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Two Utah Olympians experience ride of a lifetime with Air Force Thunderbirds

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds gave a "Hometown Hero" ride of a lifetime to two of Utah's Olympians Friday as final preparations are underway for this weekend's Warriors Over the Wasatch Air and Space Show at Hill Air Force Base.

Freestyle skiers Ashley Caldwell and Justin Schoenefeld won the first-ever mixed team aerials competition with teammate Chris Lillis at the Beijing Games this year, bringing home gold to Park City. But Friday, their training looked a lot different.

"This day started pretty early for Justin and Ashley — 7 a.m. they were here getting training on how to keep themselves safe in the F-16 while we're flying around," said Jake Imbellizzeri, a pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The pre-flight training included information on how to deal with G-force speeds, as well as parachute operation.

"I was definitely nervous," Caldwell said. "We train our whole lives in a really specific thing, and to put us out of our comfort zone is kind of rare. So this was definitely outside of our comfort zone, and also, we're trying to live up to the gold medal standard and the Thunderbird standard and that's a high bar."

Being gold medalists, Caldwell and Schoenefeld are used to being in the air — just not strapped into an F-16, going 800 miles per hour.

"I was very nervous," Schoenefeld. "Ashley got quiet when they started talking about ejection; she stopped talking for about a half-hour."

After three hours of pre-flight training, the pair were up for the challenge of flying with the Thunderbirds. Flying side by side, the pair jumped in the cockpit with two Thunderbird pilots and took off from Hill Air Force Base and headed to the West Desert.

"I had the controls for a while — did some rolls and did a back flip," Caldwell said.

At one point, Schoenefeld and Caldwell hit 9G's, breaking the sound barrier.

"I pulled .1 G more than Justin," Caldwell said.

"But I'm heavier," Schoenefeld replied. "The 9G's is a lot no matter which way you spin it."

"We were about 400 knots by the end of the runway, which is about 500 mph, and we pulled straight up 90 degrees and the whole time she's just giggling back there," Imbellizzeri said.

Nine G's is a lot for any person to feel, even Olympians. After the flight, Caldwell and Schoenefeld were creative when trying to describe it.

"It's gotta be like something like a dragon mixed with a unicorn mixed, on top of a jet engine – something like that," Caldwell laughed.

"It's an elephant on your chest and all of a sudden your vision starts going away, then you squeeze more and it pops back. Unbelievable," Schoenefeld added.

Flying with the Thunderbirds was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these Olympians, but if there is one moment that stands out, it's when the pair were flying over the Bonneville Salt Flats towards the Great Salt Lake. With Caldwell on his wing, Schoenefeld pulled out his gold medal and showed it to the camera in the cockpit.

"The medal went past the speed of sound today, and that would be a first," Schoenefeld said.

The two athletes said Friday is a day they'll never forget.

"We could not thank them enough. We're so excited to be a part of this and grateful for their service and having us along," Caldwell said.

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Shara Park


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