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Flight of a lifetime

"That is awesome!" Lt. Col. Derek Routt, the operations officer for the Air Force's Thunderbirds, fairly shrieked as he walked in the door and spotted the shiny hunk of metal on the table.

Monique and the Thunderbirds
Monique Lamoureux prepares for her flight with U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Operations officer Lt. Col. Derek Routt on Thursday at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

"That is awesome!" Lt. Col. Derek Routt, the operations officer for the Air Force's Thunderbirds, fairly shrieked as he walked in the door and spotted the shiny hunk of metal on the table.

That would be the Olympic silver medal belonging to Monique Lamoureux, a forward on the U.S. women's hockey team in this year's Olympics and on the UND women's team.

On Thursday, she was a superstar among the Air Force's superstar air demonstration team, as different members of the team took turns cradling the palm-sized disk in their hands or posing for pictures with it.

Lamoureux was one of two area residents taking an hourlong ride on one of the Thunderbirds' F-16 Fighting Falcons, a supersonic bird designed to be so maneuverable that it's actually kind of unstable. The other lucky passenger is Todd Riedinger, a Grand Forks police officer who helped rescue a suicidal woman from a garage where she left her car running.

Routt, otherwise known as Thunderbird 7, was Lamoureux's pilot Thursday as the pair took a grand tour of northeastern North Dakota, starting with a heart-stopping vertical climb that turned the F-16 into a pointy speck in the vault of the sky.


By day's end, Routt had come up with a nickname for Lamoureux and her twin sister and fellow Olympian Jocelyne. "Mo and Jo," he called them, sounding pleased with himself.

It's a habit among U.S. fighter pilots, though they often pick embarrassing call signs for teammates.

Routt told his ground crew that he was very proud to fly Lamoureux because she represented America at the Olympics, just as the Thunderbirds represent airmen and other service members around the world, such as Lamoureux's fiance, Marine Lance Cpl. Taylor Kolls.

"I know you say I represent our country," Lamoureux said to them, "but you guys do that every day, and I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."

A roller coaster

The first sign the Thunderbirds were in town was the thunderous roar of their engines as they passed over the office building where Lamoureux, her mother, Linda Lamoureux, and grandmother, Edith Soli, were waiting. Jocelyne Lamoureux was out of town Thursday on a UND athletics tour of North Dakota communities.

Outside, they were treated to the sight of four F-16s, one following the other as they banked and turned over the airfield a dozen times to familiarize themselves with the terrain.

"I didn't realize it was that big of a deal until a few weeks ago," Lamoureux said. That's when people told her she was getting the trip of a lifetime and her fiancé confided that he was very jealous, she said. "Somebody told me it'll be like a roller coaster times 100."


True, if that roller coaster makes a lot of civilian types lose their lunch. This is such a big concern that maybe a quarter of the briefing that Thunderbirds team members gave to Lamoureux involved how not to get sick and what to do if she did.

Just in case

The other parts of the briefing included ways to prevent the blood from draining out of her brain as the plane engage in high-G maneuvers that turn her 160 pounds into as much as 1,440 pounds.

Squeeze those leg and stomach muscles hard and breathe in controlled spurts, was the advice.

"You grew up playing hockey and you played in the Olympics," Routt said. "You're not afraid of a good workout. That's what it will feel like."

Also in the briefing was the procedure for ejecting if the F-16's about to go down.

Routt has the jolly demeanor of a Mouseketeer leader -- "Hello, team!" he shouted to his ground crew after he landed. "Hello, sir!" they all shouted back. -- but now he was really serious.

If Lamoureux hears "bail out, bail out, bail out; three times not once, not twice," Routt said, she should pull the yellow handle in front of the seat and between her legs. Then, he said, she should get her thighs as close to the cushion as possible because the rocket that launches the seat will put out 13 Gs of acceleration, enough to break a bone.


They'll parachute to Earth, he said, "then we'll have a nice walk in the countryside."

Strong spirit

On the flight line, Lamoureux looked the part: A flight suit fitted to her 5-foot-6 frame, a pair of anti-G getup that looks like a combination chaps and girdle -- it'll help her squeeze the muscles -- a harness to hook her to the parachute and a bright red helmet.

True to the spirit of a demonstration team, even the ground crew maneuvered like a drill team. When they stood still, they stood ramrod-straight. When they checked the plane, they moved smoothly like dancers. When they saluted, it was crisp and synchronized.

Routt and Lamoureux were gone almost an hour. The pilot said they started with a 400 mph run down the runway, pulled 6.8 Gs straight into the air, flipped to horizontal flight while upside-down so Lamoureux could see the beautiful countryside and proceeded to tour the valley, imagining every pond they saw to be a hockey pond. At one point, they pulled up to 7.3 Gs.

After their return, Monique looked a bit uncomfortable. She answered her mom's "How was it?" with a low groan.

She told the Herald afterward that the first 10 minutes was fine, but then --well, let's just say the spirit was willing but the stomach was not.

And, as Routt promised, it was a real workout.


"I'm ready to go and take a nap right now," Lamoureux said. "You definitely feel it."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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