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Matt's Blue Angels Supersonic Joyride!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

It was the best of times, the most exciting of times, and (at times) the most terrifying of times.

NOTE: TO WATCH AN EXTENDED VERSION OF MATT'S RIDE, CLICK THE LINK ON OUR 'VIDEO ON DEMAND' WINDOW TO THE RIGHT

My pre-flight briefing began at noon, inside a hangar at the Atlantic City International Airport. Patrick Palma, the Crew Chief for the Blue Angels, was very clear: this would be nothing like I have ever experienced, or would ever experience again.

The F/A-18 Hornet, the Blue Angels' plane of choice, is one of the highest performing aircraft in the world. Top speed: MACH 1.8, or 1400 miles per hour (nearly twice the speed of sound). It climbs 500 feet per second. It can reach altitudes of up to 28,000 feet. It can exert forces of up to 7.5 G's (more on that later). And during a performance, the pilot will fly the fighter within 18 inches of the other Blue Angel planes.

There are six Blue Angels in an air show. I would board the "number 7" fighter, which is used for demonstrations, and for backup in case of a problem with the first six.

Crew Chief Palma said my flight would last 45 minutes, but would make me feel as if I had been working out for three hours. It would also feel like a "roller coaster on steroids." He told me 80 percent of the media participants have passed out. Half of them got sick. The majority of those who vomit are men. It is unclear why males are more likely to throw up.

I told Palma about my breakfast (they strongly advise against doing this on an empty stomach). Peanut butter and jelly, crackers, water and a non-carbonated drink; he told me that was a good meal. I should have held off on the banana, since that could cause nausea during the high G conditions. Otherwise, I was ready to go, and so was my stomach.

I had to practice one exercise. It is called the "hook." Basically, you pull up on the straps holding your legs down, and flex all of your leg, arm, and abdomen muscles. This exercise helps prevent blackouts when experiencing high "G" forces. At 7.5 G's, I would feel 7.5 times heavier than I would on the Earth (I did the math, and it was about 1400 pounds!!) You are basically sucked into the seat, and all of your blood begins to drain into your legs, starving your brain of oxygen, and causing you to lose vision, hearing, and later, consciousness. A good strong "hook," the tightening of your muscles, can block that blood flow and keep you awake.

I planned on using the "hook" with precision. I proclaimed I would not pass out, or vomit, on my flight. We'll see.

I put on my full-body air suit, and began walking toward the fighter. I introduced myself to my pilot: Lt. Kevin Davis, otherwise known as "Kojak." He is a Boston native, has been flying for 10 years, and was billed as one of the best pilots in the entire Navy. Rest assured, Palma told me I would be safer with Kojak, than I would be on a commercial airliner.

Things were moving fast. It was about 12:50pm, and I was staring at the ladder leading to my rear seat in the cockpit. I climbed up, slowly placed my legs into the cramped cubby hole that would be my seat, sat down, and put on my helmet. Suddenly, I realized what a view I was in for. The cockpit is raised up on the fighter, so that when you look down, you are not seeing the plane: you are seeing everything below you. The F/A-18 gives its pilot (and passenger) a "top of the world" feeling while up in the air. Wow. This was going to be stellar.

Palma showed me where the air sickness bags were (one on either side, and you pull them out like tissues). He also indicated that the plane's controls were right below me: I could grab them and fly this plane! This would not be allowed.

Finally, Palma showed me where the ejection lever was. I was not to touch this either. If we somehow encountered a problem, the hatch would open, the plane would eject me and my seat automatically, a parachute would pop out on its own, and then it would serve as a flotation device (if this problem occurred over water). Lack of oxygen during an ejection would not be a problem, since we would not be going high enough in the outer atmosphere.

Another astounding fact: the Navy says if the pilot were to go unconscious, they can actually fly the fighter back to the runway automatically! As Crew Chief Palma said, "we protect our people, because our people are our greatest asset."

Somehow, I had complete confidence in my pilot. There was no way anything would go wrong when you are with a Blue Angel.

Kojak stepped into the pilot's chair. I asked him why they call him Kojak. He simply stated "classified." This was one cool cat, chiseled in the model of the "Iceman" from Top Gun. But on this plane, he would be all business. I had already used up all my "Maverick," "Highway to the Danger Zone," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" jokes from the movie, which helped me get into business mode as well.

The crew noticed a battery that was low, and set about changing it. This took no more than 65 seconds. The fighter was fueled, shined up, and ready to take me on the flight (or fright) of my life.

We taxied to the runway slowly, and Kojak made a last check on all of his instruments. He explained what would happen first: a climb straight up into the sky, that would feel hundreds of times more powerful that the biggest, fastest roller coaster. I couldn't believe I was doing this.

We travelled faster and faster on the runway. Kojak asked me if I was ready. "Yes!"

We went straight up. I was glued to my seat. Clouds started flying past on either side. I think I saw the sun in the corner of my eye. And then we went horizontal. We were 3000 feet above South Jersey in less than 10 seconds. It was the most exciting aerial experience ever. And that was just the appetizer.

I could see the Atlantic City casinos, Brigantine, Ocean City, the ocean, the bays, the wildlife refuge. What a view! I couldn't stop talking about it. Kojak had to tell me to be quiet a few times while he communicated with air traffic control.

We flew several miles off the coast in what is called a "clear" area of airspace, where we would not encounter any other air traffic. An ace pilot's playground, if you will, where we could try anything and everything, with only the Atlantic Ocean and outer space as our boundaries.

Our first maneuver was rather easy to endure. We flew left and right and semi-upside down. This got us to about 1.6 G's. Then, Kojak did another maneuver that was a lot tougher to handle. Then, another. All the while, I was doing the "hook" excercise, but I couldn't stop the progression of tunnel vision. Eventually, I couldn't see anything at all. After we pulled out of it, I told Kojak I thought he lost me there. He said I experienced a "grey out," where I lost vision but maintained consciousness. As he was flying the plane, he was watching my eyes go "googly" in his rear-view mirror. Now that's a guy who can do several difficult things at once!

The next maneuver, Kojak said, was the one that tended to make passengers vomit: flying upside down. It is called "sustained inverted flight." I was ready. He flipped the plane over, and the only thing preventing me from being pasted onto the clear cockpit hatch was the straps on my seat. I looked up, and I saw the ocean flying past me. I was really loving this! And the best part was, I never felt sick. Another "yeehah!" for that one.

Kojak then spun the plane around like a top. It felt like we were attached to a pole, just turning and turning in a nice, tight circle. And more than once, we went supersonic. This was no problem, because we reached the MACH 1 speed of 749 miles per hour gradually. If you were in a fishing boat down below, you would have heard our sonic boom. Over land, it has a tendency of breaking windows in homes. As we slowed down, the boom cloud that forms behind the plane began catching up to us. This was out of this world.

Next up, the 360. You experience the highest G forces when you bank curves, and in this maneuver we would reach our max of 7.5 G's.

"Ready?"

"Ready."

I pulled and pulled on the straps. I took in deep breaths. I flexed my abdomen. But it felt like the entire planet had been placed in my lap. I was seeping into my seat. The light at the end of the tunnel went out. I blacked out for the first time.

In the video (which you can watch by clicking on the link to the right) you'll see I was gone for only a few seconds. But when it happened, it felt like several hours. I remember losing eyesight, and then thinking about why I felt so funny. Then, I started wondering if this was the way I would feel forever. It was this bizarre, dreamlike state that I've never experienced before. Then, I felt my head bobbing, and became confused as to why I couldn't hold it back up. Finally, the "lights" went back on, and I remembered I was not in bed, but thousands of feet over the Atlantic Ocean in a high performance aircraft. Oh yeah, I'm with a Blue Angel. Cool.

Meanwhile, Kojak saw this happening and pulled out of the manuever. "I think I passed out." "I'll go with that," he said.

"I told everyone I wouldn't pass out."

"Hopefully, you didn't put any money on that."

I became part of the 80 percent who blacked out during these demonstration flights. Kojak, meanwhile, was flying the plane like he was riding his bike.

By the way, I never got sick. I was worried about it happening, but despite being thrown around like a rag doll strapped to a chair, I never even felt queasy. Again, half of the media participants end up vomiting at some point during the flight. My air sickness bags remained in their slots.

The ride was almost over, so we started heading back for the coast. One more maneuver on deck. Kojak wanted to simulate how a fighter can land on an aircraft carrier, practically stopping on a dime. Once again, the G forces hit 7.5, I got sucked into my seat, and I passed out. This wasn't fair: once again I was sleeping through a part of my ride!

Our landing couldn't have been smoother. We taxied to the hangar, and everyone was waiting for us. The cockpit hatch opened, I pulled off my helmet, and sweat began pouring down. My hair stuck straight up and made me look like Kramer from Seinfeld.

I hopped off the ladder, shook Kojak's hand, thanked him, and then said: "No, that will not do. I gotta hug ya, man." I don't think Kojak liked that too much, particularly since his entire crew was watching. But he was a good sport, put his arms around me, and hugged back. We were bros!

This pilot, this man of the Navy, is one of the best of the best. Our ride gave me a newfound appreciation for the men and women of the military, especially those in such precision jobs, like a pilot in the Blue Angels.

My body felt like someone dropped me from a three-story building. This was the most terrifying experience ever. And at the same time, it was the best. A strange dichotomy, isn't it?

By the way, the Navy says my ride cost them about $3000 in fuel. Money well spent, it believes, since my story becomes an excellent recruiting tool for future pilots.

Are you one of them? If and when they put you behind the controls of an F/A-18, take me up again. I promise to stay with you this time.


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