Flight One’s outreach mission is rock 'n' roll

  • Published
  • By R.J. Oriez
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Rock ’n’ rollers are rebels. Nonconformists. They do not take well to authority. That’s their reputation, anyway.

The military is all about conforming. Being uniformed. Respect for authority and the chain of command.

So how does it work for a military unit whose mission is to rock ’n’ roll?

For Flight One, the Air Force Band of Flight’s rock group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, it seems to work pretty well.

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Whitt, the band’s bass guitarist, acknowledges some musicians have problems adapting to a chain of command and using it to communicate at the military level. But that’s rarely an issue come showtime.

“We sort of blur the lines between that and getting on stage and performing,” Whitt said. “I would use our vocalist as an excellent example. She leads this band with her voice on the microphone, but she has people who outrank her standing behind her supporting her and following her lead.”

Flight One does about 50 shows a year for a variety of audiences, plus more with the full Air Force Band of Flight. It fulfills a community-outreach function by performing for free at local schools, fairs, amusement parks and other events, such as Centerville’s recent “Party in the Park.” 

It also takes part in military ceremonies and events supporting the 88th Air Base Wing and National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Tech. Sgt.  Greg Pflugh, the band’s musical director and saxophone player, says Flight One’s mission is simple — to “honor, inspire and connect” with veterans, service members and the public.

Flight One’s vocalist is Senior Airman MeLan Smartt, who calls herself a free spirit.

Smartt says she’s been “flirting” with the military since high school when she was in Army JROTC. She was in Air Force ROTC in college while earning her musical degree, but the birth of a son her senior year interrupted plans for a commission.

Instead, she became a high school music teacher. But she found opportunities limited because her degree was in musical performance instead of musical education.

“I wanted to do something else,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what.”

One day on social media, she saw something that changed her life course.

“I saw a flyer for vocal auditions for the Air Force, and it was like those two worlds kind of just came together right in front of me on the page,” Smartt said.

For the Air Force Band Program, musicians have to audition to audition. Auditions are held for specific positions, and applicants try out before they join the Air Force.

Smartt submitted recordings to the Band of the West at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Band of Mid-America at Scott AFB, Illinois.

Scott invited her for an in-person interview and liked what it heard.

“It was on the spot,” Smartt said. “They immediately said, ‘Oh, we love you. You’re hired!’”

By the time Smartt could enlist and go through basic training, the Air Force decided it needed her at Wright-Patterson AFB more.

The Band of Flight is one of the Air Force’s smaller bands, Whitt said, and the lack of depth makes it more important that vacancies are filled quickly.

“This band is considered a critically manned band. It must be manned because of its size,” he said.

Now, Smartt finds herself the front woman of the rock band.

“I love it,” she said. “This is something I was born to do.”

She acknowledges the pressure, though.

“I just have to find a way to mix myself with the mission, because the mission is why we are here,” she said. “It is a mix between being me, because being me is important, but also being a ‘we.’

“Being a vocalist, it can be nerve-racking because without me, there’s not a show. If I get sick or sneeze a little too hard or cry, whatever it may be, and I lose my voice, I let down the team.”

Smartt is a self-acknowledged “nonconformist” and for Whitt, the band’s ranking NCO, that’s OK.

“Because I am the same way,” he said. “For MeLan to say, ‘I’m a nonconformist but I’m in uniform,’ that means she wants to be in uniform. She’s making a choice to be in uniform. She doesn’t need to be in uniform.

“She said, ‘OK, I’m putting this thing on today. Let’s go make some music. Let’s go do the mission.’”

Later this year, Flight One is headed out on tour. But for this group of rockers, that means going downrange and playing for Airmen and service members deployed to the Middle East.

Some things are simply better than playing to a sold-out arena.

“In the military, we get to be on a team. We get to build a team,” Whitt said. “If I talk to my brothers, or anybody in the civilian world that never builds a team where they work, and they’re not in a band, they have no idea of the power of this.”