Piloting Her Way Through Life

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Major Melanie Barnes on the beach near her dad’s Balboa Island
Major Melanie Barnes on the beach near her dad’s Balboa Island home. — Photo by Sara Hall

After spending 11 years in the Air Force, Newport Native Melanie Barnes has decided to stop flying and start healing.

Major Barnes, a 1998 Corona del Mar High School graduate, has flown 305 combat sorties, or flights, over Afghanistan or Iraq, resulting in 15 air medals.

Her commitment is up and she will be officially separating from the United States Air Force in June, with big plans for the next portion of her life: Medical school.

She feels very comfortable that this is her time to leave and that she has a plan for the future.

“It’s very scary, in some ways,” to be leaving the Air Force after so many years, she said. “But I’m also really excited about the possibilities for the future.”

It all started when she was just a teenager. The Air Force sparked her interest the summer before her senior year of high school, when she attended the USAF’s week-long Summer Scientific Seminar.

“It really worked for me,” she said.

She connected with a female cadet who was in charge of her group. The cadet was between her junior and senior year, about to become a first class cadet, Barnes recalled.

“She was so confident and strong and she had a sense of self that I really admired, and I thought, ‘I want to be like her,’” Barnes said.

“I was also looking for something very different than what Orange County had to offer,” Barnes added. “I never really fit in with this society, so I was definitely going to leave for college, I just didn’t know where.”

So she applied and was accepted into the Unites States Air Force Academy.

Barnes has no family background of military service, excepting an uncle who was in the National Guard, she said.

“I was definitely breaking the mold,” she said. “I took a hard left and head out in this different direction. But it worked for me.”

There were some difficulties and some tearful calls home, but at the same it was a good fit for her.

“I feel like I became that cadet that I wanted to be,” she said.

While at the academy, she learned that nearly every other cadet wants to become a pilot, and most make it. She didn’t really have a passion yet, so she decided she also wanted to be a pilot. In retrospect, she said, she is very glad she made that decision.

She struggled at pilot training, she said, and worked hard to finish.

“I was not intuitive, it did not come naturally,” she admitted, “but I made it through.”

She ended up flying KC-135s, an air-to-air refueler.

“We’re basically a flying gas tank,” she said. “We keep the fighters airborne for longer than they otherwise would be able to be flying.”

Her first assignment was in early 2004 in Kadena, Japan.

“That was a pretty scary experience. I was still pretty young and sheltered,” said Barnes, who was 23-years-old at the time. “It was pretty daunting to be on the other side of the world (at that time in my life). International travel was a whole new experience.”

She was stationed there for three years and earned the rank of lieutenant.

While in Japan, she performed a lot of short trips, she said.

“Anytime an airplane moves a long distance, it’s going to need gas along the way,” she said. “So that’s what we do.”

For example, she explained, if there was an exercise in Thailand and the Kadena base sent F-15s, they would need to be refueled along the way, just in order to make it to Thailand. So they would all take off together, Barnes’ KC-135 “pumped to the gills with gas,” and refuel the F-15s mid-air during the flight. The two planes would need to get pretty close, connect to each other with a tube and then it‘s as “easy” as just pumping gas. Larger aircraft are harder to refuel, she noted, because they aren’t as responsive.

“It’s like flying a whale,” she joked.

Her job as co-pilot, which she was during her time in Japan, is to manage the fuel and keep it balanced.

“For me personally, it was very seasoning,” she said. “Out on these trips, you are seeing things you never imagined before. At times it was really overwhelming.”

She sometimes still felt like an innocent, little girl, she admitted, but she needed to be an officer and a pilot and had to grow up.

After some time she moved over to the other seat as pilot and became in charge of the plane and its crew.

She was later stationed in Spokane, Wash., at Fairchild Air Force Base, for another three years, from 2007 to 2010.

She continued to fly KC-135s, but acted primarily in support of the war effort, she said. They deployed to Kyrgyzstan for three months at a time, from there they would fly into Afghanistan to do any needed refueling. She deployed to Kyrgyzstan four different times during those years, while performing exercises and other trips in the meantime.

After Washington, she moved to her current base in Wichita, Kan., where it was more of the same, except now she was deploying to “an air base in southwest Asia.”

“From there, on any given day, we would fly to either Iraq or into Afghanistan and do our refueling there,” she said.

They were pretty removed from most of the action, she said. Since the plane has no defensive systems they are kept high out of range, she explained.

“We were well outside the threat range,” she said. “But we could often tell from the demeanor of our receivers… You could kind of see how the war was going based on that.”

“I’ve had some really good experiences,” she said, like flying through the aurora borealis on her way to Alaska. “It was all around, on all sides of the cockpit. You felt like you could just open up the window and touch it… That was really amazing. That was one of those moments where you stop and have awe.”

There were also some really rewarding experiences, she added, like during when she was flying out of Spain in support of Libya.

“That first night, you could see the coast of Libya, you could see Tripoli, you could see the lights and cars driving around. And you could see bombs dropping,” she recalled. “It was this really surreal feeling of, ‘We’re here and we’re doing this,’ and I felt passionate about (the cause). I really wanted the people of Libya to have freedom… I felt very proud to be there.”

Now, 11 years after that life-changing week during summer camp, it’s the end of her commitment to the Air Force and she is ready to move on.

“It’s been a lot of flying and working and sacrifice,” she said. She’s tired, she added.

The Air Force was good for her at the time, but now she wants to pursue something different. It’s not her passion, she added.

“I served my time, I did the best I could and I feel that it’s time to pass it on to the next generation,” she said.

Her next mission medical school. Barnes, a biology major at the academy, will take classes this summer at University of California, Irvine.

“I’m still evaluating (this choice) for myself, if this is the best life choice,” she said. “I need my job to be an extension of myself, and my passions, to be happy… More than anything, I really want to leave the world better.”

She is planning on applying to UCI, UC Davis, and University of Washington. She is also looking into a few Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine schools, which would specifically train her to be a doctor for the underserved, which she is very interested in, she said.. She hopes to start in fall of 2014.

She hopes to volunteer at a clinic and eventually practice medicine in a rural, underserved area. She is also drawn to the idea of Doctors Without Borders, or at least that style of medicine.

“Practicing medicine in a community that does not have the monetary resources that we’re accustomed to,” or the specialists or sophisticated equipment, she said. “Practicing in a rural environment, you have to be an expert at everything… It’s a different way of approaching medicine.”

Looking back, she’d do it all over again, she said, she had great leadership opportunities and personal growth.

“It was definitely the right place for me at the time,” Barnes said. “I’m pleased with the experiences that I’ve had and who I’ve become.”

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