Lakewood Firefighter Gets Ride Of A Lifetime With Air Force Thunderbirds

The call came in, “Can you meet Captain Peter Hempfling at Cleveland Hopkins Airport 6:30am Friday morning?” Captain Hempfling is not just a 30 year veteran of Lakewood’s Fire Department he is one of the best, in a department filled with heroes and big hearts. So I immediately said I would be there. I then asked Fire Chief Dunphy why? The Chief responded, “Pete has been chosen as the Air Force’s Hometown Hero for the 2021 Cleveland Airshow. He is getting a ride with the Thunderbirds!” My response was, “I’ll get there at 6:30, thank you.”

Most young men and women at one time or another saw the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels and said to themselves, “I would love to try that.”  That is why they are a huge part of recruitment. The real fact is that very few will every fly a jet in combat or at all, and even fewer in the Thunderbirds. But the ranks are filled with great jobs and experiences for anyone into electronics or aviation.

For Peter, a genuine good guy, to get this recognition weeks before his retirement seemed so fitting. One of Pete’s many hobbies is extreme riding. Like motorcycles through Mexican deserts, that kind of stuff. This was also on his bucket list since he was a kid.

At 6:30am exactly I rolled into Atlantic Aviation and met with Captain Hempfling, with him were Lakewood Fire Marshall Ryan Fairbanks, and Pete’s friend and extreme rider David Nolan. Pete was his usual cheerful self and said he ready was for this. Pete served in the military, and has been on the front line of firefighting for 30 years. He was calm. He looked up and smiled and said, “I have to be honest I had a little trouble sleeping last night.” “Fear?” I asked, he smiled and said, “No-- more like the night before Christmas. Filled with excitement and wonderment.”

A very pleasant member of the Cleveland Airshow grabbed him and had him sign a waiver. Then we met the spokesperson for the Thunderbirds. She was young and smiled as she walked all of us through what would happen the rest of the day, flying a small F-16 model around the table. “OK, any questions?” We all smiled and said no. Then she had Peter sign another waiver.

Next up Peter got fitted for his flight suit, helmet and brief explanations of how things work. The two Thunderbird crew people were very attentive and it is amazing how much a pilot needs extra hands for getting dressed. Almost like a knight going into battle. Underwear, outerwear, pressure suit fitted with straps and long laces.  Boots, life collar, neck device, helmet and fitted oxygen mask, pressure checks and more. Great crew.

This was followed by an explanation of the various hoses, cables and connections. Which to touch, which not to touch. Followed by a slideshow on how the ejection seat works, masks work, seats work, parachutes work, life saving supplies, rafts, goggles-- everything. A 20 minute presentation about everything Peter would need to survive trouble. Maybe 120 items, including sequences to connect and disconnect and in the order it had to be done. Then one of the attendants gave him a spot quiz. It was amazing how many he nailed. When he finally stumbled, they laughed and said most people find it hard to remember 3 of them. Then they asked him to sign a waiver.

Up next: the flight surgeon

Peter sat down and went through all sorts of medical information and a lot of it on breathing and how to counter what his body was about to go through. He mentioned 7 Gs, which is 7 times the weight of your body, on your body. Making it hard to breathe, and then think, and then remember the 120 things you were told to do to save your life. Imagine remembering the sequence to disconnect before your seat is launched into space. Do it wrong, and you die. Now put an elephant on your chest.

They practiced breathing exercises and then Peter signed another release.

Finally the pilot for the number 8 Thunderbird walked in. Dude was right out of Top Gun in a good way. 6’1” handsome, Kirk Douglas dimple in his angular jaw, and just so fighter pilot. Zero reflection of anything going on in his voice and actions unless he wanted it.

Major Jason Markzon, father of 2, introduced himself to everyone. He pulled out his phone and chocolate protein shake and took command of the room. He talked military and fire stuff with Peter and Fire Marshall Fairbanks, and just other stuff with David and I. Some fascinating things he told us: The F16 Falcon has a small gas tank, only holding enough gas for about 1 hour of flying. Coming in from Vegas they refuel three times in the air! They carry with the extra tank about 8,000lbs of gas.

He asked about service with Pete who mentioned Army, two tours. Then he asked Fire Marshall Fairbanks and he smiled and said, “Air Force, and Captain Hempfling has always kidded me about being in the Air Force instead of the Army. Thought the Air Force wasn’t up to it. So perhaps you could show him a thing or two." I thought, “Damn, what brutal set-up.”

The Major then went through what Peter could touch and what he couldn’t touch on his iPhone! Then he picked up the model, and explained exactly what was going to happen. “If we get clear air we will pull up, and then pull 4 Gs and climb to 15,000 feet.” Pete asked, “How long?" Major Markzon smiled and said about 10 second from take off. "We will make a couple high G turns and if you are not comfortable just tell me.” Then without missing a beat, “Then we will head to just north of Madison Ohio, where we have clear air for an an hour. I will go through the airshow routine, and then you can fly the plane if you want.” I thought, “What did you just say? Fly the plane? What about all those things he cannot touch?”

With that he smiled and said, “Any questions?” There were none and he turned to Peter and said, “Let’s go fly the plane.”

As the Major and Peter approached the plane, the ground crew lined up and went through a salute, high-five ceremony with Peter. It was impressive; the amount of people needed to keep each plane in the air is not small. After every flight the planes are gone over, with parts being replaced. To the east of Number 8 Thunderbird were a pair of jet engines, 5 landing gears sets, and boxes and boxes of spares.

The Major climbed into his Flight gear, and he and Pete climbed into the plane. With a couple checks of the systems, the plane was fired up, and it taxied off to the west runway. The reason they use Cleveland Hopkins is the runways at Burke are not long enough. The F16 loves a runway of about 9000’. Burke is 6000’.

From behind some buildings we hear the roar of a military jet just as the plane appears. Then you see it speeding up, then suddenly it pulls up, goes left, then straight up in a corkscrew and GONE! Breathtaking.

As we waited we would get an occasional report. Chief Dunphy had Pete’s mom on the roof of the Carlyle, where she watched her son with binoculars. While he passed over Lakewood twice, it was at a pretty high altitude and going pretty fast..

About an hour later the plane appeared as quickly as it disappeared, came south along the airport, did the signature Thunderbird landing, which is parallel to the runway at about 100’. Then up and to the left then back down in one smooth arc and taxied over. 

As the canopy lifted you could see Pete’s eyes, and they were the eyes of a boy that just witnessed something amazing. When he removed his helmet he reminded me of a kid after the presents were opened. A little tired, a little overwhelmed, and a little in awe.

As he exited the plane you could see a little wobble which should be expected, his body had just taken a real pounding.

He was so excited when answering what it was like, he described the take-off, then flying to Madison, and the maneuvers like a kid who just discovered he could ride a bike. “We pulled 4Gs here, 6gs there, and what was that one?” The Major smiled and said, “9.2 Gs! Another one at 9.1, you were handling it really well.” Then Peter turned to us and said, “Then he turned the plane over to me! I did a four side turn, a barrel roll, a couple turns and a loop. As I did the loop he had me concentrate on the tail as we passed over it, it was so cool.”

Then Major Markzon assembled the crew and presented Captain Hempfling with a photo of the Thunderbirds, signed by all of the Thunderbird pilots, personalized for him. On the back he wrote “9.2 Gs” and said not many people have anything even close to that on theirs. With that, the crew lined up, saluted and thanked him one more time.

As we headed back to the terminal, David asked if Peter got nervous or sick, and he said, “I was doing really well but when I was done flying the plane, the Major asked if I wanted to see Cleveland and I said sure. He then cleared the air space over Cleveland and flew through the city at 900 feet at close to 500 miles an hour. I thought we were going to hit the Terminal Tower!” The Major turned and smiled saying, “We call that ripping it up.”

We all said our thank-yous and goodbyes, and left.

Now let’s hear from Pete.

Peter Hempfling’s story…
Well you don’t get anything without trying, and for years I have watched the Thunderbirds at the Cleveland Air Show and thought, “How cool is that?” So I contacted the Air Force and asked, “How does one fly with the Thunderbirds? I am a retiring Lakewood Fireman and military veteran.” Immediately I got a reply, politely explaining-- not like this. I was provided a list of a handful of places in the world where you can buy a ride in a military jet.The rides were everywhere from Vegas to Moscow, $10,000 to $50,000 plus-- none of it within my immediate sphere, so the idea was dismissed. I sent them a nice return letter thanking them for their time and effort.

July of 2021 I got a request from the Air Force for some personal information including media clippings. I sent them off and got a message that I had been selected by the Air Force Thunderbirds as a “Home Town Hero” which would enable me to fly with the Thunderbirds as a representative of my profession. While I was very pleased and excited to receive this honor, I do not see myself as a hero. I am just lucky enough to have served in the military and with the Lakewood Fire Department-- jobs where I can help people when they need it most. And I’ve been doing it with a great group of people, year in and year out, which not only makes it better, but easier in doing our jobs.

The Flight...
Maybe because of my years in the military service, none of it was intimidating. You pay attention, and learn quickly or else you learn the hard way. Most of it was like Christmas Day with my dreams coming true. As we walked out on the runway it dawned on me I was out of typical military position, so I dropped back out of respect for the rank. Major Markzon noticed and said, “Relax.” Next was a Thunderbird tradition, as the pilot approaches the flight-line, there are salutes, high fives, hand shakes and turning in on itself. I was going to just shake hands, but the crew was so good it all just fell together perfectly. I then greeted each crew member with a smile and a firm handshake.  I turned and looked at the plane before getting into my flight suit, and saw my name on it. Two things became real. The first was that this was happening. The second was just how much care and thought goes into this honor. Every person on the Air Force’s Thunderbird team was a consummate professional.

I climbed into the plane and got belted in, and it never seemed strange. We lowered the canopy and taxied out, again it was different but not that different. The Major asked if I was ready and I asked about other planes and he said, “Look behind us." There was a line of planes waiting for us to clear the runway and take off. As we turned on to the runway we passed alongside the passenger planes. Every window had one or two faces in it, and many cameras and it really sunk in just how amazing this all was.

As we started down the runway to take off it didn’t feel altogether different than a commercial jet. Actually it was quieter that most passenger planes as we were in front of the jet engine. The plane quickly got off the ground, banked to the left, then the Major said, “Here come the Gs.” I took my breath, he pulled back, lit up the afterburners and we climbed to 15,000 feet in 9 seconds. This was my first indication of the performance capabilities of the F-16 Falcon. The Major asked how I was doing and I said “good.”

Then he headed out to the area set aside for flight practice, north of Fairport Harbor so we headed there straight and level at 550mph. There was still no intense feeling of speed. We were above the cloud bank, and flying about the speed of a passenger airliner. We began to got through the Thunderbirds' routine, and suddenly he would say, “Here comes the  Gs,” and we would pull a 5G turn, then 6G turn and then he asked, “Ready to go for it?” I said, “Ready.” And he dropped the nose of the F-16 about 20 degrees, got to the edge of the envelope and pulled back  and to the left in a sharp turn. The flight suit inflated, I did my breathing exercises and we came out of it. Major Markzon asked, “How are you doing? That was 9.2 GS! Do it again?” I answered, let’s go. So we did it again and this time “only” pulled 9.1Gs. Then he said, “We have done all we were going to do and have some time, would you like to fly the plane?” I answered “Affirmative” with great enthusiasm.

So he had me take over the controls and fly it for a bit in a straight line, then had me turn left and right. He then told me to go hard right and hold it which put us into a roll. We came out of it nowhere near as clean as the Major’s-- his were so perfect and sharp it snapped my head coming back horizontal. Then he asked if I wanted to do a loop and I responded, “Affirmative.” He instructed me to pull back on the stick and this is not like a full stick, it is more like a computer game joystick. So I pulled back and up we went, only about 4Gs and then as the plane came up over the top he told me to look back, find my smoke trail, center on that and bring it around. This is when I became sure that it was me flying the plane, not him. I kept going left and right of the trail focusing on that, not where we were. He mentioned to keep pulling back and I felt the GS kick in and suddenly I realized I had been holding my breath the whole time and really needed to breathe which is impossible in 5G turns. I brought it back to level, and could feel my pressure suit relax. And the Major said, “Taking control of the plane now.” Followed by, “We have about ten minutes left, anything else you want to do?”

I explained that it would be nice to see the city closer. In my dreams I always thought about how nice it was for them flying over the city. Out in open water on a cloudy day it was cool, but not what I envisioned. The Major called the airport and got Cleveland airspace emptied and then proceeded to turn into the city at about 500 miles an hour. We turned on what they call knife edge and I looked to my left and saw the city rushing by. I looked at the altimeter and he was just slightly under 1,000’. The Terminal Tower is over 900'. I felt like we were going to run into it. Then suddenly I felt myself getting queasy. I took off my mask and turned the oxygen on full rich as the surgeon had told me to do. Almost instantly I started to feel better, and then another turn! We headed back to Hopkins where we made the softest landing I can remember, taxied over to Atlantic Aviation, and it hit me what I had just done.

The canopy popped up, and the Major climbed out talking to people, giving me a second. I needed it, I had just taken a beating and put myself through amazing forces. As I climbed down the Major took over telling the crowd that had assembled around me my history. He made it all personal, then handed it to me. Suddenly I was tongue-tied, it was starting to become overwhelming. I thanked the Air Force, I thanked the crew, and then I thanked everyone in the Lakewood Fire Department for being with me for all these years. I told them, “I am just lucky to have a job that I love, and where I am in the fortunate position to help people in unfortunate circumstances.”

“Lakewood’s Captain Peter Hempfling epitomizes what a real hometown hero is.” Jim O’Bryan

Jim O'Bryan

Publisher, Lakewood Observer, Inc.

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Volume 17, Issue 18, Posted 7:13 PM, 09.16.2021