This 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.
As the Air Boss crackles over the VHF with our takeoff clearance, I jam my helmet back between the ejection seat’s launch rails. Chak then says to me, “Ya ready, Jeff, here we go,” and our Falcon, already chomping at the bit, bolts forward with max afterburner. In barely 10 seconds, we’re screaming through 150 knots, and 10 seconds later, rocketing along 20 feet above the runway, we’re piercing 350. At show center, as we pull a tight, gut-wrenching corner to vertical, the G-suit constricts around me like an angry anaconda and then eases as we roll our way to 11,000 feet. I’m starting to wonder if this was a good idea.
A few years ago, I was in a situation that was nothing like this. I was bouncing to Oshkosh in the backseat of a friend’s little green Bellanca Decathlon. After a few hours of the good ol’ ups and downs, I reached my I’ve-had-enough point over Ohio. By the time our loose formation landed in nirvana—I mean, Akron—I never wanted to see another small airplane again. I bid my friends adieu, grabbed a taxi to the nearest commercial field and airlined myself to Milwaukee, arriving at Oshkosh by rental car. When I finally showed my now-less-green face at the campground, I was greeted with cheers and, apparently, a new nickname—Chunx. Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, one-time wing commander of all the Navy’s F-14s, thoroughly amused at my Decathlon misadventure, gave me my new fighter pilot call sign. “Why can’t I have one like ‘Maverick,’ or something like that,” I pleaded. “I didn’t even get sick.” But none of my friends paid any mind to my protestations. “Here’s a beer, Chunx. Welcome to Oshkosh,” chimed George Rousseau, who seemed to take glee in my new moniker. Whatever, at least the beer was cold.
Granted, while this wasn’t the most glamorous or macho fighter pilot call sign, at least I was christened into the club by one of the game’s greatest. Snort is a bona fide Top Gun, and this past spring, he told me about the Air Force Heritage Conference 10th anniversary, taking place at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. With his endorsement, I finagled a ride in an F-16, so now it’s time for “Chunx” to test his mettle in some really fancy iron.
“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.
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.
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.