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. " />

viper The USAF Heritage Flight is turning 10 this year, and judging from the exercises this weekend at Davis-Monthan, it’s a very impressive display indeed. Since this was pilot qualifications, at any point during the day we might see, flying past in close formation, barely 100 feet over the active runway, a P-51, an F-15, an F-16 and an A-10, or a P-47, a P-51 and an F-22 Raptor. And that’s exactly what the Heritage Flight is: vintage World War II and Korean War–era aircraft in close formation with ACC (Air Combat Command) demonstration teams flying present-day Air Force hardware—and they’re coming to an air show near you, so check it out.

Shortly after the briefing broke, I rubbed flight-suited elbows with some legendary aviators who are active with Heritage Flight, including Maj. Gen. Bill Anders USAF (Ret.), who flies a P-51 Mustang and was on the Apollo 8 crew. Apollo 8 was the first manned space mission to leave earth’s orbit, and on that flight Anders took one of the most famous photographs of all time, “Earthrise.”

Flying By Wire, Hanging By A Thread
Chak and I are now in a dive with military power set, and the earth is rising—fast—so fast that he tells me to keep an eye on the airspeed indicator. My visored eyes, heretofore directed outside and amused by the painted-rock-toned blur washing by barely 500 feet from our canopy, refocus to the compact panel and the airspeed indicator, whose needle bobbles slightly as we break Mach 1, or 580 knots indicated for our conditions. The only other time I was like Chuck, Yeager that is, was on my Air France Concorde flights, and on those, as I watched the machmeter on the cabin’s bulkhead tick toward Mach 1, I was reclined much like I am in the F-16, but I was sipping Cristal from fine crystal and nibbling Beluga caviar instead of occasionally holding on for dear life and sucking on oxygen. In retrospect, Concorde was much more fighter than liner, though at the end of that flight, I disembarked in Paris. Right now, in my F-16, I’m going nowhere, but I’m getting there wicked fast, and I’d trade champagne, caviar and the Champs Elysées any day for this.

Chak and I slow to a leisurely 550 knots and penetrate enemy countryside, flying nap of the earth (NOE), tracing the contour of hills and valleys, homing in on our distant target and avoiding detection.

We had just spent about 10 minutes flying formation with Viper 33 before they pealed away to the east in a crisp, blackout-inducing break. As we tore off to the west, my G-suit punched me in the stomach for a good seven sustained G’s until we rolled inverted for our dive into enemy territory. Every maneuver Chak and I flew this morning was derived from real-world tactical maneuvers he employed on actual sorties he flew in Iraq supporting the war effort. After this demonstration, I’m glad these guys are on our side.


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