Fighter pilots buzz into Washington County Career Center for Veterans Day event
MARIETTA — Veterans Day was an instant celebrity event for four Air Force captains Friday morning at the Washington County Career Center.
After opening remarks from principal Michael Elliott and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, hundreds of students sat on the floor of the cafeteria listening as combat pilots Ross Elder, Matt Underwood, Lacey Schol and Rick Razack spoke about their military experiences and sky-high careers. All four are A-10 Thunderbolt pilots, stationed at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., and Elder has a special connection to the Mid-Ohio Valley as a graduate of Williamstown High School and the son of one of the career center teachers, Vince Elder.
The squadron of Thunderbolts, an aircraft named after the rugged P-47 fighter aircraft from World War II and affectionately nicknamed “warthog” as a tribute to their ungainly appearance, is the 23rd Wing, also called the Flying Tigers to continue the tradition of a group of covert fighter pilots from the Pacific Theater of World War II.
The four pilots shared a common concern for their primary mission, which is to support and protect ground troops. Elder and Underwood both have combat experience over Syria.
Razack, a first generation American, said he grew up in Nevada near Nellis Air Force Base.
“I saw the fighter planes coming and going all the time, and I always knew that’s what I wanted to be,” he told the students. “That was my dream. The first time you fly a single-seat fighter, you’re in complete control … this career is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Underwood had a similar story, saying he grew up in Texas near DFW airport, watching aircraft fly overhead. “I came from a military family and knew I wanted to fly,” he said. He was recruited for the Air Force Academy in part because of his prowess as a soccer player. One day he met a Navy SEAL and heard the story that determined the course of his military career.
“He told me that an A-10 saved his life once, and I knew that’s what I had to do,” he said. “In an A-10, you’re very close to the guys on the ground, you can hear the fear in their voices on the radios, and our job is to protect them.”
The A-10 is specifically designed to assist ground troops and comes with a formidable armaments array, including a nose-mounted 30mm Gatling gun and wing mounts that can carry missiles, bombs and flares. They fly low and slow, able to stay with troops for hours if necessary and destroy threats such as tanks and armored vehicles.
Schol, who is from the small community of Columbus, Texas, said she attended the University of North Texas to study radio, television and film production, but became interested in the military after talking to a friend in the ROTC.
“It offered a stable job and lots of travel,” she said. Then, during a media assignment she got a ride on an aerobatic airplane. When she joined the Air Force she put in for pilot instruction.
“Best decision I ever made,” she said. “I like flying ground protection. A lot of my family are in the Army and the Marines.”
Elder said he remembers as a child being taken to a static display of a combat aircraft by his father.
“That was it,” he said.
It took four years of study to become a pilot, he said, and since then he has done tours in Korea, the South Pacific, Iraq and Syria. His more vivid memories include flying at night in the vicinity of the border between North and South Korea, seeing the South brightly lit and the North in near-absolute darkness, and during a Middle East deployment seeing what at first seemed to be a night battle starting at midnight on Dec. 31 which he later learned were fireworks launched by both sides marking the new year.
“They were just celebrating surviving another year,” he said. “I think about having bad days, but I will never have a day as bad as those guys on the ground.”
The students asked them about their aircraft and the experiences of flying.
Elder said his “craziest experience” was a near-encounter with what apparently was a Russian fighter over Syria near a boundary which neither U.S. or Russian planes were supposed to cross. Underwood said he was once fired upon with anti-aircraft artillery from the ground while on a mission in Syria. Razack and Schol described flying through severe weather in Georgia, made necessary because they didn’t have enough fuel on board to fly around it.
“Don’t fly through a thunderstorm,” Underwood said.
After the presentation, a group of career center seniors offered their thoughts on what they’d seen.
“It seems like a great opportunity, to do what they’ve done,” Olivia Laurie said.
Haley Davis, who said she has a cousin in the Marines, said the travel sounded appealing, along with the mission.
“They were very passionate about serving their country,” Hunter Gilbert said.
“Seeing the way they reached their goals, it makes you want to work harder to achieve yours,” Spencer Crone said.
As the assembly broke up, students spoke to the pilots and posed with them for photos. Elder said afterward the students he spoke to were thinking about Veterans Day and their own futures.
“A lot of them have aspirations to do this. One girl asked about how to apply for the Air Force Academy,” he said. “It’s not just pilots, in the Air Force. There are mechanics, engineers, technicians, the 98 percent that enable us to fly. I spent six months in Russia studying the language, I went through graduate studies in mechanical engineering. The opportunities are unlimited.”
Veterans Day Presentation at WCCC
* Capt. Ross Elder, Williamstown, W.Va.
* Capt. Lacey Schol, Columbus, Texas
* Capt. Matt Underwood, Colleyville, Texas
* Capt. Rick Razack, Las Vegas, Nev.
* Air Force unit: 23rd Wing, “Flying Tigers”, Moody Air Force Base, Valdosta, Ga.