Climbing high INTO THE SUN; U.S. Air Force cadets prepare to defend skies someday

Climbing high INTO THE SUN; U.S. Air Force cadets prepare to defend skies someday Mike Trujillo and Patrick Woodall, fourth-year cadets or "firsties" at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO, check their airplane before taking off from Vermillion's Harold Davidson Field Sunday afternoon. by David Lias Patrick Woodall, Louisville, KY, and Mike Trujillo, Plano, TX, have returned to their training at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, CO.

Last weekend, however, the two young men, who are destined to defend America's skies someday, found time to fly to the plains of South Dakota.

They spent Saturday night at the home of Norm and Mildred Herren of Vermillion, where they received royal treatment.

That's to be expected. Woodall is the Herrens' grandson. And Trujillo has discovered that just being Woodall's trusted friend and flying companion is all that's necessary for him to be welcomed under the wing of hospitality extended by the Vermillion family.

The two young men relaxed Sunday afternoon in the Herrens' home, but they didn't look like typical guests.

Their appearance is similar to pilots who could scramble at any moment to defend the United States, or take place in an offensive military operation.

It's an observation that carried an added bit of irony Sunday afternoon, for earlier that day, the U.S. military and other allied forces struck strategic points in Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 East Coast terrorism.

Both Woodall and Trujillo were dressed in their flight suits. They had checked weather forecasts earlier in the day, and a system was moving in toward the central United States that could make flying their single prop plane difficult.

That meant they had to leave sooner than planned. Shortly after 3 p.m., they took off from Vermillion's Harold Davidson Airport. Their cargo included two paper bags filled with a fresh batch of Mrs. Herren's homemade cookies. Woodall, who has been flying for almost as long as he could drive a car � he received his private pilot's license while a senior in high school � was at the controls.

Trujillo served as navigator. He hasn't received his pilot's license yet, but that will be a top priority later this year.

The two cadets are "firsties" at the academy � a term used to describe senior students.

On May 29, they will both graduate as second lieutenants, receive their commissions on graduation day, and hopefully move on to the next phase of

their military career � pilot training.

So far, Trujillo's flying experience has been limited mainly to trips he's taken with Woodall.

"I just fly around with Pat, but I plan to start working on my PPL (private pilot's license) next semester," he said.

"Everybody has to get their private license before they begin military pilot training," Woodall said.

The two young men's trip to Vermillion last weekend was beneficial in many ways. Both got to sample Mrs. Herren's delicious home cooking, filling their plates with seconds and thirds.

In the air, they received valuable experience that will help them reach their ultimate goals of becoming U.S. Air Force pilots.

"The reason I was going to fly here is for an instrument rating; it is a higher rating to get that allows you to fly in the clouds," Woodall said. "It's flying by using instruments rather than using ground references."

"I need 50 cross country hours in order to do that, so we decided to fly out to South Dakota," he said.

The two men left Colorado Springs 9 a.m. Saturday. They didn't fly a military plane; they simply leased a private aircraft. Four hours after takeoff, they touched down at the Vermillion airport.

Someday, the two men hope to be behind the controls of an aircraft with considerable more horsepower and firepower.

"Most definitely," Trujillo answered when asked if he hopes to pilot a fighter jet someday. "That is the final goal. The whole top gun thing."

Woodall said their experiences at the academy are preparing them to take that next step. He will graduate with a degree in engineering mechanics. Trujillo is majoring in aeronautical engineering.

"And you carry a heavier course load that you do at most colleges," Trujillo said, "and you do the military leadership on top of it as well. We pretty much run the academy. We do all the supervision. We do all the rules. We do all the enforcement, so it's our academy.

"Primarily, we get a majority of the pilots in the Air Force, and to be a pilot you have to be an officer and get your commission, and to get your commission, you have to get your degree," he added.

Woodall said that since he and Trujillo both want to become military pilots, they will have at least 12 more years of Air Force training and service ahead of them after they graduate from the academy next year.

"We really don't know where we're going to go (after we graduate)," Trujillo said. "We find out what we're going to do in the Air Force, find out exactly if we're going to be pilots, and if not what career field we'll be going into in about six weeks."

Woodall knew since he was a young boy that he wanted to be in the military.

"My grandpa was in the Navy, and my dad was drafted in the Army," he said. "I wanted to be a pilot, too, but I didn't really connect the two when I was

real young."

That changed when he went on a Boy Scout trip in New Mexico.

"On the way down, we flew into Colorado Springs, and one of our scoutmasters was an Air Force grad, and he took me by the academy, and I decided that's where I wanted to go to school," Woodall said.

"Being an Eagle Scout also helps you get into the academy," Mr. Herren said, proudly describing the background of the two men.

Besides their love of flying, both Woodall and Trujillo share that highest ranking of the Boy Scouts.

"I've always wanted to fly; I have no idea when it started," Trujillo said.

When he was a child, one of his next door neighbors was a Navy pilot.

"He'd come home and bring all these pictures, and he actually let me go out to his plane and sit in it when he flew in for flight training," Trujillo said. "I just thought it was the coolest thing, and I never got it out of my head."

Trujillo's not qualified to take the controls of a plane yet. But he proved last weekend that his navigation skills are superb.

"He did a great job. We came in and we were right on target," Woodall said. "He's taking a class right now in instrument navigation, and he was just perfect."

The two men realize they may eventually take part in America's war against terrorism.

"When you look at going into harm's way, of course you're not going to be ambitious to go do it, but it's what we signed up to do. It's our duty," Trujillo said. "And we're not doing it against our will. It's something we signed up to do and we're willing to do."

"We're willing to do it, but I don't think that means we're warmongers," Woodall said.

"We go with apprehension. One of the primary things they teach us at school is when to use force, when it's appropriate, and how to conduct war," Trujillo said.

"We understand that war is going to be around for awhile," Woodall said. "We don't want it to happen, but we understand that it will, and that's what we signed up for."

The two men can't talk about how their lives have changed since Sept. 11. Classes still go on under heightened security.

"The academy did use to be one of the largest man-made tourist attractions in Colorado," Woodall said. "It's not any more."

The Herrens drove the two men to Harold Davidson field Sunday afternoon.

After a thorough check of their aircraft, and an exchange of handshakes and hugs with their Vermillion hosts, Woodall and Trujillo gunned the engine of their plane and gently climbed into the brisk South Dakota wind.

Mr. and Mrs. Herren proudly watched the plane circle the airport, fly nearly directly overhead, and then head in a westerly direction.

Peacefully.

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