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Pilot for a Day roams with the Nomads

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Andrea Posey
  • 33rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
“I feel the need, the need for speed,” Christian Loafman repeated, he’d spent the last couple of weeks watching “Top Gun” and searching YouTube for videos of the F-35 Lightning II in anticipation of his visit to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to be the 33rd Fighter Wing’s first F-35A Pilot for a Day.

The Pilot for a Day program was created 26 years ago as way for units to get involved with the community and alllow children to experience a day in the life of an Air Force pilot. Christian, age nine, was officially diagnosed with progressive infantile scoliosis and autism around the age of two. Since then he has had multiple surgeries, wears a brace and attends weekly therapies to overcome his limitations.

Christian’s mother, Kerri Loafman, describes her son as very outgoing and larger-than-life with a love of all things Lego. She shared that her son has been “over the moon” since he was chosen as Eglin’s first F-35A Pilot for a Day almost two weeks ago.

“We’ve counted down every single day, every minute,” K. Loafman said. “Every day he would wake up and ask, ‘Is today the day?’”

Driving up to the wing, Christian was surprised with a sign welcoming him to the 33rd FW. His mother parked in the Pilot for a Day reserved parking area and they were greeted by Christian’s wingman, Maj. Mike Krestyn, 33rd Operation Support Squadron chief of scheduling, who accompanied him throughout the day to help him transform into an F-35A pilot.

The duo’s journey began at the 58th Fighter Squadron where the new pilot was greeted by the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Brad Bashore, and given his flight suit complete with squadron patches and a nametag.

While touring the 58th FS, the young pilot received a mission brief from 2nd Lt. Colin Backet, 33rd OSS unit intelligence chief, where he learned the kinds of information pilots receive before flying.

“Being able to give Christian one of these briefs was truly amazing,” Backet said. “At the end of the day that's why I joined the military; to try to make a difference anyway I could. I hope he will remember this experience for a long time to come.”

After the briefing, Christian was escorted to an F-35A static display where he received an up close view of a jet that displayed his name on the side. Crew Chiefs from the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Tech. Sgt. John Accurso and Tech. Sgt. Michael Arwood, spoke with him and presented the young pilot with a squadron t-shirt.

“I have been in this unit for three and a half years and spoke to many [distinguished visitors] to include the [Secretary of Defense] and the next [Air Force] Chief of Staff -- by far Christian was the most important DV I have had the honor to meet,” Accurso said. “Seeing his face when he saw his name on the jet was priceless and one of the highlights of my time here at Eglin.”

While on the flightline the young pilot was visited by the 33rd MXS wizard, the squadron mascot, and surprised by agents from the Marvel comic book series “S.H.E.I.L.D.” The agents brought superheroes “Captain America” and the “Winter Soldier” along to escort Christian to the 33rd Maintenance Squadron for a look at where the heroes’ weapons were made and where Airmen and Sailors create tools to maintain the F-35A.

The “Winter Soldier” or Capt. Josh Gradaille, 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron fabrication flight commander, believes being a superhero for Christian's visit was one of the most rewarding experiences in his tenure as an officer.

"His response and expressions alone were extremely rewarding,” Gradaille said. “The folks who were fortunate enough to meet Christian all agree that we need more [programs] like Pilot for a Day, it reinvigorates our desire to serve."

At the 33rd MXS, metals technicians demonstrated a water jet cutter’s capability. After the demonstration, Christian received an F-35 silhouette memento.

Nondestructive inspection and low observable Airmen showed Christian how to repair panels similar to the Helicarrier seen in the Marvel movies and presented him with a miniature F-35A tail complete with stickers to decorate it. The “Avengers” also gifted him action figures in their likeness as souvenirs from their meeting.

“The world class Airmen and Sailors of team MXS are always looking for an opportunity to give back to the community,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Rex Burkett, 33rd Maintenance Squadron commander. “Putting a smile on young Christian’s face was a special treat, especially knowing he is a dependent of a deployed member. We had a blast and I think we all felt [nine] years old.”

Christian then traveled to the 33rd OSS pilot fit facility to fly the F-35 flight simulator under the guidance of Tech. Sgt. Omar Robinson, 96th Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiology technician. He also tried on an F-35 helmet and participated in an aircraft flight safety equipment demonstration.

“As soon as [Christian] walked into the room, he jumped into the [flight simulator] with no hesitation and was ready to go,” Robinson said. “After giving him a tutorial, he started flying and caught on extremely quick. He was a natural. He had a huge smile that lit up the entire room; watching him truly warmed my heart.”

After completing his flight the new pilot was taken to the flight tower to learn about an air traffic controller’s duty to oversee the sky above Eglin AFB while watching two F-15 Eagles take off.

All of Christian’s preparation before arriving at the 33rd FW must have paid off because he left the Nomads with the distinct impression that he was a natural when it came to flying the F-35A. This earned him the call sign “The Natural.”
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