very impressive” flight, one in which he “showed her the ropes.”
“It’s the highlight of our job,” Ellison told the Clipper, “to let people experience what we get to do on a daily basis.”
Much of the air show serves as an introduction to the military and its services, and some events over the weekend emphasized recruitment.
It was an air show he attended as a second grader that inspired Ellison, a graduate of Davis High, to attend the Air Force Academy.
“If you have a dream, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” he said. “Set goals and work hard. It takes drive, passion and time and effort, but you can make it come true.”
Austad’s passion for helping young adults find better solutions than suicide was what earned her the chance to fly in an F-16.
“She tries so hard,” said Kinley, her daughter, who watched and waited on the tarmac with brother Spencer and other family members and friends. “I’m really glad she’s being rewarded for her efforts. She’s saved a whole bunch of lives.”
Austad’s co-worker, Casey Davis, added that Austad goes above and beyond in her efforts to help prevent suicide.
“No one deserves this more,” she said.
Geoffrey Austad, Becky’s husband, captured every moment within view with his camera.
He called his wife’s opportunity surreal and admitted to being jealous.
“I would give anything to be in her shoes,” he said.
He, too, paid tribute to her contributions as a social worker and the help she has provided young people at risk.
Besides the Hometown Hero flight, the Thunderbirds put on a special pre-show on Friday for Make-A-Wish families, meeting with children and their supporters afterwards to sign autographs and answer questions (see photos on pages 16 and 17).
Events Saturday and Sunday were free and open to the public and included 13 aerobatics pilots looping and spinning for the crowds, the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team and flights by vintage fighter aircraft.
An estimated 500,000 people attended the two-day event. Despite a deluge that drenched the area Friday morning, the weekend weather was ideal.