06/21/06 — Strike Eaglets ... rising 5th graders explore at SJAFB camp

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Strike Eaglets ... rising 5th graders explore at SJAFB camp

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 21, 2006 1:50 PM

Timothy Naughton, 10, and his 9-year-old weapons systems officer, Alex Whitley, spent a few minutes Tuesday upside down, dropping bombs on houses at more than 400 miles per hour.

It was a thrill, but being a middle school F-15E pilot isn't all fun and games -- it's about the mission, too.

"When I was flying, I was going so smoothly that he hit three targets," Timothy said, pointing back at Alex. "But my favorite part is when I got to bomb this one house."

Alex and Timothy were among 60 recent fourth-grade graduates from central and eastern North Carolina at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base this week participating in Starbase, a youth program that focuses on science, math, technology and goal-setting skills.

Classes and base tours began Monday and will run through Friday, when the children will graduate from the program.

But Timothy wasn't thinking that far ahead while sitting in the F-15E simulator in the base's Donnie R. Holland building Tuesday. He was just enjoying the ride.

And while his piloting career is only a little less than a day old, he is already talking about out-flying his father, a member of the 4th Fighter Wing.

"I'm gonna be a better pilot than my dad," he said.

While one group of 15 students was finishing its simulation, another was across base and 100 feet straight above.

From the top of the radar approach and control tower -- 10 stories up -- other Starbase students were taking in the sights from above the tree line -- dozens of jets, airmen walking the flight line and tall buildings on the horizon.

While their guides explained the many functions of the tower and described the F-15E's that were landing right before their eyes, some of the children, including Jalesia Claxton, 9, were intrigued by other things.

"If you were to pour a bucket of water off the top of this, how long would it take it to reach the ground?" she asked.

No one knew the answer.

"If I jumped off of here, would the trees catch me?"

Still no answer.

Jalesia was fascinated by the sheer thrill of being so high off the ground -- at least until she heard the roar of a Strike Eagle approaching.

"I think the jets are pretty cool," she said. "I might want to fly one. It would be cool to go up in a plane and fly at record speed."

And despite the fact that both of her parents are in the Air Force, the heights were just as frightening as they were breathtaking.

"It's kind of scary for some reason," Jalesia said.

A few feet away, Ryan Carpenter, 9, was also feeling a bit uneasy at times -- overjoyed one minute and terrified the next. As he leaned against the guard rail, he tensed up each time someone walked behind him.

"Don't look over," he said. "Don't push me."

The next minute, he was lost in the sight of an F-15E touching down on the flight line. His fears disappeared -- for the moment, anyway.

"Oh look, it's a jet down there," he said, a wide smile across his face. "They're awesome, but from up here they look tiny. They look like one of my toys."

Ryan said despite his problems with heights, standing on the top of that tower was the highlight of his week on base thus far.

"It's cool," he said. "I'm getting over my fears."

333rd Fighter Squadron Capt. Shelly Mendieta said the children aren't just touring the base facilities and enjoying the hot spots -- they're learning, too.

During the week, they discuss the laws of motion, ocean of air and compass reading. They even get to build their own rockets, which they will fire off shortly before their graduation Friday.

336th Fighter Squadron Capt. Reggie Ramsey jumped at the chance to assist the children in the simulator -- to help them learn about the Air Force and the cost of freedom.

"It's just a chance to give back to the kids," he said. "They are the reason we do our job. To provide a free place for them to live and grow up in."