Hurry Up and Wait
An F-16 can reach speeds of 1350 mph, but the pilot training process is considerably slower.
The Washington Post Magazine
February 17, 2002
Last July, in South Korea, Kate Black fell in love with an airplane. As she recalls the experience, her voice quickens and her steel-gray eyes flash. "I flew in the back seat of an F-16," the 23-year-old Air Force second lieutenant says. "It was," she proclaims, "officially the coolest thing I've ever done."
The air-to-air refueling. The afterburner. And going fast.
She decided: She was going to be a combat pilot. More precisely, she was going to be a combat pilot one day. Because, as she soon found out, it takes training -- an awful lot of it -- to fly fighter jets.
Training is what she's doing here, at Maryland Airport in Indian Head, on a flawless, bell-clear Friday afternoon. Today is to be Lt. Black's first day in the air with Yonas Bekit, her flight instructor. This is fighter-jet kindergarten, a long way from an F-16. The two of them will check over a white Cessna 152 and then taxi down the runway, bound for an altitude of 3,000 feet. Black is beyond psyched. She is beside herself. "I can't wait to get in the air," she says, fidgeting.
It isn't just the rush of her summer F-16 ride that motivates Black to want to fly weapons-laden jets on dangerous missions. The events of September 11, she says, inspired her. She remembers sitting in class at American University on the 11th and feeling useless. "I wanted to do something, and we couldn't," she says with lingering frustration. "This career path gives me the opportunity to help -- if necessary."
It will take years. She must get a private pilot's license, undergo advanced training, pass written tests and log many, many hours in the air. It will be a long wait until the young woman nicknamed "Snoopy" gets a chance to become a Top Gun.
Today, in fact, the wait got one day longer. Yonas, who had been checking the weather patterns, announces that the wind is gusting at 20 knots -- too fast for a beginner like Black to fly. "It's a whole lot of hurry up and wait," Black says with a sigh, sunken in a black couch in the airport's office. "It's kind of depressing sometimes."
But she will be back. And when she comes back it will be with a special, three-word motto in mind. "I want to fly F-16s because it's a very pointed mission," she says. "Fly. Fight. Defend."