I learned how to pull the ejector handle if needed and how the chute would open for me. But if I had a tear, lines crossed, and inverted chute or any other complication TSgt Hall was thorough in training me for any situation. The minute we were finished with that briefing, I was then handed off to the flight surgeon.
Dad looked at me and said, “Relax you are going to be fine.”
Easy for him to say!
I could tell the moment that Major Michael Carletti walked into the room that each member of the United States Thunderbirds team lives up the name America’s Ambassadors in Blue. Major Carletti wasted no time in getting me ready for my flight. This was the officer that was going to teach me the proper method to deal with the G-forces and also how to combat air sickness. We first talked about air sickness.
“You won’t be the first and you won’t be the last," he said.
I really listened to what he had to say because I HATE throwing up. There is a phrase that was repeated a lot and for good reason. “Drop Mask, Drop Mask, Drop Mask." Frankly, Major Carletti didn’t want me throwing up into the mask because that can be very dangerous for anyone flying. Remember, the mask is where I get my oxygen. First he told me how to stay cool. There is a vent that full on cool that was to be pointed at my throat area because that was the area that had the most skin exposed.
Next was where to look. Of course I wanted to look all around and enjoy. This once in a lifetime experience, but Major Carletti told me if I was feeling queasy to look at the horizon. Figure out where the land and sky meet and there is your horizon except when flying over water but we wouldn’t be doing that during my flight.
Next it was time to learn about my ears. You know the process of clearing your ears if they feel clogged. So I knew the method of opening my ear canal by opening my jaw or plugging my nose and blowing. However, I learned that if your eyes are looking one way and your ears are moving a different direction then that isn’t great for your stomach. Major Carletti then told me, “Look at 10 and 2."
Next was the information about if I am getting dry mouth and that feeling of Oh NO! then to turn a lever to 100 percent oxygen. This will help combat the motion sickness. From there Major Carletti moved on to the interactive part of flying which was combating the G force or the force of gravity.
When the F-16 would be doing certain maneuvers, the force of gravity against my body would increase. Remember I was fit with my G suit that has bladders that would fill with air and help squeeze my muscles and keep the blood flowing into my head. That is one part of the equation. Next was to learn the G strain technique. This is the process of flexing every muscle in my legs and also in my abdomen to keep the blood flowing. When the G force is 9 times the force of gravity all of your blood wants to settle into the lowest point. Since the seat in the F-16 is at a 30 degree angle that would be in my rear end which is also the largest muscle. So, Major Carletti told me that to flex or squeeze my calf’s I needed to curl under my toes and keep squeezing, then to pretend there is a soccer ball between my legs and squeeze that together. Also to remember to keep the blood out of settling into my rear end I needed to squeeze my butt as hard as possible. Major Carletti said,” If you do this properly you should lift about an inch up and if your muscles are shaking then you are doing it properly.”
If I didn’t squeeze properly then I could actually pass out. I learned I would go into grey out then black out and if I found my vision going then I need to squeeze more. OK, following me yet?
This is a lot of information to remember while in a F-16 pulling 9 g’s. On top of all of that, then I needed to learn how to breathe. It is impossible to breathe normally when your body is weighing 9 times the force of gravity. So I learned a method of taking a quick breath and holding it in the back of my throat. I am thinking, “Heck I can do this. I can hold my breath for about thirty seconds no problem.”
Well, that isn’t exactly how flying in an F-16 works. It was almost like the Thunderbird flight surgeon was reading my mind because the next thing he said after I took in that quick breath was “OK let the breath out because we have to talk more.” Something tells me each guest flyer tends to do the same thing at the point. The next technique I learned was the air exchange which wasn’t taking another breath but doing a quick exchange of air by making the K sound and breathing back in fast. Almost like the word hook with the K start and the “huh” next. I was supposed to do this every three seconds. A lot of people that have never done this tend to breathe too much and hyperventilate or not breathe at all. Each briefing was concluded with the question, “Any Questions?” I didn’t have any so it was time for a check of my lungs and after that Major Carletti was finished with my briefing. Remember this is the second of three briefings and my mind was trying to absorb all of this information while remaining calm.
I’m not a stranger to adrenaline and, in fact, love roller coasters and the tower of terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios then why was I so quiet?
I was already getting excited and nervous. This didn’t go unnoticed by my Dad and he simply told me, “Relax, you’ll be fine.”
From the hallway I then hear, “Major Michael Fisher” I turn to look and here is the pilot that will take me into the Wild Blue Yonder and I knew I was in good hands. Everything that I would expect from a Thunderbird Pilot was met in Major Fisher. You could tell he was a pilot with the attention to detail with appearance that ran across all of the officers of the Thunderbirds. However, in hindsight this attention to detail was seen in every member of this elite team. Major Fisher introduced himself and said “Call me Mike, ‘Drago’, Eight or guy up front”. I could tell why Major Fisher was selected as the advance pilot/narrator. Major Fisher flies the number 8 jet hence calling him “8”. We then went right into the briefing because we were already behind schedule. It didn’t help that Google maps took me into the middle of a palm tree farm.
Major Fisher explained the process of what we will be doing on the ground and also while in the air. We reviewed safety for in the air and on the ground and also the proper breathing. He helped me practice my “k” “huh” air exchange and told me to “breathe when he breathes.” Thank God I didn’t have to remember everything because I was already overwhelmed and in the back of my mind I kept thinking “ I don’t want to puke, I really don’t want to puke” My anticipation was growing and I think my adrenaline was already kicking in with excitement and it was hard to remain calm. You would think I would be chatting up a storm but all I could say was, “Yup”. Major Fisher talked about safety in the cock pit and pulled out his I-pad to show me the instruments and what I would be seeing. This was great because I am a very visual person so to see the actual switch that would keep the mic closed or how to turn the oxygen to 100% was very helpful. Also that all important ejection seat handle was right in the middle was good to see so I wasn’t afraid of hitting it or pulling it. We went over the switches I needed to know. There was the lever that needed to be raised or lowered to have my ejection seat safe or armed, the normal or 100% oxygen switch, the seat adjust switch, the mic on switch, and the air nozzle that would keep me cool. What a rush to see all of the different switches and to know what they did. Now don’t get me wrong I learned about less than 10 switches and these pilots have a whole lot more to look at and know then the few I learned.\
From there Major Fisher started to explain the different maneuvers we would be performing or hope to perform. He started explaining take off and said, “You’ll hear me talking to myself a lot” and that we would go from level flight pulling about six G’s to straight up. My insides were saying AWESOME but all I said was “Wow.” I guess I have learned when I am really excited and nervous I start to get quiet. Major Fisher did tell me to look over my shoulder if possible on the way up as the ground would fall away because that isn’t a view many people get. Then we would take a “short ride” to the Lake Placid air space north of Lake Okeechobee. There we would have the air space to do the maneuvers. We would start with testing the plane’s response to the G force and also my response. We would start with what I understood to be a half circle turn pulling 4-5 G’s, then a full circle getting up to 6-7 G’s. From there the fuel tank on the bottom of the F-16 would be empty and we could attempt the 9 G turn if I was up to the task. I am thinking, “YES! YES! YES! From there we would do a loop, then a barrel roll, then a four point roll and if I can handle all of that then the more advanced 8 point roll. We would then do some negative G’s where instead of pulling the positive G’s we would be in the reverse where I interpreted this as being weightless. The same feeling you get when you are dropped on the Tower of Terror. YES!! That would be awesome. “God I don’t want to puke. Please don’t let me puke. I want to do all of this!” I could tell we were getting close to the end of the briefing and my stomach was growling. Huh?? Why is my stomach growling? I ate a bagel on the way to the base I should be fine right? Honestly everything was becoming a bit of a blur and I was ready to get to the plane. With a few more instructions the briefing was wrapped up and it was “Time to hit the bathroom one more time.” I remembered Major Carletti, the flight surgeon, saying to “get rid of everything in my bladder and bowels because that is really uncomfortable up there.”
So, with one last trip to the Men’s room it was time to get in the van and head to the Thunderbird. We climbed in the van with Major Fisher in the front seat and a few more Thunderbird crew members with us in the van and were off to the tarmac. We stopped before pulling onto the tarmac to make sure that the tires didn’t pick up any foreign body objects like pebbles etc that could be sucked into the jet engine. Then we were pulling up in front of the sight I have seen many times over my years on Air Force bases. The line of F-16 Thunderbird planes stretched out before me and my excitement level kicked up another level. We made it to the #8 Thunderbird and got out of the van. The first piece of business was to get a picture by the cockpit of the fighter. There is nothing like walking up to a Thunderbird F-16 but I was extremely surprised to see my name on the side of the plane! What? How did this happen? My name is on the side of the plane right by the cockpit. Wow! I climbed up the stairs and struck my pilot pose and did the “hero shot”. Then it was down the stairs and immediately suiting up. Remember the G suit I tried on earlier? That suit was plane side and it was time to get all of the gear in place for my Thunderbird flight.
I was already nervous and the simply task of zipping zippers was becoming difficult. Not to mention that I felt everyone was watching this process. Finally, I had all of the zippers in place and with the help of Staff Sgt. Paul Hooks. I saw him take out the air sickness bags and put them in a strap on my G-suit. I was kind of cocky thinking,” I won’t need those.” But it was more than being cocky in fact it was fear that I would need them and I was “willing” it to not happen. From there, I put on my harness that would attach me to the seat and made sure everything was secure. The rest was kind of a blur but I was ready to climb into the cockpit.
With hands on the silver ladder I ascended into what would soon be a fantastic hour of my life. Surprisingly I was able to make it into the seat easily and then Staff Sft. Hooks was there helping me get strapped in. The shoulder harness was attached and then the side straps were attached and I was secure. I remember Staff Sgt. Hooks saying,” Keep my plane clean” as he showed me where the ziplock bag was for my “full” air sick bags. Have to love a little humor to take away the nerves. From there things seemed to be happening fast. Also, my stomach growled. Crap! I was hungry. I was supposed to carb load my stomach so I would be ok in the plane and here I am strapped into the F-16 and I am hungry.
Major Fisher climbed the ladder and asked how I was doing. I said, “Great!” He then went on to show me the switches that he briefed me on earlier on his I-pad. All of it was exactly where it needed to be of course and I actually remembered what each switch was and what they did. From there it was time to unzip my left bicep pocket and get my earplugs out. Once they were securely in place it was time for my Thunderbird helmet to be placed on my head. Wow! What a feeling to put this on and actually be in the back seat of the #8 Thunderbird. Major Fisher said he would see me soon and went down the ladder to get suited up to fly.
I immediately started to aim the air vent at my neck. I looked over the switches and started to take some deep breaths. I looked over the 100% oxygen switch again and just stared to look around. There is no missing the ejection lever in the middle of your legs. Soon Major Fisher was in the front seat and getting his helmet on and finishing his final preps.
I was still breathing through the mask and finding it fairly easy to breath. I was almost relaxing just a bit but again the sequence of events seemed to move fast to me. Once Major Fisher has his helmet I knew it was only a matter of time before we lowered the canopy and started out on the taxi way to the runway. Eight told me that even with my ear plugs in place I would be able to hear him loud and clear over the microphone and he was of course correct. He said something to the effect of how are you doing back there? I of course said the only thing I had been saying all morning, “Great” He did some preps and was talking to the ground crew and the tower so I just sat an waited anxiously for the moment we would lower the canopy and get going. The canopy lowered and it was time for me to use one of the switches I learned about which was the seat adjust lever. I was supposed to keep a fist distance between me and the top of the canopy. Check! Major Fisher came over the mic and told me to “go to 100% oxygen.” Check! I sounded like Darth Vader and really wanted to do a “Luke, I’m your father moment” but it really wasn’t the time for jokes. After a few moments we were leaving the spot where #8 was parked and off to the runway.
The smile on my father’s face was ear to ear and a sense of pride was swelling in me. My Dad was going to see me fly in a Thunderbird! We turned right out the space and taxied to the runway. Major Fisher was in contact with the tower a lot during this time so all I had to do was remain calm and keep that cool air blowing on my neck. We made it to the runway and were in hold because there was a lot of air traffic that morning around Homestead Air Reserve Base. While we taxied to the runway I asked Major Fisher if this had always been a dream of his to be a Thunderbird and through talking to the tower and his crew he told me the story about how he joined the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corp or ROTC in college and then worked really hard.