Air Force pilot tells Lodians of crash experience

Former Thunderbird pilot Col. Chris Stricklin speaks during the Lodi Community Foundation's Philantropy Summit at Hutchins Street Square in Lodi Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

Colonel Chris Stricklin told a room full of business and nonprofit organization leaders this week to “live intentionally” through the acts of gratitude, growth and giving.

“Be deliberate about being thankful you have a tomorrow that other people did not get,” he said. “Take a risk and face your fears. Don’t let the traumas of your past keep you from what you want to do tomorrow.”

Stricklin was the keynote speaker at Lodi Community Foundation’s annual Philanthropy Summit held at Hutchins Street Square on Thursday morning.

His advice was the result of a life-changing event he experienced as a member of the United States Air Force more than a decade ago.

In 2003, Stricklin was a Captain with the Thunderbirds, the air demonstration squadron for the Air Force, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

That September, the Thunderbirds were scheduled to perform at an airshow at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.

Stricklin was to perform a “Split S” maneuver immediately after takeoff, a routine he had successfully completed more than 200 times.

The Split S, according to wikipedia.org, involves a pilot half-rolling their inverted aircraft and executing a descending half-loop to flying level in the opposite direction in which they began.

While Stricklin had performed the maneuver successfully more than 200 times, he said it was at altitudes lower than that of Mountain Home, Idaho.

Typically, Stricklin would have climbed to 2,500 feet above ground level before starting his half-roll. Instead, he was only able to climb to 1,670 feet, not allowing enough altitude to execute the maneuver.

“I knew I was going to crash from the time I rolled back,” he said. “But I could not stop the maneuver because I had already committed. I knew I was outside the parameters of ejection. So I decided to stay and rolled away from the crowd.”

Stricklin was able to fly his F-16 over the nearby runway, away from spectators. He ejected less than one second before the aircraft crashed, just 140 feet above the ground.

He said the 140 feet at which he ejected had been widely deemed as unsurvivable, yet he landed on his feet in the fireball that trailed the downed aircraft.

In addition, he said a pilot landing square on his feet after such a crash would have shattered every bone in his body. Stricklin walked away nearly unharmed.

“I ejected from an unsurvivable situation with unsurvivable parameters,” he said. “And I landed on my feet without breaking anything.”

Today, Stricklin is retired from the Air Force and is President of Dunn University, an Alabama workforce training school.

Stricklin said he and his wife didn’t speak of the incident, which ended his tenure in the Thunderbirds, for 13 years. He said that was how they decided to deal with the trauma.

He recently co-authored “Survivor’s Obligation: Navigating an Intentional Life” with Joel Neeb, also a former Air Force pilot.

Neeb was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and was given just a 15% chance of survival. That was nine years ago.

It was writing the book with Neeb that made Stricklin realize the way he and his wife dealt with the trauma was wrong. The duo teamed up to write the book to inspire others to make the most of each day.

Stricklin challenged those in attendance at the Philanthropy Summit Thursday to ask themselves if the day was a success, because that is how you find out what in your life is important.

“Look at what you’ve learned, look at what you’ve improved, and admit what you’ve struggled with,” he said. “Determine your focus for tomorrow. If you don’t have focus for tomorrow, it will be no better than it was today.”

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