My Flight With The United States Air Force Thunderbirds
The last time the Sertoma Club sponsored the air show in Lafayette, I had the honor of flying with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, in an F-16 Falcon. It was quite a day. Actually, it wasn’t just a ‘flight'; it was truly an experience.
I arrived at the Gulf Area Vocational School hangar (where the Thunderbird crew was ‘camped out’ for the weekend) and met with the flight surgeon for the Thunderbirds, Major Charla Quayle.
She explained some of the sensations that I would be experiencing during the flight, asked questions about my health, used her stethoscope to check my lungs, took my pulse and blood pressure, and kicked my tires. She also touched on the ejection procedures (I was strapped to an ejection seat!!), and how to land with a parachute (while reassuring me that my pilot has never had to eject), the anti-g force practices (clinching up my muscles, and controlling my breathing), and told me where my “air sickness” bags were located…
Declared “good to go”, I was sent to the Aircrew Life Support Specialist, Staff Sergeant Robbin Bailon, who ‘fitted’ me with the flight suit, ‘g’ suit, helmet, mask, and flight gloves (I used my boots from my days in the Army).
She explained the proper operation of the helmet and its accessories (in other words, “what to do in case I need to yack”); the procedure for landing with a parachute (I was strapped to an ejection seat!!), and other stuff I needed to know…
From there I was sent to meet with the pilot, “Thunderbird Seven”, Colonel Rob Skelton.
Colonel Skelton talked me through the maneuvers that we were going to perform (or, better, that HE was going to perform, and I was going to try to hold on for), he talked me through the ejection procedures (I was strapped to an ejection seat!!), and he kept reassuring me that he has never had to eject. He talked me through the forces that were going to be acting upon my body, and reminded me to NOT let MY body “react” into HIS aircraft! He showed me where to keep the air sickness bags, and reminded me that the whole flight would be recorded. And, yes, I asked. He responded with “oh, certainly, that will be on video too..” Great. Evidence of me puking. Joy.
With all of the information thrown upon me, the gear fitted, the flight plan filed, all that was left was walking out to the aircraft.
As excited as I was, I can honestly say that I wasn’t scared, or even nervous: the Thunderbird crew, EVERY one of them that I interacted with, was very professional, and it was obvious that they were on top of their game. Now that I think about it, when I walk down the jet way to get onto a commercial flight, I can’t help but envision the scenario: Emergency vehicles, lights flashing, smoke rising from the wreckage, and the last audio on the black box recorder was “hey ya’ll, watch this!!”. I know that the odds of actually crashing on a commercial flight are astronomical, but I still get nervous. Here I am, walking up to a 20-million-dollar aircraft that flies faster than my brain can total up my grocery bill, and I am as cool as a cucumber. I mean, my hands were not shaking, no butterflies in my soon-to-be-empty again stomach; nothing. Just an eagerness to fly. Fast fast.
As I approach the aircraft, I notice, stenciled on the door, was my name.
As simple as it was (I have seen the words John Falcon printed on thousands of things in my life), I was so surprised, so honored, to have my name on that plane. I think that this is when the first lump formed in my throat. Not from air sickness (that would come later, twice.), but from sheer pride. National pride.
I climb into the g-suit and climb the ladder. The crew chief helps me into the cockpit, and watches to make sure that I buckle up properly (he said that he was impressed that I actually paid attention during my training, but most of it I remember from my Army days in the helicopters!).
I slide on the helmet and the gloves; Colonel Skelton gets in, straps in, and then “whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrr – thud – click…. The canopy closes and latches. This is it.
Did I mention that I am claustrophobic? Well, I am. Slightly. The thought entered my mind when I heard the ‘click’ as the canopy latched, and just as quickly, I put it out of my mind. NOTHING was going to stand in the way of this bullet shooting through the sky with me strapped in it, screaming like a little girl.
The engine cranked up, and as we were rolling to the active runway, I could hear the banter between the tower and the other aircraft. “Tower, Quebec 971 requesting clearance for take-off, Shreveport, zero two niner two” or something like that screeches over the headset. “Quebec 971, cleared, runway four right, Shreveport, winds blah blah blah”.. and then there was “Tower, Thunderbird Seven, requesting clearance on runway four right, vertical to fifteen thousand…” “Thunderbird Seven, four right, fifteen thousand….”
It took me a second to realize what was being requested/granted. I am not a pilot, but I was able to follow along with most of the radio traffic. To confirm my suspicion, I asked Colonel Skelton if he just requested a departure to fifteen thousand feet. He said “yes”, and then kicked in the afterburners, sending my naval to rest somewhere just below my shoulder blades.
As you can see in the video, we screamed down the runway at over 200 miles per hour, shot straight up, and, within twenty seconds of leaving the runway, we were three miles over the Lafayette airport, inverted. That means “upside-down”. My naval was now starting to travel up my spine.
We proceeded toward the ‘Military Area of Operation’, two of them, actually, near Fort Polk. One was just past Eunice, the other was near Deridder. Approximately 9 minutes later, Colonel Skelton said “oh, lookie, the Oakdale airport”, as he pointed out a very faint set of straight lines about 12,000 feet below us, to our right. I asked “how much longer to Deridder”, and with that, banked the jet left, and pointed. Of course. A ten minute ride to Deridder. NICE!!
Our first ‘maneuver’ (not including the NASA – type take-off) was a barrel roll. He described the maneuver, and then, on cue, he executed. That’s when I moved the baggie from my pocket to the strap on my left thigh.
Our next ‘maneuver’ was a loop, beginning at around 5000 feet, going up in a huge vertical circle. He turned on the smoke generators for the maneuver so I could ‘follow’ our trail as we went inverted, and then completed the loop. We pulled a constant 4.5 g’s or so as we did the loop, and when we came back around, he had flown with such precision that we flew right back through our own smoke. Truly amazing.
This is when I removed the baggie from the strap and held at-the-ready in my left hand. You know, just in case.
Our next move, if memory serves me correctly, was a simple roll. Just an easy aileron roll on the center of the aircraft axis. It is a very simple maneuver: Maintain altitude, move joystick left until aircraft starts to roll, maintain roll until you turn the full 360 degrees, remove face mask, lift face shield, and hold baggie to mouth while your kidneys try to come out of your nose. See? Simple, basic maneuver.
I asked Colonel Skelton to maintain straight-and-level flight for a few minutes, and he chuckled and accommodated. I took care of re-organizing my vital organs, and, when I was done, promptly put the bag into a Pringles can and secured it out of the way. Whew! I was glad that part was over!
Then I made the mistake of asking “so, Rob, what’s next” like I was some re-incarnate of Goose from Top Gun. He replied “well, we have to initiate you into the 9g Club”. I’ll have to admit: I was much more interested in joining the Mach I club than the 9g Club. I knew that it is against the law to break the sound barrier, so I said, what the heck, “let’s do it”.
Maybe I should have said “let’s try 7g first, and then see how things go”, but I didn’t. He throttled up to God-knows-how-fast, banks the jet onto it’s left side, and, as seen on the video, three elephants jumped into the cockpit and rode my chest all the way into the turn, giving up only after I said “Uncle” (obviously uttered while I was unconscious).
When the elephants got off of me, I noticed we were at 8g’s, and coming down. I had ‘survived’ a 9.1 g turn, but wasn’t awake for the whole thing. I was out around the 7.6 g mark. Not bad for a 41 year-old-guy who gets winded when he runs…. the dishwasher.
That would be our second-to-last maneuver. On our way back to LFT, we flew over the village of Mire (Boscoe), Louisiana, right over where my father grew up. Just for a moment, I thought about what it would have been like for him, as a kid, plowing the field with a horse-drawn plow, to see an F-16 go flying over. He would have sworn that aliens were invading. Then I thought about my dad’s time in the Air Force, and about how proud he would be to tell people that his #6 son flew with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.
Our final maneuver was what is known in the aviation world as a “controlled crash”: we landed.
I was glad to be back on the ground, my body feeling like I had been the loser in a boxing match. I was pale, drenched in sweat, with a stomach that was still trying to be a rebel. With that said, you still couldn’t have chipped the smile off of my face with an ice pick.
On a serious note, I can not think of a time I have been more honored to be an American. It may sound ‘hokey’, but, to know that I flew with the United States Air Force’s Best of the Best, still fills me with pride.
The plane taxied to a stop, precisely lined up with the other aircraft on the tarmac. This is where the second lump formed in my throat (NOT as a result of my stomach rebelling): As I exited the cockpit and turned around, there were 60+ Air Force crew members and pilots standing, dress-right-dressed, at full attention, awaiting my return. Colonel Skelton called the group to “parade rest”, addressed the formation, spoke about our flight and the maneuvers we performed, and then he did something that surprised me: He told them of my brother’s years in the Louisiana National Guard, my dad’s 20+ years in the Air Force, and about my family’s efforts to support our military (little things that I had mentioned during our ride). He told the formation about my 5 years of military service, and they began to clap. They clapped until tears were rolling down my face. I was overcome with emotion, and couldn’t hide it. I had never felt so appreciated and so proud as I did at that moment.
Colonel Skelton gave me the opportunity to address the formation, and I could barely speak through the emotion. I was able to utter a ‘Thank you’, and I told them that I was honored to have met them and flown with them.
They presented me with a ‘F-16 Thunderbird Flight Certificate’, an autographed picture of the Thunderbirds in formation over the Statue of Liberty, and a small, desk-top version of The American Flag, which had flown with us on that flight. More tears.
Every one of the crew members took time to shake my hand, thank me for my service, and pat me on the shoulder.
To be truthful, I wasn’t worth a hoot for the rest of the night. I even had to get a ride home, and when I got there, I laid on the sofa until bedtime. I slept so well that night, I don’t even remember if I slept well… ha!!
People still laugh at me, saying “Ha! You puked in an F-16!!”. With a smile, I reply “Yes, I puked in an F-16. And you?” That usually shuts them up.
Truly, one of the most amazing days of my life. If given the opportunity, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
With less lunch, of course.