Every PT day, I have a ritual of working out, showering, and then dining at the Tee House, the golf course restaurant at Kadena Air Base. My favorite thing about eating there (besides their delicious but inexpensive breakfast combos) is that the restaurant’s hillside location provides a really great view of the flight line, so you can watch aircraft take off, land, and maneuver overhead. The other day I was watching a pair of F-15s taking off on afterburners with a roar like thunder, and all I could think was that’s what I’d rather be doing today. It reminded me of that time when I actually did get to fly on one.
Most people in the air force don’t fly on aircraft at all. They may fix aircraft or manage aircraft operation funds, but only a small percentage of air force members actually fly. Sometimes, as a reward for a job well done or achieving certain accomplishments, a non-flying member can earn an incentive flight. For even greater accomplishments, or if they’re just really lucky, members can fly on a fighter. I was one of those fortunate people.
The year 2009 was very kind to me. I had worked hard at my job, so I got recognized as the Airman of the Quarter for the second quarter. In March I tested for staff sergeant, and in August I found out that I made it, but since it was my first time testing, I had to wait until the following year to pin on. One of the prerequisites to putting on the rank of staff sergeant is attending Airman Leadership School. I went to ALS from November to December, and I earned the John L. Levitow Award. In order to win the Levitow, you have to stand out for leadership, academics, exemplary behavior, and you have to be popular with both the instructor cadre and your fellow students. All of those accomplishments resulted in my unit’s board choosing my as their Airman of the Year, and then I got my group’s nomination as well.
After receiving all of those recognitions, one of my friends and mentors, a tech sergeant who worked in my office, asked my chief master sergeant if I was going to get an incentive ride. She said, “Heck yes he is!” and she tapped into her network of chiefs. A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from the fighter squadron with appointment dates for a flight physical, ejection seat egress training, G-suit/helmet fittings, and a flight. I had never been so excited!
My first appointment was with flight medicine to get a flight physical. The doctors checked my height, weight, and blood pressure, and then had me sit on a wooden block to make sure I would fit in an F-15 cockpit. Everything checked out good. The doctor briefed me on special breathing techniques to use in really strong G-force turns.
A few days later, I had my appointment with the SERE instructors to learn how to punch out of the aircraft in an emergency. The coolest part of the training was using a parachute simulator: the instructors suspended me from the top of a cage-like structure by parachute lines, and I wore virtual reality goggles to see a simulated experience of falling with a parachute. The instructors covered how to troubleshoot your parachute if something goes wrong, and the simulator allowed you to practice troubleshooting.
The day before my flight, I had to be fitted for a helmet and G-suit. The whole time I was there, the two young airmen in the office kept addressing me as “Staff Sergeant”, which felt really great because I had only just put on my new rank. After I tried the G-suit on, the support airmen briefed me on how to wear it and how it worked in the air. When the plane was in a turn, the suit would inflate and cut the circulation off to my legs, forcing the blood toward my head so my brain would be well oxygenated. They also put barf bags in the pockets in case I got airsick. (As it turns out, it’s pretty normal for passengers to get sick on fighters. I’d even heard rumors that on incentive rides, some pilots actually try to make you toss your cookies.)
After the fitting, I left on cloud nine. It felt like the night before Christmas, and all I could think about was how amazing it was going to be to fly on a fighter jet. I was not disappointed.
The following morning, I woke up before my alarm. In my excitement I had barely slept, but I didn’t feel even the least bit tired. I arrived at the fighter squadron early in the morning and went in to the scheduling desk. There were a few other incentive riders there that day. One guy was there for the second time, since his previous flight had been cancelled due to bad weather.
The pilots came out and introduced themselves to us. The pilot who was going to fly with me was a tall, friendly captain whose name I have forgotten. He took me into an office and offered me coffee, and then he told me a little bit about F-15s and their capabilities. Afterwards, he asked if I had any questions about the aircraft, the flight plan, or anything else. I couldn’t think of anything. Then he asked if there was anything I wanted to do while we were on the flight. I told him I wanted to do an afterburner takeoff. However, much to my chagrin, it was too early in the morning, and local government noise regulations prohibited it.
From there, we picked up our gear from the locker room. I donned my G-suit and picked up my helmet, and then we checked the scheduling desk. Several pilots were standing around, waiting to see if the weather conditions were going to be acceptable. Looking out the window, I saw that it was a perfect summer day, but the pilots were concerned that the winds may be too strong.
The wait was awful, and for a moment I thought that I wouldn’t be able to fly that day. One pilot who didn’t have a passenger made comments indicating that he hoped the flight would be cancelled. I wanted to punch the molestache off his face.
I breathed a sigh of relief when “Launch the fleet!” sounded over the squadron intercom. A lieutenant colonel marched up and down the hall calling out, “Launch the fleet! Launch the fleet!” All the pilots and the incentive riders all filed out of the building and made our way down to the birds. A crew chief met us at the jet, and he performed some equipment checks as I climbed a ladder into the back seat. The pilot guided me through strapping myself in, popping in a pair of ear plugs (the engines are quite loud), and hooking up the oxygen hose to my helmet. I pulled my helmet on over my glasses. They were crushed against my face, but I wasn’t about to take them off; I wanted to see everything I could.
The cockpit was small, but comfortable. The floor had several pedals, but I didn’t put my feet on them. In front of me was a control stick covered in buttons, and above it were displays and instrumentation panels. The pilot explained that the handles on either side of my seat activated the ejection system, and once he armed them he would say, “Seats are hot.” If I pulled the levers after that, we would punch out, and the $30 million aircraft would be destroyed. But how many chances do you ever get to punch out of an F-15–especially after doing the parachute training? The thought tempted me throughout the ride, but I was able to resist.
Finally, the time had come. The crew chief climbed down the ladder, and the cockpit closed. We taxied out behind several other F-15s and waited for takeoff clearance. One by one, the planes in front of us took off until it was finally our turn.
Although I didn’t get to do my desired takeoff, the jet lifted off the ground easily, and zoomed faster than anything I’d ever flown on as we immediately shot straight upward, Okinawa island shrinking away behind us and disappearing into a mass of blue sea. Then clouds swallowed us. One of the displays in front of me was indicating the current aircraft parameters including altitude, speed, heading, and G-force. We quickly reached an altitude of 50,000 feet, and then the pilot turned nose down to let gravity help us reach about two and a half times the speed of sound. At a lower altitude, he leveled off and warned me that he was going to start pulling some heavier G-force turns.
We started with a five-G turn, and I used the breathing techniques the doctor had taught me, taking in a deep breath and holding it, letting it out in short spurts. I felt my G-suit inflate, squeezing my legs. We came out of the turn after a minute, and I felt nothing worse than mild dizziness. The pilot gave me a moment to recover before he pulled a seven G turn. We did several more turns, maxing out at 9.6 Gs, according to the display in front of me. On that turn, I nearly did black out, but we didn’t stay in it for very long, so I recovered quickly.
Next the pilot popped off some flares, and I looked out the back of the cockpit to see them trail behind us.
We zipped from cloud top to cloud top, and then did a series of barrel rolls. After that, the pilot actually let me take the stick, and I wove through the clouds again.
A while later, an automated female voice said, “Bingo fuel. . . Bingo fuel” over and over again. The pilot took the controls back, turned the aircraft, and dropped down close to the water. On the way back to the island, we saw a Japanese helicopter and several boats below us. We did some more barrel rolls on the way back, and soon Okinawa was within sight. Landing gear came down.
Over the radio, the tower gave us clearance to land, and we came in for the approach. Wheels touched down so lightly that I barely felt it, and then we were taxiing back to the hanger.
I climbed out after the pilot, and we went back to the squadron building. I turned in all my borrowed equipment, and then I was on my way, with my mind still fixated on the experience I’d just had.
The whole flight was only an hour, and it went by so fast. Still, it was one of the best thrills of my life. I’ll never again be able to enjoy anything so lame as a roller coaster. I will always envy the pilots who get to do that all the time; for me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.