Off topic: What was it like flying an F-16 with a USAF Thunderbird? Here is the video, 30 years ago | Jones
Since it’s mid-July and not much going on, I thought it was a good time for another edition of Off Topic. And considering this is the second summer of an aging Maverick, more than 30 years past its peak but still striving for vitality, I have the perfect complement.
A few months ago my wife sent a box loaded with various photos and VHS cartridges to one of these companies that digitizes them. She asked me to extract from my hardwood storage spaces around the house whatever I wanted in the box. I collected some tapes, but I did not complete my task. She sent hers and not mine.
All the stuff from when we were young came back and our child was not yet conceptualized or small enough. Lost memories have been recovered. Basketball games played with elastic legs. Kindergarten sledge. People act like they did in their first experiences with a video camera.
But the handful of VHS cartridges I had collected were never sent. For a moment I panicked that one in particular was lost. In fact, last weekend I ran a full housekeeping search before my wife remembered she hid those unsent tapes under the bed.
Sigh of relief. Because one of them contained the kind of memories you really need video evidence for. Not so much to show others as to reassure themselves that, yes, I really experienced that.
It happened to be 30 years ago this month. So, I thought, perfect. It’s not about sports, but that’s what Off Topic is.
You see, I once got to fly an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet.
It feels like half my life ago because, well, it pretty much was. In July 1992, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic flight team held a show at Harrisburg International Airport. And the publishers of what we then called The Patriot News asked me if I wanted to take a flight with a driver. I said yes before the question was fully asked.
I come from an Air Force family. My late uncle Frank was a sergeant in what was then called the Army Air Corps and he served in India and China. My late first cousin, Kevin, was what they called a Life Support and Evacuation Specialist with the USAF 55th Air Combat Wing and served in Nixon’s covert operations in Laos for the final stages of the Vietnam War. He didn’t want to talk too much about what he had seen; I never rushed him.
And my father was the navigator of a B-29. It flew 31 missions over Japan from its base in Saipan during World War II. He was one of a number of crews who trained to drop the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, although none of them knew exactly what they were practicing. It turned out that another Ohio-based crew commanded by Columbus native Colonel Paul Tibbets flew the first atomic mission over Hiroshima.
My father’s crew was then dispatched to drop off leaflets warning the Japanese population of Nagasaki’s impending. I used to show them to my friends when I was a teenager; they sat on a basement shelf out in the open, printed in Japanese characters, the only item recognizable to an American being the photo of President Harry Truman.
My dad ended up working as an industrial engineer for 25 years at North American Rockwell, an aerospace contractor who played a major role in NASA’s space race to the moon.
We have had Aviation Week and Space Technology magazines strewn around the house throughout the 60s. My brother and sister both worked for short periods at Rockwell in Columbus. It was a heady time. We all grew up with a great affinity for the most exotic aerospace technology – jet planes, spaceships and the Air Force pilots who guided them.
So when I was asked to do a media ride in an F-16, I was in awe. What I didn’t realize until I arrived at the Air National Guard barracks at HIA was that I would essentially be flying the F-16 for a few minutes, if I wanted to. Of course, Major Scott Anderson, my Thunderbirds guide up front in the specially designated two-seater, would handle the throttle of the F-16, ready to make all the adjustments and take control of the plane if necessary. But I had a stick in the back seat. And I was going to steal the plunger. It was too much to understand.
It’s always like that. I almost had to watch the video on Tuesday to believe it really happened. After scanning it at a local camera store and uploading it to YouTube yesterday was the second time in about 20 years that I had seen it. And I had to stop a few moments just to take deep breaths and settle in.
I give you the diagram below. And you can click here to read the story I wrote for the next day Patriot-News of July 3, 1992.
But you have to scroll down and watch the video to grasp something of what it was. Here are Cliff’s notes:
• Major Anderson places the Falcon on its tail and climbs vertically for a mile and a half in about 30 seconds. Then he overturns the plane and straightens it. It was like the craziest carnival ride you’ve ever done, to the power of 8. But that was just the beginning. Because I was going to have control of the ride.
• The video jumps forward a few minutes, leaving out the open country climb over Perry and Juniata counties where we can have a little fun. What stands out is Major Anderson handing me the baton saying over the radio, “It’s the best sports car in the world and you can’t break it.” We will do what you want.
They picked this guy to do the media theft for a reason. It was so effortlessly cool that it still had plenty of cool left over for gift geeks like me. What a perfect representative he was for the USAF Thunderbirds.
• The band accelerates when I make tentative turns back and forth pressing down on the stiff fly-by-wire shaft. It looked like a game controller with the gun button decocked. He felt the pressure without really flinching. Press left, the left wing descends, the plane flies straight ahead. Press right, he dove right. Pull back and left and nose up in a left turn. Push up and left and he dipped his nose and rounded the turn. Pull back and right and it evened out. Surprising. The throttle trimmed automatically, although Major Anderson was there to take control if needed.
• Major Anderson tells me that we are going to do “vertical manoeuvres”. This is where you see how remarkable advanced engineering can be. And when, as garden humans, do we experience it? This machine designed by General Dynamics in the 1970s is one of the most responsive and durable fighters ever built.
As we make these high bank turns, one wing sticking straight out into the verdant countryside, Major Anderson reminds me, as he instructed in the pre-flight briefing to find the horizon and fixate on an object to maintain orientation. It really works.
And when I pull the plane out of a >6G dive with a grunt to increase my gravity suit and push the blood back into my head, you can see the wings vibrate and the contrails flare out from the wingtips. You see this kind of performance from a man-made object and it’s impressive.
• It’s been a long time, but I remember the next thought that crossed my mind was how easily Major Anderson gives me orders in a relaxed voice, gracefully soothing the incessant chatter of the dazzled tower guys speaking to a Thunderbird, and simultaneously monitoring telemetry and radar to ensure we are clear of surrounding civilian and commercial aircraft.
And he’s not even breathing heavily. I can’t hear him breathing at all. Meanwhile, I feel like your golden retriever is dreaming of chasing a rabbit.
• The highest G turn I’m able to do myself is 6.8. Which isn’t enough to get my 9-G pin the Air Force gives to anyone who rides and survives without fainting. So Major Anderson takes the handle, tells me to get ready. In a second, he fires up a 9-G, as if spinning a Ferrari around a Malibu hairpin. For a moment, I felt like I was looking through the Kittatinny tunnel. But then, instantaneousI was back.
Now I start hitting the wall. You can see my head wobble a little. Major Anderson asks if I’m ready to go home. I manage to make an affirmative noise.
• I’m not sure, but I believe we were at about 8000 feet at the time. So we had to get back into position to land at HIA in about 30 or 40 miles, which meant a pretty steep descent, I’m guessing about 400 feet per minute. Believe it or not, this is the part that made me uncomfortable. So you can see me coming down to my right and turning the oxygen mix knob up to 100%. It helped me.
• Major Anderson turns the monitor to the front camera and you can see our final approach to the ISE. I remember at that point I was completely drained, especially as I allowed my body to relax. I can say that flying a jet has nothing to do with sport and it is. But believe me, it’s one of the most athletically demanding things I’ve ever done. It’s the only experience I can imagine comparable to driving a race car in that it demands both mind and body. And I was up there barely half an hour.
• I also remember shaking hands with Major Anderson and leaving the PA ANG terminal thinking of the pressures and responsibilities with which some people not only live but thrive, a severity that few of us can even to imagine. These pilots have not become so good at air shows. They did it because they wanted to go home. They make it look so easy.
Experience gives us perspective. The more you see, the more you do, the more you travel and the more you converse – capturing unimaginable thoughts on the unbeaten paths of people beyond your immediate hemisphere – this is what makes life worth the journey. I loved being a journalist because it gave me all that.
But only once in a while, if you’re lucky, do you experience exoticism.
I’ll probably never do anything like fly a jet again. But I have to do it once. Once was good.
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