06/06/08 — SJAFB Demo Team mission more than just thrills in the air

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SJAFB Demo Team mission more than just thrills in the air

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 6, 2008 1:46 PM

Some 20 years ago, Phil Smith was the 10-year-old along the MacDill Air Force Base flight line telling those around him he would be a fighter pilot one day.

He remembers watching the crews as they descended from their jets after air show performances, and the reception they got from thousands of fans of high-speed flight shortly after.

"I said something like, 'I want to be that guy when I grow up,'" Smith said.

And that is just what he did.

He became a fighter pilot.

But something happened along the way he did not expect.

When he was chosen to fly for the 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagle Demonstration Team, he became a symbol of something he would tell you is far greater than any one man.

He and his teammates are more than a pilot, weapons officer, maintainers and crew.

They represent those currently looking down on the battles still raging in the Middle East.

And that fact will never be clearer than it will be this weekend when the team performs for the 100,000-plus expected at Cherry Point, Smith said.

Because chances are, at least one of the Marines stationed there or in the crowd has heard the "bone-rattling" roar of the Strike Eagle before.

Only the last time, it was in the desert -- and that jet was keeping them alive.

"At Army and Marine bases, a lot of times, people come up to you afterwards," Smith said. "They say something like, 'I was deployed. I had an F-15 save my butt. Thanks for what you do.' Right then it hits home."

Capt. Ed Colfer rides in the back.

He, too, has been thanked by soldiers and Marines for the air power F-15Es have delivered in combat -- and the air power they are currently providing to troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

"A guy or girl comes up to you and they say, 'Hey, an F-15 did good work for me while I was in the desert,'" Colfer said. "That's awesome. It's really satisfying to hear that."

During combat missions, he is the guy dropping the heavy ordnance on insurgents and enemy targets.

Protecting Allied troops is always the No. 1 priority, he said.

So he relishes his assignment, an opportunity, he says, to show off the Strike Eagle to the American public -- so that it never forgets about the men and women who put their lives on the line yesterday, those doing it today, and those who will for months and years to come.

But there are other reasons the Demo Team flies.

It also flies for the younger versions of Smith and Colfer, the dreamers who might see the "sheer power" of the Strike Eagle at a show and decide to serve his country one day.

Shaking their hands, Smith says, gives him chills.

Colfer feels the same way.

Being a role model is humbling, he said.

"When you see these kids out there, you think, 'Wow. I was that kid years ago,'" he said. "I was the one fascinated by the jets. I was the one saying how cool it would be to fly one. You think, 'Maybe one of these kids that I talked to will eventually do that.'"

And then there are the combat veterans from Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.

They, too, are in the skies with Smith and Colfer as they rip through the clouds.

"We have had veterans come up to us crying," Smith said.

Having lived experiences like these at show after show, Smith and Colfer understand that with this weekend's performance might come more of the same.

Maybe they will shake the hand of another dreamer, or veteran or troop an F-15E saved in the desert.

And if they do, those moments will likely evoke smiles and chills.

Both men have been the dreamer.

Both have heard the frantic cries of troops under fire.

And both know that those are the people they take the sky to protect.