Apples fall far from trees and then there is Hailey Brunkal. The 2019 Vacaville High School graduate could be on her way to becoming an Air Force pilot just like her stepfather and sister, but she would rather jump out of a plane than try to fly it. Apples do not have far to go when they drop. When Brunkal falls, it could be from as high as 17,000 feet.
At least the 20-year-old managed to stay aboard the plane that transported the Air Force Academy’s skydiving demonstration team to perform at Wings Over Solano at Travis Air Force Base. Brunkal and her Wings of Blue teammates were scheduled to jump Saturday and Sunday, but high winds on Sunday forced them to put away their parachutes.
Her sister Melissa also went through the Airmanshop 490 class at the academy and became a certified jumpmaster. The 23-year-old was a senior when Brunkal arrived in Colorado Springs and helped her little sister understand why skydiving does more than teach a cadet how to overcome fear. It also turns a cadet such as Brunkal into a leader.
Brunkal has had to earn respect of her classmates so they will trust her with their lives. Skydiving has taught Brunkal how to conquer her fears. Serving as an Air Force officer will test her ability to keep those in her charge going when the going gets tough.
“You have to learn to do something uncomfortable,” Brunkal explained. “In Airmanship 490, you train 40 hours on the ground and then your first jump is solo. You have to pull the rip cord yourself. I can’t say I loved skydiving at first. It was terrifying. (Skydiving) demands respect. Now I can breathe and feel excited instead of being really, really scared.”
Fear struck Brunkal long before she received an appointment to the academy. She was afraid that following in her sister’s footsteps would make nothing more than a copycat. Her heart was set on attending the academy after touring the campus as an eighth-grader, but the thought did cross her mind that she might be better off by going her own way.
“I wondered if I should have had that moment – is this really for me?” she said. “I looked at West Point and the Navy, but I guess I’m a product of my environment. I came to the conclusion that the Air Force was for me. I wasn’t going to diverge from the family tradition.”
And now there is no place she would rather be. Her schedule is so demanding that she rarely gets to come home, but she is not without family. Cadets who jump out of perfectly good planes together also stick together when their feet – and nerves – are safe on terra firm.
“We’re tight-knit. This is my second family,” Brunkal said “I love being with them.”
Brunkal certainly spends plenty of time with her teammates. Start with six hours each weekday and another eight on Saturday. “It’s a big time commitment. That’s why so many people have reservations about doing it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Something else is on the horizon for Brunkal, however. Her skydiving days are numbered. Her career as an Air Force officer will be in medicine. She will leave the skies to her sister, who was recently assigned to be a C-17 pilot at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.
Brunkal’s final jump will be when she graduates from the academy with the rank of second lieutenant on June 1, 2023. Brunkal and the other senior skydivers will be wearing their dress uniforms – and parachutes – when they arrive from the sky to the commencement.
Now that’s going out in style.