The invitation to fly in an F-16 with the US Air Force Thunderbirds that arrived in my inbox early March, required only one word of reply, but I offered three. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
I knew that the Thunderbirds and their Navy counterparts the Blue Angels invite reporters and others we today call “influencers” to fly backseat on demonstration flights. The practice is not limited to military teams. Acrobatic performers have invited me into their airplanes in the past; John Klatt and Dell Coller, and Rob Holland all hosted me in their Extras. And once, I donned a parachute for a harrowing flight designed to teach airline pilots how to recover from upsets.
To compare those acrobatic flights with the experience of flying in a fighter jet, I went to my friend John Gadzinski, a US Navy F-14 Top Gun from 1986 to 1996, who, as luck would have it, just flew acrobatic in an Extra earlier this month.
“I guess the biggest difference,” he told me, is the mission of the airplanes. “The jets you are flying in are designed to deliver weapons. Going fast and having power is their primary goal. An acrobatic airplane is just meant to be an acrobatic airplane.”
This is not to say that an acrobatic airplane, even with its considerably slower speed won’t offer as dramatic a ride from the inside as the air show audience gets from the outside. G-forces can be significant in both, though negative Gs are not part of the fighter jet’s normal repertoire.
Acrobatic pilots flying propeller airplanes “want to show you how it can tumble and change direction in a very dynamic manner,” John said. With a fighter “you are dealing with much higher forces, higher thrust and much higher air speed and coefficient of lift. There’s more lift on the wings,” John explained.
For this and many other reasons my flight with the Thunderbirds on the eve of their season-opening appearance at the Air and Space Show at Melbourne International Airport on March 24th, required a lot of preamble and a lot of equipment. For my 10:30am flight, I was told to arrive at 7.
During my session with flight surgeon, Capt. Glen Goncharow, I learned how to handle the forces of gravity that would multiply my weight by a factor of 5 or 6 during abrupt changes in direction and speed. I’d need active and passive assistance to keep the blood pumping to my heart and my brain during turns, climbs and dives.
Unstopping my ears from rapid altitude changes, selecting oxygen, how much water to drink and when to pee, were all covered in the medical briefing.
Then it was on to the equipment. SSgt Kyle Boddie checked the fit of my helmet, oxygen mask and pressure suit – a garment laden with zippers and snaps, as tight as Spanx but with the opposite effect on the apparent size of my butt.
The ejection seat tutorial presented by Tech. Sgt. Edwin Portan, was eye-opening. Seems a happy ending after being shot out of the top of a fighter jet is not necessarily assured. There’s a lot to do after being jettisoned.
Garbed in my flight suit and boots, I was off to meet my pilot, Major Eric Gorney. With a model F-16, he showed me what we would be doing in the airspace over Central Florida. I was right with him, nodding along until the point where he said, “and then I’ll give you control of the aircraft and you can do an aileron roll as well.” Right.
When all the talking was over, we went out to the ramp. Impeccably uniformed ground crew members were giving their full attention to the airplane and its soon-to-be-occupants.
I often brag of a constitution perfectly suited to my job; writing about aviation and travel. I can sleep anywhere, eat anything and never get motion sick. Still, as I looked at the plastic bags Kenneth had secured beneath an elastic strap on my knee, I had to wonder if I’d pass the Thunderbird challenge, neither throwing up nor passing out.
Eric taxied down to the end of runway. Through the foam ear plugs beneath my foam insulated helmet, the screaming of the F-16’s F100-PW 229 engine was piercing. I was thrust back in my seat as Eric got the plane off the runway in less than 2,000 feet. The nose went high in the air and we shot up like a rocket. Ten seconds later Eric did an aileron roll and we flew inverted, the Florida landscape/seascape passing over my head. This is the kind of flying air show audiences will see when the entire team performs the Thunderbird’s High Bomb Burst manuever.
The 2018 air show season is Eric’s first with the Thunderbirds, capping 10 years as an F-16 pilot and flight instructor with deployments to Iraq, Libya and Korea. That experience and constant practice helps him maintain his edge under G loads as high as 9 and even while moving faster than the speed of sound. The F-16 is capable of 1,500mph.
Entering NASA airspace, we flew over the vertical assembly building. Eric pointed out the jogging track shaped like a space shuttle and I speculated about which of the launch pads below had been used for the launch of Falcon Heavy and the landing of its reusable rockets just a month earlier.
During our near hour in the air, Eric demonstrated the F-16’s ability to make a tight 360, which we did with one wing pointed about 180 degrees to the ground. This was the most sustained G load, on the order of 4.5 and lasted about 90 seconds as Eric completed one full turn, made an aileron roll and did it again.
The Cloverloop roll had Eric taking the plane near verticle, folding over to inverted flight, then, when the nose of the jet faces the ground, he rolls it back and flies out.
Eric always advised me to prepare for the Gs before doing anything dramatic and that was accompanied by the inflation of my pressure suit – giving me a good squeeze from ankles to midriff. Consciousness prevailed, stomach contents remained in place. Thank you Jesus and Dr. Goncharow.
In fact, I was surprised I could deal with the physiological stimuli and still appreciate the experience. Not long after we took off, Eric turned the plane inverted, the clear glass canopy allowing a view of the earth as we flew at speeds as high as 500 mph. It was as if we were streaking across the sky in a bubble.
After a playful pass over Patrick Air Force Base, we headed back to Melbourne Airport where the support team was on the ramp to greet us. Eric gave a recap of our flight and presented me with a photo by Thunderbirds photographer TSgt. Christopher Boitz (responsible for the best photos in this post) and signed by the team.
This photo will always remind me of my day in the air, but it also reminds me of the message public affairs officer Maj. Ray Geoffroy made repeatedly during my visit and that is that the Thunderbirds are more than pilots and planes, many people make up the team that is responsible for the success of every flight.
“We showcase the pride, precision and professionalism of U.S. Airmen both on the ground and in the air,” Ray said. “Each Airman has a phenomenal story to tell and it’s our duty as U.S Air Force Thunderbirds to help start that conversation.”
My ride certainly has me talking and from the buzz of the crowd at the Air and Space Show one does not need to fly in the cockpit with the Thunderbirds to be dazzled by them.