This story was written by Dr. Robin Dyson
Most people may not know that I spent 7.5 years in the Air Force, before going to Medical School. I took the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualifying Test) at the end of college, May 1994. It took a few months to get the test score and the paperwork completed, and meanwhile I worked in an architecture office as an intern. (My undergrad major was architecture.) By the end of December 1994, I found out I had a spot in Officer Training School with follow on Navigator Training.
Basic Officer Training
Nearly one year after I took the test, I started OTS in May 1995. I spent 3 very hot and humid months in Montgomery, AL at Maxwell AFB learning about Air Force history, leadership, and war strategy. And of course there were field exercises, physical fitness testing, and marching—lots of marching!
Being from laid-back Southern California, it was not at all natural for me to say, “Ma’am” and “Sir,” but by the end of training, I was a whole new person. When my mom showed up for graduation, I told her I would meet her by the parking lot. As I marched my way there, I heard her say, “I don’t see Robin, but maybe I can ask this lady if she knows if we are in the right place.” Yes, my own mother didn’t recognize me!
Basic Navigator Training
After OTS graduation, I was off to Randolph Air Force Base for Navigator Training.
I learned about aerospace physiology, reading charts, calculating turn points, and telling the pilot what to do. We also learned about safety evacuations and parachute landings, and even did some parasailing where we were pulled behind a truck to about 100’ or so, then released from the rope, and parachuted to the ground. If you landed right, it was feet/side of legs/hip and roll to your back—if not, it was feet/butt/head, and likely a little whiplash!
At the end of Navigator training, you tracked to either fighter/bomber or tanker/carrier training, based on the needs of the Air Force. I went to fighter/bomber track, and headed to Pensacola, FL to joint training with the Navy.
Joint Fighter/Bomber Training
Pensacola Naval Air Base is beautiful. It’s the home of the Blue Angels, and it was so fun training with other branches of our military. If you’ve seen the movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and remember Richard Gere’s Navy flight training, that is what I did.
We had to be in a mock-cockpit that dove into a pool upside down and evacuate it. We had to be in a mock-helicopter and be submerged blindfolded into a pool, turned upside down while seat belts were on, and then evacuate out of the same opening. We even did parasailing off a ship, then parachuted into the water, blew up our life raft, hung out in the raft until a helicopter came along with a rescue basket, swam to and climbed into the basket, and be water evacuated—and this is before we got to fly our routes learning navigation. That was a cool experience, and I enjoyed all those low-level “bomber” routes getting to look out a window.
At the end of the training, we got our actual assignment. Mine was to the B-52 bomber, aka, the BUFF! We also had a ceremony in Pensacola’s aviation museum atrium where we got to ‘pin on our wings’ as we completed our aviation rating.
B-52 Navigator Training
I went on to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I learned about the B-52 aircraft.
I had class lessons and tests, simulators and training missions with my training flight crew and our instructors. The B-52 has five flight positions: the pilot, aka the aircraft commander; the co-pilot, the radar navigator, the navigator, and the electronic warfare officer.
The pilots fly the aircraft and manage the fuel—the B-52 has lots of compartments to carry fuel which need to be managed to keep the plane balanced—including fuel cells in the wings. Pilots get to sit upstairs and have the best view.
The radar navigator manages the radar, weather avoidance, launching missiles, dropping bombs, and supervising the navigator.
The navigator manages the flight route and timing. The radar nav and nav sit downstairs and only have black computer screens with green cursors, a black and white video, the GPS, and lots of buttons to look at—no windows!
The electronic warfare officer looks for threats and helps jam or divert any targeting of the aircraft, to protect us from being shot down. The EWO sits upstairs in the back facing backwards (no window either). There is an extra ejection seat next to the EWO which used to be where the tail gunner sat, but that position was eliminated prior to me training in the aircraft.
After we passed our classes and simulators and our final checkrides—we were off to our first real assignments.
20th Bomb Squadron Navigator Memories
I went to the 20th Bomb Squadron “The Buccaneers” at Barksdale Air Force Base. I was the first woman flier in the squadron. There had been 3 other women in the platform (the B-52 aircraft), but none in the 20th. Women had only been able to be in fighter/bomber positions for a few years when I joined the Air Force. This was an opportunity that I was very grateful for—to be the ‘tip of the spear’ and prove that women are capable.
Since my squadron mates were not accustomed to hearing a female voice on the radio, I promptly got the callsign of “Elmo” for my high-pitched voice. My job was to be prepared for any mission at any time, anywhere. That meant training missions, ground training, and being mentally and physically prepared.
As a navigator, I was part of our deployment to Fairfield England during Operation Allied Force with NATO, the Kosavo conflict (1999). Initially, there was missile launching, and later, bomb runs with the mark-82’s. I remember one mission coming home over the Adriatic Sea that an unknown fighter was tailing us, our airborne command center was trying to contact them to ensure they were not enemy and going to shoot us down, and our EWO was trying to jam their signal, but there was definitely a few minutes in there I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Finally, they broke off and left us alone.
During my navigator time, I also went to several airshows around the country. I was forward deployed to Diego Garcia as a show of force when Iraq turned our weapons inspectors away. I even ran from the B-52 after the brake line split and was spewing fluid on our hot tire after landing and caught fire—it’s pretty scary when you’re climbing out the hatch and there’s fire at your back!
After I had been a navigator for some time, I upgraded to radar navigator who is the supervisor downstairs.
20th Bomb Squadron Radar Navigator Memories
The morning of 9/11, we were having an exercise on base. I remember as we were getting ready to head to the aircraft, hearing the news of a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. That was insane! What a horrible accident! Then as my crew was in the crew van driving to our jet, it came across the radio that a second aircraft had hit the tower—that was no accident. We got orders to stay on the flight line with our aircraft and await further orders. I remember sitting on the tarmac for a long time. Then without warning, two fighter jets flew past the runway, and then Air Force One landed. The base police escorted President Bush to the base command center where he prepared a speech and ultimately addressed the country that we were under terrorist attack!
All of the crews were sent back to the alert ‘shack’ and stayed there a few days. Then we were dismissed and able to go home, but we were on ‘6-ring alert’ to pack our bags and be ready to deploy. Just a few weeks later, I deployed to Diego Garcia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. By October 7th, we had targets and were ready to roll. My crew was to fly that first night of strikes over Afghanistan; however, as we were taxiing, our radar went out.
I rely on the radar to update our position in the system and target our weapons, so they are accurate. We called out maintenance, and they were not able to fix it in time for take-off. My whole crew was so disappointed that we were not part of that very first night, but we subsequently were part of many more missions over Afghanistan—17 in total.
The JDAM was first used by the B-52 during this conflict. It is a 2,000lb GPS guided smart bomb, and one of my favorite weapons—mostly because of how accurate it is. I remember seeing the satellite photo after we targeted a runway where the bombs hit right down the center, perfectly spaced. After several months, our replacement crews deployed, and we came home. I had planned to honorably separate when my commitment was up, but ended up staying in a little longer due to the conflict. Ultimately, I left the Air Force in Dec 2002, to pursue my new chapter—becoming a doctor!