My F-16 RidePosted: June 6, 2013
It felt like someone was setting a car on top of me. At that moment, my body probably weighed over 1,300 pounds. Even though the Colonel made sure I was ready before starting the turn, and I was breathing and tensing my body as instructed, my vision was beginning to narrow. Eight and a half “G’s” is nothing to snicker at. I could not imagine trying to dogfight with another fighter jet under those conditions, lacking the ability to even turn my head and look at the air vapor rising over the wing. The F-16 has the ability to sustain up to 9 times the force of gravity in a turn. On that particularly beautiful day of May 2, 2005 above the snowy mountains of Alaska, I had a lot to be thankful for.
Being a particularly patriotic chap with a thing for airplanes, at the age of 18 I joined the U.S. Air Force. In 2002 there were good jobs available for the mechanically inclined, and I endured Basic Training and Tech School to become a 2A353B, a crewchief/mechanic on the F-16 Fighting Falcon (and/or the F-117 Nighthawk) tactical aircraft. While stationed in Japan working with F-16s I was able to learn many useful life lessons early on, as you must when the government trusts you with its $40,000,000 toys. I worked my tail off on the flightline, and overseas there was a unique camaraderie. Shortly before leaving that assignment to work with the F-117 stealths back in the States, I went with the squadron to the Cope Thunder exercise at Eielson AFB, Alaska. I was informed by my flight chief that I had been placed at the top of the list he put together for an “incentive flight” if the occasion arose. This was no small thing, and I was hugely grateful. Hard work paid off big time.
There I was in the land of the midnight sun, with an opportunity to fly in a D model (2-seat) F-16. Admittedly I was looking forward to flying with the female pilot who was assigned to take me up, but when the squadron commander found out that his crewchief was getting a ride, he volunteered to personally show me around the sky; another huge honor. After being trained in how to eject from the aircraft and steer a parachute, and getting fitted for a G-suit, I was ready to get strapped in. After the canopy was down and sealed, the Colonel got the engine started, and it was unique to be sitting inside the jet for a change. As a crewchief I was used to standing outside the jet during this process, looking things over, pulling safety pins, and talking with the pilot over the intercom headset. This time I could actually see the screens and gauges light up as the massive motor growled and whined to life.
We were soon rolling toward the end of the runway for takeoff. We lined up on the runway and he called the tower for clearance to do a vertical climb up to 12,000 feet, and he said “get ready for a kick like you’ve never felt.” We started to race down the runway at a rather alarming rate and took off in what felt like 500 feet. I was pressed back against the seat looking out the window at the ground flying past below when he yanked the nose of the jet up and I felt my G-suit inflate to keep enough blood in my head. We left the earth behind us and rocketed into the sky. Soon cruising at altitude upside down, he flipped us upright. It had been less than one minute from the time we were sitting still on the runway. We headed out over the beautiful Alaskan frontier to the area where we could play around. It would have been bad to shatter someone’s cabin windows, so breaking the sound barrier wasn’t allowed, but there were plenty of other fun things to do.
He explained the area we had to stay in on one of the cockpit’s screens, and let me “take” the jet with my own set of controls. The F-16 has a “fly-by-wire” system, which basically means that the slightest pressure on the control stick translates into an electronic impulse which moves the flight control surfaces with 3,000 pounds per square inch of hydraulic pressure… instantaneously. Not being a pilot, I had little imagination or ability beyond delightedly cranking the side stick controller to the right or left and watching the earth spin around my head. He demonstrated some barrel rolls, and helped me work the throttle and controls through a “loop” (going straight up and backwards… see photo), and through some high-G turns. With appreciation for the rugged landscape, we also went down below the height of the mountains. While cruising comfortably at about 350 miles per hour, he showed me what full augmentation (afterburner) felt like, and it was like a car accelerating from a traffic light. Lifting the throttle over its natural stop and going all the way forward injects extra fuel into the exhaust, creating a large flame out the back and delivering a glorious kick in the pants.
Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of flying like Peter Pan or Superman through the clouds. I asked the Colonel if we could fly through a cloud and he replied “Ok, how about that one?” and we were off, zooming toward it. I flew in and around those big clouds with a birds-eye view of whatever I wanted. Looking to my right I saw my shadow. I was mesmerized for a bit watching it get really close and then far away. For a few moments flying felt like a helicopter scene from the movie “Black Hawk Down” when the sound diminishes and time slows down as the aircraft gently rises and falls. It is amazing how the F-16 can be beautiful and terribly powerful at the same time. It is a large complex machine of war, and yet something that you can strap around you and fly as though you are alone in space… like a bird of prey. My words are insufficient.