The sky is calling: Pilots take to flight early

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

It starts like this.

“I want to become a pilot. I think it’s awesome. I want to be a fighter pilot. My second choice would be a commercial pilot. Then a stunt pilot. Then a test pilot,” said Andres Gallegos of Albuquerque.

His aspirations, at this stage, are simply stated.

The 12-year-old was easy to spot Saturday in the Air Expo crowd of thousands at Cannon Air Force Base. Gallegos bounced around a lot, and broadcast his love affair with frequent “oohs and ahhs.”

By most accounts, the airmen at Cannon are in the line of duty because they were once like Gallegos, young and in love with the might of flight. They, too, were easy to spot Saturday.

Maj. Jason Bailey, 32, stood Saturday in a green jumpsuit beside the F-16 which he flies daily. He stood with his arms crossed, sheltered from the sun by the cool shadow of his plane, a stance common Saturday among airmen.

“When I was a little kid, I remember looking up and seeing airplanes. I was fascinated. Even from an early age. A lot of it has transitioned now from that novelty aspect. The opportunity you have — in terms of defending the nation — becomes the focus,” said Bailey, a pair of sunglasses and a buzz cut cementing the link between the real life pilot and Tom Cruise of “Top Gun.”

The Cannon pilot said he typically climbs into the tiny, one-man cockpit — covered only by a thin glass veil — three times a week. To avoid noise complaints, he said he and other Cannon airmen try to steer clear of Clovis. He usually sails over empty Lubbock farmland, or the rolling plains of Fort Sumner, he said.

His 20-year-old jet, sleek and small in comparison to a commercial plane, is many times described as an aging aircraft — one that will soon be swept away by new models and new defense demands.

Bailey defends it subtlety.

“Our air frames are beginning to age,” Bailey confirmed, a tinge of sadness perceptible in his tone.

“In the military, you always have to look to the future. We have to make sure we are the most prepared,” the airmen said.

Baily transferred to Cannon in May, but no one knows how long he will remain here. The base was only recently spared from the Department of Defense list for closure. By federal decree, Cannon will hand-off its F-16s to other installations across the nation.

The aircraft, although old, is still in high demand.
So are the services of airmen like Bailey. He spent two years in Korea, a hot spot always on the tip of becoming a full-blown contingency operation, according to Bailey.

His mission Saturday, however, wasn’t so intense. The 27th fighter wing member described himself this weekend as a simple military liaison for kids like Andres Gallegos.

“Even the most rambunctious ones are a little scared to get close to the jet. They get really timid and quiet. I just hunch down to their eye level,” Bailey said.

“It’s a great,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to connect.”