An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Let’s fly together

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Michelle Chang
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs/7th Air Force Public Affairs

“Congratulations! You have been selected for the T-50 Honorary National Pilot Program incentive flight at ADEX on Oct. 21,” the email read. Ecstatic, I yelled out to my office, “I got it! Guess who’s going up in a Korean jet!”

I became emotional as one of my teammates shared in the excitement, verbalizing the significance of this flight for me and my family. “This is such an incredible opportunity for you Lt,” she said. “And the personal story tied to this experience… I imagine your grandfather looking down at you so proud and thrilled for you.”

Let’s get into the context.

Honorary National Pilot Program: Background and selection process.
Every two years, the Honorary National Pilot Program, run by the Republic of Korea Air Force, selects a group of Korean citizens to participate in a T-50 incentive flight as part of the biennial Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX), an international exhibition and air show held in South Korea. This was the first year since ADEX began in 1996 that the ROK expanded this program to include a U.S. military service member, a change made in honor of the 70th anniversary of the ROK-U.S. alliance.

I had just found out that I was the lucky 7th Air Force nominee, chosen from among nominees selected for their family ties to the Korean War, in recognition of my paternal grandfather’s service) in the ROK Air Force during the 38th Parallel Conflict (as they call it in South Korea).

Chang Young Sun served as a senior noncommissioned officer during the Korean War and for several years following. He initially was an aircraft maintainer before cross-training into the Air Force Military Police toward the end of the active conflict, when he worked as an MP alongside many U.S. troops until the end of his service. He went on to work for Northwest Airlines at Yeoido International Airport for some years and spent much of his working life on aircraft.

During the war, while the North Korean forces were pushing their way down the peninsula, his unit was directed to retreat to the peninsula’s southernmost region. He and a friend, on their way down, took the risk of stopping by their camp to check for personnel and equipment. Once there, they found the area abandoned, with tons of weapons, vehicles, fuel and equipment left behind, all valuable resources for North Korean forces. My grandfather and his friend loaded up as much as they could take with them and then compiled and burned all of the remaining equipment to prevent its use by enemy forces. This act of outstanding decision making was recognized during the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, decades later, and he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal (Moo Gong Heun Jang) by the ROK.

Chang immigrated to the United States in 1985 along with his children (to include my father, who was joined shortly after by my mother), where they built a whole new life in Southern California. I grew up driving up to Los Angeles to see my grandparents at least once a month or so. On December 12, 2018, we lost him to health complications. After 88 fruitful years of life, Chang Young Sun left this earth with a lasting legacy, ready to watch his family continue it from above.

After the loss, the family shared many stories about my grandfather and his character. Although with age he had become notorious for his grumpiness and stubbornness, he was remembered fondly as a selfless father and a brave man who had a “nulb eun ma-eum,” Korean for a wide and generous heart. It was my honor to follow in his footsteps as a first-generation Korean-American service member and have the incredible opportunity to be assigned to Korea as my second duty station.

After sharing my grandfather’s story as part of the nominee package, I was selected as the first and only U.S. candidate for the Honorary National Pilot Program incentive flight. Having never flown in a fighter jet before, I was stoked, but even more I was honored to do it in this context. Each step of the program, from selection, to training and then finally the day of the flight itself, underscored that feeling.

October 4, 2023: Flight training day.
I joined the group of 14 other National Honorary Pilot candidates, narrowed down from the hundreds of applicants interviewed across South Korea, for flight training at the ROK Air Force Academy on Cheongju Air Base. It was here that I learned of the prestigious and grueling selection process to become an honorary pilot in this program.

First were the flight education briefings. Then came the physical aspects of the training: ejection seat training, spatial disorientation training and finally, centrifuge training, also known as the G-test. It was a privilege to go through this process alongside such deserving Korean citizens. They came from a diversity of backgrounds and careers: doctors, news anchors, television directors, journalists, YouTube stars, and even a famous singer.

Gyopo. This is a term I wasn’t familiar with until I got to Korea. It’s a slang Korean term meaning an ethnically Korean individual that didn’t grow up in Korea. It doesn’t necessarily always mean they’re from the United States, but commonly that is the case. So that would be me, a Gyopo.

Who would’ve ever imagined a Gyopo service member like me would find herself in this position? I had always dreamed of living in the homeland, the stomping grounds of my mother, father, and grandparents. And to be given such an opportunity as this, alongside these fascinating people, the whole experience couldn’t have been more surreal.

October 21, 2023: Flight day.
We arrived at the meeting point outside the gates of Seoul Air Base at 6 a.m. As with the training day, camera flashes engulfed us as soon as we got to the briefing room and waiting area. Working in Public Affairs, the cameras were a familiar sight. We were fitted for our oxygen masks and G-suits, briefed and had some down time before we were off to the flightline.

As we waited, I met my pilot, Maj. Cho Wonbin. He had a kind smile with a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, and we were about to go for the ride of a lifetime.

The time had come. We were off to the flight line. And as we loaded into the van, one of the pilots exclaimed, “Look, the sky is peeking through!” After a rainy morning, we all looked up at the sky, hopeful and ecstatic for the day ahead.

The flight itself was incredible. I’d been on many commercial and tanker flights before but flying in such a sleek jet like the KT-50 felt unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. As we took off, I saw a clear view of all of Seoul along with the rolling mountains surrounding the metropolitan area. We passed right over the Lotte World Tower, and it was incredible to think that when I stood on that 123rd floor, I felt like I was on top of the world and never imagined I would be overlooking the tallest building in South Korea from the cockpit of a fighter jet.

I looked out in complete wonder as Maj. Cho talked to me through the headset, explaining the cockpit and scenery to me. I “woo-ed” and “aah-ed” as we did our training maneuvers, pulled 6.5 G’s, and I had the absolute time of my life. As we twisted and turned through the skies, there were moments of utter speechlessness; I was humbled to be there.

Tears welled in my eyes as I realized how endlessly grateful I was to my family for all the hard work and sacrifices they had made for me to be here: an officer serving in the world’s greatest Air Force, in the country of my heritage, with opportunities such as these. I soaked it all in, looking down at a completely different Korea than the one my grandfather and his family had left behind, a war-torn country laboring to rebuild itself.

I wondered what my grandfather would have thought of Korea now: a country that had rapidly globalized after less than a century following civil war, finding itself now as the 12th largest economy in the world, benefiting from the roots of allyship for which his generation had laid the groundwork. I wondered what he thought of his children, and grandchildren, children of immigrants straddling two cultures and successfully navigating the world he’d left behind.

After the flight we were greeted by my grandparents from my mother’s side who currently reside in Seoul, and a couple of my close friends, also from Korea. As I was embraced and celebrated by loved ones and recognized with the other Honorary National Pilots during an official ceremony by the ROK Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Jung Sang-Hwa (who has since retired), I was filled with gratitude.

Meeting the general was an incredibly surreal experience as a young U.S. Air force lieutenant. I proudly saluted during the ceremony, honored and humbled yet again by the opportunity. The day continued surrounded by the excitement and pride of loved ones and as I made my way through photographs and media interviews, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by it all.

Let’s Fly Together.
This year marked the 70th anniversary of the ROK-U.S. alliance, nearly 70 years after my grandfather served alongside U.S. soldiers for the freedom of his country, torn in half by conflict. Yet still in a state of armistice, the ROK and the 51 million people here remain protected by our ironclad commitment to the ROK-U.S. Alliance.

The motto for U.S. Forces Korea is “Katchi Kapshida!” In Korean this means “Let’s go together!” As I continue to grow in my pride as a Korean-American service member, soaring on a legacy of partnership and unity that my grandfather and his nation prepared the way for, I am deeply honored to serve, continuing to strengthen an alliance my whole being embodies. This collaborative flight meant more to me than a simple incentive flight. It represented partnership, legacy and pride. From this experience, the motto broadens in my mind to “Katchi nah-reup shida” – “Let’s fly together.”