The Ride of My Life
I climbed into the back-seat of the world's hottest jet fighter, the F-16. Clouds hung over our airbase, but I knew that soon I would be above the clouds, where the sun was shining.
A mechanic strapped me into my harness, and plugged in the system that would allow me to breatheand talk at 35,000 feet. "When you start pulling G's," he reminded me, referring to gravity forces,"your G-suit will fill with air automatically." I certainly hoped so. If my suit failed on a high-G missionlike this, I could be killed.
"In an emergency," he said, "just pull the handle between your legs. A rocket under the seat will popyou out of the aircraft, seat and all. Your parachute will open automatically." The mechanic couldn'tresist a parting joke: "If you have to use the survival equipment and it doesn't work, bring it back; we'llreplace it."As I struggled to get comfortable, my pilot, Major Patrick Hamilton, came aboard and startedprogramming the jet's computers. Then, through the microphone, he spoke into my ear: "If you'reready, let's get going." Our engine roared to life, the powerful jet turbines making enough noise towaken the dead. We were going up for a practice battle.
I expected the ride of my life, and with good reason. The F-16 is a $20 million piece of hardware thathas enough horsepower to fly at twice the speed of sound. In tight turns and recovering from dives, itcan pull nine G's, or nine times the force of gravity, causing a 200-pound man to weigh nearly a ton.
The jet roared down the cement surface, slamming me against the seat. In seconds, we reached 145miles per hour. The plane blasted into the air like a bullet shot out of a rifle, and soon we were at 2,000feet and climbing.
The F-16 can fly straight up. It can spin, dive, turn, climb, roll, and make loops with the grace of aneagle. Yet, loaded with practice bombs and 8,000 pounds of fuel, the mostly aluminum aircraft weighssome 15 tons. Controlling this precision machine and its many weapons is like playing a million-dollarvideo game that has dozens of buttons.
"The controls are so sensitive," Major Hamilton says, "they're almost an extension of the pilot'sbody."In fewer than five minutes, we'd reached an altitude of 35,000 feet. At near the speed of sound, wewere flying ahead of our engine's roar. We felt little sense of speed or motion. Even the boom thathappens when the jet breaks the sound barrier went unnoticed.
The ride was exciting yet peaceful, and the view beautiful: an ocean of blue above, a blanket of purewhite below. Inside our clear chamber, we were warm and comfortable, but outside was a wholedifferent world. The atmosphere was 30 degrees below zero centigrade and too thin to breathe.
Trailing behind us were white stripes created by heat from our exhaust hitting sub-zero air.
Our target area was 250 miles to the north. For a few minutes, we would be flying straight, so MajorHamilton turned the controls over to me. "But don't try anything fancy," he warned. My goodness! Ithought of all the pilots who'd give a month's pay to take my place. I turned the plane to the right, but Idid it too hard and we went into a steep turn. I corrected with a squeeze to the left. That's about asfancy as I got.
Flying the F-16 straight and level was easy enough. Flying in combat and managing the complexweapons system requires considerably more concentration. The pilot must command a collection oflights, dials, knobs, digital displays, and other electronic devices. "You must have to be an engineer orcomputer scientist to fly this airplane," I commented over the microphone.
"It helps," said Major Hamilton. But he added, "You don't have to know how everything is puttogether, just how the system operates. Even a monkey could fly this airplane."Suddenly we heard the commander say "enemy" aircraft had been sighted. Action began with arapid dive from 35,000 feet. I prepared for the G's I knew we'd pull. When the G-meter reached 6.2, Icould no longer lift my feet off the floor. No wonder — they weighed nearly 100 pounds. My visionwent dim, as blood rushed from my head to my feet. My G-suit, now fully filled with air, compressedmy legs to force the blood back into the upper part of my body. The jet twisted, turned, rolled, climbedand dived, constantly whipping me from one side to the other. I was having trouble following it all; Iwas, in fact, just hanging on.
During our mission, no planes were actually shot down. But cameras connected to video recordershad captured the action on tape. Hits and misses, determined by computers, would be watched andevaluated in post-flight meetings.
Although the major joked about how simple it was to fly the F-16, the truth is that a pilot must be anexpert to control the craft. And to withstand the force of high-G movements, he must also be in topphysical condition. As Major Hamilton landed our plane gracefully, I was thankful that he, not amonkey, had been my pilot. This man had indeed given me the ride of my life.