MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE (WIS) - An alarm can sound at any second at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover.
If and when it does, 26 F-16s, the pilots who fly them, and the dozens who maintain them are ready to gear up and defend the entire Southeast.
Last week, I was given a unique opportunity to fly in an F-16, the Fighting Falcon. But my journey into the air began on the ground with a full day of training and with a pilot nicknamed Cleetus.
"Because they got started on the Dukes of Hazzard. Because of my Southern accent, which I thought was normal around here, but apparently, it's not at Shaw, so anyway, Cleetus got the loudest roar, and that's what I ended up with," he explained with a smile.
Cleetus is Colonel Scott Bridgers. He's served multiple tours overseas. The elite F-16 pilot has spent thousands upon thousands of hours in the air. He knows the Fighting Falcon like few others.
"I was kind of like the standard college student who didn't know what they wanted to do. About halfway through college, I had to make up my mind, and I had a friend who took me flying. His eyesight wasn't good enough to get into the military, but he told me, 'Hey, this is something that you get paid to do,' and that kind of started me down the path," he said.
Say 'Cleetus' out loud at McEntire and the name evokes grins. The plain-talking North Carolinian always seems to have a story worth hearing.
"We got a call that they needed some help with a sniper. Once we checked on the station, we got the coordinates for this strike, and the sniper was actually on the corner of Saddam's palace in Downtown Baghdad, so I was fortunate enough to be able to drop a 2,000-pound bomb on Saddam's palace to neutralize that sniper," he recalled.
Last week, Facebook Live captured our walk to our ride.
"So Chad, what are you most nervous about?" Sam Bleiweis asked me in the video. (Sam was my alternate in case I was injured or became so afraid I bowed out before the flight).
"Probably throwing up," I answered. "Not so much the throwing up as the process of getting the bag out and getting ready for the event.
"Yeah, just make sure you hit the bag because the crew chief's going to want you to help him clean it up if you don't," Cleetus added.
Minutes later, it was time. The sky was so blue and so clear, it seemed like the logical place to go. Cleetus and I walked around the F-16 for some routine pre-flight checks before we climbed in.
"I think it's like driving a Lamborghini with a rocket strapped to it, although I've never driven a Lamborghini, but if I had, that's what I think it'd feel like," he said.
Soon, our helmets were on, the canopy was down, and we taxied to the runway.
Through the speaker built into my helmet, I could hear the excitement in Cleetus' voice as he prepared to take off. The almost vertical take-off to 15,000 feet felt like a moon mission. As I glanced over my shoulder, the world rapidly shrunk.
In minutes, we were right over Charleston's beaches and downtown itself. From up there, the Ravenel Bridge didn't look so impressive. Fort Sumter looked like a reddish-brown speck surrounded by blue.
After a low-pass through Joint Base Charleston, we headed up along the coast to Myrtle Beach, then finally, the most unforgettable stop, a patch of air above Williamsburg County called Robroy where Cleetus showed me what the F-16 can really do.
Cleetus and I took turns using the jet's stick to doing loops, aileron rolls, and sharp turns while bracing for the G's that come along with them.
"So flying straight and level is just like flying in an airliner, but this jet is very agile, very maneuverable, has a high thrust-to-weight ratio, so it can pull 9 G's and we do a basic fighter maneuvers or dogfight type sorties where you are turning an pulling those 9 G's for quite a few seconds," he said before the flight.
I attempted a barrel roll. I also felt what it's like to send the jet straight up (like you're doing a loop) while rolling in a spiral. I felt negative G's, and, at one point, I experienced 0 Gs too. For that, I removed my glove, and it literally floated before my eyes.
In the end, after maxing out at about 7-and-a-half G's and returning to McEntire with some "knife edge" passes, I didn't need my Ziploc bag, and I didn't lose consciousness either.
If I had to pick one, my favorite part was the thrill of taking the F-16 for a loop. It is an image and feeling I'll never forget. Pulling back on the stick and turning the aircraft's nose upward – thousands of feet above the Earth.
At first, you see nothing but blue as you soar into the clear sky, G's pushing against your body all the while. Then, a new perspective that's hard to describe.
At the top of the loop, you look up out of the cockpit's glass canopy and see the ground – a patchwork of green farms, distant buildings, and small towns.
But, don't call those fancy maneuvers "tricks." Mastering them can keep an airman alive. I still can't wrap my head around the multi-tasking that goes into piloting an F-16 at war.
I got a small glimpse of that in the restricted air space over Williamsburg County. Cleetus and I had mock dogfights with other F-16s (They locked onto us, and we locked onto them), we locked onto mock targets on the ground, and we pretended to launch bombs at those ground targets.
The flight gave me more than just thrills.
Back on the ground, I have a new respect for those who train and practice those dangerous moves to stay alive in the air at war, not to impress, and a deep respect for the countless others who support them on the ground.
"The American Air Force is the best air force in the world," Cleetus said. "Period."