Eighth grader aiming for Air Force AcademyPublished 9:04am Thursday, September 3, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Gabrielle Leonard, 14, of Dowagiac, graduated from winning the “Right Stuff” medallion as the outstanding Space Academy participant last summer to the only girl in the more militaristic Aviation Challenge.
As she did for her second Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., Aug. 15-22, 2008, Gabby raised $1,500 selling candy and Little Caesars pizza kits and washing cars.
Gabby particularly enjoyed her third flight to Alabama, which coincided with Cass County Fair Week Aug. 2-8, because baking in 95-degree heat felt like summer in a way Michigan, which breezed through its coolest July on record, had not.
Gabby, daughter of Bill and Nancy Leonard of Green Street, was born in Mansfield, Ohio. Her family has lived in Dowagiac for six years.
After sixth grade at Patrick Hamilton, she transferred to Coloma Middle School for seventh grade. She expects to be playing against Dowagiac this volleyball season.
She’s shot up six inches and is taller than her mother, so she will have no problem meeting 5-foot-4 height requirements.
The eighth grader has an older sister, Heather, who will be a junior in Coloma, and a brother, Billy, who was born days after 9/11.
“We have to leave at 6:30. It sounds bad, but it’s not that bad,” she said of attending school in Berrien County as wind chimes tinkled gently around her Wednesday morning on her front porch.
Gabby hopes Aviation Challenge will further her dream of flying by helping her win an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
She was the only female in Aviation Challenge, although one of two guest speakers was fighter pilot Maj. Jill “Raggz” Long.
Long graduated from the University of Portland with a bachelor’s degree in business and was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force as a second lieutenant.
She also holds a master’s degree in management from Troy State University, which she earned with a straight-A grade-point average.
Long did her undergraduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla.
She then flew KC-135s at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., and RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. Long supported the air war over Kosovo.
Long impressed upon the cadets to “always follow orders. Whoever’s in charge of you and giving you orders usually has a bigger picture,” Gabby said. “The story behind that is she was over in Afghanistan, escorting troops, and they got attacked.
“Her commander told her to go ahead and shoot down the enemy. Then, at the last minute, he told her to back off, even though there were other people below her getting shot at.”
A couple years passed before Long learned why.
“You were over Pakistan,” Gabby related Long’s explanation. “If you had dropped one of your bombs on them, it would have started World War III.”
Gabby’s other guest speaker was Robert “Hoot” Gibson, 62, a Navy captain who became a NASA astronaut 30 years ago in August 1979.
Gibson, who left NASA in November 1996, took part in five space flights of 36 1/2 days duration, including the first space shuttle mission to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir.
He also participated in investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.
Aviation Challenge, though in the same place as Space Camp, “is very different,” said Gabby, whose call name was “Waffles.”
She said they carried out three missions in flight simulators.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was really fun,” even though the vocal camp counselors came off like “drill sergeants light.”
“I don’t remember all the planes,” Gabby said, “but I think we flew F-18s and F-22s. We practiced taking off, flying around and landing.”
“And bombing places,” she adds, matter-of-factly.
The simulator essentially replicates a cockpit.
“If you die in a mission, you die,” Gabby said. “I died in just one mission, and that was the first time I’d ever done the flying simulator, as opposed to everybody else, who have been doing it for years. Some people had gone to Space Camp and then gone to Aviation Challenge, but most of them are (just) in Aviation Challenge. There’s a ‘Mach 3′ which I’m doing next summer.”
In fact, as a returning camper, she qualified for a $300 discount by registering within two weeks.
She wore a camouflage jacket and was on the Falcon team, which opposed the Hornet team.
“We had patrols,” Gabby said. “Each person had a different job. I was a Lead 2, so when we had to cross the road, me and the Lead 1 would go across the street (in advance of the others) and secure the area. Trail 1 and Trail 2 would stay on the other side and secure that area. Then everybody could cross.”
Drills included learning how to salute correctly.
“It was kind of like” boot camp. “We would have competitions to see who lasted the longest. I did really well in those actually.”
“I’m not sure why” she was Waffles. “I was the last person to get there and they had already done orientation.” Teammates included “Road Kill” and “Overdose.”
“Overdose had overdosed on Benadryl when he was 4 because his grandma didn’t know how much to give him,” she explained. “Roadkill got hit by a truck four years ago.”
Besides flight simulations, they learned about everything from equipment to surviving by living off the land. “We learned how to make fires. We did one simulated crash where we went into the lake. We got into part of an airplane and they dropped it – well, they lowered it – into the water.
“We also had to swim to a basket that they put people in, then you went up like two feet out of the water. That was fun. We did the Barney chair, which spins. You put your hands on your knees, then your forehead, then your right ear and left ear, like spinning every which way in a crash. You felt like you were flipping over.”
Perhaps Gabby’s favorite part of the experience was “SEAL Ops.”
“We got really dirty for that, crawling around on the ground,” she said. “We had to take back our base, which had been taken over by a terrorist group. We had to ‘blow up’ some of our planes, like Tomcats. Once we got our mission done, we had to get out of there and to our helicopter. We had to army crawl through the woods a pretty fair distance. I think we had about 45 minutes to do that. I made it! I didn’t get captured, even with all the counselors against us.”
Gabby’s mom, Nancy, said “it’s not too early” for her daughter to start planning for the Air Force Academy in eighth grade because of the leadership activities, sports and good grades required.
“You don’t have to be a star athlete,” Mrs. Leonard said, “just part of a team. You have to fill out an application to get a questionnaire. Then you fill out the questionnaire, send it back and they tell you if you can apply. Once you start that application process, then you can apply for an appointment. Representatives and senators can schedule you for an interview if you are accepted. You also have to collect community recommendations from three people not related to you, and you’ve got to pull all of your transcripts together. Everything has to be in by October of your senior year.
“One of the questions on (U.S. Sen.) Debbie Stabenow’s application is, ‘Do you wear glasses or contacts?’ We’re trying to coordinate her having Lasik so when I fill it out I can say no to both of them. The whole process takes an eight-month time investment. Each (lawmaker) is allowed five spots. They said 6,700 applied last year and 1,300 got in.
“The nice thing about how it’s set up is it’s a free education. The first two years are a trial period. If you don’t like it at the end of your sophomore year, you can separate without any obligation. After that, you owe years of service. If you go through the whole thing, you owe five years. Pilot training, seven years. I read somewhere where two Space Camp women graduates were entered into the actual NASA space program within the last couple of months.”
“You have to be a fighter pilot to be a test pilot, and being a test pilot is the best way to get into NASA,” Gabby said. “I still want to be the first person on Mars. I don’t think that (goal) will ever change.”
Gabby participates in “St. Paul Saturdays,” where the Episcopal church on Courtland Street serves lunch the last Saturday each month. Wood Fire provided meals, such as spaghetti.
She also expects to participate in basketball and track at school and she competes in Science Olympiad.
“Like Space Camp, Aviation Challenge has different levels,” Gabby said. “I was in Mach 2. I was the only girl out of 14. That was fun.”
“I told her to get used to it. She’s entering guys’ world,” said Nancy, who knows something about that herself as an engineer for Bosch.
“I just graduated from Purdue in May,” said Mrs. Leonard, who also completed her first marathon this summer.
“That’s 12 years of my life, getting there. I can help her through the ‘it’s a man’s world’ thing because I was the only girl in all of my classes. With guys, there’s no petty stuff. If a guy gets mad at you, they tell you and then it’s over. With girls, they hold it in until it becomes a big gossipy catfight in the end. It’s easy working with guys. I’m happy I work with men because you know where you stand and you don’t have to hide anything.”