ROBINS, AFB, Ga. — The thrust. The high G pulls. The spectacular views of our Earth from inside an incredible high performance military aircraft.
The feeling of pure excitement as I soared aboard a U.S. Navy Blue Angels F/A-18D Hornet. The images tell only half the story of my exclusive flight inside a majestic Blue Angels jet out of Robins, AFB near Macon.
The blue and gold Navy jet sat on the flight line under blue skies awaiting her crew — myself and her pilot Lt. Mark Tedrow. Upon each of my jet’s twin vertical stabilizers is a gold “7”. There are seven Blue Angels jets in service, six of which fly in formation during the air show.
Lt. Tedrow pilots the Angels’ no. 7 aircraft (in 2012). He has logged over 1400 flight hours inside military aircraft after earning his wings of gold in 2006. I was offered this unique flight by Robins, AFB and the Blue Angels staff two months prior, and now one of my life’s goal had arrived.
I have carried a love for aviation since I was a child. My father began putting me behind the controls of Cessna planes as we soared at 20,000 feet when I was just five. He would be in my heart on this day.
Dressed in my navy blue flight suit, I climbed aboard the high performance jet with caution. A very narrow ladder which is attached under the jet’s port wing was our entrance up the 15 feet and into the cockpit.
The back seat of the cockpit is an aviator’s dream with the same instruments and controls as the pilot’s seat carries. The Blue Angels crew chief assisted my ingress and strapped me in with a 10-point harness to secure me in my rocket seat. Even my ankles and knee’s were strapped down with army green narrow belts.
The Boeing-built Hornet measures 56 feet in length and has a wingspan of 40 feet. The wings surface covers an area of 400 sq. feet.
Lt. Tedrow then followed up to give this military jet rookie a few preflight words and to ensure I was familiar with the cockpit controls.
Earlier, I was briefed on the cockpit’s layout and the ejection seat use. I was informed of how the seat would be used in the event of a bailout. There are several rocket’s under our seats which would fire to clear us up and away from the aircraft in an emergency.
My preflight briefing also included a special exercise I would need to do as we pulled greater than 4G’s (four time one gravity). Known as the HIC maneuver, I would squeeze my legs, take in a half breath and belt out “Hic” using my diaphragm. This would help keep blood flow in my upper torso and pool out of my head which would cause me to black out.
Following the briefing and just before my late-afternoon flight, Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal congratulated me on my flight in person at the air base. We exchanged short stories. Gov. Deal explaining how shook up he was as his plane hit turbulence a few days earlier.
Loaded with 1,000 pounds of fuel, the F/A-18 was ready and it was time to fly as a Naval Aviator. The canopy closed and the jet came to life. Lt. Tedrow brought the craft’s single APU (auxiliary power unit) on line and the engines heated up.
My cockpit’s glass displays began popping up showing me altitude, direction and a wings level attitude. Upon clearance, we began rolling forward and then slowly began a 180-degree turn to taxi out to runway 33 at Robins. I was all smiles as I logged my first feet aboard this magnificent jet.
During the taxi out, Lt. Tedrow kept me comfortable with words of encouragement and what to expect at “lift-off”. He also told me to arm my ejection seat with the safe and arm device to my right.
The F/A-18D received clearance from Robins tower and we began moving down runway 33. Faster and faster we moved as Lt. Tedrow began calling out speeds in knots, “100 knots. 120. 160…”
I held my breath as I looked out the canopy watching the ground rush by us.
We took flight for a few seconds to retract the landing gear at 4:38 p.m. EDT, and then Lt. Tedrow stated here comes lift-off. I began to smile.
Pointed nearly nose up and with the feeling of six-hundred pounds of sandbags on my chest, the ground left us in a hurry as we soared into the blue skies over central Georgia. Cockpit tones sounded.
It was a rush of adrenaline and unknown. The higher we climbed, the faster we traveled straight up toward 15,000 feet.
Once we reached altitude two minutes later, we flew south toward a designated flight box over southern Georgia to perform feats of aeronautical strength and discipline. We started out with a 180-degree roll which allowed me for the first time in my life to look down upon our planet with a 300-degree field of view.
Looking down from this attitude it is very different than seeing earth right side up. From this cupola, you can see what you are directly over and what’s off to both your left and right sides.
Lt. Tedrow was then ready to shake me up a bit and we were ready to pull some G’s.
Blue Angels Manuevers
We started out with a 5G left banking turn with the nose pitched up slightly. It was strong with the feeling of 800 pounds of sandbags on my chest and the exhilaration of pushing the limit’s of what my body would allow.
I felt great and my stomach never flinched. Lt. Tedrow slowed our aircraft down from about 300 knots to 120 knots and turned the craft toward the left with the nose pointed up as to not stall the Hornet.
I noticed slight vibrations in the wings as we held this attitude for a few moments, and could feel the craft shudder at this point. Next up, it was time to chase that demon in the sky – Mach 1.
As I stated, we had slowed down to about 120 knots and now it was time to travel faster than I have ever flown before. Calling out our air speeds, Lt. Tedrow accelerated the blue and yellow craft faster and faster once again, “200 knots. 300 knots… 400.”
You could feel the craft gaining more energy and we were really moving out now, “500 knots. 560. 600… and there’s Mach .90… .95… .96 and there’s .98 Mach”, Tedrow announced and then throttled down his engines as not to create a sonic boom over the town below.
He explained that he was not allowed to soar beyond Mach 1 over land. The sonic boom would shatter windows and cause slight damage to the area below. However, we achieved Mach .98 or 655 knots or 752 miles per hour.
He noticed I was a chance taker in the air and lined us up for a maneuver which I have waited my whole life to do — fly in zero gravity.
Much like NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, Lt. Tedrow angled the Hornet to allow for a negative G attitude. Thus, for 15 to 20 seconds I was lifted out of my seat as I flew over earth in a microgravity environment.
Talk about an incredible feeling. I looked down while using my mind to capture this one moment in time. I replied to my pilot, “Zero G and I feel fine”, echoing the famous line from astronaut John Glenn during his 1962 flight.
We flew a few more 360-degree rolls and Tedrow made a second straight vertical climb. My stomach felt great and I can recall never wanting this flight to end.
Forty minutes into my flight, we began to return north to Robins, AFB, but not before we spent a few minutes to scout out the Warner Robins region for tall structures for the upcoming Blue Angels air show.
Our F/A-18 Hornet soared to a low deck over the city of Warner Robins and began a complete circle to inspect and report back on towers and structures 200-feet or higher the six Hornets will need to look out for during their two performances.
I spotted a few grey towers which Lt. Tedrow said he had missed, and he pointed out a few water towers south of the runway. I was proud to help the team out any way I could.
As we neared our landing, we let a smoke train out from the rear of the Hornet to say a warm hello to the city down below. As fuel ran low, we began a few turns to bleed off energy as to land with less speed at a gentle 160 knots.
The first turn was the biggest and it was a left banking turn which took us up to 7G’s of pressure on the body. I successfully executed my HIC maneuver.
Lt. Tedrow lined us up with the runway, and we came in for a main gear touch down at 5:25 pm, followed by the nose. “Thank-you, Lt. Tedrow, for a wonderful flight. God bless America,” I exclaimed as we rolled down the runway.
As we rolled to a stop near the Robins flight office, Lt. Tedrow spoke of how well I did, and he explained it was great to have someone up there with him who didn’t leave a mess.
During my flight, a million things rushed through my mind. My family. My late father and his encouragement in aviation. And, the way I’ll view this flight in the years to come.
(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)[Editor’s note: This feature was originally published on NBC Atlanta’s 11Alive.com in April 2012, by Charles A Atkeison.]