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'All hail the mighty Tomcat'
June 29, 2018


HUNTSVILLE, AL – When asked what he wanted for Christmas, Johnny Rogers, 12, of Delano, wasn’t sure, so his parents, Steve and Larae, suggested a camp. He looked out the window, saw a plane, and thought learning more about them would be a good idea, so he chose the Aviation Challenge Mach I at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.

It was a little different than he thought it would be.

“When I first got there, I was kind of surprised because, on the website, it showed all their fun activities. When we got there, it showed military-style stuff,” Johnny said. “ . . . When you get there, you can only see the space and robotics camps. A little farther back, the Aviation Challenge is surrounded by trees and a fence with barbed wire all around it.”

He quickly learned the rules.

“Our instructor would say our team name, and we had to shout, ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘Yes, ma’am,’” Johnny said, detailing what his team had to do before being able to sit and have lunch.

On the way to lunch in a single-file line, they passed an F-14 Tomcat that had been featured in the movie “Top Gun,” and they had to shout “All hail the mighty Tomcat” every time.

Other rules included making their beds military style and honoring quiet time at night.

Following rules was only one aspect of the camp, as Johnny said he enjoyed learning everything that he did.

His favorite part was the dunker.

“They put you in a metal cylinder with windows . . . drop you in a lake and you’re trying to get out,” Johnny said. “It’s supposed to simulate a helicopter water landing.”

Getting wet during this exercise helped Johnny and others cool off in the 90-degree, humid conditions.

“It was also fun just watching the water sweep under you,” he added.

Other water-related activities included the lifter that simulated a helicopter rescuing individuals from the ocean, and learning the five different classes of life jackets.

Out of the water, Johnny patrolled the woods and completed field-training exercises daily.

“It simulates if you’re in enemy territory, how to get in, get out, find out where you are, and other important stuff,” Johnny said. “We did that over and over and over.”

Given the name of the camp, it’s no surprise that attendees had the opportunity to experience flight simulators.

“We learned to take off, land, and some other buttons that work the jet,” Johnny said. “We got to shoot flares, chaffs, missiles, and guns. Technically, you’re just flying, then they give you some missions like “drop bombs here” or “destroy enemy cars” . . . It was really fun.”

Fun, but not always easy.

“Taking off was really easy, but landing was hard because you had to come in fast, but also had to land on the runway, which was pretty hard,” Johnny said. “I was successful taking off, but with landing, I was having a lot of trouble. It took a few times to slow down and land on the runway.”

In addition to trying the simulator, Johnny also learned a lot about planes and helicopters, including breaking the sound barrier, the definition of nautical miles, the history of flight, how helicopters work, and how to determine the speed of a plane.

He made friends and helped give them call signs, or nicknames, based on stories they told. His call sign was “Roundup” due to a time when he said he accidentally accelerated while driving his go-cart and drove through his mom’s flower garden, tearing up a few of the flowers.

That story helps personify how Steve describes Johnny, who said he had some interest in aviation.

“He’s more of an engineer with a need for speed; that’s the problem,” Steve said with a smile. “He likes to go fast.”

For his next experience, Johnny said he hopes to attend Space Camp and learn more about astronauts.

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