Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My INCREDIBLE F-16 Fighter Jet Flight Experience!

WOW!  That's all I have to say to sum up my experience of flying in the F-16 Fighter Jet today, 4/12/11. Actually, I would have to add about 1000 exclamation points to truly describe the intensity of the experience, but I'll spare you and just say, WOW!

Col. "Bones" Dennee, Col. "Wizard" Dick
Coach "Tin Man" Jacobson
I don't really know where to start. Truth be told, my brain is a little bit fuzzy and I'm still pinching myself to make sure I'm awake and didn't dream what transpired today.  I am so humbled, honored and grateful to have been given this special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it's difficult to describe in words.  I also take comfort in knowing that our country is being protected by the brave men and women who comprise our military, and in this particular case, the Air Force National Guard. The quality and professionalism of the individuals I had contact with over the past two days was exemplary, and this is a result of the stellar leadership at the Base.

Sleep was difficult to come by the night before the flight. I felt like a little kid waiting for Santa Claus to come or a big kid getting ready for the gun to go off for the start of Ironman Kona.  I woke up a couple times during the night and sprang out of bed at 5 am to get the day rolling.

Pre-flight briefing.
Col. "Wizard" Dick (Front)
1st Lt. "Slash" Struck
Bananas... the word is to eat them for breakfast because they 'taste the same coming back up."  I decided to stick with bland foods since I knew, based on my history of motion sickness since I was a kid, I'd be puking at some point.  I had some saltine crackers, ginger snap cookies (settles the stomach) and some Mojo Bar.  I had a cup of coffee too...since I didn't want to get too far off my normal morning routine. I momentarily entertained the thought of a shot of Tequila to take the edge off... but thankfully avoided that fleeting temptation.

Suited up and nervous as hell!
I met 1st Lt.  "Slash" Struck at the main gate of the 162 FW,  Tucson ANG  at 7:00 am.  At 7:40 am, a pre-flight briefing was scheduled with Vice Commander Col. Dick, "Wizard", the fighter pilot taking me on the flight.  He went over the flight agenda, the areas we'd fly over, the maneuvers we'd do and the in's and out's of what to expect in the F-16 Fighter Jet.  Wizard had been flying jets and other aircraft for over 25 years and has seen his fair share of combat and it was quickly apparent that he knew his stuff like the true professional he is.  He was engaging and a little sarcastic and did a great job of putting my mind at ease regarding motion sickness and what it would feel like to 'pull G's'.  He mentioned how he'd even get at little queasy sometimes flying with students when he didn't have control of the plane, and would need to take the controls for a minute and 'drive' until the nausea settled.  It made me feel a little better knowing that even the top guns can get a little air sick!

After the briefing, we suited up. This included the standard Airmen jumpsuit, along with my "Anti-G" (anti gravity) suit and egress and hanging harness (eject seat and parachute harnesses).  I had suited up the day before in training, so it was fairly easy to get dressed quickly.  We gathered in a holding area before taking a cart ride out to the hangar area, and one of the officers said they were going to see if my fighter pilot handle was going to be 'Tin Man' or 'Iron Man'.  Funny! :)  I liked "Ice Man", but apparently that was already taken by some dude in a movie.

Driving out to the hangar.
As we rode the cart out to the planes, I checked to make sure my puke baggie was with me. In fact, I took two, just in case.  They wear oxygen masks, so if you need to vomit, you must flick the mask off before let 'er rip.  I practiced this a few times so I'd be an expert when the time came.  Fortunately, they have a great air conditioning system in the plane, as well as the ability to set your O2 level to 100%, which makes you feel pretty good!

Once we got to the plane, Wizard took me around it to look over the exterior. What an incredibly powerful looking vehicle! Ours was not loaded with any weapons, since this was not a specific mission... but it was pretty cool to see where the machine guns peeked out, where the ballistic missles would hang and where the counter-measures (chafe and flares) would be.  Next step ... get into the plane.

I was '2nd Seat' in the two seater, the one in the back.  The guy in the front does the heavy lifting and i just get to take a ride.  With that said, many of the plane's function's can be controlled from the back seat, including the steering, weapons activation and ejection.  Cool.

Inspecting the plane before take off.
Once seated in the plane, which was a chore in and of itself, I got strapped in by the crew chief.  There are about 6 points of contact with buckles to secure the harness, plus the Anti -G Suit hose, the comm and the O2 hose.  In front of me were two screens, a radar screen and one that showed the horizon, altitude and the level of the plane (among other things).  If any man out there wants to boost their testosterone production naturally, sit in a F-16 Jet for the first time, knowing you're about to take off in a few minutes!

Wizard then got buckled in and went through a series of tests and other protocol with ground control. Once this was over with, he told me to keep everything close as he lowered the canopy and fired up the jet engine. Seriously, this was an incredible moment. I check again to see where my barf bags were.

We taxied out onto the runway at Tucson International Airport, which is shared with the Tucson ANG.  The ANG hangar has about 60-70 jets at an given time, quite an impressive sight.  It was surreal sitting out there on the runway with a clear 360 degree view practically on a crystal clear, sunny day, watching the commercial airliners like Southwest and Frontier take off and land.  We waited for about 15 minutes on the tarmac before being given the green light.  Interestingly, our GPS system was not working due to recent upgrade which must not have booted up properly.  Great.  Wizard didn't seem concerned, so neither was I!

Getting situated in the cockpit.
We taxied to the runway and Wizard said, "Here we go.".  He must have punched the afterburners because in less than 3 seconds were went from 0-160 miles per hour on the runway and then, UP.  We climbed to 7000 ft in a matter of seconds and I was amazed at how smooth the ride was so far.  The plane was so solid.  I looked out of the canopy bubble window and could see so much of the desert and mountains surrounding Tucson, it was like looking at a google map. Incredible.  If you want to get an idea of what i experienced first hand, go to youtube and search for F-16 flight videos.

Once we got to the designated 'training zone' where the fighter jets practice maneuvers near Green Valley and Kitts Peak, Wizard asked if I was ready for some fun.  Part of me wanted to say, "nah, let's just cruise steady like this and sight see" but the other part of me needed to experience some 'acro' (acrobatics).  So, here   .....  we  ...... go!

Wizard was awesome. First of all, he could have turned me into a pile of green mush in that back seat if he wanted to. Instead, he told me what maneuver he was going to attempt each time and guided me in how to 'handle it'.  Our first adventure into the unknown was to pull some G's.  A "G" is measured compared to the force of gravity on the earth. Basically, on earth, we are at 1 G.  If your head weighs 10 lbs, it feels like 10 lbs. In high performance jets undergoing maneuvers, G's can increase.  Therefore, at 5 G's your 10 pound head feels like a 50 pound head.  Also, if you're unable to keep the blood in your brain, you can experience tunnel vision when pulling G's and eventually even lose consciousness, known as Gravity Induced Loss of Consciousness (GLOC). Not good if you're driving the $25 Million dollar jet!
Getting ready to taxi.

In training the day before, I was taught how to do the G-Strain. Basically, the idea is that you need to flex/tense up your core and lower body in order to push blood up to your brain, or else you can pass out. The Anti-G suit straps mostly around your legs and is almost like compression wear. When you pull G's in the plane, air bladders in the suit automatically inflate, helping you push blood back up into the upper body.  I like the way the nurse during my medical exam explained how to G-Strain the best. She said, "pretend you are taking a number '2', with all of your might".  Got it.

The first maneuver was a bank to the left at 3 G's.  Wizard instructed me to watch look to the left and then he started turning the plane that way. I was looking straight down at the ground below and could feel myself being pressed into the seat.  Unbelievable! That was the first time I had ever felt the impact of increased gravity.

He leveled out and allowed me to 'recover'.  I was hoping I didn't overdo my G-strain (ha ha) ;).  The next one he said, was going to be around 4 G's.  Wow! That was intense! I flexed every muscle in my body as hard as I could and felt like I had an elephant sitting on my head.  Intense!

Next one was for 5-6 G's. Holy Crap! That was nuts!!  It seemed like it took minutes, but I'm sure it took only seconds to go through that maneuver. Incredible. Now, the real incredible thing is that pilots in dogfights or other missions will endure constant bouts of 6-9 G's in an hour (or longer) sortie. Now that I've experienced the stress and the physically demanding nature of enduring a few G's, I can tell you first hand that these pilots are super fit! I can only imagine how wasted they must feel after a long mission or battle, incredible!  Makes us 'Ironman' athletes look like wimps.

I was feeling ok, but could feel a little nausea starting to settle in.  No worries, we had some more acro to do! Next up, a loop.  Huh? How is this large plane going to do a loop?! Wizard asked me if I was ready and I sheepishly (yeah, I admit it) said yes.  Afterburners fired, speed up and he pulled up on the stick and we're flying straight up in the freakin sky like a rocket blasting off!! F'me!!!! Then we go over on our backs and I'm looking at the freakin' ground below upside down from 17,000 ft!!!  Then, we're over the top of the loop and speeding nose first towards the ground!!! That was incredible! I had to catch my breath after that one.  Wow!

Finally, we did a series of rolls. That included a combo of feeling some minor G's and going upside down again. What a thrill. I can't describe any of these experiences in words and do them justice.

After that series of acro, we head over Mt. Lemmon, which is incredible. We're only a few thousand feet above the mountain and I can see the road that I've cycled up so many times, wind up the mountain side to the town of Summer Haven, where snow is still on the ground (9,500 ft).  Over the mountain, I can see where my community of Oro Valley sprawls at the base of the Catalina's on the West side. Incredible.

We continue towards Globe, due east of Phoenix. Then we go towards Mt. Graham (home of the observatory), the highest peak in AZ at 10,720 Ft. , near the town of Safford. It was incredible to see these various landmarks so close from the air as the F-16 could get within 1500 ft. of the ground (closer if not for regulations).

Then, Wizard gave me the controls to steer (fly) the plane.  I took them, but was hesitant as I couldn't see directly in front of me.  I used the altitude monitor to stay straight and steady at between 13 and 14,000 ft. as Wizard controlled the speed (and probably had his hand on the stick had I made an rookie mistakes with his $25 Million dollar jet!). I did some subtle turns near the mountain, which was a little bit nerve racking. The plane was so sensitive to the slightest adjustment with the stick, it was incredible.  I can see why people want to make a career out of flying these jets.  Wow.

Then, before we left that area and headed back home, Wizard told me to do a loop. I said, 'huh?!'  This was way outside of my comfort zone, but he insisted it was ok. So, as he coached me on how hard to pull back on the stick, I did a loop in the F-16 and we pulled 6.5 G's!  Holy smoke, I almost crapped my flight suit with that one.  That had to be one of the coolest, most unbelievable things I've ever done or will ever do in my entire life!!  My heart rate was probably around 180 bpm, sitting down, and I was sweating as if I was running a marathon in 100 degree heat.  I then proceeded to puke, for the first time during the flight. :)

We were getting low on fuel and towards the end of our flight, so Wizard radioed ground control to return us to the base.  On the way back in, he did a super cool banking maneuver before nailing a perfect landing.  I was drenched with sweat and happy and sad at the same time to be finished with my F-16 flight experience.

Made it back to earth!
Me (right) and Wizard - Top Gun Fighter Pilot
Once we got back to the hangar, Colonel "Bones" Dennee, the Commander, greeted us and we took some pictures in front of the jet.  I cleverly hid my zip lock puke bag in my leg pocket, concealing the evidence. :)  Of course, Wizard knew he 'got me' in flight when I turn off the comm. so he couldn't hear me blow chunks. We headed back to the main building on the base and after going over the highlights of he flight, said our good-byes.

I want to thank everyone involved with making this incredible, once in a lifetime experience come true.  Lt. "SLASH" Struck, Lt. "EMC" Hammerbeck and Capt. "PIPES" Stimpson were my main points of contact during the process.  A special thanks goes to Vice Commander Col. "Wizard" Dick, Wing Commander Col. "Bones" Dennee and Brig. General Vollmecke, ANG USAF. I'm certain I'm missing some of the many folks who were involved with making this voyage happen, like 'TinkerBell', the nice lady who helped coordinate the flight process.   The professionalism, attention to detail and focus were second to none and it should give all U.S. citizens comfort in knowing that our military is lead by individuals of such high standards.  My 'peek behind the curtain' just reinforced that sentiment all the more.  This is one of the many reasons that we've donated several thousand dollars worth of Spinervals video products to our troops stationed overseas, as well as support great causes with cash donations like Team 4-Mil, benefitting the Wound Warrior Project, over the past dozen or so years.  For more information about the ANG AFRC Command Test Center and the leadership of the unit, visit HERE.  Please join me in supporting the men and women of our armed forces.

As for me, flying a commercial airline will NEVER be the same.

Train smart,

- Troy

Monday, April 11, 2011

F-16 Flight Prep

Tomorrow is one of the scariest and most exciting days of my life.  I get to take a ride in an F-16 Fighter Jet! Today was pre-flight prep and training, including getting fit with my flight suit and going through 'egress training' (i.e. how to eject from the cockpit).

This morning I had to go through a medical clearance exam at Davis-Monthan Airforce Base. The Lt. who escorted me to the doctor's office was fantastic (as has everyone been in this process)... very professional with a good sense of humor.  He's hopeful to be a fighter pilot someday.  The nurse was great too and also had a great sense of humor.  I almost felt like people were looking at me and thinking, "you poor S.O.B. ... you have NO idea what you're getting in to.".  I must have heard from 5 different people to eat bananas in the morning since they taste the same coming back us as they did going down.  Nice.

After medical, we went to the Jet hangar area where I had the honor to meet the wing commander and the pilot who'll be flying the fighter.  I hope he liked me... my life is in his hands tomorrow, literally.  I hear the pilots have little side bets with each other for 'incentive flights' like mine, especially with civilians, to see how long it'll take them to get us to throw up and/or pass out.  Nice.  I'll be quick with both, i'm sure!

Next was to get fit for my flight suit, helmet and harness, followed by egress training in a cockpit simulator.  The seat can eject the rider 300 ft in the air and deploy a parachute all within 1.8 seconds, incredible! I hope I won't need to use my new ejection skills.

I am extremely excited but also equally as nervous. You see...I'm not a big fan of roller coasters and when turbulence starts to hit a commercial flight I'm on, I get a little green. Tomorrow , for me, is like taking on my biggest demon.... kinda like doing the Leadville 100 Mtb. race again. ;)   I hope my dramamine and ginger cookies do the trick.

Wish me luck and please send me positive mojo! I'll update my blog again after the flight... If I survive. :)