1 man, 2 callings

July 14, 2018

For his 16th birthday, the parents of a Hayes Center farm boy gave him the gift of flying lessons. Twelve years later, Lance Wach, son of Loran and Nancy Wach, is a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet pilot. This week he is back on the farm, driving farm machinery, helping with this year’s wheat harvest.

Wach said his interest in flying started when, at the age of eight, his dad took him to an air show in Omaha. That interest simmered while he was going to school in Hayes Center and working on the farm.

“I grew up driving a grain cart,” he said, and progressed to driving a combine and field sprayer. At the age of 18, he received a commercial driver’s license and began driving his dad’s semis to take the corn and wheat crops to town.

In the meantime, as a 16-year-old, he started lessons with Flight Instructor Dick Trail in McCook.

All of that experience helped Wach prepare to be an F-22 Raptor fighter pilot. That includes experience managing heavy farm equipment, giving him an advantage over those who did not come from the farm. The Wach farm has a field sprayer with a 90-foot boom, and Lance spent many hours spraying fields with it. That helped prepare him to handle 60-foot-wide gliders while in training with the Air Force.

Now Wach has the rank of captain, and has been stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, since September 2017.

One of his roles is to guard the region from enemy attack, and he is on 24-hour watch duty, usually twice a month. Recently two F-22s in Wach’s squadron intercepted two Russian long-range bombers, as reported in The Washington Post on May 12.

The story noted, “This was a safe intercept, which did not include a Russian recon plane, and no Russian fighters were present.” Wach said usually intercepts are on Russian pilots on routine training missions, as if to say ‘Hey, we can still do this,’ and the Air Force responding with, ‘Yeah, we know. We can see you.’”

Trail is an Air Force Academy graduate, and now Wach is, too. There are 1,000 in the academy and only 500 are approved for fighter pilot training. The average class is about 1,000, and only 500 of those can get pilot spots every year. Wach was in pilot training from February 2013 to March 2014, then in training to use the jet as a weapon, along with survival training.

For three years prior to his assignment in Alaska, Wach was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida, for three years, where summer is “non-stop, oppressive heat and humidity from May to October,” he said. That is where he married Melissa, who is from Bloomfield. They like living in Alaska, he said.

Wach said he gets 30 days of vacation each year and spends a large portion of it back on the farm, helping with wheat or corn harvest, going from working 12-hour days to 15-hour days on his vacation. He has missed only one wheat harvest and one corn harvest, he said.

The combine moves at three miles per hour in contrast with the F-22 Raptor, which routinely flies over 600 miles per hour and can move much faster. But at cruising speed and altitude, “you don’t really notice the speed,” he said. The F-22 Raptor burns a lot of fuel and often has to be refueled in the air by a tanker, such as the KC-135. Wach said Trail flew the KC-135 in the Air Force. Coordinating speed of the Raptor and the tanker is similar to coordinating the speed of a combine with that of the grain cart while transferring wheat, Wach said.

Wach said at other times, when making sharp banking turns or dives, there is a lot of force on the body, and every day of flying he experiences five Gs (five times the force of gravity). Pilots wear a flight suit and a G suit with a bladder around the legs to apply pressure to them for blood flow control, an inflatable life jacket, a harness connected to the ejection seat, and a parachute, helmets and gloves. Occasionally he is subjected to nine Gs, Wach said, and the physical and mental demands can be like “doing a Sudoku (mental game) while running a marathon.” He added, “You have to squeeze the muscles in your lower extremities and regulate your breathing so the blood doesn’t rush to your toes,” while concentrating on maneuvering the aircraft.

All of that is exciting and even incredible, but, with time, “The incredible has become the average, and you forget that it’s incredible,” he said.

Life on the farm can seem incredible to people who don’t experience it, and others in his squadron know very little about farming, he said, and he takes opportunities to fill them in.

“I have an ear of corn and an ear of popcorn on my mantle.” He uses them to explain the difference between popcorn, the corn that goes into a box of breakfast cereal and sweet corn. Each of the members of squadron has a call sign, chosen by the others. Wach’s is “Dusty,” from the character in the Disney movie, “Planes,” and because he is from a farm.

Completing pilot training comes with a 10-year commitment to the Air Force. After that, who knows? Wach said the idea of remaining a full 20 years in the Air Force and qualifying for a pension is appealing. So is the farm. He said his great-great-great-grandfather is buried 10 miles from his parents’ house, and the family has farmed continuously, all those generations, in the same area. They still farm one quarter section — 160 acres or one-fourth square mile — of the original Wach homestead.

“I can’t go fly (F-22) Raptors with my dad,” he said. “My dad and two brothers were all out in the wheat field the other day. I can’t do that flying Raptors. There will be Raptors flying long after I’m gone.”

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