Hillsboro teacher taken on 'ride of her life' for her service
When she was getting strapped into an F-16 Fighting Falcon on the Portland International Airport runway last month, Sheri Fisher knew she was in for the "ride of her life."
The longtime pilot and teacher for the Oregon Aerospace Careers for Everyone (O-ACE) program was treated to a ride this summer from the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds as part of their Hometown Heroes program.
The ride happened on Aug. 19, and Fisher described it as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life — not only because she got to experience the incredible speeds and maneuvers of a trained combat pilot, but because she got to share the experience with her students and even briefly pilot the fighter jet herself.
Fisher teaches the O-ACE class as part of a new program with the Hillsboro School District. It aims to prepare students for careers in the aerospace industry, training them in the basics of what it means to pilot, build or maintain aircraft.
Because of her service as an educator, Fisher was selected by the Air Force as this year's "Hometown Hero" from Hillsboro. Following the Thunderbirds' showing at this year's Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, the charitable foundation set up by the air show selected a few names for its Hometown Heroes program.
Of the three names floated for the honor, the Air Force picked Fisher.
"They looked at what she was doing in the community and how she was changing lives and the connection she was making with the kids … and they chose her," said Chris Barber, a board member and Southwest Airlines captain who himself flew for the military and who works with the Thunderbirds to select the candidates for the Hometown Heroes program.
The ride itself came with a lot of important preamble. Fisher got an hours-long briefing that went over the safety measures, how-to's and important facts to know before going into the air.
As a pilot herself, Fisher said she "views risk a little bit differently" than the layperson, but she still knows that every time one goes up in the air, it's a risk. She took the preflight instruction and screening very seriously.
"It's like drinking from a firehose," Fisher said. "There's about three or four hours of information you get to try and make the experience as enjoyable as possible."
It's supposed to be a fun experience for the Hometown Hero, so the passenger has total control over what happens in the sky and how long the experience lasts.
But Fisher wanted to experience everything the Thunderbird pilot could throw at her.
"I just didn't want to disappoint anyone," she said. "That's what was going through my head. I just want to absorb as much information as I can to bring back to my students."
During her flight in the F-16, Fisher pulled 9.7 Gs, or nearly 10 times the force of regular Earth gravity. The kind of G-forces a fighter pilot experiences while pulling high-speed maneuvers is why Fisher had to get a screening from the flight doctor, who also went over strategies for how to avoid blacking out from the force of gravity impeding her circulation or breathing.
"Basically, you take a breath in … when they tell you, 'Here come the Gs!' and then you sort of exhale a little bit of breath as you go through the roll," Fisher said. "You have to tense from your toes all the way up, and you're assisted by the G-suit."
The Thunderbirds provided the G-suit for her, which is tightly fitted and has compartments that put pressure on the abdomen and legs to prevent blood from pooling and being unable to get to the brain.
The military term for this is G-LOC, or "G-induced loss of consciousness," and all Air Force pilots know about "grayout," which is the impaired vision that comes from pulling so many Gs.
Fisher neither blacked out nor evacuated the contents of her stomach — something she would have had to do in the barf bag that was readied on her lap, just in case.
The pilot politely reminded her that, if she was to up-chuck, to please turn off her microphone beforehand. No one likes to hear that.
Luckily, it wasn't a problem for Fisher, who is well familiar with flight procedures.
Fisher said she'd previously only ever experienced around 3 or 4 Gs of force, "and that was just during basic spin trainings."
"This was completely new," she said. "We pulled 6 Gs just on takeoff. So, right away, that was more than I ever pulled before."
The Gs came from doing aileron rolls, snap rolls and basically all the same kinds of maneuvers the Thunderbirds would do during a normal air show performance.
Fisher even got to experience negative Gs, where inertia essentially gives the sensation of floating, like in space.
Barber, who is also a pilot and trained on military aircraft for 20 years, said he was impressed to hear from the pilot all that Fisher did.
"Basically, what she did is the equivalent of going from an electric scooter to a Formula One racecar," Barber said.
Fisher said her goal all along was just to be the kind of passenger who could handle whatever was thrown at her, because the pilots themselves want to have fun in the air, too.
"I was pleased that the pilot actually seemed to enjoy himself," Fisher said. "You know, when they're in that position, they can only fly as much as the person lets them fly, but they want to fly the way they know how to. So, that he actually had fun, too, that made me feel really good."
Perhaps the most exciting part of the experience: when they'd flown the entire "profile" of maneuvers, the pilot asked Fisher if she wanted him to do any of them again — or if she would like to take over the control for a bit.
"Of course, I said, 'I want to fly!'" Fisher said.
She got to pilot the F-16 herself — something not many non-military civilians can say — until there were a few minutes of fuel left in the tank. Then, she said, she was happy to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
"Normally, when I'm flying, I'm the PIC, or 'pilot in command,'" Fisher said. "So, I was really happy to just not have to worry and to watch these people be in their element."
In general, she said the experience helped her appreciate the position her students are often in, with lots of new information to absorb and even a knowledge test at the end before she was allowed to get strapped in.
"Getting all that information was a helpful reminder of what some of my students might feel when you start talking about aerodynamics and the physics of aerodynamics, if they don't have a lot of background in that science and math," Fisher said.
Fisher was happy to share her experience with the students, and she said they responded in kind.
"When I said 'F-16,' they were really excited about it," Fisher said. "The students were super-interested to hear the stories I brought back."
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