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Why I Fly: What keeps one aviatrix climbing ever higher

By Stacey (Cotton) Bonasso ’90, Photography by Ralph Cole

Stacey Bonasso graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical/aerospace engineering and also earned a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. She joined the Air Force in 1990. Now she’s stationed at Vance AFB in Oklahoma, where she introduces younger pilots to the joy of flight in high-performance jets.

October in the Utah high desert: salt flats and mountain ranges extend for hundreds of miles under a canopy of piercing blue sky. I imagine for a moment how this landscape, so devoid of human development, must have looked long ago, a time when there were no machines and when men didn’t fly.

Hurtling through the autumn air at 480 nautical miles per hour and just 500 feet above the ground, I realize I’ve been daydreaming. Time to get back to the task at hand—not hitting the ground and keeping pace with my flight lead, who is a mile to my left. Today’s mission is fairly routine, unlike most in the F-16. We are going in low through a mountain range for cover, then onto the salt flats for our target run. No real munitions today, but we’ll practice dropping Mark-82 bombs on enemy surface attack weapons.

Flying the ridge, we make the move toward the ravine that will take us through the other side to our target. I pick up my cross-check now—no time for daydreaming here. We fly up the ravine with cliffs close on either side of us. I trail my lead by 4,000 feet, monitoring him and making sure I don’t smack the sides of the mountains. My flight lead rolls into bank and then disappears. My turn next. Just then the earth drops out from beneath me as I make the crest. I roll up to nearly inverted and pull back to the earth below. I catch a glimpse of the bright fall foliage peeking out from underneath autumn’s first snow. As I roll out onto the salt flats—8,000 feet lower than when I started the pull—I remember why I love this job. I thank God that men—and women—fly.

When I was a student learning about aeronautics and astronautics, I was continually amazed at the brilliance and innovation of the professors and even some of my fellow students. It was people like them who redefined fighter aircraft design with statically unstable jets that rely on complex fly-by-wire control systems to keep them from falling out of the sky. This engineering breakthrough, now decades old, is at the heart of the F-16’s awesome maneuverability. Combined with its superior avionics suite and weapons targeting and delivery systems, the

F-16’s maneuverability makes it the world’s best multi-role fighter and a true engineering marvel. Yet it wasn’t until the first time I strapped myself into an F-16, better known by pilots as the Viper, that I truly appreciated this technological work of art and the hundreds of engineers who had made my dream a reality—to fly one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world as fast, as low, and as high-G as it can go. And when I’m in the cockpit, the world-class avionics, incredibly powerful engine, and all the advanced systems take a backseat to the absolute joy of flying. I am taken by the sense of my feet leaving this earth; not simply defying gravity—but defying it with purpose.

The experience of flying the F-16 has been an amazing gift in my life, topped only by my marriage to my husband, Vince, fellow Viper pilot turned FedEx pilot, and the birth of our daughter, Julia Grace. I call her my nine-G baby because she flew a few high-G flights in the Viper before I knew I was pregnant. Julia is now one, and quite healthy despite the high-G maneuvers, and I’m back in the air again, this time as a T-38 instructor pilot.

While it’s no F-16, the T-38 holds its own as a fast and fun flying machine—just ask the students learning to fly it. It’s their first experience in a high-performance jet and it’s nothing short of a miracle. With its older technology the T-38 is statically stable, relying on pilot input with the help of hydraulics to move the flight controls. Although not as maneuverable as the F-16, it can still pull seven G’s, fly between 300 and 500 knots, and perform a full array of aerobatics.

Since the experience is a notch down from the Viper, I find the most rewarding aspect of flying the T-38 is being an instructor. There is a sense of satisfaction in teaching a student who has never flown a high-performance jet. Six months later they can navigate, fly in formation, perform aerobatics and be ready to train in a combat aircraft. Their motivation is inspiring and I am reminded of a day not long ago when I was that student who could think of nothing else but getting my chance to fly a fighter. I can see it in their eyes. The dream is there and it pushes them on, much like it did for me. They dream of flying faster, lower and higher—as high-G as they can go.

I assure my students that as long as there is air in the sky, engineers will continue to build jets that are more powerful, more sophisticated and more capable. To quote a famous movie line, “if you build it, they will come.” Thousands of young men and women will line up for their chance to fly up that ravine and crest the mountaintop. They will come bearing dreams of flight, of taking it to the limit. They will come with dreams of defying gravity—with a purpose.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 11:46 EDT
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