The next step in between UPT and RTU was LIFT. In Air Force acronyms … Undergraduate Pilot Training, Reserve Training Unit (later Fighter Training Unit), and Lead-In Fighter Training.
At that time, LIFT was held in the middle of the White Sands National Park, just outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, at a sprawled out Air Force base called Holloman. When I got there in early 1989, there were three squadrons of F-15A and four squadrons of AT-38B aircraft at the base.
For me, the best part of Holloman was that it was owned by Tactical Air Command (TAC) soon to be Air Combat Command (ACC), meaning I was out of Air Training Command (ATC) and officially attached to a fighter unit; but still a student in all measures.
I walked around in awe. These instructors or I dare say “fighter” pilots, were different. They had swagger. Their flight suit zippers didn’t quite get up to regulation and they rolled up or under their sleeves with stars sewed on them representing flying and combat hours. And, they all added this little “crook” in the back of their hats. All the photos of the legends had it: Chuck Yeager, Steve Ritchie, Robin Olds, and so did these Captains.
Since I had a late RTU start date, my training had been delayed; and most of my UPT class was already hard at work. So, I joined a new group of recent graduates and we hung out waiting to for our program to begin. Wanting to get to know each other, we met at the Officer’s club to hang out.
This wasn’t the generic, clean, orderly ATC officer’s club. It was full of history, memorabilia, a strange pool table with just two balls, a dartboard, a foosball table, and a slight stench of stale beer. There were mugs hanging on the walls, it was, we had arrived at … Mount Olympus!
We sat down in a relatively empty bar and started jockeying and one-upping each other with stories from our vast treasure trove of experience (1-year at pilot training). I eventually wandered up to the bar and looked around.
There was a shiny bronze bell behind the bar. Oh, I knew the lore, for I had interned at a fighter squadron in Vegas. “Ring the bell and buy the bar!” I chuckled.
And then, I saw it… there it was, an F-15 Stick Grip sticking out of the bar. YGTBSM! OK – you are right, I didn’t have that language at the time. I think I thought … “Uh – Wow.”
The stick serpent started whispering to me, “Come over here, little baby pilot, you’ve been waiting your whole life to touch me, give me a go.” Something didn’t feel right. What was an F-15 stick doing sticking up out of the bar? My spidey senses were tingling and I heard Admiral Akbar say “It’s a trap.” But I paid no heed. I saw the shot and took it, there was no danger… (Top Gun quote)
So yup, dagnabit, I grabbed that stick. I pulled the trigger, I pushed the buttons, I saw myself bearing down on a MiG-29. And then, I was jolted out of my dream by the loud ringing of the bell. The bartender was up and rapidly serving the appeared masses. Oh shit! The trigger on the stick rings the bell and I was caught, red-handed – so to speak!
“Yup, ring the bell and buy the bar.” And so I did. A hundred-dollar lesson. Needless to say, besides the hole in my pocket, it was an epic night!