Disser is the first to fly, however. Bill Bowers, a former Marine F-4 pilot and one of Collings’ senior aircrew staff, secures him in the rear cockpit while the volunteer ground crew swarms beneath the plane’s belly, checking hatches, attaching external power supplies, and watching keenly for anything damaged, leaking, or otherwise out of place. Daye, in the forward seat, awakens the engines, two General Electric noisemakers built before the advent of modern turbofans. The racket they produce—a cacophony of roars, rumbles, and hisses—seems strong enough to shatter a bystander’s thigh bones.
While awaiting Disser’s takeoff, I talk to Tommy Garcia, director of Collings West. He is as twitchy and distracted as an expectant father, more nervous than excited. “It’s been good to us, knock on wood,” he says of the Phantom, with a cross between a laugh and a sigh. “Certain systems are maintenance-intensive.” I would learn later that during one early flight, a near-total hydraulic failure almost forced both occupants to eject. The problem was traced to a faulty repair, and the staff convened a postmortem meeting to ensure such mistakes would not recur. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” says Garcia, “but at this point we’re confident.”
At last Daye and Disser rocket down the runway and lift off. The plane rides level for a moment, then noses into what seems to be a 90-degree ascent. “Right there,” says Garcia, shaking his head. “That’s the point where your kidneys are going through the back of your seat.” Within seconds, the Phantom shrinks to a speck in the azure Texas sky, and I hear a faint popping noise, which is either the sound of Daye cutting out the afterburners, or something gone plunk in the depths of my stomach.
Daye and Disser return 20 minutes later. Garcia and the ground crew hear them first, lifting their heads en masse like dogs sensing the footfalls of distant prey. “Here she comes,” announces one of the spectators. “Just listen to her.” As the jet glides toward Ellington, it emits an apocalyptic whine before landing and coming to a stop on the runway. Disser drips with sweat as he steps down from the cockpit. His face is the color of a rotten cantaloupe, but he is smiling. Now it is my turn.
The seating process is complicated: harness to latch, straps to tighten, oxygen mask to attach, and a spider’s web of lanyards, hoses, and clips to adjust, fasten, and affix. As Bowers belts me in, I think of Robert Duvall’s F-4 plummeting from the sky in flames at the end of The Great Santini, a favorite movie from my childhood. Once secured in place, I feel at one with this monster. No less integral than a wing spar or an aileron, I am a willing and capable absorber of whatever insanity Daye is capable of dishing out, or so I hope. But I am also instantly expellable, because I am atop a rocket-propelled ejection seat.
As we taxi out while reviewing a series of checklists, I feel as though I have been sewn into a giant coiled spring; the plane seems to want to bolt from beneath me, like a bulldog straining against its leash. Then the afterburners flare and the F-4 streaks down the runway, reaching a speed of 172 mph before Daye yanks us into the air. The ground rushes by as we accelerate over the airport perimeter at 300 knots. It strikes me that I never have flown this low and this fast at the same time, and then Daye pulls the stick back toward his crotch and we hurtle up into that kidney-crushing ascent Garcia mentioned. The zoom-climb to 15,000 feet takes about nine seconds. At its peak, Daye rolls the plane upside down, rights it, and quiets the afterburners.