The Day I Flew the F-16

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Picture this: You're a retired high school teacher who flew jets in Vietnam and spent 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese POW camp after your F-105 was shot down. But that was thirty years ago. Then one day you get a letter inviting you to return to the cockpit and fly the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" for one day as part of the USAF 50th anniversary celebration. Well, that's exactly what happened to me, and here's an account of one of my most interesting military flights...probably my last.

On September 9, 1997, I received a letter from the Department of the Air Force, Headquarters 388th Fighter Wing, Hill AFB:

Dear Jay,

On behalf of the men and women of the 388th Fighter Wing, I would like to formally invite you to return to the cockpit for a day as a guest member of the 388th Fighter Wing. As a former F-89, F-102, F-105 and F-4 aviator, we know you're well-acquainted with jet-powered flight. Still, we feel you'll be impressed by the wing's F-16 Fighting Falcons and the men and women who operate, maintain and support them.

For the past year, the Air Force has celebrated key milestones in its development and heroic achievements of its people. We'd like you to be a part of our final 50th Anniversary celebration Sept 18 by allowing us to honor the role your impressive career played in the service's history.

Also flying with the wing that day will be Mr. Dick Nourse, anchorman for KSL Television in Salt Lake City. We're looking to highlight, publicize and honor the achievements of airmen, past and present. Mr Nourse, through his time with us, will be able to carry the Air Force's proud story to viewers throughout the state.

We're honored that you will be joining us and look forward to showing you how well we've maintained the high caliber force you were accustomed to throughout your Air Force career. The airmen of the 388th Fighter Wing stand ready to receive you.


Colonel, USAF

F-16 Fighting FalconI decided to write this account of my F-16 ride so that I could remember some of the details while they were still fresh, since it is one of my most interesting military flights and probably the last.

I wish I'd done the same after the F-4 flight when I went Mach 2; and after the F-105 air refueling training flight where my wingman pulled the hose out of the tanker, sucked it into his engine, flamed out and bailed out. There were a couple of others I wish I'd written about too: the time when the gun stuck "on" as I pulled off a strafing pass on Cuddyback range in California, and an earlier flight in the F-102 when I came back without my wingman Don Hugdall.

Well, I'm not going to make the same mistake this time.

Happy 50th, USAF!

Thursday 18 Sept 1997 was the Air Force's 50th Anniversary. It has been a year filled with memorable events. On this day the secretary of the Air Force, President Clinton, the Air Force Academy Cadet choir gathered in Washington and there was a birthday cake. In Utah, the 388th Fighter Wing welcomed Dick Nourse of KSL-TV and remembered POW/MIA's by welcoming a returned Vietnam POW (me) to their wing. The BX at Hill AFB treated their staff to short remarks from a former Vietnam POW, a pilot from the Air Force Reserves and a WW II pilot who flew missions over Ploesti.

Dick Nourse and I were treated to an hour-and-15-minute ride in the F-16 over the Utah Test and Training Range. At the 4th and 34th Fighter Squadrons and on the flight line, we met some of the impressive men and women in the Air Force today. It was fitting that KSL-TV signed off their evening news broadcast by paying tribute to the pilot who flew Mr. Nourse, playing "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder," and showing the take off combined with video through the heads up display.


I checked into the 34th Fighter Squadron at 0730. They had a VIP reserved parking sign out front. It didn't occur to me that that meant me, but it did. An acquaintance was waiting out front for me. Inside I was welcomed by the commander.

First order of business was to see if I was held together well enough to fly in the F-16. The Flight Surgeon from the 4th Fighter Squadron listened to my heart and lungs and checked my blood pressure. He looked in my eyes and then ears and asked me to hold my nose and blow to see if the ear drums popped. A clerk guided me through two pages of "have-you-ever questions," then asked me to sign it. Then the flight surgeon signed it and said, "You can go."

Next I went to Personal Equipment. I was fitted with a flight helmet and then a flight suit that was too tight around the stomach. This one was made for the athletic type but it boosted my ego when I held my stomach in. A size 11 flight boot seemed okay but I couldn't get rid of an uncomfortable fold that the tongue made. They brightened things up next with the Air Combat Command patch, the 34th Fighter Squadron patch with a fire breathing ram's face in white, red eyes, black background, a red on black name tag, a squadron scarf and some rank. The oxygen mask fitting was next. It didn't leak. It seemed to be so tight that I had difficulty getting air through my nose and it took some effort to get air in and out of it. Flight gloves were last and they were stuffed into a helmet bag with the helmet and mask. I was dressed for the flight.

The was a program at the BX at 0900. We got there about 0850. They had a dozen or so chairs set up in the entrance for the expected audience of BX workers. But my wife came, along with some colleagues from her office, and a few more came in from the squadron. It was just a little 50th anniversary event.

There was also an activity at the museum that would have been fun to go to. I listened to part of the report from an AF Reserve Pilot. I would like to have heard Colonel Stewart who flew over Ploesti during WWII. But there wasn't time for that.

Getting In...And Out

Dick Nourse and I were given a checkout in the F-16 egress simulator and hung in the parachute harness and got the necessary safety procedure briefing. The most helpful part of this training was practicing getting in and out of the airplane. If you have big feet, you have a problem.

Getting into the fighter is a little tricky, too. You kind of put this airplane on rather than walk into it. The way we were encouraged to do this was to sit on the canopy rail with feet over the side. Reach across to the other rail with the right hand. Lift yourself up a little and work your right foot into the slot and then the left foot. Don't step on the seat. Then you connect to the survival kit on both sides, fasten the seat belt, connect the parachute to your harness, put on your helmet and connect the radio and the oxygen. You arm the ejection seat when you get to the runway. To eject, you pull the handle between your legs.

The flight control is on the right and the throttle is on the left. You control most high tech things with your fingers kind of like playing the piano. There are a lot of buttons and switches on the throttle and stick.

Flight Briefing

At the lounge in the 4th Squadron they had lunch for us. Then we had the flight briefing. It was about 1130? My pilot was Capt. Gordon "Grog" Niebergall. Dick Nourse's pilot was Capt. Thompson, who gave the briefing.

Our call sign was "Abuse". Take Off was 1330. Our route was west from Hill to the Utah Test and Training range then north to the end of the Lake, west nearly to Nevada, south to Wendover and then back east, kind of a square "Round Robin" pattern and then back to Brigham City, Ogden and land to the south at Hill. We would fly fighting wing formation, separate, and do some rolls and hard turns and pull some G's. Take off and landing was 20-second spacing.

After the flight briefing, Capt. Niebergall took me to the next room for our briefing which clarified things a bit. When he is flying he would say, "I have it." When he lets me fly he will say, "You have it." my response is, "I have it."

Some members of my family and Dick Nourse's met us at the 4th Squadron after the preflight briefing and we went out to the flight line in separate vehicles, observers in one, those flying in another. KSL had programmed live coverage for the noon news. At 1230 we were on the edge of the flight line with the F-16 in the background. The KSL van had its satellite antennas raised high and a long cable to get to us. It was raining lightly. The newscast caught the excitement Dick and I felt about being able to fly. Dick said it was the Air Force's 50th birthday but he was getting the present. He talked with Capt. Thompson about the flight and with me about Vietnam and what I have been doing since. Then we went to the planes.

A real priority was given to these flights. We had a backup aircraft, which was fortunate because some equipment had been changed on our primary but it hadn't been checked properly. So we wound up switching to the backup plane. With all this, the flight lead moved the take off back 15 minutes. I followed Capt. Niebergall through the preflight inspection. He helped me get strapped in. Start up was uneventful but it does get noisy. They fly with ear plugs in.

Taxiing Out

Lead taxied out and we followed. We were followed by the van with our families. On a screen in the back set of the airplane, I could see the lines painted on the runway and the plane in front of us. I thought it was pretty good radar, but the picture actually comes from a TV camera in the front cockpit which looks out the front windscreen through the Heads-Up Display. That way, the Guy-In-Back has a HUD which is actually a "heads-down display" because you must look in the cockpit to see what is directly in front of you. From my back seat, I could barely see the wings if I looked back. You can't see them at all from the front seat...Grog said it feels like you are sitting on the end of a pole.

We pulled up next to lead in the arming area at the end of the runway. The ground crew plugged in so they could talk to us as they did the final checks and pulled the safety pins. Everything was okay. I armed my seat and we followed lead onto runway 14 and lined up on his wing. He signaled us to run up. The engines checked out okay.


The take-off was impressive. Acceleration without the afterburner was more than I have ever experienced (and I remember my feet tending to slide back off the rudder pedals in the F-4). When the afterburner was lit, I found myself pushed back against the seat and feeling as if someone was sitting on me. Liftoff was at 150 knots, but I think we were approaching 400 knots by the time we reached the end of the runway. Then it was out of afterburner and a right turn to join up.

We joined lead over Syracuse and headed for the north end of Antelope Island. We climbed to 10,000 feet. The cloud bases varied between 12,000 and 18,000. It was a gray, cloudy, rainy day. The visibility was at least 10 miles.

Not As Easy As It Looks

I was impressed with the F-16's stability...until I took the controls. Then it wobbled all over the place. The side stick moves about 1/4 of an inch and is outside of your right leg on the console. There is a plate to keep your leg from hitting the stick when you pull G's. Some accidents have been caused before they did this.

The response to the throttle makes formation flying much easier than either the F-4 or F-105. The F-4 moved too much with the slightest movement of one throttle. The F-105 wouldn't move at all whether you went full throttle or to idle. We looked at lots of air to ground ranges in the training area, did some intercepts, and flew some formation changing leads.

Grog asked what I wanted to do. I tried a plain old roll. As soon as we got upside down we started loosing altitude. The object is to keep the roll rate constant and stay level. I didn't.

He then asked if I was up to pulling some G's. He went into a steep bank and pulled back on the stick until I felt like I would break a rib staining to keep from being crushed. The G-suit was tighter than any I had felt before. I have grayed out (vision dim) at 5 G's in other airplanes, but we pulled 8.5 G's in the F-16 with no vision problems.

These hard turns did make me feel sick to the stomach. I had my plastic motion sickness bag tucked in my glove just in case I needed it. The instructions read:

"For use during moments of stomach upset). If an upset stomach is anticipated, remove bag from this container and keep ready for use. Do not be embarrassed by this precaution as even veteran travelers are subject to occasional motion sickness."

I brought the bag back empty. The F-16 can pull 9 G's but we had stuff hanging on the wings that limited us to 8.5.

When we got to Wendover I got a good look at the airfield where they trained aircrews during WW II (including the Enola Gay crew that bombed Hiroshima) and the racing area on the salt flats. (They used a similar salt flat in Nevada to set a new land speed record of 714 mph a week later.)

Are We Having Fun Yet?

We came to an area with some openings in the clouds. Grog showed me an Immelman: first half of a loop then roll upright on top. We only gained 2000 ft. Airplanes of my day would take 5000 ft. to complete the maneuver. Then he did a split-S: roll upside down and complete the loop. That only took 2000 ft., too. In my day we would start at 10,000 ft and hope we didn't hit the ground.

I tried to follow his example and did an Immelman. I rolled out way nose high and had to push the nose over to level off. That took some negative G's and I probably made Grog feel groggy. The split-S went okay but it always worries me when the nose is pointed straight down at the ground. I kept pulling on the stick and the nose came through quickly.

Then I tried a barrel roll: keep the nose 30 degrees off the roll point and have the wings level going through the horizon and vertical at the top and bottom. I didn't come very close to doing that.

Time to Go Home

I kept the controls when we left the range area south of the highway between Wendover and Salt Lake and flew on Dick Nourse's wing to north of Brigham City. Before entering initial approach, lead dipped his wing asking us to cross over to the other side. When we passed over Ogden, Grog took over for landing. That had been the best part of the flight for me. The landing was fun too. We pulled some G's in the pitch out and turn to final.

Final approach was an astonishingly slow 135 knots. (I used 180 in the Thud.) I was surprised that the F-16's short wings would give enough lift to fly so slow. Touch down was at 120 knots and smooth. Getting stopped seemed easy without a lot of brakes and reverse thrust like you feel on an airliner, but we did go to the end of the 10,000 ft runway and pulled into the de-arming area where the pins were put back in.

When we got back to the ramp and parked, the crowd was larger. Lots of family members. Everyoneone was smiles. It was a fun time. I expected to look like an old man trying to get my feet out of the cockpit and climbing down the ladder. I did it all very carefully. It was a time for hugs and talk. A photographer broke us up to take some pictures. We shook hands with the ground crew and thanked them.

It was a great experience. With 50 years worth of people to choose from, I consider myself very fortunate to be the one that flew that day. Now I have a picture of me all decked out in flight gear in front of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Then there are some accessories like F-16 scarf, pins, key chain and shoulder patches. I kept the flight plan and maps also. They did the presentations back in the 34th squadron lounge. Grog and the F-16 program director signed my certificate, which reads:

This is to certify that Lt. Col. (Ret.) Jay Hess having experienced the ultimate in aircraft acceleration and maneuverability, and having been physically tested in the 'nine-g' environment is hereby cleared to claim acceptance in an exclusive and select group of pilots who have flown the world's finest fighter.