SHEPPARD Air FORCE BASE, Texas – A Wichita Falls High School teacher got the ride of a lifetime Oct. 27, 2019, when she soared through the North Texas skies with the USAF Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds.”
Debbie Pepper, who teaches English as a second language and Peer Assistance and Leadership, said she is still somewhat in disbelief of the experience and being the Hometown Hero selected to fly with the world-class aerobatic team. Pepper was named the Wichita Falls Independent School District Teacher of the Year for secondary education for 2019.
“Even though I’ve been through the experience now and I was there, have the pictures and have the witnesses, it still hasn’t completely set in. I flew in a jet,” she said of the red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcon that has been the show pony for the Thunderbirds since 1982. “I threw up in a jet – it’s still unbelievable.”
Pepper said when she received the invitation to fly as the Hometown Hero in September, she thought the email from the 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs office was fake. Her husband, Brad, said he thought the invitation was legitimate, but she said that reassurance didn’t slow her mind during a sleepless night.
A phone call the next day from the PA office confirmed the request, she said, and the excitement continued to build.
Pepper said she knew a little about the Thunderbirds and the F-16. Col. Dann Carlson, Pepper’s former Sunday school teacher and 80th Flying Training Wing instructor pilot who is now the commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard 154th Wing, flew with the Thunderbirds after his assignment at Sheppard.
Then there was the wait – the period between the notification and hopping in the backseat of the jet.
“(There was) a lot of anxiety, you know. It’s a jet. It’s fast, and, you know, you get sick,” she said. “But also exciting because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Most people don’t get that chance.”
Pepper said she didn’t tell many people initially, but eventually told family, friends and her students at Old High, the locally familiar tag of WFHS. As her excitement built, so, too, did theirs.
The teacher of 18 years said she was astonished at the near rock-star treatment she received from the Thunderbirds team – including her name on the jet – as well as Sheppard leadership. She said while it was exciting to fly in the jet, it was just as exciting to receive the VIP attention.
Pepper said she didn’t know a program existed for civilians to fly with the Thunderbirds. She said she had heard of spouse taxi days with some organizations, but never this opportunity.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I figure I’d get to do something like this,” she said. “I have to say this again – the whole day is so special. Yeah, the flight; that’s amazing. It’s once in a lifetime. But the whole experience – you’re literally a VIP for them.”
Pepper said she went through the required regiment of training, which included how to suit up, proper technique for handling high gravitational forces, and how to use the ejection seat. She was also instructed on the nine different maneuvers they would attempt.
Although the air sickness she is part of the experience that she shares with people, she said she wishes she would have “sucked it up” and performed more than the three maneuvers she could stomach, which were the vertical climb at takeoff, a 6.1-G turn and flying upside down.
The ride put her on cloud nine. But, she said, she was thankful to be on the ground and not moving when the flight was over.
It was back to reality Monday morning, she said, when she had to return to her classroom at Old High. She told her students about the previous day, all of the training and equipment, and, of course, her ride in the back of an F-16. She handed out red, white and blue Thunderbirds stickers, one of which is proudly displayed on her nameplate outside her door.
Pepper said she has spent the past 13 years teaching ESL at Old High, witnessing the challenges some students have as they learn a new concept in foreign country. Some of those students are connected to Sheppard’s missions, which include international aircraft maintenance students in the 82nd Training Wing and NATO partners in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program.
As she recalled her experience with the Thunderbirds, she equated that to the trials her students face.
She said when she was going through G-suit training, her instructor asked Pepper to show her what she had learned. Although she had missed or had forgotten a few things, Pepper said her instructor was patient and took the time to reteach the information.
It was a reminder, she said, of how she is in the classroom and the patience she should exhibit while teach a new language to students. a technique she said she uses with her students.
“Just because I explained it clearly doesn’t mean that it all sinks in,” she said. “They need reminders. They need reinforcement. They need to hear it again.”
Pepper said she was confident that she was one-and-done with her supersonic, aerobatic twists and turns in the F-16. But as the experience grew more distant – and knowing there are six more maneuvers left in the sky – she said she wouldn’t mind doing it again.