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Trials of an incentive flight - part 1

Staff Sgt. Matt Wunderlin, Public Affairs Officer select,  watches Top Gun in preparation for his incentive ride with the 115th Fighter Wing, Madison, Wis., May 2, 2010. Wunderlin has been waiting for over three years for his ride, with great anticipation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ashley Bell)

Staff Sgt. Matt Wunderlin, Public Affairs Officer select, watches Top Gun in preparation for his incentive ride with the 115th Fighter Wing, Madison, Wis., May 2, 2010. Wunderlin has been waiting for over three years for his ride, with great anticipation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ashley Bell)

Staff Sgt. Matt Wunderlin, Public Affairs Officer select, left, discusses the tactics he will use during his incentive ride with Lt. Col. Chris Rodel, Public Affairs Officer, May 2, 2010. Wunderlin has been waiting for over three years for his ride, with great anticipation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ashley Bell)

Staff Sgt. Matt Wunderlin, Public Affairs Officer select, left, discusses the tactics he will use during his incentive ride with Lt. Col. Chris Rodel, Public Affairs Officer, May 2, 2010. Wunderlin has been waiting for over three years for his ride, with great anticipation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ashley Bell)

MADISON, Wis. -- Editor's note: This article is part one of a series on the experience a member endures while going through the F-16 incentive flight process. Receipt of an incentive flight is a highly sought after opportunity.

The call unexpectedly came Thursday at 3:00 p.m. I was at my home, preparing for a swim, so I was not using military time. "115th Fighter Wing" flashed on the caller ID. Something told me to answer.

"Sergeant Wunderlin? I'm just calling to let you know that you're getting your incentive flight this UTA. I'm sending you an email with the details."

Actually, there were a lot more words than that, but once I heard "incentive flight" all blood left my brain. It went to that mysterious place that produces the excited feeling one gets before asking a girl out on a date or after the birth of a first child. My thumb could barely find the "end call" button.

This was a dream come true. I first heard of an F-16 when I was seven years old. My parents had gotten me a die cast model of the aircraft and ever since I wanted to fly one. It was one of the reasons I joined the Air National Guard. Life had gotten in the way of my pursuing a career as a pilot, but I had never given up hope of at least flying in a fighter jet. Like many who dream, I was afraid it would remain a dream.

After being nationally recognized as ANG Command Post Controller of the Year in 2006, I was told I was being put on the list for an incentive flight. Score!

I eagerly sat by the phone waiting for the call telling me it was my turn to go. I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited some more. My wife told me to stop lunging for the phone every time it rings and move on.

After essentially giving up, life was infused into my dream of soaring upside-down at 600mph.

In preparation for the experience, I drove to the base to make sure I am medically cleared to handle an altitude of 18,000 feet. Songs by Kenny Loggins streamed through my brain.

At one point, I began to wonder why this medical screening was scheduled for an hour. What sort of probes would this involve? What type of meticulous scrutinization would I need to endure to show myself as a superior specimen capable of handling such an extreme environment?

The medics handed me a list of seven "yes" or "no" questions. I was stumped by "can you clear both ears?" because for everything else I had answered "no" and this seemed to need a "yes." I asked my escort who informed me the correct answer was indeed "yes."

After a short scare where the automatic blood pressure cuff told me my heart was about to explode, the medics confirmed my ticker was good. She took some measurements of my seated height and the length from my hip to knee to make sure I could fit in the cockpit.

After a review of my test, the flight surgeon said those five magic words, "You are qualified for flight." But as exciting as this was, I soon would question whether I even wanted to go.

Getting sick on these rides is almost inevitable I was told, even for those not prone to seeing their meals twice. I was fully prepared to fill both air sickness bags as needed. Why would anyone need more than two? In that unlikely event, I am supposed to disgorge into my shirt. Apparently, bodily fluids can ruin the costly electronics in the aircraft. I was also told the pressure changes can affect one's, uhhh . . . recesses. Note to self: Bring a change of undergarments. Later my wife wondered if this was a ride or part of some sort of military human testing ploy.

I was also told not to touch anything if I was not given permission. The flight surgeon reminded me of Goose's fate in Top Gun, and told me even if I survived the ejection there was no guarantee my parachute would open. I thought to myself, "Even if the parachute opens, I don't want to be known as the idiot who ruined a perfectly good twenty million dollar jet."

I could barely sleep Friday night. On Saturday morning I had no problems waking up for a Guard drill. After fantasizing through roll call and carefully deleting 118 of my 121 email messages, I was off to life support for three hours of training. It was the final step to my dream come true.

I walked in for my appointment and was told by Chief Jones, "Your flight has been postponed until next drill."

I am sure there was a perfectly good reason, but I did not hear it as my heart sank. The reason didn't matter. It felt like the result of asking that first girl on a date. "But maybe she'll change her mind and call back."

And so I sit, waiting by the phone, hoping next drill will be my Top Gun moment.
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