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Scott Kumpula, a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is fitted with a breathing mask Wednesday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, before his maiden ride on an F-16.

Scott Kumpula, a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is fitted with a breathing mask Wednesday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, before his maiden ride on an F-16. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

Scott Kumpula, a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is fitted with a breathing mask Wednesday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, before his maiden ride on an F-16.

Scott Kumpula, a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is fitted with a breathing mask Wednesday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, before his maiden ride on an F-16. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella adjusts his helmet prior to taking U.S. Air Force Academy senior Scott Kumpula, back seat, on his first ride in an F-16.

35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella adjusts his helmet prior to taking U.S. Air Force Academy senior Scott Kumpula, back seat, on his first ride in an F-16. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

U.S. Air Force Academy senior Scott Kumpula waves to classmate Lindsay Freeman from the back seat of an F-16 at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

U.S. Air Force Academy senior Scott Kumpula waves to classmate Lindsay Freeman from the back seat of an F-16 at Misawa Air Base, Japan. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — They’re American college students enjoying a hiatus from the rigors of academia. But, unlike most of their peers on summer break, they’re glimpsing their future 500 feet above the earth.

Thirty-three U.S. Air Force Academy cadets were at Misawa last week as part of “Operation Air Force,” a mentoring program to familiarize next year’s sophomores, juniors and seniors with life after the academy.

Misawa will welcome two more groups of about 30 cadets this summer for about three weeks at a time. Other Pacific Air Forces bases also are participating, officials said.

“It’s to introduce the cadets to what is expected of them as a young officer — what a typical day is in the office,” said 1st Lt. Robin Kamio, 35th Operations Group executive officer and the 35th Fighter Wing’s Operation Air Force coordinator.

Depending on their year and career interest, cadets are matched with senior noncommissioned officers or company-grade officers in units throughout the wing.

For some cadets, however, a typical day “in the office” will be anything but.

Of the nine seniors at Misawa, Chris Rider and Scott Kumpula are among the six gunning to be pilots.

On Wednesday, they hitched a ride in the back seat of an F-16 (D-model). Suiting up beforehand in four layers of aviator gear — a 30-minute process — they were cool under pressure: This was to be their maiden voyage in a fighter.

“I’m pretty anxious,” said Rider, a 21-year-old from Orlando, Fla. Not anxious about the flight, “just anxious to get up there,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a fighter pilot.”

That’s the sole aspiration Kumpula can remember, too.

“It just seems like you’re doing something important,” said the 21-year-old from Glen Rock, Wyo.

Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella — 35th Fighter Wing commander and a 1981 academy graduate — said he was taking Kumpula up because “I know I would have appreciated it when I was a cadet.”

Capt. Mike May, 35th Operations Support Squadron assistant chief of wing weapons, was flying Rider.

The cadets’ familiarization flight also was a training sortie for the pilots involving infrared sensors, ground targets and simulated laser-guided bombs.

Misawa’s Life Support technicians trained the cadets on how to strap into the seat, how to eject and how to wear the gear. Essential, especially for first-timers, was a barf bag.

So, how would they feel after 75 minutes in a tiny, gravity-defying bubble?

“It probably depends on what they had for lunch,” May said. “They’re going to be submitted to forces that they’re not used to feeling. The zero-G or getting light in the seat is usually the part that makes them feel the worst.”

On Friday, two days after they soared through the clouds, both cadets answered the million-dollar-question: Yes, indeed, the barf bag was needed.

“It wasn’t the G’s,” Rider said. “It was when he started weaving in and out, trying to dodge the anti-aircraft fire, that’s what got me.”

Rider said he was pretty worn out afterward.

“It was nothing that I’ve ever experienced before,” he said, comparing it to “riding a roller coaster about a hundred times straight.”

Kumpula said he got sick only once. But it was fun, he said, and the views, once the F-16 rose above the clouds, were amazing.

Neither Rider nor Kumpula emerged from their queasy rides with second thoughts about their career path.

“This is what I’ve been living for,” Rider said.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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