Thursday, September 13, 2007

Reporter sings blues after flying with Angels

By David Sharp - The Associated Press
Posted : Thursday Sep 13, 2007 5:34:28 EDT

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Darting across the sky at more than 700 mph while cradled in an ejection seat-equipped Navy Blue Angel fighter was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Too bad I missed parts of it.

It wasn’t being shot nearly straight up into the air, performing topsy-turvy maneuvers or flying upside down that did me in. It was when the Marine Corps pilot tested my mettle by subjecting me to G-forces experienced regularly by the Blue Angels.

Possessing “the right stuff,” Maj. Nathan Miller spoke in a normal voice to me in the backseat as the G-forces in the F/A-18 Hornet reached more than seven times the normal pull of gravity. Lacking the righteous stuff, I strained, grunted and flexed my legs and abdominal muscles to keep my blood from draining from my head.

It was futile.

I blacked out.

This weekend, upward of 200,000 people will pour into Brunswick Naval Air Station to see the Blue Angels perform maneuvers like the ones I was lucky enough to experience on Wednesday.

The difference is there will be six of the jets, not one.

And they’ll be flying in formation only 18 inches apart from wingtip to canopy as they roll and loop through the sky.

The ease with which Miller tosses his fighter around underscores the fact that flying is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be.

In “The Right Stuff,” author Tom Wolfe noted that flying could be a lethal occupation in the early years of fighter jets, and nearly half of jet fighter pilots were subjected to the spine-rattling ejection from their cockpits.

But flying at the edge of an airplane’s limits is not without risks, as underscored by an April crash that claimed a member of the Blue Angels.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis was killed when his No. 6 jet went down during the final minutes of a performance in Beaufort, S.C. It was the first Blue Angel fatality since 1999 and one of three since the Blues began flying F/A-18 Hornets.

The Blue Angels regrouped and resumed flying. They’ve dedicated their season to the memory of Davis, who grew up in Pittsfield, Mass.

Miller, 34, of Lapeer, Mich., joined the team last year after accumulating more than 1,800 flight hours and making nearly 300 carrier landings. He flew combat missions in support of Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As the No. 7 pilot, his job is to take members of the media and VIPs on the ride of their lives to promote the Navy as well as serving as narrator during the shows. Next year, he’ll become one of the six pilots who perform during air shows.

Wednesday’s flight, he told me, would be a blast.

That it was. And more.

Anxiety and butterflies be damned, I climbed into the cockpit and was strapped in. Soon enough, the 24,500-pound jet was hurtling down the runway. After reaching 280 mph, Davis pulled the stick back and the jet shot upward.

Fifteen seconds later, the jet was leveling off at 6,000 feet and I had a panoramic view from the ocean to the western mountains.

So far, so good.

Next, Miller flew 55 miles to a military training area in western Maine.

After a few mild maneuvers, rolling the plane over, looping it and flying upside down, Davis took it up a notch. At that point I found myself smashed into my seat so firmly that I could barely lift my arm as Davis demonstrated the Immelman turn, a vertical roll and a minimum-radius turn that produced crushing G-forces.

People watching the air show from below won’t realize the physical effort required to fly these jets at their limits.

Though the Blue Angels are as cool as cucumbers, the work in the cockpit as they screech overhead is hard work. Sweaty, hard work.

The Blues don’t wear G-suits used by other fighter pilots. G-suits, designed to keep pilots from blacking out, would hamper their ability to fly in close formation. So they rely on physical training and flexing their muscles to keep from blacking out.

I tried my best to flex the muscles in my legs, buttocks and abdomen as I’d been instructed to.

I don’t remember blacking out. I just remember waking up and thinking, Why am I sleeping when I should be paying attention?

As Davis’ energetic and reassuring voice filled my ears, vision slowedly returned and I woozily pondered my surroundings. No, it was no dream. I was still hurtling through the air at several hundred miles per hour.

Eventually, the jet jockey decided that the desk jockey had been punished enough.

My once-in-a-lifetime experience was coming to an end. About 45 minutes and 1,000 gallons of JP-5 jet fuel later, the F/A-18 touched down on the runway. After grabbing a bite to eat, Miller repeated the process with two other reporters.

Here's an excellent video featuring the Blue Angels. They are amazing! God bless them.

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