SecAF Gets ‘Violently Ill’ on Thunderbird Flight

From cadet to lieutenant

The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian has a new appreciation for just how hard and fast an F-16 Fighting Falcon can fly.

Deborah Lee James, who took the Air Force’s top job in late December, reportedly got sick while flying in one of the aircraft with a member of the service’s Thunderbirds aerial acrobatic team on Tuesday at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Actually, she didn’t just get sick, she got violently ill, according to a news report.

“Someone got the bright idea to invite her on the airplane,” a source familiar with the incident told Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times. “She got violently ill.”

Billed as “America’s Ambassadors in Blue,” the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are an aerial demonstration squadron assigned to the 57th Wing at Nellis. The unit performs at air shows in the U.S. and around the world to drum up support for the service.

The Air Force temporarily halted Thunderbirds shows last year in response to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. But the service resumed them this year and officials were probably itching for more positive publicity by inviting James into the cockpit halfway into the 2014 season.

The demonstrations primarily feature F-16C single-seat jets and F-16D twin-seat trainers made by Lockheed Martin Corp. The aircraft typically reach speeds of as much as 500 miles per hour while in formation and 700 miles per hour — nearly the speed of sound — on individual maneuvers.

James, who also flew on the HH-60 Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System during her trip to Nellis — apparently without incident, took it all in stride.

“I also learned to wait to eat lunch until after Thunderbird practice is complete!” she joked, according to the article.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

28 Comments on "SecAF Gets ‘Violently Ill’ on Thunderbird Flight"

  1. You could say she got SAIC (read: sick)?

  2. Slow news day.

  3. I consulted to General Dynamics years ago when the F16 was still in production. They ran a fund raising campaign by raffling off a test flight in a new F16 "guaranteed to make you puke". Very popular, raised a lot of money.

    Never heard who won or how it turned out, but I have no doubt their test pilots kept that guarantee.

  4. I suspect it's a matter of reputation for the pilots to have their "passengers" flail for the barf bag.

  5. This story blows.

  6. This is the same woman who told McCain that we could use the B-1 to fill the A-10 role.
    We are so blessed to have her at the helm.

  7. CD Crawford | July 1, 2014 at 10:05 am |

    Your tax dollars being put to excellent use just for a joy ride!

  8. This is typical of political appointments. She started off as 10 years as Staff Member, Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives. She was also Vice President of International Operations and Marketing, United Technologies, then Executive Vice President, Communications and Government Affairs; President, Technical and Engineering Sector, Science Applications International Corporation. So she has spent her career as political work in DC. She has no background in Acquisition, Military Strategy, or leading a Production company. Seems fully qualified in the Obama Administration. Actually may be over qualified by current standards.

  9. Jose Quiroz | July 1, 2014 at 10:39 am |

    She was right. She should have waited to eat her lunch until after the flight. Nothing to be ashamed about.

  10. I had to go cold mike on an "orientation flight" in an F-4. But I hid the bag in my helmet covered it with my gloves.

  11. Would hate to be under her on a roller coaster.

    Yep nothing going on in the world today I see. All is well and peace abounds.

  12. conradswims | July 1, 2014 at 3:15 pm |

    Way too funny for me to comment! Bet she wet her pants also!

  13. Take a drone for a spin in an F-16. See if you can get more than a yawn out of it. Then we can try it the other way round.

  14. Highguard | July 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm |

    I and many are starting to like this SECAF. If she keeps doing the right things by view of the Force, I hope she'll make history as the first female SECDEF, not because she is a woman, but because she is a great leader.

  15. Looks,like the Sec AF aide can't spell DRAMAMINE! It is over the counter and works!

  16. PATRICIA KEEFE | July 1, 2014 at 7:47 pm |


  17. Jeremy Johnston | July 1, 2014 at 7:58 pm |

    I was promised a ride when I retired. But it didnt happen. Sure wished I could have.

  18. Nice to know we gave the top job to a jane doe that has 0 flying experience. Here qualification well I guess its the her part and what that single trait gets her in warm fuzzy leverage from our overlords.

  19. She's a lightweight. LOL

  20. I logged close to 1000 hr. combat hours in the Army's Loach, flying hunter/killer teams in Viet Nam as a co-pilot then as the door-gunner. Pilots always went out of their way to get a FNG co-pilot sick, whether he was a enlisted man or an officer, including myself on my first mission. Everyone got a laugh from it except the guy that got sick.

  21. Her new call sign is "Chunks"

  22. DJ Tsgt ret | July 2, 2014 at 5:17 pm |

    Having had the privelege to fly with a former Tbird in the D model the GIB is gonna lose it most of the time. Part of the ride. Pulled 9.4 gs. Not too shabby for an old enlisted swine.

  23. b52doctor | July 2, 2014 at 5:49 pm |

    Hope she had to clean up the cockpit as anyone else would had they experienced the same fate. It is true. She WAS going to be sick, that was already a given as soon as she whined about getting a ride in the fast, shiny airplane..

  24. Dave Scott | July 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm |

    No worries. A fighter flier's breakfast is a Coke and a puke!

  25. glenn57377 | July 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm |

    Although in some situations it is a plus, an effective leader doesn't necessarily have to have any experience in what he/she endeavors to accomplish. Leaders lead, warriors implement. The SECAF does not go it alone. She is surrounded by brilliant staff with all the experience that is necessary.

  26. While attached to various Navy Squadrons I had 4 back seat rides in a F-4J Phantom and 2 backseat rides in an F-14A Tomcat. I had also flow air crewman in EP-3 spy planes out of Guam. The fast movers were a lot more exciting!

  27. bart hooliman | July 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

    In other news all funding for the thunderbirds has suddenly been cancelled…lol

  28. Funny side story. I was stationed at Eilson AFB, AK in the early 80's and worked at an O-2 unit which are twin engine prop jobs (Cessna Skymasters) if your not familiar. During an exercise we had an F-16 unit from Hill AFB with us. Other pilots going up in the O-2 was very popular. I got my share of rides, too. The maintenance folks had an on going bet with our O-2 pilots that if he could make a fighter pilot puke, we would buy them a case of beer. One our our pilots (can't remember his name by he was a Major) brought back a F-16 pilot with 4 full vomit bags. We gladly ponied up for 4 cases and we always referred to him as Major 4 bagger.

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