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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
It’s not often that an appointment to a university’s board of regents leads to a career as a U.S. Navy jet fighter pilot, but that’s just how the Navy career of Ketchikan’s Mari Freitag was born.
On Dec 21, in Meridian, Mississippi, Freitag was awarded her wings as a naval aviator. She specializes in flying tailhook fighter jets, which are deployed with aircraft carriers.
When Freitag was a University of Alaska Fairbanks junior, studying political science and justice, she was elected to a two-year term on the University of Alaska Board of Regents. As it was a two-year term, she then faced a fifth-year at UAF. To fill in some credits that last year, she enrolled in a private pilot ground school class.
That’s when she decided she wanted to be a career pilot, rather than a lawyer, as she’d previously planned.
“It was very late in the game, compared to a lot of people,” Freitag said.
When she came home after that school year and announced that she was going to go into aviation instead of law, her mother, Maggie Freitag, told her she need a few moments to reset, but then was completely on board.
“We were thrilled, you know. We all love flying,” Maggie Freitag said. She explained that not only did she have hours flying, but Mari Freitag’s father, Gary Freitag, also was a pilot and built his own airplane. She added that they have extended family members who were aviators in the military, some of whom drove a long distance to attend Mari Freitag’s winging ceremony.
U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Mari Freitag explained that a lot of the pilots she works with say, “‘I wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was two,’ and I was like, ‘Well I figured it out when I became a pilot.’”
As Freitag worked toward acceptance into the naval aviation program — which took a couple of years — she took a job in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office in Washington, D.C. There was a lot of paperwork involved in applying to the Naval program, as well as physical examinations and even eye surgery to correct her vision.
She finally started officer candidate school in September 2015 and was commissioned in December 2015. She then spent about six weeks in Pensacola, Florida, in aviation pre-doctrination, which Freitag said served as an initial ground school.
Part of the goal of the Pensacola program, Freitag said, was to weed out the less motivated or less capable students. She said she was surrounded by students who had degrees in related areas, such as aerospace engineering, so she was motivated to study hard to keep up.
“It was a lot of stuff I didn’t know before,” she said, explaining that the classes touched on topics such as the mechanics of engines, hydraulics and aerodynamics.
“I wanted to work really hard at it,” she said. “It wasn’t like I was forcing myself to do it. That’s how I knew I wanted to do it, because I was like — I wanted to try hard.”
Freitag sailed through that phase of her training and moved on to a primary flight training squadron in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she began flying T-6 Texan II Bravo turboprop trainer planes. At that point, students were required to choose a track: helicopters, P-8 big-wing planes, or tailhook jets. She chose the latter.
“I really wanted to be a tailhook pilot, so I really wanted to land on carriers,” Freitag said.
She next moved to Meridian, Mississippi to train, flying T-45C Goshawks and many simulator missions.
She explained, “The mission of the jets in the Navy is what attracted me. The idea of dogfighting sounded really cool to me, … aircraft fighting each other in the air. It’s really fun.”
As she began her training as a tailhook pilot, Freitag said one of the challenges put before students was testing their abilities to deal with stress.
“At first, it’s kind of all about testing your aptitude for certain things, like … forced cockpit loading, where they purposely make it busy in the cockpit just to see how you handle it,” Freitag said. “You have to be able to rank your issues by priority” while maintaining control of the aircraft.
Asked if there were times where she felt overwhelmed, or like it was too much for her, Freitag said all of the pilot candidates have those thoughts sometimes, but she had a way of dealing with those doubts.
“There are times when you just kind of wonder if you’re meant to be there, or you know, if it’s kind of one of those ‘maybe I should just kind of fake it ‘til I make it kind of things,’ or ‘if they don’t want me, they’ll get rid of me’ kind of thing. It’s a lot of emotional fortitude, I guess.”
Maggie Freitag, who sat in on the Christmas Eve morning interview at a local coffee shop, said she had some idea of part of how her daughter grew up to have that fortitude.
Maggie Freitag credited her daughter’s 14 years as a dancer with Ketchikan Theatre Ballet as an important part of Mari Freitag’s development.
“KTB really teaches discipline — self-discipline, focus, teamwork,” Maggie Freitag said. She added that Mari Freitag also had an innate sense of responsibility and perfectionism even as a youngster, and was a straight-A student at Ketchikan High School, from which she graduated in 2008.
Mari Freitag said that perfectionist streak has helped her achieve her goal of being a Navy jet fighter pilot.
“Frustration comes when you know you can do better and you just don’t fly well that day,” she said, adding that the pilots always are striving for excellence. Trainees who seem to be taking their jobs too casually, she added, are reminded by their instructors — all of whom have deployed on actual missions — that lives may be dependent on their performances one day.
“Flight school is kind of, in general, you experience some of the highest highs you can experience, and some of the lowest lows you can experience,” Freitag said.
She shared also that one of the most challenging moments that she’s faced in her journey to earning her wings was when it was time to land on an aircraft carrier for the first time with no instructor on board to guide her.
She recalled her carrier qualification test, in which she flew in formation with other candidates, to approach the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. Candidate pilots are required to land with a high percentage of actual landings to near misses — or “bolters.”
The biggest challenge?
Staying calm on the way to the carrier.
“The first time you see the boat, you’re like: ‘Oh, man, I have to land on that little thing?’ It’s crazy,” Freitag said, laughing.
She said that when the pilots first sight the carrier, they probably are flying between 250 and 300 knots. They then perform an entry pattern that allows them to slow enough for a safe landing. She explained that tailhook craft are designed to be designed to be able to fly more slowly than other fighter jets, for those landings.
“The carrier probably stands out as the coolest, most terrifying, humbling thing I think I’ve ever done in my life,” Freitag said.
She added, “The carrier qual was probably the coolest thing. There’s so many people who would give anything to be able to fly a jet and trap it on an aircraft carrier. It’s not why I love it, it’s just a really special thing that not a lot of people get to do, and it’s really hard and you have to work so hard for it, and it was the coolest.”
She shared her favorite aspects of piloting the fighter jets.
“I like the really, really dynamic stuff, like pulling a lot of G’s, and the G-forces,” Freitag said.
She explained that the last jet she flew pulls up to about 7.3 G’s before it hits its stress limit. She also said she enjoys flying upside down.
“The Navy was definitely the right choice for me,” Freitag said. “They give you a lot of latitude.”
She said that, as part of their training program, the students were encouraged to take independent cross-country flights with the jets for practice.
Her next adventure, now that she has earned her official wings, is to join a fleet replacement squadron flying F/A-18 Super Hornets in Lemoore, California. She said she will be there for about a year, learning to fly the Super Hornets, then will get assigned to a fleet squadron, either in Lemoore or in Virginia Beach. She now has an eight-year obligation to fly for the Navy.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.
Once she gets her assignment, she will move with her squadron to its host aircraft carrier.
Her next job will include more time on the ground, managing enlisted sailors and various jobs. She said she looks forward to that, as she feels like she’s been in college for an extra three years.
Her advice for people who might be considering a career in flying military jets was clear.
“If they want to do it, and they’ve ever been interested in it and they feel like that’s something they want to do, they should absolutely pursue it. I honestly — when I first started this process — I never thought that I would ever end up in a fighter jet.”
She added, “anytime you want to do something in life — not just naval aviation or whatever, anything — if you want to do it, just keep working at it until it becomes either not worth it anymore for you or until you absolutely can’t. It’s very possible if you put the work in.”