Strapping on an F-16
Supersonic speeds, 9-G turns, and 600 knots at less than 1000 AGL. The stuff of dreams — or nightmares, depending on your point of view. But it was a dream come true for a young Air Force crewmember.
If you're an actor, like Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, or a well-known TV reporter, it's usually not too hard to get a ride in a jet fighter, just ask. But for the common man, they are extremely hard to come by — even for a member of the Air Force team. I earned my chance though, in 1988, by being a member of the winning crew of the quarterly F-16 weapons load competition.
PreflightHaving been submitted to a rigorous physical examination and ejection-seat training, the day finally came for a 20-year-old Airman First Class to get the flight of his life. I went over to the squadron ops building and was introduced to my pilot, who was — as are all fighter pilots in the Air Force — a commissioned officer, 1st Lieutenant in his case, still pretty young. He told me to call him Steve, as long as his boss, the squadron commander wasn't around. "We'll be taking off in two hours, right after your partner returns, so we better get moving," he told me. He told me we had a block of range time allocated, for "aerobatics," but it wasn't until the last half-hour of our two-hour flight. He laid out his prescribed solution to the dilemma: "We're going to have an hour and a half to kill and a bunch of fuel to burn out of the auxiliary wing tanks so we can pull max G-forces. I planned out a little cross-country trip, have you seen the Grand Canyon from the air?" I told him I hadn't and that the combination of sightseeing and then aerobatics over the range would be perfect.
Steve stepped up to a large, angled table with many partitioned slots underneath. He grabbed a couple of maps from different bins, then searched for awhile before securing the third, and final one. He unfolded them and took a razor knife to each, cutting out the sections he wanted. He tossed the excess, more than two-thirds of each one, into a large trash can, nearly full with many other cut-up map discards. How wasteful, I thought, but then again, when you're burning ten gallons of fuel a minute, what's a four- or five-dollar map? I looked at the Plexiglas sheet that covered the table and the countless cuts scored into its surface. I multiplied this scene times four considering the other three squadrons on base and thought, Man, I could afford to get my pilot's license, own my own plane and fly twice a week if I had the money this base spends on maps!
As we walked out to the flightline, a crowd of my peers was forming and they challenged my pilot to get me sick. They promised him a case of beer if he could do it. He blew them off with a light chuckle, and climbed up behind me on the back ladder to help me strap in. He showed me a little bit more about the REO (Radar/Electro-Optical Display). It was a small TV screen that was in the lower-right portion of the instrument panel in the front cockpit of an F-16, but in the rear cockpit of this two-seater it was right at top center. The front seat had a HUD or "Head's Up Display" top center that shows pertinent information from main flight instruments on a glass panel right where you're looking out the canopy as you fly.) The rear-seat REO was different in that it had a switch, which converted it from the radar screen to a monitor of the gun camera. The gun camera was very small, about the size of an AA battery, and was mounted so as to have a constant view through the HUD in the front cockpit. This way I could see what otherwise would have been blocked by the pilot's helmet and his seat.
We pierced the sky with our pointy bird. I looked at the familiar, dull tan hangers and buildings from this different perspective. I looked down at our own ramp area and could see several friends waving. I told Steve this and he said, "Oh, let's give em a wing wave then." He rocked the wings. Later they would tell me, they thought this was the result of the pilot allowing me to take control.
Steve pulled a trick on me. "See the Golf Course over there on the left?" "Oh yeah," I said, "the base golf course really looks beautiful from the airrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-uuuugh ugh!" And I was introduced to the concept of unexpected G-forces. He had initiated an instantaneous 60-degree banked turnout to the right just as he had suckered me into looking the other way. Despite his best efforts, I did manage to peel my helmeted head from the left side of the Canopy. As I struggled to get my head first looking straight, then to the right to see where we were going, I felt a very strange and uneasy sensation in my lower body. Oh, I realized, that's the G-suit giving me a little squeeze. I looked down at the G-meter. There is an indicator needle showing the current G forces on the plane at any given time. When the indicator needle moves it pushes over another needle, the "tell-tale," which remains at the highest point the indicator has traveled until it is reset. The indicator of current G was now back on 1. One times the Earth's gravity pulling down against the lift the wings produce as they slice through the air, the same single "G" I would feel if I were sitting on a couch down below. The other needle had been pushed to 2.2. It had seemed like a lot more force than that to me. Bill said he pulled 9 Gs on his ride, this is going to be an experience.
I was disappointed we had to fly so high; desert can be fairly bland scenery, but especially from 17,000 feet. We flew over the VORTAC. He asked me if I saw it. "Nope," I told him, "can't see it." He flipped the plane over on its right side momentarily, "now you got it?" Sure enough, it had been directly underneath. "Yep." I acknowledged. From here we would turn to a new radial going out from the same beacon that would take us toward the Grand Canyon.
He rolled the plane on over completely upside down, "easy way to find your checkpoints when they're hiding from you." I was surprised I didn't really feel much of a tug against my restraints. The seat and restraint systems are well-designed to hold you in place. They have to be, considering all the Gs you pull in the fighters. And if one has to eject, that imposes something like 20 Gs on the body. The view above was of below, a light brown world distorted by the curvature of the Plexiglas canopy. With head tilted back, I consumed this moment, a rare opportunity most people will never have. Looking up to the ground was a thrilling new experience! All too soon we rolled back over.
You Have the Aircraft
My body chemistry bubbled with excitement as I tried to give myself a crash — er better call that, "quickie" course — on flying an F-16. The REO screen was woefully inadequate at providing me with a good view out the front. The picture was horrible, and seeing the actual horizon peripherally at a different level than the portion I could barely see in the screen was disorienting. I had a general idea how the artificial horizon instrument on the panel in front of me worked and I could use that for reference. I knew the pedals on the floor were for the rudder and that they were used along with the ailerons (controlled by the wheel or in the case of this airplane, the stick).
"OK, Brett, we are straight on a radial of one-two-zero degrees from the TACAN, a little wind from the left, so steer one-one-five degrees to keep us on it. Make sure you keep the altitude right at 17000, you HAVE to make sure you don't vary by more than plus or minus one hundred feet, OK."
"OK." I promised. My hand was poised, ready to grab the stick. "One question, before I fly." I asked, "how do I know how much rudder to use?"
"Oh, don't even bother with the rudder, the computer's set up to mix em for you automatically right now. You won't be turning much anyway, we have to stay at this altitude and heading since we're IFR, but you can turn about five degrees left, then ten right, etc. Just keep us within five of our course heading and average it out."
I frantically searched for a reference to the heading, it was on the HUD display in my monitor, but unreadable, I scanned the panel and found a dial pointing out the heading at the top, just a hair left of 120 degrees. Ok, now I'm ready.
(And just in time.) "Brett, you have the aircraft."
At once I was thrown down and right as the plane surged up and left. A slight grunt over the intercom as air escaped my lungs, squeezed out by the unexpected Gs. Another, tighter, squeeze from the G-suit then and I sneaked a quick glance at the G-meter. I had just put almost two Gs on the airplane just taking hold of the stick! "I have the aircraft." I said shakily as I over-corrected back down and right. Man this thing is sensitive!
I had spent some time in F-16 cockpits doing weapons functional checks so I knew the stick only moved an eighth to a quarter of an inch or so in each direction. But it's hard to comprehend that so little movement on the control makes the airplane react so quickly. The F-16 has a fly-by-wire system, making the stick essentially no more than an electronic joystick. In most planes the wheel or stick is connected directly by cables and pulleys to the control surfaces on the wings and tail, but the F-16 uses electronic impulses directed to electric servomotors that move the control surfaces. I'm told many pilots were leery of this at first, but the system has redundancy built-in throughout and has proven to be excellent.
I finally managed to get the plane somewhat stabilized as far as the heading was concerned, but couldn't get it to stay level; up and down in small oscillations we went. I tried a few turns within the pre-discussed parameters, making it even harder to keep the altitude. I was relieved when he said, "We've got to do a better job of keeping our flight level, why don't you let me have it back and you can do more flying when we get to the range."
"YOU have the aircraft."
"I have the aircraft."
With a deft touch and in less than two seconds, he had the plane perfectly stabilized and humming along at exactly 17,000 feet and one-one-five degrees. The gauges were able to continue their declaration of perfect position all the way to the Grand Canyon, because I didn't have the aircraft.
The Big DitchI had never seen the Grand Canyon. When he told me it was coming up I began to search as best I could for this gaping wound in my world. Yes the world I observed right now was mine! The people down there: on the roads, in the houses, camping in the desert with motor-homes, shade canopies pulled out, they were in my world, and I was in theirs, but only as a sound. Two very different worlds, one known by billions, one known by just a few. We were too high to be readily seen, but not high enough to make a telltale white contrail of condensation. Our jet was but one of a host of other sources of miniscule vibrations in the eardrums of the few who were capable of hearing us. A fly buzzing by one of their heads could easily overpower the faint sound of our distant vehicle, and while a sound is a part of their world, we are not.
We flew over the Canyon. It was very disappointing, from 17,000 feet. I knew there were sharp details and contours and sculpted reliefs, thousands of millions of details that would make up the breathtaking view of something that was ominous and huge and would make me feel small, as it should. However, from this height its perceived size was small, its details ... nonexistent. It made us big and the canyon small, as it should not be. I realized I was being greedy, to discover my world, was enough; the magnificence of the Grand Canyon would have to be a later discovery, a present tucked away for later unwrapping. I felt smug for checking my greed, and sublimating it to a realization that I had many packaged discoveries waiting for me throughout my newly discovered world, I would be patient. The ol' deja-vu feeling hit hard. Seemed as though I had previously poised this scene to be played at just that moment in my life.
The mighty canyon soon slipped behind us, summarily overcome by our sheer speed and lofty height. I vowed to return some day to view its splendor on more equal terms. Just what was the perfect height to explore my world anyway? Certainly not 30,000 feet or more, the height at which the airlines fly. Seventeen thousand had been a little better, enough for a firm preview of its dimensions and detail. But what was the level where I could find full intimacy with my newly found but always present source of wonder?
"Huh?" I muttered.
"Two hundred feet is the lowest we can go as we work the range. We'll start our descent as soon as we go hot." This I looked forward to. I knew the perceived speed that close to the ground would be incredible. He announced crossing the line into the operations area, called on the radio to let them know it was going "hot" because we were in it. The controller acknowledged, and confirmed we were the only ones in there. Excitement bubbled within me once again at the anticipation of what was to begin. In stoic resonance his voice announced, "While we're still up here we'll go ahead and break through the sound barrier, so you can experience that, and tell everybody you did it."
Steve was appropriate in his lack of wonder and excitement, for it was a very non-exciting event. I watched the airspeed increase as he jammed the throttle all the way to afterburner; the initial thrust was impressive, but then there was just the rumble and steadily climbing airspeed needle. He told me to watch the gauges as we broke through Mach 1, the speed of sound, and I would see them jump a little bit. I did and they did, the needle got up to about 600, but our actual airspeed he told me, was really about 950 miles per hour. I looked down and could tell no difference; we were too high to feel the effect.
As far as I'm concerned, the sound barrier has only been "broken" once. Chuck Yeager, with the first machine capable of punching through this transparent barrier, did so, and when he did, it shattered and fell away to be a barrier no more. But equal credit belongs to the brilliant minds who studied, engineered, designed and built the machine which apexed this lofty goal with Mr. Yeager at the controls. And there we were, in our modern machine improved upon and refined to a much higher level of efficiency and capability than Chuck's machine. And we simply advanced the throttle. And smoothly went from a true airspeed that is less than the speed at which sound travels to a true airspeed which is faster than the speed at which time travels; nothing less, nothing more.
We slowed back down to a speed that was less than the speed sound travels. We started to descend and as we did he reminded me to clear my ears as necessary using the valsalva technique. The valsalva technique of course, is that very attractive gesture in which you pinch your nose and blow to equalize ear pressure. Even more attractive though is the other technique the flight surgeon had taught me the day before, when I got my flight physical. The doctor had explained how G-forces can pull the blood to the lower parts of the body and the extremities and cause one to lose consciousness or "black-out." "It's done like this," he demonstrated. "You just tense up every muscle in your body as if you were struggling on the pot when constipated." He had me practice a few times and then pronounced me qualified on the "M1" technique (closing off all air too) and the "L1" technique (continue normal breathing).
Steve said, "See how we're gaining airspeed as we descend?"
"Yup," I affirmed.
"Here's where the speed brakes come in handy, I'll open em up. And you'll see what happens."
I felt what happens! It seemed my face was being pulled from my skull. I couldn't believe how effective those speed brakes were. An F-16's speed brakes are located at the back of the fuselage either side of the engine nacelle, and really look diminutive. However, introducing even that much surface area to hang out in the 600-mph breeze has a pronounced effect on one's forward motion. We slowed to about 400 then he retracted the brakes and let the airspeed start increasing again. We leveled off about 1000 feet and close to 600 miles per hour. Already the speed sensation was incredible. He said, "here we go." We dropped down into a shallow valley and flew straight toward a hill. For the first time, ever, in an airplane, I was scared. That hill approached at such a speed it was almost surreal. Steve pulled us over the top at the last minute in a momentarily gut-wrenching 4.5-G climb. We rolled over to the right and dropped right down into a deeper valley to scream along and twist around more hills. I relaxed now, seeing that Steve was obviously intimately familiar with the area, and I proceeded to enjoy the thrilling ride.
AerobaticsAfter we finished our low-level escapades it was time to simulate the high performance "takeoff" I was robbed of due to the full auxiliary wing tanks. Playing around within the range boundaries and using several hits of the afterburner had emptied the drop-tanks so that we now had a "9-G-capable" plane, according to Steve.
"Ok, Brett, the max-performance takeoff is essentially an Immelman from the ground. You get just off the deck, hold it level down low till you pick up the airspeed," he described as he performed, "then you pull baaaaaaack." "(UHHHHGGHH)," I involuntarily grunted. "Climb straight up to your desired altitude, pull it back, level and inverted — then roll her back over. Here, you try it, you have the aircraft, but I'm going to do the throttle for you."
"I have the aircraft, you have the throttle." I said. How in the world do I know when I'm heading straight up? I thought. Oh well, I'll just watch the artificial horizon gyro and surely there will be some sort of center marking or obvious indication.
"Too far, push it forward a bit," he coached. "That's too much, just ... there, now just keep it straight."
I was still too busy marveling at the incredible sense of rocketing straight up in an airplane to concentrate on a precise maneuver. I struggled for a few more seconds and he gave up, "what the heck, just turn it into a loop ... do a loop Brett."
"Will this thing do an outside loop?" I joked.
"WE are NOT going to do an outside loop Brett, pull BACK on the stick."
I pulled back carefully on the stick and soon I was able, by rolling my eyes up as far as I could, to see the edge of the planet again. As the nose became level with the horizon once more, albeit upside down, it was hard to make myself keep pulling into it, and I let off a little control pressure.
Steve coached me, "Keep it back now, keep it well back to pull us on through."
I got a little nervous at the straight down point, seeing nothing but ground everywhere. I almost started to let off again, but knew I had to just keep coming back. Back up to the horizon, stopped right on it.
"Alright! You just did a loop, a very passable one too, I might add. Do another."
I obliged without delay, performing a very consistent vertical circle in the sky. This one I did tighter and with more Gs. I think I heard both of us grunt a little on this one. A little too far up coming through the horizon this time though. After I leveled off he said, "Ok, try a roll now, just slap it over to the left and recover after one or two revolutions."
I found it very fun to make the world spin around me by simply pushing a joystick a fraction of an inch. But it was extremely difficult to stop where I wanted. I asked Steve, "now show me how it's supposed to be done."
"Alright, I have the aircraft."
"YOU have the aircraft." I affirmed.
How Many G's Can You Take?
"Oh yes, let's try about six first."
"Ok, six-G turn coming up."
He rolled the plane over to the right and did a complete 360-degree circle, sustaining six Gs for several seconds, which seemed like much longer. We both did our best grunt technique, and the G-suit squeeze, this time, was practically indiscernible as my entire body was getting the mega-squeeze from being pressed down with the pressure of six of me. That's 1020 lbs. of me in this seat now, the other five me's must be doing a lot better than this one trapped on the bottom and getting pressed unmercifully into the seat. We pulled out of the turn, instant relief. Steve asked, "Ok, how'd you do with that, are you ready for more?"
"I guess so." I realized at this point I had revealed my lack of intrepidness about pulling nine Gs. Is it really necessary? I asked myself. I really think I have the picture by now, been there done that, know what it feels like, what's the point in going to the point of near loss of consciousness?
Because EVERYONE will ask if I pulled nine Gs, that's why! Might as well get it over with. "Ok, here we go, this time to the left," he announced, as the G-meter was already rolling through 4.5. We both started grunting, nothing else could be heard, he struggled to form the words as he called out, "there's seven ... eight ..." His voice really began to labor, and I tried to calculate the weight on my lap now, heck, it feels like an elephant is sitting on my lap and trying to recline. "Eight point five, aaaaaaate point seven, eeaaaaaaa good enough!" He rolled out. Relief didn't seem so instant this time. Whew! Now and for the rest of my life I can say I pulled 8.7 Gs in an F-16B Fighter.
He let me fly some more just doddling around the sky. Apparently, my random control inputs began to irritate him. "Don't push on the stick, I hate that, gets my stomach. If you want to lose altitude, just bank it into a fairly steep turn without pulling back and that'll get you down." This, I couldn't believe. A fighter pilot with a weak stomach! Hmmf! And that was the most fun for me, doing little 100-foot dives like a roller coaster. Oh well, our range time was just about to "expire." He took the controls again and pointed the nose toward home.
An Airshow from the Air
As we neared the base, the approach controller told him, "Casa One, be advised aerial demonstration in progress, five mile radius, six thousand and below until two-two one five zulu, please acknowledge." Translated, that meant the Thunderbirds were practicing over the base, as they often did getting ready for the show season, and we had to stay away for another 10 minutes or so. Steve grumbled something about them being late, that they should have been done by then, must have been late starting.
Since the Thunderbirds were based at Nellis AFB, as I was, I had seen their routine many dozens of times. They did most of their practicing and experimentation of new maneuvers out over their desert practice area. But closer to the spring/summer air-show season they would do frequent afternoon practice sessions right over the runways. I assumed this was to get them visually used to "air-show center" — their reference to the middle of the runway or crowd upon which they orient for their maneuvers.
I imagine there probably aren't too many people who can say they've seen the Thunderbirds' show from above. We circled over the field and watched until they finished. During the low-level routines it looked like they were right on the deck. Even these brightly-painted jets could be hard to see. A few times I would lose one and then pick it up again somewhere else. A couple of months ago my dad taped a documentary for me about rich people going to Russia for a ride in a fighter. I believe the cost was running about $25,000 or something like that. I can't imagine what my seat would have been worth that day, had it been for sale. We followed the last T-bird in and landed.
My special thanks to Robert "R.B." Gibbons, an old F-16 stick actuator who helped me make sure the details were accurate.