EHT teacher gets chance to fly with Thunderbirds
Kelli Wenzel couldn’t contain her joy as the F-16 landed after her once-in-a-lifetime flight with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds on Tuesday. The Egg Harbor Township teacher could be seen applauding in the back of the plane as soon as it landed. In town for the Atlantic City Air Show, the elite team fulfilled the seventh-grade teacher’s “I don’t know what I imagined it to be, but it was better than I imagined,” Wenzel said. “It was amazing.” No sickness and no passing out. “She crushed it,” said her pilot, Major Jason Markzon. He loves to introduce civilians to the wonders of flying in an F-16, but taking up Hometown Heroes like Wenzel makes it more special.
The Egg Harbor Township native has been teaching in her hometown for 15 years, most of that also spent helping put together care packages for those serving overseas. “That means a lot when you’re over there, to know that people care,” said Senior Master Staff Sgt. Andrew Moseley, of the Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing, who nominated Wenzel for Tuesday’s honor. It started out with just a couple of people putting it together, Wenzel says of the care package work with students. This past school year, Alder Avenue Middle School sent more than 600 packages, with shipping paid by a mini-grant through the Egg Harbor Township Education Foundation. Before take off, Wenzel went through hours of preparation, including learning how to breath and brace her body for the G-force it would be experiencing. “So you ready to pull 9 Gs?” Markzon asked as he went through their flight plan. “Yes,” Wenzel said, leaning back in her chair, arms spread wide. The daughter of a jet mechanic had tried twice before to get the ride. She came closest last year, but there weren’t enough planes so the Thunderbirds didn’t take anyone. “I just have to remember my breathing, and I hope I don’t get sick,” Wenzel said before take off. She and Markzon walked on to the tarmac to cheers from the other Thunderbirds, who greeted them with handshakes and high-fives. The same cheers greeted her as she got off the plane, her cheeks flushed with excitement. “I got to fly,” she said later of taking the controls. “I did a barrel roll. It was great.”