Lt. Cameron Thornberry, Super Hornet pilot
Rio Americano grad is preparing for his first tour of duty
A calm landing-officer’s voice crackles over the radio, guiding the pilot in. No moon means instruments only. “Your whole world is a cockpit and [the carrier] is on the horizon,” Lt. Cameron Thornberry says. But that’s not the scariest part. “It’s when you’re trapped and taxi. They’re—no kidding—putting your wheels inches from the flight deck.” A 2008 Rio Americano grad and Super Hornet pilot in the U.S. Navy, Thornberry called from the Navy’s fighter jet center in Nevada, prepping for his first tour. He can’t talk about politics, he says. Just his country. “My world is my squadron, air wing and strike group—that’s where my immediate sight ends,” the Sac native said. “I always knew I wanted to defend this place.”
So, what are you up to in Nevada?
Deployment workups. My squadron and three other fire squadrons, an entire carrier airwing, are going on deployment in October. It’s a yearlong procedure before that, where we train as squads and workup as an airwing. Lots of aircraft in the sky doing one mission. Then we transition to the boat in August.
Did you always want to be a pilot?
When I was a young kid, my earliest memories were of aviation—when I was in diapers. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a Navy pilot. My uncle was, too. My other grandfather was in the Army in World War II. Then in middle school, I saw the Blue Angels and decided that’s what I want to do.
Do you still want to fly for the Blue Angels?
No, as politely as I can say that … no. They’re great at what they do and are great pilots, but their mission is public relations. I would rather be in the frontline fighter squadron, or serving as a weapons school instructor or a test pilot.
How do you feel piloting millions of dollars worth of equipment?
I forget what it is … like $60 million? You lose sight of it day-to-day. I’ve been training to be in the frontline Super Hornet squadron for three years. It’s easy to lose sight of, but still very humbling. And awesome, scorching around the sky. We’ve done workups on the boat for six weeks. During that time, everyone is stuck on the boat and only the pilots can go out and fly around.
Definitely flying. That’s what draws everyone in here. Not too far away from that is working with sailors and being part of a larger team. It’s pretty cool when you’re out in the middle of the ocean and you see other cruisers and destroyers. You see how small a cog you are in the entire machine. Working with the sailors who work day-in and day-out, 12-hour days, even on the ship when it’s blistering hot out. It’s eye-watering seeing a jet fully groomed and just ready for you.
How long do fighter pilots stay in the service? What’s training like?
We have a minimum contract for all pilots of eight years once you wing. Some get out and some stay in. … Some admirals stay up to 30 years. When you start out, most give you the call sign FNG—Friendly New Guy. You probably can’t put in what else it stands for. Now, I have my own call sign, but I’m still on the bottom rung. You keep starting out as a new guy, from prop planes to jet trainers in Mississippi. It’s a whole new process of learning over again, then you transition to the F-18.
What’s your call sign?
Col. DRFM—it won’t mean much to you, but DRFM is a jamming technique, an electronic attack in the sky. Pretty much, I’m a huge nerd. Digital Radio Frequency Memory: Jamming is confusing radar waves. Say I’m an enemy jet and flying against F-18s. I would receive radar energy and my electronic attack computer would spit them back out to spoof the opposing radar. It’s funny sounding. That’s where that came from.
Tell me about one of your best days.
Some of the most fun is low-level flying. We’ll fly out from Lemoore, 10-to-15 minute transit to the Sierras. Owens Valley or Saline/Death Valley area. We’re going around .8 mach up at altitude. It was an introduction to extreme low-level flying. We’re going beneath mountain peaks, 200 feet off the ground, no joke—you’ll cut east and bomb down these huge mountains directly onto Route 395 on the east side of the Sierras. Then, a 10,000-foot drop-off to low-level flying until we bomb down into Star Wars Canyon [aka Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley National Park]. There’s usually photographers shooting us 200 feet above, yanking and banking 300 to 400 knots, pulling anywhere from three to seven and a half Gs, wrapping around this canyon. And you get out. That’s 20 seconds of flying.
You went in under one presidential administration. Now you’re in another. Do you think about it?
Our whole country is based on the fact that the military is separate from any political power. We are there to execute the legal orders of those above us. We’re public servants—we just do our jobs in a military sense. That is an apolitical job. I know there’s a larger institutional power and decision-making that can start at the very top. All of us are pretty confident in the institution of America and the decision-making. People in the military are going to have political leanings one way or the other, but politics aren’t discussed that frequently, since we’re all here for the same mission. We’re here for public service and have a strong desire to serve, to be prepared on the frontlines to defend freedom. As cliché as that sounds, there’s a lot of things people take for granted in this country. People do it in the local and civil sectors. We’re just in arms. There’s a lot of patriots in this job who love the idea of what it is.