Syracuse woman fights nerves, embraces skies

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — As Becky Austad prepared to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds before the Hill Air Force Base Open House and Air Show, she kept hugging her children and discussed with her daughter what-if scenarios should things should go awry during her flight. 

The Syracuse woman made sure Kinley Austad, 14, knows how important it is to finish college.

Austad was so nervous and worried, she admitted trying to think of ways to opt out. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go through with her Hometown Hero flight.

“It was so nerve-racking because I just didn’t know what to expect, and I was afraid of what my body would do,” Austad said.

However, Austad proved to be a bold passenger, telling her pilot, Maj. Tyler Ellison, to keep bringing it on, even when she felt sick. For Austad, it was an experience she will never forget. 

“I have never rubbed shoulders with such high-caliber people,” Austad said as she talked to the Thunderbird pilots after her flight. “It was a deeply humbling experience, putting on this flight suit and experiencing what you guys give up and dedicate to serve us.”

Austad, a social worker at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, was unaware of her nomination by her boss at Northern Utah HOPE Task Force, where Austad works as a teacher and facilitator. 

She dedicates her time to teaching people about preventing suicide and letting people know their life matters and that they should make choices that put them in a better spot.

The Thunderbirds often pick a hometown hero for a special flight before their air shows.

“We like to pick an outstanding citizen in our society and communities that make a difference and show them what the Thunderbirds are all about,” Ellison said.

No one deserves it more than Austad, said her sister, Danae Meyerhoffer, of Plain City.

“She has been a single mom for the last five years and still makes time to help other people,” Meyerhoffer said.

At 15,000 feet, Austad got the chance to see the Bonneville Salt Flats, journey out to Wendover, Nevada, and experience several aerial tricks, her favorite being the barrel roll, which Ellison said is always a crowd pleaser when the Thunderbirds perform.

Austad spent three hours preparing and training with the Thunderbird pilots before her flight, which included learning about proper breathing techniques to combat gravity. 

Ellison explained that while the G-suit pushes down on the body while flying in the plane, it squeezes against the diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe, so the specialized breathing techniques help fight against the G-suit and gravity forces pulling blood to one’s feet. 

“It’s basically one hour of an anaerobic workout,” Ellison said.

Talking about her experience just moments after stepping out of the F-16, Austad said, “Even though doing this was hard, I rose to the challenge, and you in the U.S. Air Force do the same, doing hard things, which gave me a greater appreciation for what you do for me.”

Her favorite part was when she first got up in the air. 

“The moment you get up in the air, being in the clouds, is so peaceful, calm and refreshing,” said Austad, who plans to use her experience to continue helping others.

“It was awesome because, from that perspective, I realized how similar it is to when you pull yourself away from a hard time. You can see the bigger picture and what is important — and that things aren’t really as tough as you think.”