I recently had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly in the backseat of one of the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet Blue Angels.
Prior to the day it happened, a friend (a former Marine combat aviator) sent me a humorous piece Rick Reilly had written for Sports Illustrated. Reilly wrote, "If you get this opportunity, let me urge you, with the greatest sincerity. ... Move to Guam. Change your name. Fake your own death. Whatever you do, do not go."
I don't know Rick Reilly, and I rarely challenge opinion pieces of other writers. However, as counterpoint, permit me to share MY experience. My single regret is that once one has flown with the Blue Angels you never get to repeat the experience. For those of us lucky enough to strap 32,000 pounds of thrust to our butts, it is an O.T.O. (One time only) event.
As a former Special Forces officer I had spent a lot of time in military aircraft: G.S.A. (Go slow aircraft) like helicopters, C-130s, Beavers, Otters, and even a few big jets (C-141s, et al.). However, no airborne experience I ever had (including a nighttime parachute malfunction in mountains) comes close to the adrenaline rush, heart stopping, G-force pressure of my ride with Lt. Keith Hoskins' G.F.A (Go fast aircraft).
"Judge" (his call sign) graduated from college in 1988, the same year I turned 40. He has over 1,500 flight hours and over 240 carrier arrested landings. In our 45-minute ride he gave me a unique insight, appreciation, and -- admiration is too limp a word, awe is better -- yeah, awe for what these naval aviators do.
I achieved my physical peak in the summer of 1971 after Airborne school imbued me with arrogance, and before Ranger school taught me humility. There are times that seems like yesterday. The day I met Keith Hoskins, 1971 was Jurassic, and notwithstanding any testosterone-induced fantasy ... I experienced a cruel reality check.
Blue Angel pilots fly without oxygen masks AND without pressure suits. Pressure suits inflate and deflate to help an aviator keep blood in his upper extremities instead of their big toe. However these guys are flying over 600 miles an hour with only 18-quivering inches separating them wing tip to wing tip. They fly with their steering hand on their right thigh. A pressure suit would move that rock solid precise hand and rob them of the necessary (and lifesaving) control, which permits them to perform aeronautical miracles. So these guys learn to manage G-force with only muscle control. When G-forces impact the body, blood is forced to your lower extremities. Blue Angel pilots are rocks -- nerves of titanium interconnected with muscles of steel and icewater running through their veins.
Reilly said his pilot was "the kind of man who wrestles dyspeptic alligators in his leisure time. If you see this man, run the other way. Fast." Not me. Wherever I was I'd want his pilot, and "Judge," or any other go-fast aviator right beside me or behind me.
Prior to the flight we were briefed by AE2 Victor Melendez. He provided the safety briefing and flight orientation, and told us how to "Hook" during "G" inducing maneuvers. "Hooking" is an exercise in which you tighten your leg, thigh, and stomach muscles and force air by exaggerating the word "Hook." It looks and sounds silly, but it really works. I didn't catch on until I watched the video of my flight that "Hooking" also serves an additional purpose. The pilot hears you "Hooking" as he moves from 2-Gs to 3-Gs, to 4-Gs, to 5-Gs, to 6-Gs. When you stop "Hooking" (it happened to me at 6.1-Gs) you have blacked out, and the pilot knows to start easing up on you.
If anyone had asked me if I blacked out, I would have guaranteed them I did not. However, the video of me in the back seat clearly shows me going "out" at 6.1-Gs. It was only for a few seconds, but I didn't even notice.
Victor had also asked me a series of innocuous questions prior to strapping me into the rocket. He asked about my military service, so I told him. He asked if I had a call sign or nickname, and I told him. Ten seconds after climbing in the front seat, "Judge" knew my military experience, call sign, et al. I actually worried for a moment about this stud aerdale "messing" with the gray haired green beanie in the back seat. That was before he told me his dad had been in the 82nd and 101st Airborne. Lt. Hoskins is a gentleman, and a classy guy. I suffered no inter-service teasing, or "Neener-neener ... take that, ground pounder." He gave me the ride of my life.
We taxied down the runway and gently climbed to 1,000 feet. We looked around the San Francisco Bay at the boats and the skyline, and "Judge" asked, "Are you ready?" Hey what could I say? "Roger that. ..." Then, he tilted the nose up (way up) and hit the gas. We were at 10,000 feet quicker than a minnow can swim a dipper. We had just pulled 5-Gs, and I didn't even know that my heart was lodged somewhere in my lower colon. It was way cool.
We headed west over the ocean and I was given a 101 orientation in the capabilities of the remarkable F/A-18 and the young men who fly them. We performed every maneuver you get to see the Blue Angels perform, plus a couple not on the program. We did barrel rolls, loops, and hesitation rolls. We dived and banked, rose and dove again. We slowed down to 105mph and then accelerated to 640mph. We flew straight up, straight down, and upside down.
I was fortunate. I did not get sick. Some do. Reilly observed in his piece that he "egressed the bananas. I egressed the pizza from the night before. And the lunch before that. I egressed a box of Milk Duds from the sixth grade. I made Linda Blair look polite.Because of the G's, I was egressing stuff that did not even want to be egressed. I went through not one airsick bag, but two. Biff said I passed out. Twice." OK, so I did black out for a couple of seconds. ... I survived the whole flight and every maneuver the Blue Angels perform. And I'd do it again in a New York second.
I write a list of my significant and personal accomplishments pride will
compel me to list my Eagle Scout awards, my varsity letters, Airborne,
Ranger, Special Forces stuff, books written and plaques in some drawers.
However, forever at the top of my brag list will be 45 minutes I spent
with one of America's best, brightest, and hardest: Lt. Keith Hoskins and
his F/A 18 Blue Angel.