Flying high at Thunder Over Dover

DOVER — Like many kids in high school, Zachary Zistl had no idea where his path in life would take him.

Little did he know that seven years after graduating from Polytech High School in 2012 he would return to his hometown of Dover as a crew chief for the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team, which will be headlining the Thunder Over Dover Open House at Dover Air Force Base today and Sunday.

Staff Sgt. Zistl said he’s had this weekend marked on his calendar ever since he found out that the F-22 team would be performing in Dover as one of the 20 to 30 demonstrations they provide each air show season with the world’s premier fighter jet.
After all, Dover Air Force Base means he will be close to home, family and friends this weekend.
“My family lives 15 minutes away from Dover Air Force Base and some of my greatest memories was going to one of the local airshows as a kid,” said Staff Sgt. Zistl, in his first year traveling with the F-22 demo team, which has 19 total members. “Just being able to return to my hometown as part of the Raptor demonstration team has been a dream of mine for this entire season.”

He couldn’t have envisioned it just a couple of years ago while wandering the halls of Polytech.
“Absolutely not,” he said, with a laugh. “I was in computer engineering installing networking and all that good stuff and sitting behind a desk and I had no clue I’d be out here working on a F-22 demonstration team.

“It was just dumb luck, really. I realized college wasn’t working out for me, so I decided to enlist (in March 2014). I was mechanically inclined, and I just followed my job as a crew chief and all the opportunities it offered, and I got selected for this. It is super awesome – really something special.”
As a crew chief for the F-22 Raptor, Staff Sgt. Zistl is responsible for all maintenance actions, inspections, ground operations, troubleshooting, hydraulic systems, auxiliary power systems, pneudraulic systems, power plant systems and housekeeping of the aircraft.

It is his job to ensure that the demonstration team pilot is equipped with a safe, reliable and effective F-22 Raptor to execute aerial maneuvers for millions of spectators at air shows around the world.
It is a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly.
“One of the cool things about this job is every day you’re learning something new,” said Staff Sgt. Zistl. “There’s always something new that’s going wrong with (the jet), so you’ve got to figure out what’s up and fix it.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Zistl

“The best feeling in the world is working the wrench on something the night prior and then the next day seeing it flying.”
It turned out that being a crew chief in the Air Force runs in the family for the Zistl’s.
“My dad retired out of Dover Air Force Base as a crew chief,” he said. “I grew up with him telling me stories about working on the flight line and being able to travel all over the world. Honestly, that’s one of the biggest inspirations I had about joining the Air Force.
“I’ve found out that being a crew chief is definitely a job that can be challenging with lots of long hours and working in the weather all the time.”

Maj. Paul “Loco” Lopez is the F-22 Raptor Demonstrations Team Commander and a pilot. He said he feels perfectly safe strapping himself into his jet with the team of dedicated aircraft maintainers he has behind him.
“This is a big week for Staff Sgt. Zistl. He’s back in his hometown,” Maj. Lopez said. “We went to Polytech on Thursday, the school that he graduated from, and told the students the kinds of things that our team does. I know he was excited to see all his old teachers and return to his old school.

“Staff Sgt. Zistl, like all of the maintainers on our aircraft, are unbelievably dedicated to what they do, and I couldn’t do my job without them. It takes a team.”
Staff Sgt. Zistl deflected that respect right back to the pilot.
“The relationship with the pilot is probably one of the coolest things about this job,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust built up between the days in and days out of fixing and flying these aircraft.”

On Thursday, an audience of more than 100 students watched a video in which Mr. Zistl gave his fellow Polytech Panthers some advice: “Find self-satisfaction in everything you do, have a good work ethic, and give it everything you got.”

The F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team also made stops at Dover High and Caesar Rodney High as part of their community engagement activities prior to this weekend’s open house at the air base.
“We just showcased what the Air Force does and what we do day in and day out,” Staff Sgt. Zistl said. “I enjoy traveling around and getting to meet the young kids that are really inspired and want to be involved in the military and aviation and it’s just super cool to get them to hang out with the airplanes and see their reactions and everything.”

Mr. Zistl is stationed at Joint Base Langley in Eustis, Virginia, about four hours away. He gets home around every other month or so.
He often tells the other maintainers on his team he remembers sitting in his back yard watching those mammoth C-5 Galaxy cargo planes soar overhead.
The F-22 is a different kind of beast, he said.

“There’s just nothing like it,” Staff Sgt. Zistl said, “and I’m very grateful to be a part of showing off what it can do. It’s always an amazing sight to see.”
His pilot, Maj. Lopez, feels the same way.
“Anytime I drive on the ramp and I see that gold tint of the canopy or I see the men and women in black, the maintainers working on the jets, I start getting chills and goosebumps,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Man, we’re getting ready to showcase American airpower,’ and the crowd has no idea what to expect.”

Most of the time, the runways at Dover Air Force Base are filled with mammoth C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes.
Those familiar aircraft with be joined by fighter jets, a giant bomber and vintage planes of the past for the Thunder Over Dover open house at DAFB today and Sunday.
Lt. Col. John “Rusty” Trombetta serves as the director of Thunder Over Dover and he said those visiting the free open house will have an abundance of things to look at from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on both days. The gates of DAFB, normally closed to the general public, will open at 9:30 in the morning.

“We feel pretty good about the setup,” Lt. Col. Trombetta said. “It’s been about nine month’s prep. We’re just executing our plan. We have a really good show planned with four-and-a-half hours of flying, ranging from a high-performance premier fighter to our C-5 airlift jumbo cargo movement, to civilian performers – the guys who go upside down and dazzle the crowd.
“This is a special opportunity for everybody. The general public drives by and they wonder what’s going on in Dover Air Force Base and just by the nature of what this event is called for us it’s a ‘open house,’ where you open up the gates and allow the general public to drive down Atlantic Avenue — the base’s main vein — and get to see our shopette, our gas station and just our little city. We have everything we need in our perimeter and everyone’s going to get to see what it looks like and what it feels like out here.”

Maj. Nick Thomas was also involved with helping organize the open house and is excited for the opportunity to open the gates to the public and allow them to see inside the home of the 436th Airlift Wing and the Reserve 512th Airlift Wing, which provides 20 percent of the nation’s oversized airlift capability.

“It’s just a great opportunity for us,” Maj. Thomas said. “We don’t often get to open up our doors to the general public. We’re aware that on any given day individuals from Dover drive right past us each day, and it’s a great opportunity for us to open up the doors and invite the public on to showcase what we do day in and day out.

“We’ve got a very important strategic mission at Dover Air Force Base and we touch all parts of the globe. It should be a great weekend for everybody involved.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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