Hometown hero relishes ride in Thunderbird

Friday , June 27, 2014 - 1:32 PM

Standard-Examiner correspondent

HILL AIR FORCE BASE – As Becky Austad, of Syracuse, prepared to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds prior to the Hill Air Force Base Air Show, she kept hugging her children, and discussed with her daughter what-if scenarios if things should go awry during her flight, making sure Kinley Austad, 14, knew how important it was to finish college.

Austad was so nervous and worried, she admitted to trying to think of ways to opt out, not sure she wanted to go through with her Hometown Hero flight.

“It was so nerve-wracking because I just didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid of what my body would do,” having heard stories of passengers who make good use of the vomit bags during the hair-raising tricks performed by Thunderbirds.

However, Austad proved to be a bold passenger, telling her pilot, Maj. Tyler Ellison, to keep bringing it on, even when she felt sick. For Austad, it was an experience she will never forget. “I have never rubbed shoulders with such high-caliber people,” Austad said as she talked to the Thunderbird pilots after her flight. “It was a deeply humbling experience putting on this flight suit and experiencing what you guys give up and dedicate to serve us.”

Austad, a social worker at McKay-Dee Hospital, was unaware of her nomination by her boss at Northern Utah HOPE Task Force, a suicide prevention program, where she works as a teacher and facilitator, dedicating her time to teaching people about preventing suicide and letting people know their life matters and to make choices to put them in a better spot.

The Thunderbirds often pick a hometown hero for a special flight before their air shows. “We like to pick an outstanding citizen in our society and communities that make a difference and show them what the Thunderbirds are all about,” said Ellison.

No one deserves it more than Austad, said her sister, Danae Meyerhoffer of Plain City. “She has been a single mom for the last five years, and still makes time to help other people,” said Meyerhoffer.

At 15,000 feet, Austad got the chance to see the Bonneville Salt Flats, journey out to Wendover, Nev. and experience several nerve-wracking tricks, her favorite being the barrel roll, which Ellison said is always a crowd favorite whey they perform.

Austad spent three hours preparing and training with the Thunderbird pilots prior to her flight, which included learning about proper breathing techniques to combat gravity. Ellison explained that while the G-suit pushes down on the body while flying in the plane, it squeezes against the diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe, so the specialized breathing techniques help fight against the G-suit and gravity forces pulling blood to one’s feet. “It’s basically one hour of an anaerobic workout,” said Ellison.

Talking about her experience just moments after stepping out of the F-16, Austad said, “Even though doing this was hard, I rose to the challenge, and you in the U.S. Air Force do the same, doing hard things, which gave me a greater appreciation for what you do for me.”

Her favorite moment in the Thunderbird was the moment she first got up in their air. “The moment you get up in the air, being in the clouds, is so peaceful, calm and refreshing,” said Austad, who plans to use her experience to continue helping others. “It was awesome because from that perspective, I realized how similar it is to when you pull yourself away from a hard time, you can see the bigger picture and what is important, and that things aren’t really as tough as you think.”

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

Related Stories