Well I might not be Tom Cruise. But I have flown a CF-18. And I have to say it was pretty amazing.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Bagotville with Lt. General Yvan Blondin, and we got to spend 90 of the most thrilling minutes I have spent in a long time – like ever – flying in a CF-18 Hornet. More accurately I mostly rode in the second seat, though for a brief time I was controlling the plane!
It’s hard to describe the experience. But here goes.
You start by getting outfitted. This doesn’t mean a leather jacket and a white silk scarf like Charles Lindbergh. First there’s a cotton jump suit. I was told to my horror that you wear cotton because in a fire, unlike plastic, it doesn’t melt into your skin. Then they put a G-suit on your legs and stomach. This is a very tight fitting contraption that has all kinds of laces and zippers and a bladder, which automatically inflates when the G forces increase in the plane so you don’t black out. Then you put on a harness with many buckles that attaches you to the seat of the plane. At first I thought this was to keep you locked in during flight. Actually it’s to keep you in the ejection seat if things don’t go right.
Over the harness I was fitted with a life vest that would inflate if we bailed out over water. They told me that the vest has emergency provisions. At this point my anxiety increased.
At the end of an hour or so of dressing I got my helmet, mask and the all important air sickness bags. I was ready to go!
Of course we had to take it all off to get a “seat check.” This is when you go to a mockup of the seat in the plane where they show you how to get out in case of an emergency on the ground. That’s bad enough. But then they tell you how the ejection seat works, how to parachute without breaking your legs – hopefully – and other lovely thoughts. Then for kicks they suspend you from your harness to see what it feels like.
I was nervous enough at this point but then I saw a big picture on the wall of a CF-18 in a ball of fire on the runway and my heart really started to pound.
Next was a mission briefing. There was a lot of technical jargon that – literally – flew by me. But I got the gist of “dogfight”, “supersonic”, and “loops.” But by this time there was no turning back.
I had been warned not to eat too much before the flight (and recall the air sickness bags). But when they showed up with a huge lunch I forgot the warnings. As I was finishing off the chocolate cake and ice cream I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision. But it was too late. Time to suit up again – hopefully it still fit – and fly.
My pilot was Major Mike “Rebel” Jokht of the United States Air Force. This was an example of what I have seen over and over during the last four years; Canadian and American forces standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The Americans got in one plane and the Canadians in another.
CF-18′s are the Canadian version of the F-18 used by the United States. The planes used in combat have one seat. The planes used for training – and for me – have two; one behind the other. We climbed the ladder and buckled ourselves in (actually Mike buckled himself in, I needed lots of help), and one more time went over what we should do in the event of a ground evacuation or – God forbid – an ejection. Then, to make it real, I pulled the safety pins and armed the ejection seat. Down came the canopy, on went the breathing masks, and we taxied up the runway.
I have flown in a lot of planes, big ones and small ones, smooth flights and rough ones, but nothing like this. Taking off felt more like sitting on top of a rocket than it did flying in any plane I have been in. The plane left the runway in what felt like two seconds and went up at about a 60 degree angle. Or so it seemed. We were at 400 knots a few seconds later.
By the way at this point I was very relieved I wouldn’t have to go through the emergency ground escape. Now I only had to worry about the ejection seat.
Early in the flight Mike did a couple of “mild” maneuvers to see how I would do. I got my first taste of the G suit. As we went into sharp turns the pressure on my legs from the suit increased, in order to increase the flow of blood to my head, so I wouldn’t black out. Actually the first couple of times, I kind of greyed out, until I got the hang of it. But after that I would literally go with the flow. As the pressure flowed into the G suit I would tense up, hold on to the grab handles for dear life, and watch the ground flip around in crazy circles.
Then Mike said “are you ready to go supersonic?” “Yeah, what the heck.” Actually it is sort of disappointing. When you are in the plane you don’t feel or hear anything. (I thought back to my high school science class to understand why, but I couldn’t remember the answer.) The only way you could tell you were above the speed of sound was the electronic displays.
By this time I was too busy having fun to worry about the potential consequences. So we had our dog fight. Gen. Blondin’s plane and ours were a few feet apart, at 30,000 feet going 500 knots (I must admit I have no idea how fast a knot is – but trust me 500 of them are very fast). First we were above, then below. Left. Right. I’m happy to report it was a draw. No casualties.
After the dog fight we did several very tight turns. That’s how you build G forces. Our top one registered 4.9 G’s. I’m calling it 5 G’s for my children. In combat the plane can do more. Not sure how. As the G’s build you can’t lift your arms. Turning your head is hard. And the air buffets the wings so the whole plane shakes. Just a day at the office for Mike.
Then we flew into a canyon. That’s when the scary stuff started. At one point we were flying with a wing pointed straight down a few feet from the canyon wall. Hey, what could go wrong?
After all that it was time to land. Actually it was time to land 5 times. The first 4 were “touch and go” landings. After one of them, the General’s plane and ours flew in formation. Then he peeled off to the right. In about two seconds his was half a mile away. You don’t get the sense of speed until you have something near you as a standard of reference. When you do and you realize how fast you are going you just shake your head – if you can given the G forces.
Finally we landed. No ground emergencies. No ejections. Just fun. After some congratulations (I guess if you don’t get sick or plead to land the plane you are a successful passenger) we took off our gear and I realized how totally exhausted I was. Holding on to grab handles is very hard work.
The reason we were at Bagotville was to retire an ancient piece of equipment called a PAR which is a Precision Approach RADAR landing system. This system will be replaced with a modern version of an ILS (Instrument Landing System) that will help pilots to land when there is bad weather. General Blondin landed after me and used the PAR for the final time. After we changed out of our flight gear we had a brief ceremony when General Blondin ceremonially switched off the PAR equipment and it was time for dinner.
The entire day really was special. I am confident I will never have a chance to do it again. But it is a story I will tell over and over; particularly the part about the 5 G’s. Or was it 7???