|Col. "Bones" Dennee, Col. "Wizard" Dick|
Coach "Tin Man" Jacobson
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.
Col. "Wizard" Dick (Front)
1st Lt. "Slash" Struck
|Suited up and nervous as hell!|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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
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.