Air Force offers shot of top gun adrenaline

Recruiting: F-16 flight simulators get the attention of the Air Force's target audience.

April 12, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

There was a Toys R Us across the street, but all the kids were lined up outside Annapolis Mall yesterday for the newest toy in town: the U.S. Air Force Experience.

Who could blame them? A real F-16 Fighting Falcon on display in the parking lot lured them to the high-tech recruiting exhibition that rolled into this Navy town Tuesday. Inside the huge trailer, the show aimed for its audience with giant video screen presentations, computer kiosks and a fleet of F-16 flight simulators that dared them to pilot a high-speed virtual mission.

The road show is designed to beef up the Air Force's recruiting as young people ages 17 to 25 -- the target audience -- have been gunning for high-paying civilian careers instead of military service.

Like other branches of the armed services, the Air Force in recent years has struggled to meet recruitment goals, and for fiscal year 1999, it fell 2.8 percent short of its 33,800 target. That had not happened since 1979, officials said. They also blame base closures and a reduced community presence for the falling numbers.

"Until two years ago, [the Air Force] never bought TV or radio advertising. We've had to increase our marketing budget and increase the number of street recruiters," Air Force Recruiting Service spokesman Maj. Terry Bowman said yesterday from his office in Texas.

Today, recruitment numbers are up, he said, thanks in part to this exhibition which "has been great help in reconnecting with America. It's a nice way to bring the Air Force to someone's back yard."

Hereford Middle School seventh-grader Andrew McLean, who is torn between a career in the Air Force and the Navy, couldn't wait to go on board yesterday with his father, Richard McLean, 55.

"You think you're top gun, fighting material?" fictional pilot John "Screech" York, the exhibit's virtual tour guide, asked the pair from a video screen. "It's a brain-draining experience, but one that could be the time of your life."

York registered the new "pilots" for their mission, assigned them code names -- Andrew became "Mocha," his father "Rowdy" -- before leading them to the preflight briefing in the next room.

Their mission: Destroy a bridge and abandoned oil derrick while dodging enemy flak. As the rookie pilots move into the simulator room, York reminds them that "the safety and security of the nation is in your capable hands."

But some hands are more capable than others.

Andrew, whose hand-eye coordination has been honed by hours of video games, was wobbly with the sensitive flight controls at first, but by the end of the five-minute mission, fired several air-to-surface missiles at the derrick.

His father sped low and fast through a canyon, only to crash on his attempted landing. His cockpit vibrated just enough to give the feel of impact.

"I told him after this he doesn't have to go to Disneyland," McLean, of Manchester, said of his son's Easter vacation plans.

"It was really cool. I could almost feel it in my stomach," gushed the 12-year-old, clutching his new photo ID card that came with a computer screen saver that links to the Air Force's Web site. He can't sign up for another five years but said the Air Force won this round of recruiting.

"This is a recruiter's dream," Staff Sgt. James Rumer said of the exhibition. "Our motto is `No one comes close' and it's true to its word."

Recruiters in the trailer talked to visitors, answered questions and explained how the Air Force could enhance their education and career opportunities.

Airman 1st Class Paul Weinstein, 22, signed up two years ago to advance his dragging college career. The New Yorker said he struggled to hold down a full-time roofing job in Brooklyn and attend Manhattan College in the Bronx, where tuition was $20,000. He had a scholarship, but it covered half his expenses.

"I was killing myself trying to work and go to school," he recalled. "I looked around and the Air Force offered the best lifestyle and the best options for me. It's not easy going to school on a ship," he said, referring to the Navy.

Now based at Fort Meade, he is 1 1/2 semesters from getting a bachelor's degree in business management. His father, a Vietnam veteran who was in the Navy, jokingly calls him a "wing waxer," he said.

"But all in all, he's happy I joined."

The U.S. Air Force Experience will be at the Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis, 2001 Annapolis Mall, from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. It's on a cross-country tour through September.

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