Monday, January 14, 2013

Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Woman gives insight into life as a fighter pilot

“An adventurer.”

That is what Lt. Col. Jill Long called herself as she spoke at the United Methodist Women’s New Year’s Tea at the First United Methodist Church in Carlisle. That title came from her experiences, which she said range from bagging groceries as a child, working at UPS and even doing some modeling.

What she is best known for, and where her passion lies, is taking to the sky in flight.

“I flew gas stations, dropped bombs flying A-10s and I’ve actually had dinner with Middle Eastern royalty, jumped out of airplanes and now I’m here at the Army War College,” Long said. “So the adventure continues.”

That adventure began when she was climbing a tree as a child in Michigan. Her mother asked her what she was doing, and she replied “I’m trying to get up there.” When she came back inside, her mother asked her if she had gotten up there.

“I said ‘not yet, but I will,’” Long said.

That sense of determination is a message that she relayed to the audience as she spoke. She told several stories about her childhood and her aspirations to one day become a pilot. That journey to finally soar the skies began when she was a teenager. She explained that she had around $20 left after taking her family out to dinner, and she decided that she was going to learn how to fly. After telling a humorous story of her calling an airliner, she again hinted at her determination to get into the air.

“I get these things in my mind, and I just jump in with both feet,” she said.

She was eventually directed to a small airport. After failing to get ahold of the airport, she rode her bike to the airport. She wandered into the hangar and began poking around, investigating a particular instrument that she thought was incredible and even a crashed airplane sitting in the corner.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is it,’” she said. “‘This is the perfect place. They have so many airplanes, they have extra!’”

Soon after, a man landed his plane in front of the hangar. That man would take her up in the sky for the first time in his small aircraft, and he would go on to become a mentor to her. She explained how the plane bounced down the runway as it picked up speed, before bouncing a final time and soaring into the air.

“It was the most beautiful, wonderful, fabulous experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she said. “I was flying.”

From then on, she continued going back to the man and gave him $20 then and every day afterwards when they went flying. It has been around 30 years since that day, according to Long. She flew with him again a few years ago, gave him another $20 bill and said he called her “the best investment” that he had ever made.

In telling that story, she told the audience that the message she wanted to send was to never give up on pursuing a dream.

“If you stop think about all the reasons why you can’t do something ... pretty soon, you’ve built this house around you, or this argument, that justifies not trying to go after your dreams,” Long said. “It’s amazing to me how many people in the world have done that.”

Earning her wings

She would eventually go on to join the Air Force and go through the ROTC program. She got her pilot training slot, but it was taken from her as the Air Force cut back to only 141 pilots. As a result, she had to go through all the necessary paperwork and work to resubmit for her spot.

She would go on to be one of the 141 pilots.

“Well, pilot training was a new adventure,” she said. “Learning to fly the Air Force way is different than flying civilian way.”

She was one of five women on the base, and said she was surrounded with men with a “machismo” attitude towards women. When she flew with one of her instructors, she said she was not sure if it was his attitude or her anxiety, but she almost did not make it through pilot training. She eventually called her mentor, the same man that taught her to fly initially, when she received a wake-up call. He told her that she did not need to whine, and regardless of her instructor’s behavior, what she was doing was more important. She would go on and finish pilot training and fly 135s.

“The day that I pinned on my wings, he came out for it and gave me his wings from when he was in the Air Force,” she said. “It was a good moment.”

Becoming a fighter pilot

When she first went into the Air Force, women were not able to fly as fighter pilots. Through a program called cross-flow, opportunities began to present themselves.

“They would take 25 pilots from heavy aircraft ... and put them into fighters,” she explained.

As she applied for the program, Congress rescinded the program and women were then eligible to become fighter pilots. She was denied four times, and she explained that her friends were not supportive of her and often told her she would not be accepted. The last time she applied, it was the last time she was eligible for the program age-wise. She submitted her application and was sent off to Italy during an air conflict over Kosovo. One day while she was overseas, she got a phone call from her boss back home. He notified her that he was letting her go from the unit — then, he asked her if she wanted to fly F-16s or A-10s. She had been accepted as a fighter pilot.

“The moral of that story, I think, is pretty clear,” Jill Long said. “People are going to tell you that. All through your life, they’re going to say, ‘You can’t do this, this isn’t right for you’ ... don’t listen to them.”

Sending a message

Long told several other stories as she spoke to the audience. They included her declining doing her first air show at the last minute due to detrimental weather and meeting a young boy name Tripp. Each story had a message that was accessible to all. Those messages included all things are possible, to never give up and to give back in life.

While she has come a long way from bouncing down the runway with her mentor, she said the thrill of flying remains.

“That’s the great thing about flying,” she said. “If you love it, that feeling is always there.”

Her husband, Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Chuck Long, sat in the back with his mother, Grace. The watched Jill speak and laughed with the crowd when she would tell a funny part of her stories. Humor aside, Long said that his wife’s talk did what it was intended to do.

“She did what she came to do, and that was to take her life and show people how she has been able to learn what she calls ‘nuggets of wisdom’... and share them with others so that they can make their lives better and the lives of others around them better,” he said.

Grace Long also felt that her daughter-in-law got her message across successfully.

“Jill lived up to my expectations,” she said. “She’s a great motivator, and she’s especially good with children, so this is a different audience, really than the people she usually talks to.”

Jill Long is enrolled at the Army War College and called it an “amazing experience.” She will be finished there in June.

“Imagine being allowed an opportunity to stop everything you’re doing and just go back to school and learn for a year,” she said.

Her promotional board met, and she said she should find out in February if she will be promoted to Colonel. It should be around that time that she’ll find out where she’ll go next. She said that once she retires from the Air Force, she plans to fly air shows full time.

Her future, while yet to be determined, is truly up in the air.

“Let’s hope,” Jill Long said. “As a pilot, I really hope it’s up in the air!”

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