The Valdosta Daily Times
A citizen was repaid for his outstanding service to the Valdosta community Friday morning, but not with the traditional plaque and handshake.
Lt. Joseph Dukes, a deputy with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, flew in the rear seat of an F-16 piloted by a member of the Thunderbirds Demonstration Squadron.
Dukes is the winner of the Thunderbirds Hometown Hero Award, a U.S. Air Force program that seeks to recognize citizens who do “amazing things” in their communities.
The Thunderbirds are in town for Moody Air Force Base’s open house and air show, with gates opening to the public 9 a.m. today and Sunday.
Citizens are nominated for the program by their peers and are selected based on their contributions to the community. Winners are given a guest flight with a Thunderbird pilot and media publicity highlighting their achievements.
Dukes was invited to Moody Air Force Base early to begin his pre-flight briefing at approximately 7 a.m. He was dressed in a green flight suit and combat boots, and sat down with several members of the Thunderbirds team to discuss what to expect on the flight and ensure he safely made it through his hour in the air.
The Thunderbirds flight surgeon, Maj. Michael Carletti, talked Dukes through the management of high-G turns and maneuvers. Due to the pressure endured during positive and negative Gs, there is a significant risk of passing out from momentary blood loss to the brain.
Carletti explained that Dukes would have to squeeze certain major muscle groups in his legs and lower abdomen to compress blood back into his head to stay conscious.
Dukes would also have to hold his breath and do a quick “breath exchange” — a forceful exhalation followed by a quick intake of breath, which sounds like “ka-hook” if performed correctly, Carletti said.
It took a little practice, but Dukes got the hang of it before speaking with Thunderbirds Advance Pilot/Narrator Capt. Michael Fisher about the F-16 and the maneuvers they would make on the flight. Then it was off to the tarmac to climb into the jet.
The ground crew strapped more equipment to him, and gave him some barf bags to manage any possible sickness.
“Did you put an extra one in there?” Fisher joked, bringing a nervous laugh from Dukes. “Never know ...”
Dukes climbed the ladder and into the backseat of the cockpit, careful to avoid the metal hook that locks the canopy into place. Fisher pointed out key elements in the cockpit for Dukes, like the oxygen delivery system under his right arm and the ejection handle between his legs.
“This is awesome!” Dukes exclaimed when he was finally settled.
Fisher helped Dukes don his helmet, oxygen mask and visor, and then it was time for him to climb into the front seat. After a systems check, the plane was cleared for takeoff.
The jet rumbled down the runway, engine blasting hot and loud, and the two soared off into the blue.
“We did a military takeoff,” Dukes said after the flight. “We went straight up into the air and leveled off. To me that was the most exciting part of it. It was absolutely amazing how fast we got up to cruising altitude. About 25 seconds.”
Fisher took him through high-G turns gradually, talking him through every maneuver and giving him time to practice his breathing, Dukes said. When it came time to pull a 7.5-G turn, equivalent to
7.5 times the strength of gravity, Dukes was impressed with the pilot.
“The most amazing thing that was going through my mind was here I am, trying to pay attention to my training and dealing with the Gs, and here he is just totally situationally aware of everything that’s going on,” Dukes said.
Fisher took Dukes through a variety of maneuvers including barrel rolls, inversions and loops, but the flight was never bumpy, he said.
“Everything’s moving differently than how the body’s accustomed to it,” Dukes said. “Everything was very smooth, but your eyes and your ears are trying to figure out exactly where you’re at. And you have all this power behind you, and you can hear it and feel it.”
In spite of his disorientation, he only felt a little nauseous during the flight, but he credits that to the pilot.
“Fisher was a fantastic pilot,” Dukes said. “The whole time he was talking with me, seeing how I was doing, what I liked and if I was having any type of problems. I’m sure with no effort he could have made me very nauseous, but he was very merciful and allowed me to enjoy the experience.”
Upon landing, Dukes was met by a small crowd and presented with a certificate to commemorate the experience. He thanked the air crew for their service and fulfilling their mission.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Dukes said. “It was definitely the flight of a lifetime.”
Dukes is a career law-enforcement officer who has distinguished himself as a hard-working and selfless deputy, having served as training coordinator, K9 dog handler, and in the Narcotics Investigation Division and the Fugitive Recovery team.
Dukes co-founded the Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team, an all-volunteer team composed of members from multiple divisions who assist other agencies with high-risk situations like barricaded gunmen, hostage-takers, active shooters and high-risk warrant service.
In addition to service in these capacities, Dukes has proven himself a selfless member of the community on at least one occasion in recent memory, when he helped save the life of a man who had stopped breathing.
Dukes was off-duty working at a second job when he heard the call of a nearby Code Blue over his radio. He stopped what he was doing and raced across the parking lot to help the man, pulling him from his car and beginning CPR.
Dukes gained the assistance of a bystander and directed the bystander through chest compressions while administering rescue breaths himself until an ambulance arrived. While the success rate of field-administered CPR is less than 20 percent, according to the release, the victim survived.
While Dukes expects no reward for his services, these acts of heroism as well as his continued service to the community have given him the qualities necessary to earn him the distinction of Hometown Hero.
“Lt. Dukes makes these sacrifices willingly and continuously in order to effectively and honorably meet the commitments he has made,” the release states.
Gates open for the Moody Open House 9 a.m., and the air show begins at 10:30 a.m. today and Sunday. The times of all demonstration flights are subject to change, but the Thunderbirds are scheduled to perform last.