Into the Wild Blue Yonder
By Jeffrey Miller
OSAN AIR BASE—It takes a special kind of man or woman to strap themselves into the cockpit of one of the most sophisticated fighters in the world today, and then go soaring into the sky. Since 1979, when F-16 was first introduced, thousands of pilots from air forces around the world have taken to the skies in this $20-million piece of aerospace wizardry. At 23, F-16 is still the pride and joy of all those who have experienced both the power and the thrill of flying this awesome aircraft.
Although movies like Top Gun or aerial demonstrations by the United States Air Force’s Thunderbirds or the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels have given those of us in movie theaters or on the ground the vicarious thrill of what these fighters can really do—what is it really like to experience flying in a jet fighter? While this thrill of experiencing has only been reserved for this elite fraternity of pilots, there are some of us mere mortals who have been given that once-in-a-lifetime thrill of flying into the wild blue yonder.
The U.S. Air Force has a special incentive program which gives selected airmen (usually airmen who have been singled out for exemplary duty) the chance to experience what it is like to fly in an F-16—and in some instances the same aircraft that they might even work on. In addition, these “incentive flights” also give civilians—entertainers, ambassadors, and members of the media—an opportunity to experience first hand the thrill of flying in a jet fighter.
Whether you are a pilot or a reporter for The Korea Times, everything starts with the airmen in the Life Support section. It is here in this section that these airmen take care of everything from the flight suits and helmets to the G-suits and survival gear. Their job is simple: to protect the pilot both in the aircraft, and in the event of ejection, protect him and her outside the aircraft.
It takes almost two hours to prepare and practice getting on what I will have to wear for my fight—for most pilots it would only take them about 15 minutes to get suited up.
The G-suit sort of fits like “chaps” from the waist down, on top of the flight suit. In a real aircraft when the pilot pulls g-forces, the G-Suit (actually only pants which cover the legs and stomach section) inflates and squeezes the pilot to prevent all his/her blood from rushing to their lower areas. This helps keep the pilot from passing out due to the effects of g-forces.
“If you throw up in the mask,” says one of the airmen who helped prepare my suit, “or on the suit, it’s a case of beer.”
After a quick flight physical to make sure that things like my heart and blood pressure are okay and that I can clear my ears (to avoid rupturing my eardrums) it’s off for a brief, but highly important run through of the egress system of the F-16. In the event of an emergency, I am walked through all the things that I need to know if I have to eject. Using a mock- up of the cockpit of the F-16, I not only get the chance to familiarize myself with all the controls and handles that I should not touch, but also practice getting out of the cockpit in case of an emergency—in the air or on the ground.
Finally, you are shown a video of what not to do in the cockpit and what happens if you do—like accidentally bumping the stick with your right leg.
How am I going to remember all of this?
After a good night’s sleep and a light breakfast (just to be on the safe side, I pass on the usual eggs, bacon and sausage) I’m back down to Osan early in the morning for the flight which is scheduled for early in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, the weather is not cooperating. Snow, mixed with rain has been falling intermittently since I left Seoul and from what I’ve heard from personnel on the base there’s only 1,000 feet visibility.
There’s a 50-50 chance that this mission will be scrubbed. Normally, it’s not the kind of weather that would ground a training exercise, but the military doesn’t like to take any chances with media aboard.
While we wait for the “go sign,” I attend my flight’s briefing, which is conducted by my pilot for today’s mission, Capt. Eric “Magic” Denny. This is not some free media ride for me. It’s still business as usual for these pilots, even with me in the backseat.
He goes over our flight plan and explains what time we’ll take off, where we will be going, what to expect once we are airborne, and our estimated time for touchdown. Normally, these briefings can last anywhere up to an hour.
Denny, who has been stationed at Osan since April 2000, enjoys taking people on incentive flights—especially the airmen on the ground. He has logged over 1,200 hours in the F-16 since he started flying it 10 years ago.
“My favorite kind of incentive flight is when I can take up my assigned aircraft’s dedicated crew chief to show him or her what the aircraft that they work so hard on can do,” explained Denny.
The weather finally cooperates. It’s time to get suited up.
The real trick is how to get into the cockpit wearing with what feels like over 70 pounds of life support gear. It looks so easy in the movies when you see these fighter pilots scrambling up the ladder and jumping into the cockpit.
Basically, you have to position yourself on the edge of the cockpit with one hand on the opposite side; swing your legs over and then, sort of plop yourself right into the cockpit. Easy, right?
Next is the arduous task of fastening those belts and harnesses, as well as hooking up the G-suit hose and your oxygen hose. You practically have to be a contortionist to twist your body around to strap yourself in and get hooked up.
After you are all fit and snug in there, the first thing you notice is how small it is inside the cockpit. It’s a good thing that I’m not claustrophobic. Sitting there in the cockpit, I try to remember everything that I was taught the day before.
Denny does one final walk around of the fighter with the crew chief and we’re ready to go.
When we taxi out of the hangar—following behind another F-16—this whole experience begins to register, and yet I feel calm and collected. Rolling down the flight line toward the runway, Denny and I can talk back and forth on the microphone; between the chatter from the control tower and other planes, he talks me through everything that we are going to do.
Two F-16s, one right after another, take off in a thunderous roar, which resonates across the flight line.
One last check of the plane by some airmen on the flight line.
“Captain, let’s have a great ride,” I say.
“Roger that, Mr. Miller,” replies Denny.
There are two planes ahead of us, and then it’s our turn. When the afterburner kicks in you are pushed back into your seat as the jet picks up speed moving down the runway. The takeoff is no different from most commercial flights—it’s just faster and steeper. It’s only when you make your first turn, slicing through the clouds as the jet rapidly climbs higher into the sky that you really feel as though you’re flying in a jet fighter.
I look out the left side of the canopy and I watch the other F-16 pull up along our side that has joined us for some close and tactical formation work. Both planes are just a few feet apart. Flying this close in formation with another jet gives you a great appreciation and respect for these pilots that know how to handle their aircraft.
The first time the aircraft pulled some g’s you feel this tremendous squeezing sensation on your legs and lap as the G-suit goes to work. I feel a little light-headed, as though I am going to pass out. I take three deep breaths; clench my legs and force out a grunt to get the blood back to my brain and the feeling passes. Then there are a couple inverted rolls, another turn and more g’s.
Denny, who routinely flies the F-16 about four times a week, loves the way the aircraft handles in the sky.
“I would say the most exciting part of flying the F-16 is exercising the capability to both shoot down the bad guys and then drop bombs on them,” explained Denny. “And it’s all rolled up in one agile little aircraft.”
Despite the lousy weather, we were able to climb to 16,000 feet to some better weather. There, the two jets performed some fighting wing maneuvering, and some basic aerobatics.
It’s no wonder these pilots love what they do best. We get to play cat and mouse with the other jet for a little interceptor practice. A couple rolls here, and another turn there.
“Can you see him, Mr. Miller?” asks Denny as we climb for a better look.
“There he is, at 1:00!”
I look up through the canopy and spot the aircraft. This is intense, as we pull another couple g’s in high pursuit of the aircraft.
So, what does it really feel like? Have you ever been on one of the world’s fastest and highest roller coasters? Well, take experience that and multiply it by; say a million and you’ll have some idea. Up there above the clouds as the plane rolled one way, then another pulling a couple g’s here and there, all you can do is marvel at what this fine aircraft can do and the men and women who fly them day in and day out.
Better yet, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, what a piece of work this aircraft is.
We wrapped up this media flight with a radar trail recovery for an ILS instrument approach to a full stop landing.
I did not pass out. I did not throw up.
Looks like those guys in life support owe me a case of beer.
Although just along for the ride, I now have joined a select group of mortals that have been able to experience the rush of flying in a fighter.
Back on the ground, it just so happened that on the day of my first flight was also the last flight for the former 51st Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. David Clary who departed Korea recently. There is a round of handshakes and some congratulatory pats on the back from some of the pilots in the squadron who had gathered to meet Clary.
Without question, the F-16 is a marvelous aircraft. It’s no wonder that in Korea, it plays a pivotal role in the US-ROK alliance as an integral component in the air defense of the peninsula.
While the thrill of flying any kind of aircraft is reserved for those brave men and women who are ready to fly into harm’s way at a moment’s notice, it’s these airmen on the ground in both air forces that keep these beautiful winged warriors ready to go. It’s only fitting, as pilots taxi pass the control tower, that they raise their arms over their heads as a symbolic gesture of camaraderie for the men and women on the ground who keep them flying. These pilots might get all the glory streaking across the sky in their wonderful, sophisticated flying machines, but they know who the people are that make this all possible.
Years ago, I was one of those people on the ground that “kept them flying.” Who would have thought that 22 years after I was discharged, I would finally get my “incentive flight?” It was definitely worth the wait.
Later, during an interview with Clary, we get to compare notes.
“How was your flight?” the general asks.
Given time, I probably could have come up with a hundred or so superlatives to describe the experience of an F-16 flight, but for now there’s just one word that sums it all up.
“Awesome,” I reply with a huge grin.
Would I go back up into the wild blue yonder again?