Wallops Island, Va. - "Approved to fly with the Air Force Thunderbirds" read an email I was thrilled to receive recently. But it's not just "hitching a ride." I had to prepare. Starting with drinking water.
While I spent the week hydrating, Wallops Flight Facility spent Friday morning wetting its whistle too. After getting the rundown on the amazing team that is the Thunderbirds, I got to be their pupil.
Starting with the flight surgeon, or "flight doc." First order of business: What to do if you get sick up there.
"There are two elastic straps across your thighs. I want you to put one sick bag under each strap. That way if you need ‘em they're easy to get to," says Maj. Christopher Scheibler, the flight doc.
After being prepped on something that might happen, it's onto technique for something that definitely will happen: G forces.
"If you think about what g-forces do, they basically amplify your weight. So your head that maybe weighs about 20 pounds on the ground. If you did a nine-G maneuver, it would weigh about 180 pounds," Maj. Scheibler explains.
So if you have bad posture when a G-maneuver starts, the force will add a lot of weight to your poorly positioned skeleton, meaning potential pulled muscles, difficulty breathing, pinched nerves, etc.
But good posture isn't enough.
Because positive G forces push blood down in your body (i.e. away from your head, where your eyes and brain are), you must do a two-part move called a "G-strain."
It involves 1) squeezing your muscles from the ground up, and 2) forcefully holding your breath. And it only works in combination.
"So if you do the best squeezing in the world and your breathing sucks, all your bloods going to be hanging out up [in your chest]. If you do the best breathing and you don't squeeze at all, you're going to have all your blood in your lower body," says Maj. Scheibler.
And in the middle of a G-maneuver, you have to breathe, and it must happen quickly. A quick opening of the epiglottis, using a hard "k" sound as a trigger.
Breathing -- check.
Rain -- check.
Pilot -- yes, check. Thunderbird 7, Major Kevin Walsh, arrives to tell me about what we'll be doing up there.
His explanations are clear and easily understood. With his right hand in the "Paper" position of "Rock, Paper, Scissors," he tells me, using his hand as the plane, "Now there are some ballistic rolls so I start with the nose up, execute the maneuver, and gravity eventually brings it back down."
It all seems hunky dory. But of course, Major Walsh's hand -- no offense sir -- isn't quite as powerful as the F-16 jet...speaking of which...
After fumbling around with the equipment that could save my life , the crew thankfully helps out and makes sure I'm all set.
I sit snugly in the cockpit, faced with a neatly organized panel of gauges and readouts, and listen to Major Walsh calmly alternate between casual chat with me, and extraordinarily direct communication with air traffic control.
"Yeah I was always better at the sports involving sticks. So hockey, lacrosse…Thunderbird-7 copy, A-firm, heading 42 miles northwest, Pax River over…pretty much just hockey and lacrosse.
That's the Pax River airbase, 42 miles away, I'm told.
We arrive in about 6 minutes.
And do all that was promised -- and more: the loops, the rolls (which also shook out some of the rain water), going vertical at seven G's into a roll.
And lastly, something simple: a left turn…pushing for as many G's as I could take.
9.36 positive G's, according to Major Walsh.
After a leisurely trip back up the coast at a few hundred miles per hour, we came back to terra firma -- where the rain, had let up at last, and where Major Walsh sent me off with a kind debriefing: "I think, Dave, you did an excellent job. You really crushed it up there, and thanks for joining us today, and taking the time out of your day to spend with the Thunderbirds."
Time out of my day? Time of my life, sir.
And to you and all the Thunderbirds, for all you do, thank you.
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