A cadet wanted to know what it was like to go faster than the speed of sound. I took him up for a ride.
It was 2002 and I was stationed in Aviano AB, Italy with the 510th Fighter Squadron Buzzards. We flew Block 40 F-16s and occasionally flew young troops, maintenance airmen, or local base award winners on what was called an incentive flight. An incentive flight is a big deal for a non-flyer, as they get to ride in the back seat of the F-16 and experience all of its power and might.
The typical incentive flight is a single ship sortie, in the two-seat “D model, or Family Model” out to the airspace and once there, really anything goes (within the limits and rules of the USAF, airspace, and of course the aircraft). A typical incentive flight allows the back seat first-timer a chance to fly a little, do some loops or rolls, pull some Gs and if possible…to break the sound barrier!
I remember being assigned as incentive pilot one day and I met beforehand with my “rider.” This particular troop was one of our maintenance guys, just 19 or 20 years old and pretty fresh to the scene, as well as the USAF. He had won some big accolade and was rightfully awarded with an incentive flight for his terrific actions.
This kid and I talked beforehand. He was very excited, but a little nervous (as they all are). His one big request, no matter what happened and what we did, was that he wanted to break the sound barrier. He wanted to go over Mach 1.
“No problem” I told him. We had the airspace that was approved for those speeds and the jet configuration for the day would also permit us a “Mach run.”
I don’t recall much about the subsequent flight with this kid in “the trunk” of the F-16, however one part stands out. After we did some rolls and maneuvers, pulled a few Gs and so forth it was time for the Mach run. I told the kid we were setting up for the run and I could tell he was excited. He even asked if he should hold on tight or brace himself for the speed changes…I’ll never forget it.
I turned the jet to the north, somewhere around 15,000 feet and plugged in the “burner.” In the F-16 when you apply afterburner, it wakes you up. It literally feels as if someone has kicked you in the butt and the jet unleashes with a violent thrust that pushes you back in the seat. I called out the speeds as we accelerated. Heads, helmets, and guts getting pushed back in the seat with incredible force. “Point seven, point seven five…get ready.”
At this time the forces began to relax a little. We were still accelerating at a serious rate, but that rate begins to subside a little as you get faster and faster. It starts to feel like the acceleration of your average car getting on the highway. Nothing too incredible.
“Zero point eight… point eight five…” I called out so in case the kid in the back wasn’t sure where to read the speed on the displays, he could still know what our speed was.
“Point nine, point nine five…here we go, get ready!”
The F-16 slipped past the Mach effortlessly. There is no change in tone or pitch, no violent shockwave or concussion. Nothing really noteworthy actually. It’s quite anticlimactic, and the speeds become just numbers on the displays.
“There it is, Mach 1!” I said as I continued my count upward as we accelerated further. “One point one…one point two. What do you think back there” I asked?
What he said next I’ll never forget.
Yes my friend… that is it.
It’s pretty special to go over the Mach, not many folks on this earth can say they’ve done it. But in all reality, in a plane like the F-16 (or any fighter for that matter) where they are built for speed and performance, going the speed of sound is really nothing too noteworthy. It’s so easy.
In fact, sometimes during the course of aggressive training maneuvers and such, during typical operations we sometimes exceed the speed of sound unintentionally. It’s just so effortless.
But looking around outside, at typical altitudes, there really isn’t much sensation of speed. Sadly, Mach one is just a number on the dial.
What is also quite impressive to me is slowing down the F-16 from above the Mach. The F-16 normally (depending on configuration, weight, and altitude) likes to fly around 400-500 knots at full “military” power. Going supersonic typically requires the afterburner and speeds are well over 700 knots. When you decide to terminate the run and reduce power from afterburner to military, and interesting phenomenon occurs. Well obviously…you slow down.
But at those speeds it hits you like a brick wall. When you terminate the afterburner you are thrown forward against your straps, and held there for quite some time. It’s not like slowing your car from 60 mph to zero. It’s much harder, more aggressive, and you are held forward in the straps for over 20-30 seconds. It’s a very weird sensation to be decelerating for such a long time. You almost begin to think something is wrong with the aircraft as you decelerate over such a long time, and with such continuous force.
After the flight, I could see that the maintenance kid was pretty excited about the flight. He was jubilant and had a big smile on his face, and he didn’t even throw up either! I think he was a little let down by the Mach run, but in the end he enjoyed the experience.
As we climbed out of the jet he was greeted by some of his buddies from the squadron.
“We pulled 9 Gs and even broke the sound barrier” he said to them.
“How fast?” they asked.
“I think we got up to Mach 1.3” he reported, clearly with a glint in his eye, knowing that despite the ease at which we slipped past the sound barrier in our trusty steed, he just became part of an elite club of folks who can say they have gone the speed of sound.
I think, in the end, he was pretty excited after all.