Mark Watson remembers his first airplane ride, at age 7, his eyes glued to the window.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” he said.
Now 32, Maj. Watson will remember that ride as a moment that blossomed into a career as a U.S. Air Force pilot. And as the director of the SkyFest 2019, he’ll have the opportunity to ignite the same experience of awe in thousands of youngsters on June 22 at Fairchild Air Force Base.
But what goes into organizing such a massive undertaking of sky-borne fighters and transports, static plane displays, tents, support vehicles and more?
It starts with assembling a team, Watson said.
Watson’s leadership skills needed for such a team developed at the U.S Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Doing exercise drills and pilot training programs forced him to cooperate with others more than he ever had, he said.
His dream of piloting locked in when he was sent to Laughlin Air Force Base in Colorado and selected to be a pilot for heavy aircraft such as the KC-135 Stratotanker – a military aerial refueling plane that uses a long boom to deliver fuel to other aircraft while in flight.
Watson was already married at that point.Being a pilot for heavy aircraft meant shorter deployment times, so he was able to spend more time with his family.
“I knew I would be home with my wife a lot more,” he said.
Piloting the KC-135 on missions around the world grew more and more appealing to him.
“I really like the idea of fueling the flight and passing gas to the guys who need fuel to take the flight to the bad guys.”
Other interests also started to appeal to Watson. In 2011, while still in the Air Force, he enrolled in the University of Oklahoma to pursue a business entrepreneurial degree.
His next stop was deployment in England, where he flew planes for five years. He worked as an aircraft commander and was upgraded to an instructor pilot.
Watson then found himself in Oklahoma, and the work experience wasn’t the only thing he brought back to the country.
“I came home with two British souvenirs – my two eldest children.”
He spent the next three years in Atlus, Oklahoma: “You gotta get lost to find it,” he said, and he and his wife had their third child.
Last July he got an email congratulating him on becoming the director for the 2019 SkyFest at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base. It came as a surprise because he didn’t apply, he said.
Before moving to Spokane, Watson began assembling his team by getting recommendations for positions. He needed an air operations manager to coordinate flights and a hospitality operations manager to keep all the guest pilots happy.
Watson moved to Spokane in August. One of the first challenges was finding the main feature of the show, a “sky team,” like the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels – both of which were unable to come. But Watson’s team was able to secure the F-22 Raptor display team, flying the most maneuverable plane in the world, he said.
Through frequent reassurance and praise, Watson motivates his team of event organizers for SkyFest.
“You don’t realize how good you are” – a phrase that he remembers from a role model of his in England, and one he uses on his own crew. “That stuck with me,” he said.
His team is also introducing a “STEAM” hangar, short for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. It features survival escape scenarios, medical demonstrations, civil engineering displays, a robotics team, augmented reality and an air commando trainer with virtual reality to simulate jumping out the back of C-17 airplanes, he said.
“It’s an exciting thing for people to see touch and feel what it’s like to live a day in the life of an airman,” he said.
Perhaps the most thrilling aspect to is the wide range of aircraft flybys: “It’s going to be so loud,” he said. “You’re going to feel it in your soul.”
Watson said one day he hopes to start his own business, and he’s looking into possibly applying to Harvard to earn another degree.
In the meantime, Watson is directing SkyFest and coordinating training programs at Fairchild for the KC-135, a plane he still flies.
He is still living his dream that was sparked on that plane ride as a 7-year-old. It was in high school when he thought: What was the most fun thing I could do with my life? “I thought flying around the world would be pretty good,” Watson said.
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