My stomach lurched and my boredom vanished as the sky whirled about me and the ground became “up.”
In May of 2010, as a reward for receiving the John L. Levitow Award at NCO Academy, I had been put on a list for an incentive ride on an F-15 Eagle. A year and a half had passed, with delays, cancellations, and a surgery that medically disqualified me from flight for six months.
I was hopeful at first, but I had been on that list nine years earlier, and missed out on the opportunity when I left Kadena Airbase in 2002. On my return in 2003, I was told that there was no record of me being on a list for an incentive ride, so I gave up that dream long ago.
After my surgery in June, and after several attempts to return to flight duties, I was cleared to fly again in January of 2011… right after a deployment had ended. I thought it would look very “coincidental” if I was not able to perform official duties while we had missions to fly, but suddenly was able to fly to get an incentive ride. On top of that, I was scheduled to deploy, so I declined the ride until I returned. But then the fighter squadron cancelled several flights for maintenance, and then they were involved in exercises. It was one delay after another.
I had two months left before my next change of station, and I knew that I would likely never get this chance again. Then I got the e-mail.
Friday, October 21st. Primary Flyer. Life Support training. Parachute training. F-15 Egress training. G-suit fitting. I’d done all this before only to have the flight cancel on the morning it was scheduled. But my hopes were rising as Friday approached.
That morning, I met Major “Crusher” Osborne, a thin friendly pilot quick with a smile and bubbling over with seeming limitless energy. We talked about what to expect on the flight. Crusher was excited because I had already been through altitude chamber training; this meant he could go much higher than the usual incentive ride allowed. We were also probably going to be by ourselves instead of in a formation, so we would be free to do whatever we wanted in the training area.
As it happened, there were two incentive rides scheduled, and the other individual had an assignment one month after me. So the very thing I thought might ruin my chances was what ensured I got a flight.
We suited up with all our gear and G-suits. Then we received a weather briefing before getting a ride to the jet. The G-suit already felt tight; it’s made to inflate slightly, squeezing the calves, thighs, and abdomen, forcing blood back up to the heart when gravity makes it pool in the legs during high-G maneuvers.
Worse than the constant pressure of the suit is the harness. It has two straps that come up between the legs from behind, fastening to clips on the waist. These have to be tight enough so that you can barely stand up straight. That way, they fit somewhat comfortably when you sit down in the cockpit.
Crusher took me on a walk-around, checking to ensure the jet was safe. As he did so, he pointed out all the “fun” features: “Here’s an AIM-9 Mike model, we carry three more here, here, and here. And we have points for four more missiles along the fuselage there… here’s the chaff and flares… watch the gear door… there’s the gun, a 30 millimeter gatling gun… this whole part turns as we maneuver…”
We got in and Crusher went through all his checks. At one point, a warning light wasn’t turning off, even though the controls worked fine. We’ll never take a jet up for a training mission if we know there’s a significant problem. But today, as we waited for maintenance and I worried about a possible cancellation, I was prepared to accept a few risks!
Ground maintainers worked with Crusher and found a quick, painless fix. Then we were ready to taxi out to the runway. We started rolling, and I laughed as Major Osborne gestured repeatedly to various personnel along the taxiway, pumping fists, waving, flashing a peace sign, returning salutes. Soon we were staring down the runway, cleared to take off. Crusher had briefed me that we would take off on afterburners–not because we needed the boost, but just for fun. His squadron was videotaping this, so he planned to pull almost straight up as he passed their building.
“I like to look back at the ground when we do that,” he said. “It just looks cool, being over the runway.” I shrugged, not really knowing what to expect.
He pushed up the throttles, and we started down the runway. But, to be honest, it was somewhat unimpressive. It wasn’t much different than a normal take-off on the average commercial airliner… until he pulled the stick back.
In a flash, I was pulled against the chair as sky filled my vision. The few clouds spun in the air, and Okinawa looked like the ceiling. We were inverted. I looked “up” through scattered clouds at the base and the city around it. I was glad that I had a few motion sickness bags, because I knew I’d eventually need one. Or more.
We had a smooth flight out to a nearby overwater training area. “What’s the highest you’ve ever been on your jet?” Crusher asked. I had to think for a moment, then told him we were once at 41,000 feet to get over some weather.
“Well, we’ll beat that today,” he replied as he began a steady climb. We peaked at 46K, then pitched down and pushed up the throttle to break Mach 1. There was no real change in how the aircraft handled or felt–at least as far as I could tell. Crusher just pointed out how the altimeter needle began to flutter and bounce as we crossed the threshold of the speed of sound.
From there, he took the plane around a few clouds and then descended to a thousand feet, skimming the ocean’s surface. This was where motion sickness finally got the better of me. Pulling a few Gs in a turn was no big deal, but the negative Gs when we levelled out were brutal. It felt like I was about to float up out of the seat if not for the harness, lap belt, and shoulder straps holding me down.
Once I recovered, we ascended, and the pilot gave me control of the aircraft. I was very hesitant at first; this was an expensive fighter jet and I was not sure how to control it, let alone how well I really could. I pulled the stick a bit to perform a few short turns, and Crusher suggested “cloud chasing.”
There were strands of white and grey as we flew out from Kadena. They were amazing to me, because from above or below, they looked massive, spanning the sky. But as we were level with them, I saw that they were thin like sheets of paper, wispy veils drawn across the blue.
Out in the training area, however, the clouds were massive puffy columns like white cotton candy. We noticed a rainbow, and I pointed the nose at it. As we flew toward this small arc of color in the fluffly cloud-towers, the rainbow circled around us on all sides. I cut some turns around the clouds, weaving between them like pillars.
Oddly enough, what surprised me was how much the flight looked like playing Ace Combat 6 on the Xbox 360… with the noticeable addition of stomach-churning turns and the constant rumbling roar of massive power just behind our seats. I thought of the loops and turns in that game and asked, “Can I just pull straight up?”
“Go for it!”
I pulled the stick back and pushed the throttles up, filling our view with the deep blue
of the sky and feeling gravity’s futile pull on us. I kept pulling back until we finished half a loop, with the water “above” and the sky “below.” Crusher was impressed, not because I did something remarkable or skillful, but because I actually did something. Apparently, most people just sit and do a couple turns, then quit, whether from nerves, fear, or queasiness. I was nervous, too. But I also knew I only had one shot at this. I was going to fly this plane for a minute!
Having done the Immelman, I thought about other maneuvers I’d seen. I asked if I could try a Split-S, where the plane rolls over and dives toward the water, pulling “up” until it comes out straight and level, right side up.
“Let’s get a little more altitude first,” Crusher answered. “Then, sure!”
Each turn and maneuver forced air into the G-suit, squeezing tight around muscles and keeping blood flowing. Then Crusher took control to demonstrate brake turns, and we made a punishing sharp turn, hitting 8.2 Gs, or more than eight times the normal force of gravity. I was told to tighten up all my muscles, take in a breath, and then hold it, quickly releasing a puff of air and inhaling sharply for a fraction of a second every three seconds or so. Thankfully, the turn was sharp but short. Even so, it felt like I was being crushed… appropriate, I guess, given my pilot’s handle.
Then Crusher decided to run through some dog-fighting maneuvers. Honestly, that part was just a blur of turns, throttle, braking, and excited chatter as he described how he would deal with an imagined enemy fighter on our six.
Once all that was done, he gave me one more offer to take the controls. I was still feeling a little queasy, and I was so content with what had come before that I answered, “No thanks, I’m good.”
I deeply regret this now. The exhilaration was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, one for which I’m incredibly grateful. But I do wish I had taken full advantage of the opportunity.
Even so, the incentive ride was better than I had imagined…
and well worth a ten-year wait.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
…And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
–from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee