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Raptor Pilot Gets Special Welcome at AirVenture

The U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor demonstration and Heritage Flights will be held during the air shows on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 22, 2015 - It was the ultimate homecoming.

The commander and pilot of the U.S. Air Force Raptor Aerial Demonstration Team taxied up to the ramp during Tuesday’s air show as his father marshaled the plane in and his family and friends stood at the side waving and smiling.

Maj. John Cummings, an Appleton native who spent many years as a child coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh with his father, flew into Oshkosh for the first time in a very cool aircraft, the F-22 Raptor. “I was real happy I didn’t have to follow all the arrival procedures that everybody else did to get here,” he later joked. “I did a few passes and just landed.”

His 3-year-old son, Dylan, was holding a sign reading “Nice landing dad!” After the engine noise died and Cummings exited the plane, he scooped up the young boy who ran out to meet him and then held him in his arms. Looking at the sign, he grinned and said, “Yeah, it wasn’t a bad landing.”

Cummings says it has been about 20 years since he last attended the EAA convention and fly-in. He expected to see a lot of airplanes as he flew above. “But wow. There are a lot of airplanes here. I had a little time to hang out just to the west before the show was ready for me, but it was a spectacular sight with the people and the planes.”

He’s flown in about 30 air shows since making the F-22 demonstration team, but this was the first time all of his family and friends—parents Barbara and John Cummings Sr.; wife and children Ang, Dylan and Nathan; and a good friend and his family—were all there. “It was special and pretty amazing,” he says.

It was also special for his family. “It’s pretty spectacular,” said his father, John Sr. “It’s a really proud moment for me; I’m very proud of his accomplishments.”

John Sr. said he would be at AirVenture all the days his son his performing. “We’ve gone to other air shows and watched him, but it is really special for him to fly at EAA,” he says. “It is just hard to describe, like a perfect homecoming.”

His father says that John was always fascinated by flight and even re-engineered a flight simulator to make it more realistic as a child. Father and son also built—and crashed—simple remote control airplanes when he was young.

Cummings’ mother, Barbara, remembers hearing her son playing with airplanes in his bedroom. Using the large LEGO plates for runway, he could be overheard yelling, “Clear for takeoff!”

Then one year he applied to be a hawker on the EAA grounds, in part to be at the convention and air show every day, John Sr. said. “Warbirds were always special to him. He always loved the big engines, fast passes, and loud noises.”

Graduating from Appleton East High School in 1996, Cumming went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He worked at Boeing as an avionics engineer and joined the company’s flying club, obtaining his pilot certificate. At 26, around the time of 9/11, he joined the Air Force, earning his commission in 2004. He is a seasoned fighter pilot with more than 1,300 fighter hours in both the F-15C and F-22. 

As the F-22 aerial demonstration commander, he leads the 10-member demonstration team, oversees maintenance actions performed on the Lockheed Martin $140 million demo aircraft, and showcases the Raptor’s maneuverability for more than 10 million spectators around the world each year. His two-year assignment will end in October.

The younger Cummings says everything about the Raptor is cool. “There is no other plane that is capable of doing what the Raptor does,” he says. Because of the size of the aerobatic box in Oshkosh, he won’t be able to fly the full demonstration. “But we can do most of it,” he adds. “The things we do in the Raptor are what we do to teach the pilots how to fly the jet, things that no other aircraft can do.”

However, Cummings says his favorite part of their demonstration is the Heritage Flight, flying in tight formation next to World War II planes such as P-47 Thunderbolts, P-38 Lightnings, F-86 Sabres, and P-51 Mustangs.

Cummings knows the next few days will be busy, flying at Oshkosh and at the nearby Milwaukee Air and Water Show. “But I’m excited; I’m hoping I will also see a number of people from my childhood years.”

The demonstration team is really a marketing tool to get youth and young adults interested in aviation and perhaps the military, he says. Cummings is hopeful that he will inspire a new generation to fly, and fly for the military, just as he was inspired as a young boy attending AirVenture.

“Every time we go to an air show, we’re looking for the one or two young boys or girls we can inspire to do something like this,” he says. “When you see the airplane up close and talk to the people who fly them, hopefully those kids will realize they can do it, too. So come out and see us at the show.”

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