My Ride of a Lifetime
by James Moore (email@example.com)
30 Apr 04
1500 Hrs, 28 Apr 04, Tyndall AFB, Florida
First, the takeoff was amazing. Blade (the pilot's call sign) was calling out
the airspeed in knots, and in just a VERY FEW seconds our F-15 was doing over
300 knots (later in the mission we did 695 knots, which is mach 1.08 or 800
miles/hr). Fortunately we had extra fuel tanks on the wings, or he probably
would've pulled it straight up. As we got over the Gulf of Mexico, the view was
breathtaking. I told Blade I felt closer to God up there...he replied "the
closer the better." The water looked like glass, and the waves appeared
stationary. I've only flown in private/commercial aircraft prior to this, and
the view from a fighter's cockpit is SO much better (for good reason).
On the way out to the area selected for the mission, Blade did some G warmup maneuvers (think it was a 4.5 G turn in one direction, then 6.5 Gs in the other). The pressurized suit squeezed my legs and lower torso much harder than I expected (later in the mission I looked at my watch between my sleeve and glove and noticed a lot of new tiny red freckles, which I think was from the blood being squeezed to my upper body...this happened to both my arms/hands, but it's almost all faded now). During high G maneuvers you strain your calves/thighs/buttocks muscles and you're supposed to breathe in a very unnatural fashion (take a 60% gasp of air just prior to the maneuver, then pretend to blow out a candle every 3 seconds...all the while air is being forced into your mask). The purpose of this technique, and the G suit, is to prevent G-LOC (G-induced loss of consciousness, since the blood naturally tries to pool in your lower body). Blade let me know I was breathing too fast during those warmups, so I slowed down quite a bit for the remainder of the mission (although I tried to breathe the way I was trained, it didn't work for me in practice...I found it easier to just breathe slowly and deliberately while maneuvering). The muscles in my lower body are still sore from the straining.
Blade let me fly the jet just a little to get a feel for the controls, the aircraft was amazingly sensitive. There were some delays getting the unmanned QF-4 full-scale target out to us, so we had to loiter a while. This provided ample time to soak in the views and watch the sun glistening off the waves. We saw boats on the way out, but in the area selected for the shots there were none (makes sense, huh?). What looked like boats to me from 20Kft or so were actually whitecaps - if you watched them long enough they would disappear. Blade gave me a little tutorial on the jet's RADAR, and showed me the roll rate of the aircraft (an aileron roll, which is a quick 360 degree rotation without changing heading). While we were waiting on the drone to arrive, I almost joked and asked him what selection they had for in-flight movies - but I decided that might seem belittling (not the impression I wanted to give, I was truly in awe).
During the three missile shots I got to experience a taste of what tactical maneuvering was as we did neat tricks to switch which plane was in the lead, join a different formation, etc. It was fairly benign according to Blade, but fairly intense to me. There were 3 missiles fired by the other aircraft, and I got a good look at one of them leaving the rail. The missiles we evaluate typically have their warheads removed, so the targets can normally be flown back to base and later reused. Blade and I both hoped the drone would have a serious malfunction and have to be taken down - we were carrying a live warhead AIM-9 missile just in case (unfortunately it wasn't needed).
I kept expecting to get queasy, but never did. I wish I had a transcript of the cockpit discussion, some of it might be humorous to you...like (right after a pretty good maneuver), Blade: "That was 6.5 G's." My reply, "I felt every one of them." We were low on fuel on the return trip, so we climbed up to around 33Kft and sort of coasted back to base, but Blade saved enough fuel to make the trip a little more exciting for me after we got in the vicinity of Tyndall (our home base). Now imagine feeling like you instantly weigh over 3/4th's of a ton, and the outfit you're in suddenly squeezes you like a boa (minus the slithering). After a few seconds of this, Blade says, "That was 7.5 Gs." I sarcastically replied, laughing, "Thanks for the advance warning!" -- he had given me NONE. Blade replied, "Well, gotta do something different." (He was disappointed that he couldn't show me other things the aircraft can do, but I felt the ~2.5 hour experience was invaluable as it was.) We did one low approach, giving me a great view of Tyndall, including the building I normally work in. Blade made a very smooth landing, despite the crosswinds at the time.
I know it's very rare for a civilian to experience this, so I am truly blessed. I'm also blessed that I didn't get sick (just as over a month ago I handled the altitude chamber training well). On the morning of the flight before I left for work I called my family together to say a prayer for safety, and that I wouldn't G-LOC or even puke. Praise God, He honored all 3 requests.
James Moore is an operations research analyst with the 53d Weapons Evaluation Group, Tyndall AFB, FL.
A slightly abridged version of this article was printed in the 14 May 04 Wingspan; click the image below for the published article (requires the free Adobe Reader):