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A flight to remember: ROTC cadets takes off with 88th FTS

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
Marieke van Gaalen appears to be the ideal American girl. She graduated from Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, a few years back and is one year away from earning a bachelor's degree in international studies from Midwestern State University in the same city.

The slender, golden-haired young woman stands at about 5 feet 9 inches and exudes confidence, but displays an innocent smile that warms the hearts of the coldest individuals. She speaks somewhat softly, but very eloquently, choosing her words with precision and thought.

The ideal American girl.

The only real difference between Marieke and the ideal American girl is she's not a U.S. citizen. She's a citizen of the Netherlands and is the daughter of retired Royal Netherlands air force Lt. Col. William van Gaalen, the former senior national representative for the RNLAF at the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base.

"I lived back home from the time I was 2 until I was 9 and we moved to Italy," Marieke said. "So, it was only 7 years that I actually lived in the Netherlands."

She said she attended United States schools since the fourth grade, which explains the reason for virtually no detected accent. She began her trek in Wichita Falls when her father was stationed at Sheppard as the SNR about five years ago.

What brought her to Sheppard Dec. 8 was the opportunity to fly in a T-38C Talon, the 80th Flying Training Wing's advance aircraft used for training NATO pilots. The chance to have an incentive flight with the 88th Fighter Training Squadron was a reward she earned while serving as an Air Force ROTC cadet. She said she and other college students from MSU participating in ROTC traveled once a week to the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, the closest ROTC detachment to Wichita Falls.

Part of her duties, she said, was to recruit others, which included wearing the uniform to class, setting up information booths and the actual induction of students into the program. Points were amassed over time and she came out on top not only for MSU, but the entire detachment at UNT.

Although Marieke is a Dutch citizen, she said she joined the U.S. Air Force ROTC to begin her indoctrination to military customs and courtesies, even knowing she would not be able to complete the program.

"In the beginning, I did look into what my possibilities were concerning whether or not I could actually participate and complete the ROTC program but nevertheless, I still joined because of the experience," she said. "When I got to MSU, I was really excited to join ROTC just to get the experience and also due to being around the military my entire life. I have always been interested in joining the military, therefore, this was a good opportunity for me."

On this day, her job was to attend a pre-flight briefing, don the typical fighter pilot gear such as a G-suit, parachute and helmet. Then, shortly after noon, she and RNLAF Capt. Ronald van Steijn, an instructor pilot at ENJJPT, "stepped" out of the operations building, boarded a shuttle and prepared for takeoff.

Prior to the flight, it was hard to tell if it was the actual flight that was providing the adrenaline or if it was the unexpected attention she received via a video camera and someone asking questions. Calmly, she explained she was excited for the flight, but unprepared for an interview. She accepted her somewhat celebrity status unruffled by the bombardment of questions. That seemed like status quo, given the Dutch girl's ultimate desire.

"Always being around (my father's) job and seeing it, I've always wanted to do the same thing," Marieke said, also displaying the knowledge of serving in a military. "I really don't have a specific (dream job). What I really want to do is be a fighter pilot (and) do whatever the air force sends me to do."

If she could have a definite say in how her future progresses, Marieke said she is hoping the RNLAF accepts her application next summer for pilot training and begin that venture in January 2012. As it turns out, the RNLAF sends all of their fighter pilots to ENJJPT for training. For someone who spent their formative years around the internationally manned and operated ENJJPT, it seems like a perfect fit.

But that, too, waited on this day as the flight of her life was about to begin. Marieke walked to the jet like a veteran pilot with Captain van Steijn, in their native tongue, having conversation along the wait.

Several others from the RNLAF delegation were waiting on the flightline for the arrival of pair. She waited as Captain van Steijn performed a preflight check of the aircraft, then climbed into the aircraft to prepare for flight.

Several minutes later, the instructor pilot and hopeful RNLAF fighter pilot taxied out for takeoff. They arrived an hour later, Marieke displaying the same smile that was on her face when the crew chief first pulled chocks.

"It was amazing," she said, undoubtedly out of breath from the various maneuvers performed in the air and the continuation of excitement. "Incredibly amazing."

When asked if she was glad to be back on the ground, her response was quick ... and true to that fighter pilot mentality.

"Actually, I could've done longer," she said with a chuckle.

Captain van Steijn spoke of the young Marieke's performance in the air.

"She did very good," he said. "No problem maintaining the (G forces). She was able to follow the profile and maintain sight of the other airplane, so really good."

The ideal American girl? Perhaps. A future graduate of ENJJPT? If Marieke has anything to say about it -- definitely.