SecAF Gets ‘Violently Ill’ on Thunderbird Flight

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.
  • beeker

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

    • Chuck U. Farley

      Feel sorry for the poor bastardo who had to clean that tub.

  • blight_

    Slow news day.

  • Strick

    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.

    • FormerDirtDart

      The F-16 is still in production

    • Art

      Aircraft is still production, current backlog carries the production through the 3rd quarter of 2017.

  • Stan

    I suspect it’s a matter of reputation for the pilots to have their “passengers” flail for the barf bag.

    • glenn57377

      From my experience around the jets, those that get incentive flights rarely want the experience repeated. The pilots take great delight in making anyone along for the flight sick as a dog. I see no value in the incentive flight at all unless it is a positive experience. Waste of taxpayer money. Still, God Bless the pilots that can fight and win in that kind of atmosphere.

  • hibeam

    This story blows.

    • Stan


      • frisky


    • Dennae Schubert

      I don’t think this story blows because in case you didn’t know stores don’t have mouths to blow out of. :):):):) Have fun with your life! P.S. I think this story was very interesting! God bless you!

  • close in

    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.

    • spidennis

      really? you got to be kidding me ….. right?!!!

      • close in

        true, check out the senate hearing last week. they want to dump the A-10, obviously do not understand what the difference is between a tank killer and a bomber

    • Mark

      Yep, and how’d that work out? Not too good for our troops (blue-on-blue).

      • blight_

        A-10 blue-on-blue’d in OIF because a FAC called in the strike. You don’t always have time to verify, and sometimes someone punches in the wrong coordinates and drops a bomb on themselves; or some troops aren’t where you thought they were and are instead where the bomb will be.

        • glenn57377

          A B-1 did the same thing recently. I did not read there were any mistakes in coordinates. Quite simply, the B-1 is a strategic / poorly tactical aircraft. The result were many friendly deaths. The A-10 is the best we have for that mission, although friendly deaths have occurred. With respect for the thousands of enemy kills and amount of equipment destroyed, the A-10 is a higly capable platform.

  • CD Crawford

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

    • crazy

      What joy?

    • Robert

      the Thunderbirds are training at Nellis all the time so was no a waste of taxpayer dollars

  • Lorin

    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.

    • voodkokk

      She is about as qualified to be SECAF as Obama is CiC. Can’t wait until this circus leaves town.

      • blight_

        Plenty of lawyer presidents. If anything, lawyers run the country. Don’t like it, don’t vote a lawyer into any political office.

    • Kevin Soukup

      I like how you left out the FACT that from 19993-1998 she was assistant SECDEF for reserve affairs. You did nail the remainder of her resume that fit in you political agenda.

    • Caribou100

      Thinking the B-1 can do the A-10 job? As effectively? As cost effectively? Where are her military advisers? She must only be listening to the Sec Def.

    • moronotopia

      Hmmm. Is she as qualified as Don Rumsfeld? What a stellar example of abject failure that arrogant dip**** is…

  • Jose Quiroz

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

  • Mikey

    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.

    • TartanSixNine

      I had to google what “cold mike” meant. I somehow don’t think the definition on is what you were going for…

  • Erich

    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.

  • conradswims

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

  • hibeam

    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.

  • Highguard

    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.

    • B>Lyons

      Your joking I hope!

  • JohnD

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

    • guest

      Don’t believe you’ve every been up in an F-16. Dramamine is for carnival ridies…pushing maybe 5 G’s and allowing continual point of reference. Even the most experienced F-16 pilots can get sick if they have not flow for some time.



  • Jeremy Johnston

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

    • MAC crew chief

      A lot of us were promised rides. NCO of the year, retirement, significant achievements, the commanders love to make promises that any little hiccup can derail and then they give up with a “Sorry, sarge. It just didn’t work out.”

  • C-Low

    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.

    • commenter

      I would like to point out that most of the Air Force has zero flying experience.

      If she had flight experience, she’d have no/minimal logistic, acquisition, contracts, or maintenance experience and so on. The leader is never going to be an expert or even highly experienced in every aspect of the organization.

      • commenter

        Although probably controversial, I think it’s probably a good thing that there is high level management w/o flight experience. You need that diversity of background and opinion.

        Too many former fighter pilots in leadership positions just ends up with the thinking that high performance fighters are all that is important. You end up with excessive attention/resources paid to a small portion of the overall force.

  • sean

    She’s a lightweight. LOL

  • George a

    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.

  • Big-Dean

    Her new call sign is “Chunks”

  • DJ Tsgt ret

    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.

  • b52doctor

    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..

  • Dave Scott

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

  • glenn57377

    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.

  • Chuck

    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!

  • bart hooliman

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

  • Jim Webb

    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.