Fans of the USAF Thunderbirds can always visit the team’s official website to find the names and read about the careers of the incredibly talented aviators who take to the skies in the famous red, white, and blue F-16 C and D aircraft. But on June 9, 2023, there was a new name added to the roster: Jenifer Rayne, aka “Hammer.”
One of the many public outreaches the Thunderbirds accomplish each year is their Hometown Hero program, one that honors people who have made contributions to better their local community. At each of the team’s airshow stops, the Hometown Hero selected for recognition experiences the unforgettable thrill of flying with one of the Thunderbirds aviators in an F-16D two-seater fighter aircraft.
For Maryland’s Ocean City Air Show of June 10 and 11, 2023, Jenifer Rayne, principal of Pocomoke High School in southern coastal Maryland, was selected for this honor. Aside from the responsibilities expected of a principal, Rayne thoughtfully looked for ways to make the school experience and lives of her students more rewarding. That led to the creation of a student club called Speak Up, a group that not only provides students with a creative appreciation for the culture of marginalized populations, but also gives students a collective voice that is heard for the betterment of everyone at the school. Rayne’s efforts were recognized by the Maryland State Education Association, which recently presented her with the MSEA Human and Civil Rights Award – an award for which she was nominated by her own students.
As fulfilling as the award presentation in Baltimore may have been, there was an emphasis on excitement when Rayne and a small group of friends and supporters arrived early the morning of June 9 at the main gate of NASA Wallops Flight Facility. This NASA installation acted as home base for the Thunderbirds in the days leading up to and during the Ocean City Air Show. Entering D-1 Hanger, Rayne met with medical staff and team members who outfitted her with a flight suit. Then, it was on to the critical flight briefing, conducted by the pilot who would convey Jenifer on the fastest ride of her life.
Lt. Col. Ryan Yingling is Thunderbird #7. Since being selected for pilot training at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training after earning his navigator rating in 2008, Yingling has amassed over 3500 flight hours, including time spent piloting A-10C aircraft in operational assignments over the Republic of Korea.
Like all Thunderbirds team members, Yingling is calm and professional, intensely focused. Seated at a desk and armed with a laptop computer and a scale model of an F-16, the pilot conveyed to Rayne what she would see, hear, and feel during the flight.
“So, what are we going to do today?” Yingling asked rhetorically. “Fly an airplane. Fly a very fast airplane. And do things in an airplane that you’ll never do in an airplane again.”
Yingling began a detailed description of the cockpit environment. Despite the fast flow of the information, Rayne appeared nearly serene, taking it all in as topics were ticked off ranging from restraint systems to cockpit ventilation.
The inertial reel of the cockpit harness can be locked into place or, with the control in the aft position, it’s released and allows freedom of movement.
“We’re going to keep it in the aft position all day today,” Yingling explained. “It’s not going to help us with aerobatics, or going upside down, or anything like that – unless we have an issue with stopping distance. If we feel like we’re concerned about the stopping distance of the aircraft, then we have a hook on the back of the aircraft that can grab a cable. If we have to take the cable, which is here at Wallops, then we will lock our harnesses. That way, when it slows us down real quick like we’re landing on an aircraft carrier, our face doesn’t go into the console. We don’t want to damage the pretty helmets,” he concluded with a smile.
Rayne would be able to adjust a cooling airflow bezel during the flight – but that action comes with a slight caution.
“When you reach down to move that,” Yingling said, “just be cognizant that the ejection handle is right there in front of it. Any time you are moving about in the cockpit, we want to move very deliberately. We don’t want to catch anything on our flight suit cuffs, or any other equipment that might break. Same thing around the ejection handle – we don’t want to accidentally grab onto it.”
Adding some reassuring news, Yingling noted that the ejection handle has to be armed, and then requires 40-50 pounds of upward pressure to actually initiate ejection.
“So, if you bump it, don’t worry about it.”
Of course, a central component of the briefing was to prepare “Hammer” for the g-forces she would soon encounter. Yingling elaborated on a simple mantra: squeeze, breath, here come the g’s…He stressed the proper way to brace the lower body, encased in g-suit protection, and the importance of a metronome-like approach to breathing. The target is roughly 70-80% lung capacity, to avoid blacking out.
“The reason we don’t want to take a real deep breath? When the g’s push on our chest…” Yingling forcefully exhales. “All out – and now, nap time. And we don’t want to do that.”
After a final review of the maneuvers planned, the long walk from the hanger facility to the flightline began. All eight of the Thunderbirds aircraft were precisely aligned on the tarmac, but as Rayne and Yingling neared #7, Thunderbirds 1 through 4 pulled away to noisily initiate an airshow familiarization flight.
Minutes later Rayne joined them in the skies, Yingling initiating a steep, powerful climb in the F-16 just seconds off the runway. What followed were all of the acrobatics and resulting sensations that Rayne had been prepared for that morning – but actually experiencing them was likely something else entirely.
Surely a highlights of the flight came when Yingling guided Thunderbird #7 over Pocomoke High School, where Rayne’s students were gathered to cheer her on as she flashed by, the F-16 banking with a trail of smoke in its wake.
In less than an hour it was over, “Hammer” standing next to the F-16 with an elated look on her face. Yingling proudly noted that she had experienced 9.3 g’s at one point in the flight – an imposing force.
“I was awake the whole time - they gave me the breathing techniques and the crew prepared me for everything we were doing today,” Rayne enthused to a local WMDT-ABC reporter covering her flight. “The turns, the rolls, and going upside down… It was really one of the best days of my entire life.”
The Hometown Hero was now off-duty. But Lt. Col. Yingling had myriad other tasks to oversee.
When he’s not at the controls of Thunderbird #7, Lt. Col. Yingling has a tremendous responsibility as the leader of the team Operations Section. Under his domain are team communications, computer systems analysts, training, standardization and evaluation, aircrew flight equipment, and airlift support.
“It’s a 370 day a year operation, 25 hours a day, eight days a week,” Yingling emphasized. “I have people that work multiple jobs just to make this happen. We take 70 people on every trip that we do, and we can only fit nine in our own jets. So, we have to reply on Air Force airlift. We take about 40 to 50,000 pounds of equipment to every show. And then we rely on the airshow team, the show hosts, the directors to secure a lot of our ground equipment. But each and every day we are demonstrating the Air Force’s combat capabilities.”
Over the weekend the USAF Thunderbirds went on to fly out of their temporary base at NASA Wallops Flight Facility while headlining two days at the Ocean City Air Show, an event that played out in near perfect weather. The tens of thousands of spectators crowding the beach and boardwalk were thrilled by the show – but understandably, no one was more thrilled during this particular visit by the Thunderbirds than Jenifer Rayne.
Click on photos for larger images. All photos: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions
Click on photos for larger images. All photos: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions
Using an F-16 scale model, Lt. Col. Yingling provides Jenifer Rayne with a preview of the flight to come – including this upside down maneuver.
Lt. Col. Yingling and Jenifer “Hammer” Rayne cross the tarmac as Thunderbird #1 leads 2, 3, and 4 into takeoff position.
Fully encased in flightware and g-suit, Rayne ascends toward her seat in the rear cockpit.
Strapped in and ready to go, Rayne strikes a classic confident aviator pose.
Lt. Col. Yingling runs through his final pre-flight checks as Rayne prepares to go airborne, her name added just below Thunderbird #7’s canopy.
Flights checks complete, Lt. Col. Yingling sets Thunderbird #7 into motion, Jenifer Rayne watching with excitement from the rear seat.
Thunderbird #7 leaps toward the skies over the runway at NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
Rayne feels her first g forces as Yingling applies the power to initiate a steep ascent.
Mission accomplished: Thunderbird #7 returns to the flightline after following a path that included a high-speed pass over Pocomoke High School.
The Thunderbirds team presents Jenifer Rayne with exclusive artwork commemorating her aerial adventure.
Jenifer Rayne speaks with WMDT-ABC about the day’s events. “We’re a very small community, we’re about 75% poverty,” she noted. “I’m always trying to look for ways to get some attention and exposure, because I think our students are the very best students that there are, with the very best staff. So I’m honored to represent them.”