Christina Preston says she got her love of flying through her father, a recreational pilot whom she lost at an early age.
On Friday, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds fulfilled her wish big time, letting Preston climb aboard an F-16D jet fighter for an hour of high-G turns, loops and rolls.
"Some women wait all their lives to get fitted for their wedding dress. I feel like I've waited all my life to get fitted for a G-suit," she said.
The Thunderbirds are in Sacramento for this weekend's air show at Mather Airport, in Rancho Cordova. The show runs today and Sunday. Gates open at 9 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. each day.
Preston was one of two "hometown heroes" selected by the California Capital Airshow to fly with the world-famous aeronautics team. The second hero was Tom Dines of Sierra City in Sierra County.
Preston, 29, of Citrus Heights, was selected because of her work collecting shoes for the homeless. After first collecting shoes for those in need internationally, she decided there was plenty of need right here and created her Shoes for Sacramento project.
"Among the homeless population there is a lot of need for shoes," said Preston, who points out that a minor cut to the foot can quickly become a significant medical issue, especially for those without heath care.
With a distribution network already in place, she set about collecting shoes from friends, co-workers and online. She quickly found she could get as many as 500 pairs a month.
"I just kind of ask around everywhere," she said.
When friends and family found out the air show was looking for hometown hero nominations and that the prize was a ride-along in a jet fighter it was a no-brainer.
"I go to the air show every year. I'm always posting pictures of planes," Preston explained.
One of her most cherished pictures of her father, who died when she was 8 months old, is of him next to his plane. She's become an air show fan and even took a few flying lessons.
Her flight preparations began Thursday around 12:30 p.m. with a medical checkup. She was then fitted for a flight suit, a G-suit (which constricts to keep blood flowing to the brain), a helmet and a face mask.
When you're flying at Mach speeds, details matter.
On top of her red USAF helmet was a white knob used to lock the visor up or down. Should that knob get twisted off, notify the pilot immediately, she was told. Apparently, a knob rattling around the cabin can cause a lot of damage.
The plan was to take off at around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, but a mechanical issue scrubbed the flight. (The Thunderbirds bring only one of the two-seater F-16D variant. The other aircraft used in the show have only one seat.)
Friday, after a second day of adhering to a restricted diet, Preston and her pilot, Capt. Michael Fisher, were up without a hitch.
They climbed to 16,000 feet, did a 6.9-G turn in which the body experiences forces equal to 6.9 times the pull of gravity and completed a series of aerobatic maneuvers. Preston went through it all with her stomach intact and without passing out.
"We had a great time today. The jet performed beautifully. Thanks for getting the plane ready," Fisher told the crew upon landing around noon.
Preston said she had the flight of a lifetime, though she conceded that at one point her vision started to fade and she nearly lost consciousness.
"It was absolutely fantastic," said Preston, who grew up in Rancho Cordova and attended Oakmont High in Roseville. "I started to pass out, but I did the exercises they told me and I came back."
"It was amazing to be in the aircraft," she said. "I dreamed about doing this all my life."
California Capital Airshow
Saturday and Sunday at Mather Airport in Rancho Cordova. The show stars the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds jet demonstration team roaring across the sky, as well as aircraft on the ground as hands-on exhibits. Action starts at 9 a.m. daily and wraps up at 5 p.m. For more information and ticket prices, visit californiacapitalairshow.com.