Pilot Journal
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Bitten By The Viper

This One Goes To 11

viperThis is my “Maverick” moment, so I better not make good on that call sign I was given a few years ago. I’m cinched tightly into the rear seat of an F-16 behind Major Stephen “Chak” Pinchak of the 421st Fighter Squadron, and my heart is racing. I’ve just armed my ejection seat, so I’m sitting on a live rocket, in a jet plane, and we’re about to blast off—literally. " />

“Luke, I Am Your Father…”
It’s not every day the Air Force calls with news of your F-16 ride, but that’s exactly what happened. I’d have dropped the phone right then had I not been using one of those little ear things. I was ordered to report for what they call, “Life Support Training” at 7:30 a.m. the day before my flight. I knew that meant a detailed briefing on equipment and procedures (BAILOUT, BAILOUT, BAILOUT!!), but it also made me think of writer Dave Barry’s superbly colorful account of his own flight in an F-16. I read it again after that call and started to plan what I would eat the morning of my flight, since I assumed I’d be seeing it twice.

After Life Support Training, I was well on my way to becoming a real fighter pilot. Surely, Uncle Sam would prefer I keep some of what I just learned on the down-low, so if someone asks me what I.F.F. Mode 3 means or how to arm the ejection seat and configure the oxygen regulator, I could tell them, but then I’d have to kill them.

After egress training, I went for my flight-suit fitting and, inexplicably, my normal, New York City, man-on-a-mission race walk transformed into a swagger, slow like the drawl of a whiskey-dulled southern gentleman. With my khaki-green flight suit and G-suit zipped up, I moved confident and cocksure, and when standing still, instinctively struck G.I. Joe poses. With one elbow akimbo and my helmet in the crook of the other, I leisurely strutted to the little box that tests oxygen masks. I put on my helmet and mask and hooked up to the machine. “Breathe normally,” they instructed, so I did—in, out. I sounded just like Darth Vader. “The Force is strong with this one,” I said to no one in particular.

The Black Widow’s Kiss Of Death
The USAF is nothing if not punctual. For our on-the-half-hour roll call and pilot briefing the morning of my flight, P-47, P-51, F-86, A-10, F-4, F-15, F-22 and F-16 pilots, like me, assembled in the 354th Fighter Squadron’s, or Bulldogs’, briefing room. Since I was now flying with the 421st, or Black Widows, I sat with my fellow fighter pilots and compared notes on tactical maneuvers. Before long, an officer at the front of the room started a countdown-to-briefing. “30 seconds to :30,” he called, and then “10 seconds… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

I was scheduled wheels up at 11:57 with my brief for flight at 10:55 to get suited up. Chak and I were given the call sign, Viper 34, and we were Viper West. Another F-16 launching a few minutes before us was Viper East, and for our flight, we’d have the run of the west side of the Ruby/Fuzzy MOA from the surface to 20,000 feet. Finally, instead of being told in the Cirrus I fly to go away because an MOA is hot, I’m welcomed into the MOA, and it’s hot because of me. After some more talk about entering and exiting the TFR over the base and a word by Brig. Gen. Doug Raaberg, Air Combat Command’s Director of Air and Space Operations, we were dismissed, and the day’s sorties began.


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