BANGOR – Amber Thomas, 16, had never flown before Thursday.
On June 22, the Air Force Junior ROTC cadet attended a summer leadership program. She was slated to embark on her first flight in a Cessna 172 once three of her fellow cadets returned from their flight.
But they did not return.
The small aircraft crashed into a mountainside in Newry during the introductory flight lesson, killing three Lewiston High School students, Nick Babcock, 17; Shannon Fortier, 15; Teisha Loesberg, 16; and their pilot and flight instructor, William “Charlie” Weir, 24.
Although Babcock was “like a brother” to Thomas, she said the most difficult part of his death was breaking the tragic news to the rest of his friends.
“The worst was telling my best friend that her boyfriend was dead,” Thomas said quietly while fidgeting with the pins on her blue cadet uniform. “She [her best friend] definitely did not want me to fly today. She’ll be happy to see me tomorrow.”
On Thursday, 19 Lewiston High School Junior ROTC cadets boarded a KC-135 stratotanker plane at the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor, which for most students would be the first time back in the air since the crash.
“At the moment, until the investigation [of the crash] is complete, we have suspended flying [through the school program],” Lt. Col. Robert Meyer, senior aerospace science instructor at the school, said. “This is a great way to keep them involved with aviation, and a good way to get them back in the saddle safely.”
As the gray clouds outside brought occasional rain showers, the dreary weather conditions reflected the somber mood of the cadets during the safety meeting before the flight.
“A lot of days in the course of a person’s life can be like rainy days,” base chaplain Lt. Col. Richard Dickinson said to the cadets. “We had a day like this last June, and it turned into a nightmare. I hope all of you who feel anything like a passion for aviation, [I hope] it was not dampened or rained on by the events this past June.”
Strapped along the sides of the tanker plane in “stretcher seats,” the group came alive once the plane broke through the thick cloud cover and blinding sunlight shone through the few windows of the aircraft.
“Wooohooo, oh my God, it’s the sun,” one passenger exclaimed, obviously ecstatic to see the sun after the morning’s downpours.
Others broke out into a rendition of the Johnny Nash tune, “I can see clearly now,” a song appropriate for the day’s events, the obstacles overcome and their bright futures ahead.
“I’ve never seen the clouds from above before,” Christopher Spencer, 15, said after laying down in the tail of the plane, the boom operator’s position. “This is a backwards Superman-type thing,” he said with a smile as he watched the auburn and crimson clouds pass.
The group scurried from the cockpit to the tail, munching on sandwiches and granola bars and carefully watching the Air Guard members complete their mid-air refueling mission.
“Tragedies happen in every business, and in any career you have to look past variables to your dreams,” said Maj. Tad Woodilla, co-pilot of the military flight, noting his admiration for these students for facing their anxieties and flying so soon after such a tragic crash.
As the plane reached the southern side of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, it approached the refueling track where it met up with a C-5, the largest American military transport plane.
The C-5 flew right up behind the KC-135 Stratotanker, and flying only feet apart, the Stratotanker refueled the large plane mid-air.
Tech Sgt. Laurie Karnes laid in the “back window” of the tanker and operated the boom, which connects to the refueling aircraft and acts as an aerial gas pump, and explained her actions to the cadets.
“[The C-5] came in at an angle, then hovered and hooked up with us,” Jessica Malia, 16, said in awe. “[Karnes] explained what she was going to do and let us play with the switch. And we could see the pilots of the other plane looking up at us with their aviator sunglasses.”
As the flight drew to a close, many cadets reflected on their experience and recognized their greater sense of security flying in the large tanker plane compared to a smaller one, like a Cessna.
“I think it’s definitely good for cadets to know it’s safe and recognize these are two totally different aircraft,” Amanda Russell, 17, the Junior ROTC squadron commander, said after the flight. “It’s also important to get everyone back up in the air.”
Despite June’s tragedy, the time has allowed for healing and has even inspired some cadets to pursue careers in the military and aviation.