By Stephanie Edwards
A group of Lee’s Summit High School students departed Kansas City International Airport late Wednesday, February 15. Las Vegas, Nevada was their destination. Like many visitors to Las Vegas, these high school students spent some time on the infamous Las Vegas Strip, took in a show, they saw the Blue Man Group, and toured the Hoover Dam.
But, this was not an ordinary trip, and these are extraordinary kids. Twenty cadets from the Lee’s Summit High School AFJROTC, all juniors and seniors, accompanied by their instructors, Colonel Rick Milligan and Technical Sergeant Joel Estes, their principal Dr. John Faulkenberry as well as a few parent volunteers made the journey.
Thursday morning came with an early wake-up call. “I felt like it was a little too early for vacation,” Jo Cummings, junior, quipped. “But this wasn’t really a vacation.” The kids headed out to Creech Air Force Base where they had their first taste of a military style briefing. Junior Austin Bokay said that he felt like the experience went on forever, but he was glad for it, simply because of what they witnessed next.
At Creech, the cadets were introduced to The Predator and The Reaper, two remotely-piloted aircraft. “I was kind of awestruck,” Junior Austin Bokay shared. “I’ve seen the pictures; I’ve seen the videos of them moving around. But to get to see one…it just puts some perspective into just how big and just how important these things are.”
The unmanned aircraft are flown “in theater” but are piloted from locations across from various points the U.S. Colonel Milligan explained that the kids were taken on a tour of the base by actual personnel who fly and maintain the devices. “Most of Thursday was spent in a briefing,” Senior Alex Bostick recalled. “I expected it to be a lot less exciting than it was.” Detailed statistics and other information were covered in the briefing.
“It is pretty impressive,” Milligan said.
“It was real to see how crucial everything is there,” Jo said. “They need that to complete missions that are dire.”
“It was a reality check to me,” Alex said. “I didn’t realize what goes into it.”
Unmanned armed machines might seem like a highlight to any student trip, but for these kids, the adventure had only just begun. Friday was all flying. “When we planned this trip, we said, ‘we gotta get these kids flying,’” Colonel Milligan said. The group from LSHS traveled at Sky Combat Ace in Henderson, Nevada where they would have the chance to go up in an L330 Turbo Prop Low Wing aircraft.
Before the airplane went up, the kids donned flight suits and learned how to properly use the parachute that was strapped to their backs during the flight. The idea was a bit overwhelming for Jo.
“I kind of freaked out a little bit, and I cried until we took off in the air,” she said. But she went up anyway. “I’m so glad I went up. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more fun.”
Two airplanes ran at a time, through enough cycles for the cadets to get their turn. Each flight lasted about twenty minutes, including takeoff and landing.
“There’s just a sense of freedom you had when you got up in the air and you had the stick,” Alex said.
“I was a little sad coming back,” Austin confessed. “I wanted to pass out. I even told him to throw it as hard as he could so that I would. I just thought it would be fun.”
”It was like someone squeezing you really, really hard,” Alex explained the g-force on his body. At one point his lower lip touched his chin, and he did briefly pass out.
Before their return to Kansas City, the cadets also visited Nellis Air Force Base where they were treated to an up close and personal view of the Air Force’s Thunderbirds during a practice session.
“Getting to watch the Thunderbirds practice, and then afterwards the pilots not only speak to the kids but engage in deep conversation made me really proud of the Air Force and the kids,” Dr. Faulkenberry said.
Memories from the trip come in all forms, from the high adventure each teen experienced to the real-world taste of military life. But something else has left an impact on these teens, something that reflects the mission of the Flying Tigers. Each of them has a respect, an appreciation like never before for the men and women who wear the uniform each day.
“I had never even entertained the thought of being a pilot until that day,” Alex said. “Now, I kind of want to. I respect those guys a lot more than I had. I had no idea what they had to go through without passing out,” Alex said. They do that every day. I respect the fighter pilots a lot more.”
Coming home, Jo reflected a bit on the time in Las Vegas. “I was thinking about how we got to experience something not a lot of people will ever get to experience,” she said.
“I have so much respect for them it blows my mind,” Austin said of Milligan and Estes. “It made me grateful. It made me grateful for the opportunity they gave me.”