Ever since High School I've been awed by the power of high-performance aircraft. In 1980 I made my parents take me to an airshow in New Jersey - many hours from our home. It was there that I first saw the US Air Force Thunderbirds.
Fast forward to Tucson, 2007. I was contacted by the Public Affairs office at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, to see if there was anyone at KIIM-FM that might like to take a media flight with the US Navy Blue Angels, who would be performing that year at the Air Show. Of course I was interested - so I submitted all the necessary paperwork, visited my doctor for the medical approval, and waited. Of course, Fox 11's Gina Trunzo was selected that year. I was the first alternate and would have flown if she was unable to.
I did get to fly that day, though. The Davis Monthan folks ushered us over to the Tucson airport, where there was a Cessna with no doors on it. We climbed in and flew alongside stunt pilot Greg Poe, who flies a plane powered by ethanol.
Later that same day, in the executive terminal at the airport, I discovered a magazine that cost $35/issue:
The Air Show returned to D-M this year (2010). Early in 2010 I contacted the Public Affairs people at D-M and began asking about media flights for the upcoming airshow. Once again, I filled out the proper paperwork, visited my doctor, and waited. And then the call came: I was chosen to fly with the Air Force Thunderbirds!
My flight was scheduled for Friday, March 19th. The Public Affairs folks for the Thunderbirds emailed me and told me: don't drink soda. Drink lots of water 24 hours before the flight. Eat a good meal that morning. The soda was the toughest. I drink lots. I'm probably addicted. Going without soda would be tough, but I could do it, I told myself.
My last soda was Wednesday night, March 17th, at Grumpy's Jr on Silverbell Road.
My first headache from caffiene withdrawl was Thursday morning.
All day Thursday I drank water. The Thunderbirds guy said, drink water until you are silly, then drink some more. Being hydrated helps conteract the effects of the kind of flight we were going to take.
The anticipation was making me crazy. I enlisted KiiM-FM's Promotions Director Nixon Low to come with me to my flight. His mission was to take pictures all day. We arrived at D-M at 9:30 Friday morning for our 10:00am appointment. Here I am outside the visitor's center:
Then the Thunderbirds were ready to start my day. We were ushered into a conference room where the bulk of the events would happen. First up was my fitting for a flight suit and boots, as well as a briefing on how the equipment I was going to wear worked.
Flight suit and boots.
Flight helmet and oxygen mask
Learning about the equipment
I learned about the patches I wore. The blue one on my left front read THUNDERBIRD VIP. The one on my right front represented the major command that the Thunderbirds belonged to. On the right shoulder was a patch that represented the unit the Thunderbirds belonged to, and on the left shoulder was the Thunderbirds emblem.
Here Ssgt Robbin Bailon fits me for my G-Suit. The F-16 airplane can do more than 9 "g's," meaning the pilot feels the pressure of nine times the force of gravity. This means something that weighs 10 pounds at 1g (the force of gravity on earth) would weigh 90 pounds at 9g's. I weigh a little more than 200 pounds, meaning that at 9g's, it would be as if my body weighed 1800 pounds! The G-suit is worn below the waist and down the legs, and it creates pressure on your legs to force your blood up out of your lower body.
The human heart can push against about 4g's, so it needs a little help above that to keep blood flowing to your brain during a 9g maneuver. The G-Suit helps a lot. But it's meant to wear while sitting down, so took it off until I needed it.
Next up, it was a visit from the Thunderbirds' flight surgeon. He made sure my heart, lungs and pulse were OK for me to fly.
Great news! I passed! He also taught me a breathing exercise, which was to help me get oxygen to my brain during the high-g maneuvers.
Then it was time to meet my pilot.
Major Anthony Mulhare is Thunderbird #8 - the show's Narrator and Advance Pilot. His job is to work with the local airshow orgaziners - to ensure that everything is ready - and to coordinate the arrival of the rest of the Thunderbird team. There are around 200 people on the Thunderbird team, and they travel with about a hundred of them to shows around the world.
Major Mulhare also flies the local Hometown Hero (someone in the local town who is chosen for their impact on their community) and a representative from the local media (that's me!). The Hometown Hero for this air show was Dr. Bryan Foulk, a local dentist. Read more about him here! He flew on Thursday, the day before my flight.
Major Mulhare (call sign "Split") described the kind of maneuvers we were going to do, reminded me to breathe properly, and told me what to do if we had an emergency in flight and had to eject. That was a little scary to hear, even though Split said he had never had to eject from a plane and didn't have any plans to with me. I asked him, "If we have to eject, who will the rescuers look for first?" and he said "Probably you." That made me feel a little better.
Then it was time to walk out to the planes and meet the crew.
It was cool getting to meet the guys and gals who were behind the scenes. Then it was time to climb back into the G-Suit (I needed a little help, again) and get into the plane.
Remember, the G-Suit is not meant to be comfortable while standing up.
On the side of the plane are flags of the various nations the Thunderbird team has performed for.
Time to climb into the plane!
Here, Major Mulhare is showing me the location of the oxygen controls (I can go from 20% to 100% oxygen at the flip of a switch), how to raise and lower my seat, and where the lever is that arms the ejection seat. After we take off, he'll tell me to flip the switch down. After that, if I pull the ring between my knees, it's out we go, through the top of the airplane. The good news is, it takes a lot of pulling to actually eject yourself, so it's kind of hard to do by accident. Still, not the kind of thing I want to do if I don't have to.
Flag in the cockpit.
We are sitting on a lot of power. Here's the back of the plane.
This is what a bad guy might see if an F-16 was bearing down on him.
One real American hero, and one local DJ. But boy, do I look awesome in the flight suit!
I'm ready! Let's go!
Below is a video of some of the highlights of the flight. There was a video camera mounted in front of my seat. We took off at about 2:00, and the first thing we did was check out the approaching clouds. The other Thunderbird pilots were going to practice their performance while we were gone, so we headed up over downtown and skirted the edge of the clouds, reporting the weather to the rest of the team. If you were at a Spring Training game at Hi Corbett on Friday and saw a solo Thunderbird plane overhead, that was us! We took off toward Mt. Lemmon and headed northeast until we reached the Jackal area for our fun! Not sure if Jackal is a mountain or just a region in Eastern Arizona, but it was an out-of-the-way place where we wouldn't be in the way of any other air traffic.
We were in the air for over an hour. The video shows some of the tricks we did, including the 9.2 G roll that we did. I blacked out briefly during that one. So much for remembering to breathe! But I never lost my lunch, even though the airsickness bag was tucked under a strap on my leg.
While we were up, Major Mulhare also demonstrated how we might target and destroy an insurgent vehicle without hurting civilians, if we were in combat. Even though we were about 10,000 feet up, we probably gave a guy in a white truck quite a show!
After we were done, we headed back to D-M, passing over Mt. Lemmon where we could see skiers coming down the slopes. Then there was a brief ceremony on the tarmac.
I was presented with a certificate that showed I had done 9.2 G's, signed by my pilot. They also gave me a picture of the Thunderbirds flying over Wrigley Field in Chicago, and a pin that I can wear that says I did 9.2 G's. I will wear it proudly!
My thanks to everyone at The Thunderbirds and Davis Monthan Air Force Base for the thrill of my life, especially Lt. Col. Tim Krauss, who put together the Air Show and Joe Nichols concert! It was an experience I'll never forget, and probably never let YOU forget either :-)
As soon as we landed, Nixon and I went to In-N-Out Burger (I didn't have lunch and I HAD to have a Coke!). Then I came back to the radio station and talked about the flight with Kricket and Jess Devaney.
Thank you for listening to KiiM-FM!
PS Got a question about my flight... something I didn't write about? Send me an email, or ask me on Facebook!