“How many g’s was that?” I ask Daye through the intercom. “About four,” he says.
That figure describes the normal force of gravity quadrupled. It felt as if an enormous sack of potatoes had been hurled onto my lap and each of my limbs had been chained to an anvil. If I had had my head down or my shoulders turned when the climb commenced, I would have been frozen in that position for the entire ascent.
After Daye guides the F-4 through a series of aerobatic turns, climbs, and descents, he asks if I “wanna take it,” and I accept. I have not touched the controls of an airplane since I was laid off from an airline four years ago, and I have never performed aerobatics. I give it a whirl, and the results are not pretty. In fairness to myself, the aft cockpit is the weapons officer’s station; the plane can be flown from here, but it is engineered and instrumented for the forward pilot. Daye suggests that I try a couple of aileron rolls, and I send the Phantom into a 360-degree twirl—at least, that is my intention, but because the rotation is so damn fast, I overshoot the horizon and complete the maneuver in a 60-degree bank. After three or four more attempts in which I spin the plane around like a sideways tornado, I give up. “I’ve got it,” says Daye, unscrewing me from the sky. I am embarrassed and dizzy, but at least I have not vomited. Pilot colleagues who have flown fighters had placed my odds of regurgitation at anywhere from 50 percent to 99 percent, depending on Daye’s mood and what I had for breakfast (water). I do not feel ill, but what do I feel?
Considering that I trained as a civilian pilot exclusively, flying light four-seaters before captaining turboprops that rarely exceeded 250 knots, and later flying cargo planes and 737s, suffice to say this is nothing like any experience I have had. The cockpits share vestigial similarities, but the sensation—intense centrifugal pressures interspersed with moments of weightlessness—is unique; I endured repeating waves of exhilaration, physical pain, and mortal fear, but I suppose that is the idea.
“Are fighter pilots put through vomit training?” I ask.
“What?” Daye answers through the crackling intercom.
“Nothing,” I reply as he digs into a 90-degree snap roll that he follows with a multi-g, 180-degree turn. I hear a groaning noise and realize that it is coming from me.
Near the end of the sortie, Daye and I feel the plane shake and hear staccato booming noises issuing from the right-side engine. It sounds like a series of engine compressor stalls; the booms stop when Daye reduces power, but they reappear when he restores it. Usually, compressor stalls are not hazardous, but Daye decides to return early to the airport, just in case. (Later I learned that the engine had ingested some debris before takeoff and sustained damage to several intake blades. Subsequent classes were postponed while a replacement engine was sought, but foundation officials anticipated returning the F-4 to the skies as early as June.) I fly the initial approach to the airport, finessing a few gentle descents and turns that appear to annoy the daredevil in Daye, or at least perplex him, because a Phantom is not meant to be flown in this mundane fashion. He takes over for the landing, and the drag chute pops from the tail cone while we roll along Ellington’s runway 17R.
As I climb from the cockpit, Garcia asks, “How was it?” with an I-told-you-so grin on his face.
It was awful. It was wrenching, frightening, and dangerous, but it was thrilling and unforgettable, too. Such a weird, emotionally combustible dichotomy will not make sense to many people, but it is familiar to many pilots, and I am beginning to understand it a bit more clearly.
The Collings Foundation