When rookie jet fighter pilots Lt. Junior Grade Elizabeth “Liz” Corwin Tremel, 24, and Lt. Junior Grade Michael Tremel, 25, recently landed their Navy F-18 Super Hornets on the deck of the USS Truman off Key West, Fla., it culminated nearly two years of specialized training in aerial combat and carrier operations. In February, at the naval aviation designation ceremony in Meridian, Miss., the newlyweds made naval history as they earned their “Wings of Gold” together.

In spite of the hoopla, Joanne and Ric Corwin of Oak Park, the proud parents of the petite and athletic Liz, took it all in stride. Their energetic middle child had always been a climber, tumbler, flipper, bungee jumper and sky diver, so choosing to fearlessly fly through the air in a military fighter jet wasn’t that far from her norm.

“[Landing on the carrier] is the most rewarding and difficult thing-mentally, emotionally, and physically-I’ve done by far,” says Liz, a south Oak Parker who caught a break being stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va. with her husband, Michael. “You are all alone on the jet-with no instructor-so mentally preparing yourself for that and trusting what you have been taught is the most exhilarating, and scariest time in the training because the runway is a very small space to hit.”

But it’s more about finesse than power.

“Some people think that to move a jet around takes a whole armload of strength and it doesn’t,” Liz laughs. “You should barely be moving your fingertips. And no matter how much practicing you do, the first time you fly over the carrier, and look down and see that itsy, bitsy tiny boat floating around down there, there is no other feeling like it. They say you are ruined for roller coasters forever after that.”

Love at second site

Corwin, a 2000 Oak Park and River Forest High School grad who was a four-year academic athlete-and senior athlete of the year-initially met her husband-to-be at a Navy ROTC helicopter flight program in San Diego in 2003. They became friends. Back then, she was at Vanderbilt University, and he was a student at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. When fall semester started, they took their leave, but got back on each other’s radar two years later when they were reunited at Pensacola Naval Air Station’s flight school. Love took flight, and the student pilots married last May 13 at St. Giles Catholic Church in Oak Park, halfway through their jet fighter training. Now they are learning how to fly the T-45, and by Christmas they could be deployed together, or separately, almost anywhere in the world.

“I really enjoy being married to Elizabeth, and it is great coming home to her as my wife. But it helps in those rare occasions when we need to ask each other questions about flying,” says Michael, who is originally from Portage, Penn. “From the beginning, we’ve understood what we need to go through, and the different times we might be away from home. We work extremely hard and give our all, and then when we come home, we try to drop it all and spend quality time with each other.”

While Liz’s parents aren’t in the military, both grandfathers are WWII veterans. It was her older brother, an Army helicopter pilot, paratrooper and ranger, who initially piqued her interest in the ROTC college scholarship program, and then in flying. Over the years, he’s pumped her up with stories and support as her aviation career has taken off.

“[Because of my Navy ROTC training commitment], I knew that I would be on a ship, a sub, be a marine or fly,” says Liz, who has a B.A. in Economics from Vanderbilt. “When I flew helicopters in San Diego that summer, it was a blast and I found that I loved flying. From there I wanted to do something crazy and fun, and this seemed like the right way to go.”

Parents of pilots

With their oldest son, Russell, a captain and commander of a helicopter troop being deployed to Iraq for a second tour, and with their daughter now slated for active duty soon enough, Joanne and Ric try to stay positive and supportive for their children-and live day-to-day for themselves-in spite of the swirl of media reports, war movies and national politics. Here in Oak Park, they have experienced a wrap-around community of neighbors, friends, co-workers and fellow parishioners at St. Giles. They try not to worry about their kids, but often do, especially when they hear the stories, like the time Liz went through one level of her centrifuge training and passed out.

“She passed out twice at 7.5 Gs, but it was a sustained environment, and she was in it for at least 15 to 20 seconds before she passed out,” recalls Ric. “Previously, she has pulled over 7 Gs, in a steep turn, but in a jet they don’t normally last more than 5 seconds. When she is getting close to that passing-out stage, she eases up and slows it down, so her smaller stature doesn’t really affect her flight status.”

Liz says that, like most pilots in the program, every time she’s in the cockpit, it’s a workout-mentally and physically. And because she’s “kind of little”, she has to work harder.

“You have to be in shape and prepare yourself for this,” she says. “Pilots party pretty hard, but when it comes to flying, there is no room to party too hard. We take care of our bodies pretty well. If you’re small, the seat moves up and you can get as close as you need to the stick so you can perform.”

Joanne has flown with Liz and an instructor in a private plane before she entered Navy flight school, she hasn’t gone up in a jet yet. “That day the sky was empty, except for a few other smaller planes flying around,” Joanne recalls. “Elizabeth gave me a circle tour of the southwest suburban area. It was very smooth and comfortable.” And she is ready to strap on an oxygen mask and tag along for a jet ride-if it were possible.

Top guns

The most memorable milestone, besides her date with the USS Truman, was when Liz signed her name on a little piece of paper to take the jet out alone for the first time.

“In training, we do a lot of dog-fighting, two students and an instructor in three different jets in a small area of sky,” Liz explains. “It is in those moments when you realize the magnitude of what it is you are doing because you are so stressed out trying to think of what you should be doing next. There is no time for looking outside and sightseeing.”

Because she is an admitted “complete adrenalin junkie,” it’s all about the rush of taking the danger head on every day, and Liz admits it’s most thrilling for her during a wild ride when her training and instincts kick in.

Home life, on the other hand, has been good, but it’s a work in progress, and sometimes, professionally speaking, tough.

“I came back one day after flying into the pattern knowing that Elizabeth was still up there in pattern, as well as doing landings,” Michael says. “It was kind of like I was trying to fly two aircrafts, my own and looking up ahead to see what she was doing. It is good for me because she is one of the few females who were in that command, and you could always pick her voice out over the radios. However, everyone else knew that Elizabeth was flying, and when Elizabeth did great and when Elizabeth messed up, too. So that is the hard part of being a female, I guess.

“I want her to be as safe as possible, and that is what I trust she’ll do, and when she comes home, I can have my wife back, you know? We don’t think so much about the worst thing that can happen to us, but rather how much fun we are having when we are up there.”

Being a female naval aviator hasn’t been problematic for the girl who still enjoys gussying up for a night on the town-thanks to her younger and older brothers, Nate and Russ, who taught her the ropes early on.

“I knew I wanted to join the military, and everything started with that. I found out that this is completely different than any other branch or career that the Navy has to offer. It’s real laid back, you have a lot of fun, and it seemed like I would get along with a lot of the personalities-and well, it’s flying,” she laughs. “It is the dream that everybody has, and I’m getting paid for it. A lot of people don’t do this because they don’t think they can. But they can do it if they have the drive and want it bad enough. I really believe that people don’t understand that. I’d have to say that I have one of the most rewarding jobs that exist.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....