Bird Watching

BU alum oversees health of elite Air Force Thunderbirds

by Larry Little

U.S. Air Force Maj. Christopher M. Scheibler, BA '05, did not have a typical 'military-brat' childhood. Rather than hop from one base to another, Scheibler was comparatively stationary. He was born at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.; but, within two years, his family moved to San Antonio, where his father was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base.

We just stayed put there in San Antonio for the rest of his career," Scheibler says. "I had a pretty stable childhood as far as that goes."

Scheibler, whose father spent 26 years in the Air Force, is anything but stationary now. He is in his first of two years as Squadron Medical Element Flight Surgeon for the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds, stationed at Nellis Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas. Scheibler returned to Waco and Baylor University in early June for the Heart of Texas Airshow at the Texas State Technical College (TSTC) Campus Airport.

"I had seen the new football stadium from I-35, but that's about as close as I had gotten," Scheibler says of his visits to Baylor since graduating. He notes those previous visits typically were of the driving-through town variety--short and quick.

This visit was different. In town parts of five days, Scheibler had opportunity to see how much Baylor's campus has changed in a decade. He took in a meal at the Baylor Club in McLane Stadium, toured the stadium and squeezed in a run around the Bear Trail for old time's sake.

Scheibler chose Baylor over Texas A&M, the University of Texas at Austin, Incarnate Word and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Baylor stood out during a campus visit.

"Baylor was a lot more out-reaching," Scheibler says. "They were a lot more personal in their process. I was interested in doing pre-med, and Baylor did a really good job selling their pre-med program."

Scheibler's road to the Air Force was not preordained despite his father's lengthy service. His father recommended that he look into an ROTC scholarship, simply to see if he was interested.

Baylor's Air Force ROTC program, established in 1948, was one of the nation's first. Detachment 810 was awarded the High Flight Award, recognized as one of the top four detachments in America and best in the southwest region, in 1996 and 2003. It was selected as the nation's best large detachment in 2008.

“Lt. Col. Jeff Bowles did a great job of teaching us what to expect from the Air Force," Scheibler says. "It's a very involved ROTC program. It's not as large as some others, but I liked that because I had more of a personal relationship with all of our cadre there at the detachment." [Note: During Scheibler's recent Waco stop, he was able to visit with Bowles, who was commander of Detachment 810 during Scheibler’s first three years at Baylor. Bowles, Baylor's director of electronic marketing and communications, retired from active duty in 2004.]

"I got approved for a scholarship that let me enroll in ROTC my freshman year in college," Scheibler says. "At the end of that year, if I didn't want to do ROTC anymore, I could walk away and still have my first year paid. Or, I could stay in the program and have the rest of my college paid. That was a no-pressure situation that let me scope it out for a year."

Ultimately, he decided it was in his best interest to continue in the ROTC program, which essentially meant going into the Air Force after graduation. Unsure if medical school would work out, Scheibler felt the Air Force gave him a stable future. With that came a mandatory four-year commitment. Pursuing a medical degree through the military meant a still lengthier commitment, but Scheibler was happy to go in that direction.

"I looked at it as an opportunity to get life experience and then down the road decide again if was something I wanted to stick with once my commitment was up," he says.

Scheibler received his Doctor of Medicine from the Uniformed Services University of Health Science in Bethesda, Md., and completed his internship in general surgery at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio the following year.

From there, it was time to see the world. He served nine months as flight surgeon for the 36th Fighter Squadron at Osan Air Force Base near Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

"When I finished my intern year at Lackland, I just wanted to see a different part of the world, see something new, experience a new culture," Scheibler says. "I put Korea at the top of my list because nobody was prioritizing it."

He considers himself fortunate to have been stationed in South Korea prior to marrying fellow San Antonio-native Linsey Wagner. According to Scheibler, most servicemen stationed there are not able to take their families, adding stress to their deployment. And, as he says, being stationed in South Korea can be stressful enough.

"Obviously, with the relationship between North and South Korea, there were some stressful times," Scheibler says. "But overall, the opportunities I had there were amazing."

His time in Korea was followed by a three-year stint as flight surgeon for the 55th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base outside Pordenone, Italy. Located in the Friuli region of northeast Italy, Aviano Air Base sits about 45 miles north of Venice.

"Italy was pretty much as great as it sounds," Scheibler says. “The people, the culture, the lifestyle, the food, the wine, everything else you would imagine were excellent."

Scheibler was deployed to Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal, Belgium and Israel--among other places--during his time stationed at Aviano, serving as a primary care physician and flight surgeon for those doing missions.

"There were a lot of amazing life experiences while I was doing that," Scheibler says. "I also loved the work that I got to do while in Korea and Italy. There are a lot of hard-working people that are deployed."

Scheibler joined the Thunderbirds team in October 2014. He oversees the medical needs for the Thunderbirds pilots, approximately 130 personnel associated with the team and their families. The team travels every weekend from February through October, performing roughly 70 airshows in nearly 40 locations every year.

At the airshows, the Thunderbirds allow two backseat fliers, giving a media or community member an opportunity to experience what it's like in a high-performance jet. Baylor graduate Chip Gaines was among those to leap into the skies with the Thunderbirds during their Waco stop.

The Thunderbirds also do high school and hospital visitations, meet with Make-a-Wish children and man Air Force recruiting booths.

"The team is very busy," Scheibler says. "Everything we do, we do as a single group of people--all on the same page, all pushing to the same goal."

Scheibler says part of the Thunderbirds purpose is to be a public face of the Air Force for the American public. Between active, civilian, reserve and air guard personnel, the U.S. Air Force has nearly 700,000 airmen, about 40,000 of whom are deployed around the world.

"We have awesome airmen doing great jobs every day, and a lot of times in austere or dangerous conditions," Scheibler says. "They're not able to be in front of the public and tell their stories and show what they're doing. Our mission as the Thunderbirds is to go out there and in everything we do, strive for that same professionalism and precision that our airmen have."

Part of that precision is in Scheibler's hands. The delicacy of the ability to perform maneuvers at high speeds in an F-16 jet cannot be taken for granted. There are no alternate pilots for shows. If a pilot is injured or sick, the show does not happen.

"It isn't something that you can just substitute people out when you need to," Scheibler says. “There’s no other pilot that can just take over for them."

Scheibler says the only people that would be safe to fly are the pilots who do it every day.

"It would not be a safe situation," he says. "They fly during training season twice a day, five days a week. Once we get to travel season, they fly almost every day, keeping those skills up-to-date and current. Knowing how to deal with them medically is very important, knowing how to judge any kind of medical concerns related to flying."

Scheibler flies with the pilots on a regular basis. He observes them in their work environment in order to know what they can and cannot do in the event of an injury.

"If they come to me and say, 'I sprained my wrist,' I need to think about what they're doing with that hand in the cockpit," Scheibler says. "Can they do that effectively with that injury, or do we need to take them off flying status while they recover?"

Thunderbirds pilots are exposed to G-forces from negative-3 to positive-9. Scheibler says it is difficult to explain the flight environment in a high-performance jet. "It's a completely different environment," he says.

A weekly schedule during show season is rather regimented. The team travels six pilots and 70 personnel to the location Thursday with a practice airshow Friday afternoon and full airshows Saturday and Sunday. Monday, the team returns to Nellis Air Force Base, and Tuesday is reserved for local flying and practice at Nellis. Wednesday is an off day before the routine starts again.

“There is a reason why for officers it's only a two-year assignment," Scheibler says. "With the traveling and the flying and everything else, two years probably is about as much as anyone would want to do."

Scheibler has logged more than 250 flight hours on 10 different airframes in his career. He has provided medical care for more than 3,500 personnel across 20 squadrons. In 2011, he was named PACAF Flight Surgeon of the Year. His two-year window with the Thunderbirds will close at the end of the 2016 season.

"There are a lot of opportunities still out there in the Air Force," Scheibler says. "I think I would go back to some sort of further education at this point and further specialize in my medical training."

Whatever direction he chooses, it is unlikely Scheibler will be staying put anywhere anytime soon.