Addison County Independent on AddisonIndependent.com July 20, 2009
by Kathryn Flagg
WATCH IT: On YouTube
BRISTOL — A father-daughter sock hop? No thanks, say one Bristol dad and his daughter.
Tim and Molly Eaton, 50 and 18, respectively, prefer to do their bonding at 230 miles an hour, 8,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
That's how the two experienced a day in the life of a fighter pilot, through a program called Air Combat U.S.A. The program let the pair — both flight enthusiasts — pilot SIAI Marchetti SF-260 jets through air combat maneuvers with the assistance of trained fighter pilots.
For Tim, the trip was a 50th birthday present — and for Molly, the flight over the Atlantic helped commemorate her graduation this spring from Mt. Abraham Union High School.
"As a father, I think it's a wonderful thing to be able to do this with your daughter," Tim said.
"Flying is something we both enjoy doing," Molly added.
Tim, a real estate agent in Middlebury with Lang McLaughry Spera, was no stranger to flight. He's a licensed pilot, and has been flying for 25 years. He caught the bug during a fishing trip to Canada with friends years ago. He'd never flown before, but they boarded a tiny plane to fly in to a remote area to fish.
"After that, I came home and started flying," he said. "I said, 'I have to do this.' It's just one of those things that excited me."
He passed the flying bug on to his youngest child, Molly. He took her flying once when she was younger, and she too fell in love with the experience of being in the air.
Now, Molly will head to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., this fall, where she plans to pursue a degree in aeronautical science. She hopes to become a professional pilot someday.
And in the video footage of the father-daughter pair's fighter jet experience in June, Molly's enthusiasm for flying is evident. Tim joked that in footage from his cockpit, he is "totally apprehensive." Meanwhile, Molly is all smiles.
"You could tell that she loved it," Tim said.
All told, the two spent between 45 minutes and an hour in the air, each in their own plane. They flew with two flight instructors — "Pigmy" and "Squirt," by their call names. (Molly and Tim went by "Mo" and "Pops" in the air, as they spoke to one another over their radios.)
The instructors, it turned out, were seasoned fighter pilots. The 78-year-old Pigmy, who flew with Tim, received his Navy wings in 1955, and flew in the Vietnam War, and was a U.S. Naval attaché to Brazil in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Molly's instructor, "Squirt," graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Navy's fighter weapons school.
These teachers guided the planes through the take off and landing maneuvers, but handed the controls over to the pair once they were safely in reserved air space just off the coast near Marshfield, Mass. (Air Combat U.S.A. travels to airports around the country, and was stationed at the Marshfield airport for a week in June.)
In air, Tim and Molly practiced flying in formation and learned a few basic air combat maneuvers. Their "hard deck," or the lowest altitude at which they flew, was 3,000 feet, and they climbed to as high as 8,000 feet above the ocean. Their Marchetti jets have been used by 27 air forces around the world.
In a few rounds of good-natured rivalry, Molly and Tim were pitted against one another in dogfight maneuvers. They played five rounds in this game of mock aerial combat, trying to line up their opponents in their cross hairs. Then, they'd fire — and keep firing. An electronic tone mimicked the sound of real bullets, and each "hit" was signaled by a trail of smoke that spun out from the wounded plane.
"Lose sight, lose the fight," Molly quipped.
The matches were close, but Tim eked out one extra win, besting Molly in the dogfights 3-2. But Molly had a quick comeback to that final tally.
"He won 3-2," she said, "but I didn't get sick."
The Air Combat U.S.A. program isn't cheap — a basic training outing runs nearly $1,400 per person.
But Tim and Molly agreed that the experience was priceless.
In fact, Molly says now that she could picture herself flying fighter jets for a living — though she plans to take her time at Embry-Riddle before deciding whether or not pursuing a flight career in the military is up her alley.
The experience of flying these fighter jets, both father and daughter agreed, is not for the "weak of heart."
"It's physically and mentally exhausting," Tim said.
And for anyone considering giving the Air Combat U.S.A. experience a try, the two agreed that it's hard to prepare for the experience of being in the air in a fighter yet.
"It's like nothing you've ever experienced," Molly said. "It's not like a roller coaster … it is its own experience."
"Yeah, this isn't your basic ride at the fair," Tim chimed in. "It'll never compare."