Honorary commander takes to the skies

  • Published
  • By Sara Vidoni
  • Team Eglin Public Affairs
It's not every day you get to pull 8.3 Gs and "drop a bomb" on your house, but May 7, Whitney Smith experienced just that.

Smith, the honorary commander for the 53rd Wing, had the opportunity to fly in an F-15E Strike Eagle piloted by Maj. William Wooten, of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. This was the first incentive flight awarded to a 53rd Wing honorary commander in more than three years.

"The flight was unbelievable!" said Smith, an attorney for Fleet & Smith.  "The whole experience was surreal, and it wasn't until we were actually in the air that it hit me, 'I was flying in this powerful jet.'"

The 53rd Wing's honorary commander program allows local community members a unique opportunity to interact with and learn about 53rd Wing Airmen, their mission and the role they play in supporting the Air Force. Honoraries may invite commanders to community functions, building and maintaining positive relationships between the military and local communities.

Prior to the flight, Smith went through extensive training to make sure she was prepared. This included getting fitted for a flight suit and helmet, meeting with a flight doctor, being strapped into a harness to simulate a parachute and more.

"The training was compact compared to the standard training for pilots or navigators, but was extremely thorough and made me aware of various circumstances I may encounter in my flight," said Smith.

The purpose of the incentive flight was to help Smith and other honorary commanders understand the importance of the 53rd Wing's mission and all it takes to have a successful flight.

"While there is a lot of focus on her being in an aircraft, it's important to remember there's a crew chief that launched it, tower controllers that helped up it in the air, and maintainers caring for the aircraft," said Col. Alexus Grynkewich, 53rd Wing commander. "It takes a huge effort to make a flight happen, so it's a way to expose our honorary commanders to the broader portfolio of things in the Air Force that make the pointy end of the mission actually happen."

While the Destin-native enjoyed the flight, it's not the reason she chose to sign up for the honorary commander program back in 2012.

"Being born and raised in the area does not necessarily mean you know what goes on behind the gates at Eglin. It was an extremely cool experience and I am so grateful for the opportunity, but that is not what incentivized me to get involved. I will continue to support the local military and their families in any way I can."

Smith is also part of the 53 Wing Honorary Commander Alumni Association, a private organization, that includes alumni of the honorary commander program, as well as individuals who want to get involved in supporting their local military members.

"As Airmen we move around a lot, and we never get an opportunity to really build community roots," said Grynkewich. "All these people who are involved in our honorary commander program, they tie us to the community in ways we don't always get to be tied to it. They become our local support structure."

The incentive flight was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Smith, and one she won't easily forget.

"There are so many reasons why we should support our men and women in the military, and I am happy to have had this opportunity. I was telling people afterwards that I felt safer in the F-15 than I do in commercial planes."

And Smith proved she could fly with the best as she proudly proclaimed, "I didn't even get sick!"