Journey of a lifetime: One man's trip to every airfield in Georgia

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Paul Ross
  • 116th Air Control Wing
In many cases using an airplane to conquer a mountain could be considered cheating.

But if your mountain is landing at all 106 air fields in Georgia, an airplane is the only way to fly.

Lt. Col. Jeff Thetford conquered his mountain November 5, 2006 when he landed at the Hartsfield Jackson airport in Atlanta.

The 330th Combat Training Squadron director of operations set out on a nearly three year journey to raise awareness of the Robins Air Force Base Aero Club and to spread information about the Georgia Air National Guard. The Robins Aero Club is an organization run by the 78th Air Base Wing that provides all the necessities for learning how to fly general aviation aircraft.

"It's one thing to take a kid down to the mall to a recruiter, but seeing an aircraft at the airfield is something totally different," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "General aviation is a tangible thing; you can touch it, see it and hear it. General aviation has the ability to excite the public's imagination."

Motivation for the journey also came from the desire to do something difficult.

"Why do you go to all 106 air fields? You do it because they're there," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "They're meant to be visited and seen. It was a chance to do something difficult and combine the challenge of it with meeting folks and telling the 116th story."

Lt. Col. Thetford, who also serves as operations officer for the Robins Aero Club, was able to complete his journey because of the help two great friends and the availability of resources through the club. Lt. Col Ed Bodony and Lt. Col. Ben Sutton, both Georgia ANG members, accompanied Lt. Col. Thetford on many of the flights.

"I'm grateful for the support of my friends," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "I'm grateful for having an aviation club here, that at a moderate price, can give people the chance to participate in general aviation."

Landing at 106 airfields in three years is a tremendous feat and could never take place without proper panning and coordination.

"It took a lot of time and planning to land at 106 airports," said Lt. Col. Ben Sutton, 116 Operations Support Squadron chief of deployment planning cell. "Even though we didn't do it all at once, on most flights we would hit several airports. But before traveling to each airport we had to find information on runway length, width, elevation and any obstacles that were near the airport to ensure that we could safely land at that field. We also had to plot our course and figure out the distance and time it would take to get there to ensure we had enough fuel to make the flight and that we could navigate to the airport. Some of these airports were so small and hidden that they were difficult to find even from the air.

Lt. Col. Thetford, a flying enthusiast, has been taking to the skies for about 2 decades.

"Even though he is real busy as director of operations for a flying squadron, he makes time to fly general aviation airplanes and support flying operations at Robins Aero Club." said Lt. Col. Sutton.

His aviation roots started at an airfield in Waco, Texas that wasn't very different from many he landed on during his three year trip.

"I started flying as a private pilot in 1986 while attending college in Texas," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "I had just turned 20. So, I have been flying privately and professionally for more than 20 years now."

While attending Baylor University, the once wannabe lawyer saw a more exciting future for himself.

"I was walking across campus one day and saw a couple of F-4s fly over," said the colonel. "They came screaming across the campus, probably lower than they should have and did a little wing rock. I thought 'that's what I want to do for a living, law school can wait.'"

Lt. Col. Thetford was commissioned in 1989 and went to navigator training at Mather Air Force Base, Calif. He has since flown more than 4500 hours in the B-52, RC-135, B-1 and E8-C Joint STARS, but has trouble picking a favorite.

"I don't have a favorite per say," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "They all have great qualities. I have a tremendous sentimental attachment to my first airplane, the B-52. The first time I ever flew the aircraft without a flight instructor or an evaluator on board was in the Gulf War. It was an unusual situation in that I had gone straight from training to my operational squadron, and just after I arrived our planes and crews deployed to the gulf. I was a replacement aircrew member and got sent over."

Although flying military missions is a big part of the lieutenant colonel's life, it's sometimes nice to fly for the sheer enjoyment.

"You take out the chart and you look at the state of Georgia and I guess there are a couple of things that strike me," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "The first is how pretty the state is from the air. The second thing that jumps out at you is the variety. You can literally fly from sandy beaches in the southeast to mountains in north Georgia. Looking back, this journey was largely about meeting people and just doing something for the sheer challenge of doing it. It was a chance for me to go out and meet other people, tell the guard story and try to get them as excited about flying."

But much like a military mission Lt. Col. Thetford challenged himself and returned with great memories.

"Some of the fun was seeing how many fields we could hit in one day," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "On one particular day we hit nine air fields. I don't think we ever flew over 3,000 feet that day. As soon as we would take off we were getting ready to descend and land again at the next field. That was a real memorable flight."

Experiencing local cuisine was a routine occurrence while touring Georgia.

"Jeff and I have flown to most of the middle and southern Georgia airports together," said Lt. Col. Ed Bodony, 116th Mission Support Group assistant deputy commander. "Most of the time we would go on a $100 hamburger run (the total cost of a trip to a restaurant by aircraft to get a $5 hamburger) for lunch to some little airfield doing touch-and-go landings at other airfields along the way. We would call ahead to the airport we planned to stop at for lunch and see if they had a courtesy vehicle available that we could borrow and if there was a good place to eat in the local community. The southern cooking buffets in Vidalia and Fitzgerald are our favorites."

Of all the things the colonel saw while crisscrossing the peach state, the towns found off of the beaten path were the most enjoyable.

"It was all of the little towns that I enjoyed the most," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "Most of them are not more than a wide spot in the road. When you go to a town that's got one stop light and you land at their field, sometimes they've never met anyone in uniform. Getting to spend a little time them is a great opportunity. It's was a chance to be a good ambassador not only for the Air Force but for our unit and try to get people excited about aviation. It's remarkable how many interesting people we've met."

For Lt. Col. Thetford life is faith, family, friends and flying. Over the 39,000-plus air miles flown across the state he had plenty of time to reflect on all four of these.

"There were a number of great days," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "A lot of beautiful sunsets a lot of early mornings alone, and a lot of that time spent in the air with two buddies."

The colonel stresses the fact that military members need to get involved with the community.

"I encourage you to get out there and be involved," said Lt. Col. Thetford. "Get involved with something in the community; coaching soccer, general aviation or whatever you want. But get out there and be a part, because often times you are the only face of the military that people ever see. For those out there who are looking for something great to get into to, I would strongly encourage you to give the Aero Club a shot. Come out, see what we're about, do some flying with us. We're always looking for new folks and we'd be more than happy to get you on your way, you may find that it's the journey of a lifetime."