March 9, 2011

Richardson ’05 Takes to the Skies in Afghanistan, S. Korea With Air Force

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For Capt. Sean “Skeet” Richardson ’05, the most rewarding day in his several years as an F-16 pilot in the United States Air Force came in the spring of 2010.

The Taliban forces had ambushed a group of American soldiers at close range, wounding some. The Americans were pinned down and could not withdraw under the enemy fire. The Taliban soldiers were sandwiched between the Americans on one side and civilian houses on the other.

As the Americans on the ground looked for help, Richardson and his fellow F-16 pilots worked closely alongside helicopters and other aircraft to fire on the Taliban without risking American or civilian lives. The Americans withdrew, and all of them survived.

“On days when I fly, I’m reminded of why I joined,” Richardson said, adding pilots find their “strengths and weaknesses” from the sky.

Although Richardson enjoyed his experience flying, he said he spends most of his time in the Air Force on the ground.

“The office days aren’t always entertaining, but it’s been fun learning to work effectively with those around me and working to improve our time and fiscal efficiency — all skills that were reinforced in Cornell engineering,” he said.

Richardson came to Cornell in 2001 as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering major and ROTC cadet. At Cornell, Richardson joined the CubeSat, RoboCup and Autonomous UAV teams. After graduating in 2005, Richardson earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force.

“I hadn’t always wanted to be a pilot, but flying was the most challenging thing I could sign up for,” Richardson said. “Challenge was why I joined.”

For 20 months, Richardson trained to become a pilot at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, and then spent another 11 months at the Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona, training to fly F-16s.

“The training was difficult at times, but the biggest secret was refusing to give up,” Richardson said. “It ended up being the most fun year of my life so far.”

After completing his training in 2008, Richardson did his first operational tour in South Korea.  Richardson said he was always interested in geopolitics and this was a chance to experience it firsthand by hearing the beliefs and policies of American and South Korean leaders.

In his most recent deployment to Afghanistan, Richardson provided close air support to ground units. He said his missions taught him a lot about combat psychology and his own predispositions.

“From miles above the ground, I had to make strategic decisions that could contribute to American success in limiting al Qaeda’s ability to attack the U.S. or make mistakes that harmed Americans and Afghans and end up on CNN,” Richardson said. “Was the Afghan I was watching a peaceful civilian? Did he intend to harm a fellow Afghan or attack American troops? Might I inadvertently provoke an Afghan to begin supporting the Taliban and al Qaeda?”

Despite the difficulties of the job, Richardson said his time as a soldier had helped him learn about himself.

“I believe that humanity finds its greatest strengths and weaknesses when tested to its limits,” Richardson said. “I decided that I wanted to find and grow from my own greatest strengths and weaknesses through the challenges of the military.”

Original Author: Laura Shepard