Thunderbirds Ride . . . Almost. (But Catch Me Tomorrow!)

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Photography by Tim Reed.

Okay, I can go on radar with you guys. For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been designated the alternate media flyer with the USAF Thunderbirds at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon festival. I didn’t want to make a big fuss before this because, after all, I was the alternate. Jeff McAtee of WWMT NewsChannel 3 was the primary.

So, after a couple of weeks of working very hard to not wish ill things on Jeff or his car or . . . (you get the idea), I arrived at the appointed time and place to find Jeff’s wife and daughter there (and, therefore, very likely Jeff – healthy and ready to fly). Bummer, but that’s okay. I was always only the alternate.

Then Suze Nanos-Gusching (Battle Creek Airshow Media Director) pulled me aside. “Steve, I think you’re going to get your media flight.”

SSgt Russ Martin (Chief, Media Relations, USAFADS) walked me into the Western Michigan university College of Aviation Building. It seems that Jeff didn’t have a camera crew with him (probably covering the pretty extensive damage caused by the storms in West Michigan the day before). No camera crew, no ride, apparently (which makes sense because you want to have as much coverage of the process as possible to show your audience).

So the idea was that I would suit up and, if Jeff’s camera crew didn’t arrive, I’d fly. Be careful what you wish for, folks! If circumstances align and you make sure that you’re in the right place, you’re liable to get what you wish for.

I met with the flight surgeon, Maj. (Dr.) Charla Quayle first and she did a quick medical exam. Took my blood pressure, listened to my lungs and heart, and asked a pretty thorough battery of questions. I was reeling pretty heavily from the thought of going flying in an F-16, but my blood pressure behaved itself (diastolic pressure of 80). My hear rate was up pretty well, though!

Then I went to get into my zoom bag. You war your own underwear, your own tee shirt, and your own socks. Then it’s the zoom bag. I think Jeff was my size and that I got the next smaller zoom bag. A little tight, but not bad. After all, the gee suit is going to make any tightness of the zoom bag academic.

Here, I’m getting fitted with my gee suit. It will inflate to apply pressure to my calves, thighs, and abdomen to keep the blood from rushing out of my head in high-gee maneuvers. We’ll be pulling nine gees at some point in the flight (at which point I’ll weigh as much as some of the training aircraft in which I’ve flown), so I’m very glad to have the gee suit. In the photo, they’re lacing up the back. The suit also laces up the back of the legs. Once all of the lacing is done, you use snaps and zippers to take it off and put it back on.

Here, I’m finding out about the life support equipment, namely the oxygen mask. By the way, that’s not a cigar in my mouth. It’s a pretzel rod. You want to be good and hydrated and have some carbs in your body before flying to assure the best gee tolerance. I put away more than two gallons of liquids before the suit-up and munched on pretzels throughout.

Claustrophobia? Fortunately not me (or at least not around the face). This mask seals around your face and there’s a valve somewhere along the way that requires you to consciously suck in air and blow it out. A little Darth Vader-esque, but very, very cool looking. If you were just taking this as a lark before, the helmet and mask will dispel that notion. It’s a reminder that you’re heading into environments that require life support and involve forces and attitudes that most people can’t imagine.

The tip of the spear is serious business, ladies and gents. If you don’t get that feeling the first time you put on the helmet, hear the world outside all muffled and disconnected, seal the mask around your face, pull down the visor, and have to consciously push and pull your breath through the valve, I don’t know what to tell you. I get the feeling that this is just the first of many indicia like that.

Here’s SSgt. Russ Martin. He and the whole Thunderbirds team made the whole thing a great experience. It’s clear that they’ve done this a few times before and have evolved this whole ritual to impress upon the rider how special this experience is.

So here’s the deal. I didn’t fly. Jeff’s camera crew arrived in the nick of time. i saw Jeff’s flight take off as I left the field. 4-5 gee climb off the end of the runway. Gorgeous! I hope Jeff had a great flight. He’s a great guy and deserved to fly.

But the good news (really good news, in fact) is that I’m supposed to report at 1:30 tomorrow for setup of my life support system and final fitting and then, around 3:30, I’m scheduled to go up with No. 8, Advance Pilot and Narrator Maj. Tony Mulhare. How cool is this?

I’ll post on both the blog and the podcast as I’m able. I’ve been recording audio all through the process and will piece it together cogently as I have the opportunity.

Watch this space!