MacDill Air Force Base working to increase diversity in US military ranks

Local News

8 On Your Side went on a special flight with a group of students to learn about the impact of this new recruiting effort.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – MacDill Air Force Base is on a new mission to increase representation within the highest ranks of the U.S. Military.

Out of the 45 current four-star commanders, only two are black and one is a woman. That’s where the Air Force’s AIM High program comes in.

8 On Your Side went on a special flight with a group of students to learn more about the impact of the new recruiting effort. It was an adrenaline rush with a sky-high view of what’s achievable 30,000 feet up in the air.

The special training mission began at 0700 hours – or 7 a.m. – at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa with a group of five students from Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School. The group was the first to take part of the AIM High program created to increase representation and diversity in both the Air Force and all other branches by giving the sophomores and seniors a seat in the cockpit of their aircraft.

A dose of inspiration from our nation’s only four-star female general, Jacqueline Van Ovost, kicked it all off. She jumped of a bus, elbow-pumped the students and spoke to them about the opportunities offered to them by the Air Force.

“You can’t be what you can’t see, and this is the possibility,” she told the group.

Gen. Van Ovost led the way for female pilots to be able to fly fighter jets and helped create special uniforms for women. She climbed the ranks for 30 years, logging 4,000 hours of flight time in 30 different aircraft.

The generals’ words resonated with the five minority students aboard the KC-135.

“It shows that just because we’re minorities, we’re females, it doesn’t matter. We’re still capable of doing anything any man can do,” Cristo Rey senior Clairline Decimus said.

That’s the target message of the mentorship program. The training mission is also crucial for the teacher who organized this experience.

“If they’re not aware of the specific industries in which they can go into, it’s a loss,” Cristo Rey Director of Work Study Takiyah Dickson said.

After a briefing and an emergency evacuation rundown, everyone in the group boarded the aircraft at 1000 hours – or 10 a.m. After getting strapped in, we went up for a 300 mph flight from MacDill to Tennessee.

The students explored the cockpit during the flight, asking the pilots questions about their experience in the Air Force and what it takes to fly a refueling tanker.

Then was the part the aspiring medical students had been waiting to experience: the group climbed into the boom pit to refuel a C-17 out of Charleston, South Carolina. It was a training mission that required an incredible bout of skill and precision. The pilot must be within 30 feet from the C-17 and the boom pilot has to maneuver the pump above the plane and both connect and disconnect to it in two-minute intervals to refuel the plane in midflight.

The process takes about 20 to 30 minutes. The day of the mission it was just one plane, but the pilots sometimes refuel several in a day.

It was an incredible first-time-ever flight experience for some.

“I’m not nervous but I’m nervous. I’m nervous but I’m not nervous,” sophomore Alaila Cortez said while in the boom pit.

After the 20-minute refuel and a two-hour-long flight home, we were back on base with some future pilots.

“I just thought in my mind: I’m going to do this one day,” sophomore José Mancia said.

It was a flight that proved the sky is limitless.

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