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. " />

The F-16 is the first fly-by-wire fighter, and it appears to have rather sprightly handling. Chak told me the computer will try to keep pilots within their comfort zone. I guess comfort is relative, since Chak seemed at yogic peace at seven G’s while I felt like I was being beaten into a South Central street gang while simultaneously wrestling a boa constrictor. Nevertheless, software does have final word on the pilot’s inputs in the Falcon and will even limit angle of attack and abrupt maneuvers when carrying heavy external stores—alas, we had none.

After destroying our target and saving Tucson (we were carrying no bombs, but it’s still fun to think that I had actual GUN and BOMB RELEASE switches within reach—and they worked), Bitchin’ Betty calls bingo fuel, so we convert our considerable inertia into altitude, zooming back up to 16,000 feet in less time than it takes to say “airsickness countermeasures,” and slow to a mere 350 knots as we head back to base—mission accomplished.

Bingo Fuel, Bingo Fun
It seems military pilots aren’t content with just landing, that would be boring. Instead, they fly a gut-wrenching overhead break. We do ours show center, so everyone can watch me endure my last licks and see Chak transition into another placid yogic asana. I’ll give Chak credit, though, because he warned me that this was, indeed, going to be quite a break. “We have to look good for the crowd,” he says. “Nobody’s looking,” I retort. No matter, I again steady my helmet in my rocket sled’s rails as Viper 34 rolls knife-edge and tears off to the left in what must have looked very impressive, textbook even, from the ground. “I hope they enjoyed it, those blood-craving Romans,” I think out loud since, from my perspective, the break felt like a Mini Cooper had been dropped on me. If there ever were a wringer, this was it. Back on the thankfully 1 G tarmac at D-M, and with brakes set, Chak bounds from the plane seeming thoroughly refreshed, plucky even. Me? I clambered from the Falcon, pale as a ghost, onto unsteady legs. I felt like hell, but damn, did I look good. Can we do it again?

I’d like to thank Major Stephen J. Pinchak, USAF; Lt. Col. Michelle A. Dietrich, USAFR, ACC Public Affairs; Capt. Dale O. Snodgrass USN (Ret.); Hill Air Force Base and the Viper West Demonstration Team; and the United States Air Force for the honor of the flight of a lifetime.


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