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03-12-09, 07:26 AM
Up, up and away
Marine pilot guides students during flight orientation program
By: Tina L. Arons/Features Editor
Posted: 3/12/09

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Rick Birt had no qualms about giving control of his aircraft to several people who had no prior flight training, including myself.

Michael Radford, a sophomore business major at Texas Tech, participated in the Marine Corps Flight Orientation Program with several others on Wednesday morning to further explore his interest in becoming a Marine Corps pilot.

"I recently served four years of active duty in the Marines, and I want to go back as an officer," said the U.S. citizen who grew up in Russia. "I've wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid. I built plane models and went to museums. It fascinated me."

College students and those who express interest in the program have the opportunity to participate in the flight orientation program once per semester, said Capt. Josh Zaffos, a Marine recruiter for West Texas and New Mexico. They have several opportunities during a two- to three-day window when a Marine pilot flies into Lubbock for the event.

"It's a really great recruiting tool," he said. "A lot of people don't realize the Marine Corps has pilots."

Although I tagged along during the 9 a.m. flight with Radford and three other participants, I did not jump in the cockpit.

I had my chance to try my hand at aviation the day before.

I arrived at Lubbock Aero, a private and civil aviation service, for a 1 p.m. flight Tuesday accompanied by a photographer. We pulled into the parking lot moments before Birt and Zaffos arrived.

The sun had emerged from the clouds, which bumped the temperature up to about 60 or 70 degrees.

The warmer temperatures meant an increase in turbulence, Birt said, because different areas of ground - paved areas, neighborhoods or fields - heated at different rates, creating more lift.

I found the prospect of flying a plane for 10 minutes during slight turbulence exciting.

Because the other three participants canceled before the first afternoon flight, the photographer and I were the only students to climb aboard the King Air 200 and give it a go.

The flight orientation program uses the King Air 200, an aircraft with twin turboprop engines, because it is a reliable aircraft, Birt said. The King Air 200 was first built in the 1980s, and a new one costs nearly $2 million, depending on the technology included, such as GPS.

It comfortably seats about seven people, he said, and the military often uses it to transport a small number of passengers from one base to another.

The first order of business before starting up the King Air 200 was to acquaint the photographer and I with the location of the Ziplock bags and how to seal properly seal one if motion sickness got the best of us and we had to use one.

"Blue and red make purple," Birt said, demonstrating with the plastic bag. "And then you can freeze it and keep it for a souvenir."

After Birt and I had climbed into the cockpit, buckled our seatbelts, and adjusted our headsets, we were ready to depart.

Birt, who has been a pilot for six years, guided the plane to the designated runway and took off.

Although he can fly other aircrafts, he said the main one he flies is the A6B Prowler, which is used for electronic warfare.

"Two guys sit in front. Two guys sit in back and jam the enemy radar," he said. "It's a protection type force. No one goes into enemy territory unless we're in the sky."

Once we had been in the air for several minutes and the plane was stable, Birt began to tell me about steering.

The steering wheel, which looks like the letter "W," is sensitive, he said. Only a small amount of pressure is needed to guide the plane left or right and up and down.

One of the many dials on the dashboard measured the tilt of the plane, allowing the pilot or co-pilot to align the plane's wings with the horizon. Another dial measured the altitude.

"It's just like driving down a dirt road," Birt said, grinning.

Under his guidance, I used my index fingers to pull the steering wheel backward and the plane gained altitude. Holding the steering wheel with my thumbs and index fingers, I guided the plane to the left and then back to the right.

After I'd had a few minutes of flying the plane, Birt stuck his head into the passenger area and asked if anyone felt nauseated. No one did. So, he maneuvered the plane into a barrel roll.

It was the first of several barrel rolls I experienced this week. When I went up for the second time Wednesday morning, I sat in the passenger area and chatted with the four participants who took turns flying the plane.

Travis Doshier, a 24-year-old who drove two and a half hours from Vega to take part in the experience, went first.

"It was amazing and different," he said, taking a seat in the back after his turn.

Doshier said he worked for an investment company for a few weeks after he graduated Stephen F. Austin State University in 2005 with a degree in business, but found he was not satisfied with his career choice. So, he moved back home to work on his family's ranch.

His roommate in college became a Marine pilot and he recently began to think about becoming one himself, he said. Participating in the flight was a way for him to find out more information.

When Birt took the plane for the first barrel roll Wednesday, I glanced out the window and saw the ground directly below the tip of the wing - an unnerving and unforgettable sight.

Tyler Harden, a freshman Tech student from Pflugerville, said he has passed the requirements and assessment tests and will be guaranteed a spot at flight school.

Although he has flown a plane before, he said, participating in the flight orientation program Wednesday further acquainted him with what he will do when he attends flight school after completing the training to become a Marine Corps officer.

Harden said he has wanted to become a pilot since he was a child.

"My dad wanted to become a pilot, but life got in the way," he said. "He kind of passed on the dream to me."

Sgt. Juan Ruiz, a recruiter for West Texas and New Mexico, said almost 35 students participated during the flight orientation program this semester - an increase from the fall semester which had about 10 participants.

By allowing students to get some hands-on experience in an aircraft, Zaffos said, the flight orientation program generates more interest in available options, such as flight school, for those who want to become a Marine Corps officer.

Birt, who has guided flights in Lubbock for several years, said about half of Marine officers are involved in aviation. From start to finish, the military spends about $1 million on each Marine who earns his or her wings.

Becoming a pilot involves hard work, he said, despite the amount of fun it seems pilots have.

"If you do something you have fun doing, it doesn't seem like you're working," he said. "And that's how a lot of pilots feel."

The Marine Corps pilot program offers several opportunities not available through other military services such as a guaranteed spot, Birt said. Those who qualify can become guaranteed a spot at flight school before they make a commitment to the Marine Corps.

"It's the easiest way to get your foot in the door," he said. "It's the easiest to get a spot, but not the easiest to get your wings. The training is the same, if not better than other programs."