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The Dream Job

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Some kids want to be a firefighter when they grow up. Others: a cop. But me? I wanted to be pilot.

My fascination with flying started at an early age. Watching old war movies and documentaries on the history channel, I always felt pilots had the dream job. I mean honestly, who wouldn't want to break the sound barrier or experience what a g-force feels like?

So, when I was told I could operate a flight simulator used by actual pilots ... I jumped on it. And in it.

The thrill of sitting in an exact replica of an F-15E Strike Eagle cockpit was simply a dream come true.

Not everyone gets to fly an F-15E, even if it's *just* a simulator. And I couldn't wait to see what I could do, which in my mind was barrel rolls for days. But, before I took my seat in the cockpit, I thought it would be wise to get a little advice and information on what I was getting myself into. So, I contacted someone who flies for a living, Maj. Aaron "Bull's-eye" Ruona, 391st Fighter Squadron weapons system officer.

He explained the simulator does everything from dropping ordnance, to air-to-air combat and even the finer details of replicating the training location and time of day. Ruona then went on to explain these simulators can connect with other simulators around the world -- he compared it to connecting with other players while playing a game console.

Once I found out I'd be getting a bird's-eye view of Mountain Home Air Force Base -- and where the base conducts exercises -- it was time to get myself mentally prepared. I was going to experience what pilots experience on daily basis.

The day had finally come. The countdown had dwindled down from weeks to days, days to hours, hours to minute after long minute. It was hard to contain my excitement; masking a grin stretching from ear-to-ear is no easy task.

As I pulled into the parking lot the butterflies set in. I began thinking about the worst case scenarios like crashing or being shot down, but I put the negatives aside and focused on the main objective: just having fun and learning about the F-15E.

Then the briefings began. I met with pilots who would be guiding us through the mission. It was difficult trying to concentrate on what needed to be done to succeed. It was time and I was ready!

I sat down in the pilot's seat -- the tune "Danger Zone" from the movie "Top Gun" blasting through my head -- I was flying an F-15E.

Sitting in the cockpit was amazingly realistic; you have a 360 degree view. To your left and right you can see other "aircraft" that are on your team. It was amazing how exact everything looked while "flying" over base. I could see my office, the gym; even the building I was sitting in at that very moment.

We started out in a dog-fight with four enemy aircraft straight ahead: 1st Lt. Nicholas "Sonic" Votipka, 391st Fighter Squadron pilot, leaned in and said, "full throttle, FIRE." With a grin on my face and adrenaline raging through me I pressed a red button located on the joystick -- a digital cloud of white smoke came from our aircraft and a countdown began. As the timer hit zero we saw a cloud of black smoke in the distance -- we took out an enemy aircraft. On the outside I kept calm; on the inside I was jumping with joy.

After we destroyed all enemy aircraft we had a little time to try some maneuvers -- hopefully without crashing. Votipka asked me if I wanted to fly low, which without hesitation I said yes. We were cruising at about 160 feet above ground when he challenged me to try and perform a 180 degree turn without rising above 400 feet - challenge accepted!

I pulled the joystick to the left and straight back to try and perform the turn. Then I heard Sonic calmly say, "We're about to crash. Pull up. Level out. If we lose speed we're going down."  He may have been calm, but those four words put me in panic mode.

Don't worry I didn't crash! But I did get shot down. Twice. And both were by a "friendly", not an "enemy": one of the jokesters in my office, who was also attending the training.

My time as a pilot was up; it was now time to switch seats and test my mettle as a WSO. It was my duty to mark targets, which is easier said than done. The amount of things a WSO has to cycle through to lock on to a target is overwhelming. Luckily, I had Ruona talking me through every step.

"Flick that button down," said Ruona.

"This one?" I asked with uncertainty.

"No, the other one," he said as he pointed to a control littered with buttons.

This happened about five or six times before I finally got it.

As we circled the skies in search of a target, we spotted an anti-aircraft tank approximately seven clicks ahead of us -- just enough time to lock on to my target. All of Ruona's coaching ran through my mind, and a flurry of buttons later ... target locked. As we approached, the countdown began.

Three clicks.

Two clicks.

One click.

BOMBS AWAY! Our mission was a success.

We headed for the landing strip and made our final approach.  Ruona flipped some switches to drop the landing gear and controlled the flaps for landing. We came in hot and a little sideways, but my pilot was able to land us safely, or so I thought.  Just as we started to slow down, our screen turned red. I frantically looked at Ruona, thinking I did something wrong. He shook his head and laughed, "Someone shot us -- again."

That was my third strike. I was out.

As complicated as that cockpit was, it was way easier having a seasoned WSO, Ruona; and pilot, Votipka, coaching me through every step of the way. That being said, I still struggled with what pilots go through every day. Fortunately, with the simulator, if you screw up you can always try again. But in real life, there is no reset button. That's why this is left to the professionals.

It didn't last long. But my dream of being a pilot finally came true-if only for 45 minutes.