Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Low Should You Go?

Speed never looks so spectacular as when you’re close to the ground

Accordingly, when we made our flight, O'Keefe saved the best for last. We had been to 50,000 feet and seen Mach 1.6 (the limit with the 300-gallon centerline tank installed). I had been doing glorious, high-speed aerobatics at 30,000 feet over a restricted area north of Nellis when Col. O'Keefe pointed out a long valley far below, protected by mountains on both sides. As we dropped down below the ridgeline, O'Keefe took the controls and dropped the F-15 down to about 100 feet above the valley floor at 400 knots. We cruised along for a few miles before O'Keefe pushed the power up to maintain 550 knots. The ride became VERY hard as we bounced through the low- level afternoon turbulence.

We were paralleling a highway with telephone poles on one side, and just as O'Keefe had promised, they became pretty much a blur, presenting me with what fighter pilots sometimes call "Star Wars effect" (reminiscent of the scene with Luke Skywalker flying in the access corridor of the Death Star).

At such high speeds, your eyes can't focus on anything within about a quarter mile on either side. As we ripped past those huge telephone poles at nearly 1,000 fps, they looked very much like the individual stakes of a picket fence seen from a car speeding by at 60 mph.

We roared into a wider section of the valley, and O'Keefe announced we were about to enter a steep 360 to the left, maintaining 100 feet AGL at 550 knots. As he slammed the airplane into the turn and racked it over to 70 degrees of bank, he pushed power into afterburner to maintain speed, and we were crushed into our seats with six Gs of force. We arced through the circle and rolled out back on course, still screaming along at 550 knots barely above the dirt.

Farther up the valley, O'Keefe pointed out a slight cleft in the mountains to the right. I knew what was coming, as he had explained the procedure to me during the preflight briefing. The assumption was that bad guys were somewhere behind us, and if we pulled up and presented them with hot jet exhausts, they'd stuff a Sidewinder up our exhaust.

Accordingly, Col. O'Keefe levered the stick hard right, and we turned hard toward the low point in the rock wall. As we blazed across the ridge, O'Keefe continued the roll to inverted, and pulled down the opposite side to put us below the ridgeline as quickly as possible. When we were safely below the ridge, he rolled back to upright and we rocketed away, leaving our theoretical protagonists in our wake. Yes, we were still at roughly 100 feet and flying at 500 knots.

When I climbed out of the F-15 10 minutes later back at Nellis, now drenched in sweat, I had a much deeper respect (along with a far greater sense of envy) for our fighter pilots who risk it all in exchange for some of the most exciting flying above Earth.

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