It took a bit to get out on the runway because we were being held by the tower due to the air traffic. I took a moment to pray and breathe again. Major Fisher asked,” Are you excited?” I said, “Yeah, I’m looking forward to this.” We talked some more and I was getting a bit more relaxed. I relied on my talent of conversation that had left me earlier in the morning to get me out of my head of getting sick and being overwhelmed. Then it was the moment. Time for take off!
We moved out on the runway, turned right and then the next moment the F-16 was speeding down the runway. I am used to commercial airlines where we pull out on the runway and pause before zipping down. Nope that wasn’t this ride. While racing down the runway I had the though again, “How is this happening that I am in a Thunderbird?” Well it was happening and we were off the ground and flying forward. “When is the climb going to happen? When are we going straight up? What will this feel like?” All of these thoughts are racing through my head and then we went into the sky. Wow! We are going straight up and the ground was falling away behind me. Major Fisher told me to look over my shoulder to see this view because it isn’t a view many people get to see and I wasn’t going to pass this up. While doing this though all of the bladders in the G-suit inflated and were squeezing me. “Huh?! Wait I’m supposed to be squeezing? Crap, I forgot my breathing” This is a really odd sensation of having what are like chaps full of bladders and a vest that automatically inflate to keep your blood pumping. Imagine a bunch of blood pressure cuffs all around your legs and abs that all inflate at once. Within seconds we were at 16,000 feet and after a small roll were flying out over the water of South Florida. I was almost rendered speechless but was able to tell Major Fisher, “That was amazing” He said, “Welcome to my office” and what an office view! I could get used to this if only my stomach would let me. I was already feeling that queasy feeling and we just took off. Uh oh! Ok time to focus on talking and getting to know more about flying. The tower told us to go on a heading of 360 something or other and well we turned and started flying to the Lake Placid Air Space. This is a very surreal feeling to be flying in an Air Force F-16 flying at amazing speeds and feel like you aren’t moving a lot.
Major Fisher asked me about how long I have been in SFL and how I made my way down here. We talked about my career so far and how I love living in South Florida. He made a few course changes according to the towers instructions and as he moved the stick I could feel every move. My ears weren’t catching up to my head. Major Fisher asked how I was feeling and I told him I felt like I couldn’t calm down so he told me to go to 100% oxygen. “Luke I am your father” LOL So I was breathing 100% oxygen and just trying to chill out. My mouth got dry after a bit and “Eight” told me to take a sip of water that was in my G suit pocket. I did this but was very conscious to not drink too much because that would come back up. OK, I felt a bit better and kept saying to myself,” If I throw up it is OK. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last.” Major Fisher then told me that were a few minutes away from the Air Space we were going to and I was amazed because it felt like just a few minutes to me.
OK now it was time to do the maneuvers we talked about. I frankly couldn’t remember what was about to happen and was just trying to relax and have fun. The first was the first turn to test how I would respond to the G’s and to practice my G strain. Captain Fisher said “Ready?” I said “Ready!” Then he said “Here come the G’s.” I took my quick breath in, held in the back of my throat, curled my toes, squeezed the soccer ball, squeezed my butt to the high heavens and did my air exchange. I’m being pushed back into my seat and the G-suit is inflating and I am having the time of my life. The turn was brief and lasted maybe fifteen seconds by my estimate but frankly I am probably wrong. WOW! What a feeling. We finished that turn and I was already exhausted. We pulled about 6-7 G’s. That is tough work. Major Fisher checked in and I told him I was fine. What I didn’t say was my stomach was gurgglin just a bit. But I knew it wasn’t that moment of “Drop Mask, Drop Mask, Drop Mask” So he asked if I was ready to pull about 7-8 G’s or what I thought was 7-8 G’s. I said, “ready!” “Here Come The G’s” Quick breath in to the back of my throat. Curl my Toes, Squeeze the ball, squeeze my butt to the high heavens and do my air exchange. The G suit is inflated and I am seeing clearly meaning I’m doing great on my G Strain. Where did this elephant come from that is sitting on me? How did that get in the Thunderbird? Within a few seconds we were out of the turn and I said, “Man that is exhausting!” I loved every minute but my stomach was not happy after pulling G’s. I was burping a bit and stayed on the 100% oxygen. It was time to reach for my first airsick bag. Major Fisher asked if I was ready to pull 9 G’s and I said, “let’s hold here for a minute” He quickly powered down a bit an maneuvered us around the air space where it was safe. After a few moments of flying around and deep breaths, Major Fisher asked if I wanted to skip the 9 G’s and I thought, “Hell no!” I didn’t come up here for nothing and I am pulling 9 G’s. I said, “Let’s do it” or I think that is what I said but we were on our way to pull 9 G’s. The plane powered up and we were ready. You know the sequence: “Ready?” “Ready!” “Here Come the G’s, short pause and quick breath in the back of the throat, curl the toes to flex the calf, squeeze the ball, squeeze the living daylights out of my butt and do the air exchange. HOLY MOLY THIS IS HARD! Every millimeter of my skin on my face is being pulled to the back of my head, I am being molded into the seat and I can’t move. “K” Huh” 1,2,3 “K” “Huh” 1,2,3 SQUEEZE. No tunnel vision, no G- lock YES! I’m doing it. “K” “huh” ok we are pulling out of the turn but keep squeezing and keep breathing. Whew! Ok, done! Rock on that was awesome. Major Fisher said, “ You just pulled 9 G’s!” All I could say was that was awesome! And then ,” I think I might get sick” Eight told me to get the bag ready and to drop the mask. I dropped the mask and was fighting the feeling of throwing up. I despise every part of throwing up. I hate the loss of control and of powerlessness. Well here was the moment and I figured to just let go and I did and up came the water! Up came the water again and then I was a bit more relaxed. I tied the top of the bag off as I was told and made sure I kept the plane clean. Once the mask was back on and Major Fisher asked if I was back with him I felt a bit better.
At this moment I was ready to call it a day before doing any of the loops and barrel rolls etc but I will never have this chance again to fly in a Thunderbird. So when the question was asked if I wanted to try a loop I of course said let’s do it. The loop was simply magical. Nice and gradual and we flew right through our smoke trail. It was the easiest part of the trip so far. No drop in my stomach, no queasy feeling just a great big loop. That was a piece of cake and I could see why pilot’s love flying. Next was the barrel roll. Once again we started into the maneuver and I was at ease. Major Fisher told me to look for the smoke trail and I could see the pattern we made. Next was where we would do some of the negative G moves and frankly Major Fisher and I were on the same page thinking that my stomach might not be able to handle those moves. CRAP! I wanted to do the 8 point roll and all of the tricks that I have seen them do for years. Alas, my stomach said no so we agreed to do a high speed pass over the Avon Park Bombing Range to say hello and then head home.
Here came the turn and apparently my stomach just doesn’t like turns. I grabbed the second bag, got ready and more water! Ugh are you kidding me? We are turning and I am missing this great pass because my ears trying to stay level just didn’t agree with the turn. Well Major Carletti told me that you don’t know when it will happen but it may happen at any time so remember to “Drop mask, drop mask, drop mask.” So once all of that was done I was able to put the mask back on and tell Major Fisher that I got sick again. He said to “Keep the bag handy” so I did and we headed back to base.
I felt like I had worked out hard in the gym lifting my max while running a marathon and I wasn’t even flying the plane. The ride home seemed a bit longer because I was exhausted and wasn’t feeling 100%. I didn’t talk too much on the flight home and Major Fisher told me that we were ten minutes away and that he would take it down easy. Thank you Jesus! We were going down and I still wasn’t feeling great but thankfully the cold air was on my neck and we were going to land. Man were we going down fast! Major Fisher said,” It’s going to get warm in here” and then the cool air went to warm air and that was not what my stomach needed. We were going down and turning at the same time over the airbase. Warm air combined with a turn didn’t sit well with my stomach so I dropped the mask again and took care of business. I surely didn’t want to throw up when we were landing but I did and thankfully could put my mask back on before we taxied back to the parking space. Major Fisher asked if I was ok to do a plane side interview and talk a bit and I knew I could do at least that. Finally we were back where it all started and I was still in awe that I just flew in a Thunderbird. We were there and parked. I could see my dad taking pictures with his I-Pad and video. The Canopy was raised and it was time for me to get out of the plane. Umm?? What do I do with the second bag? Thankfully someone was there to help me out of the plane and he took the bag. So, I unhooked my lap belt, the shoulder harness, took off my mask and helmet and stored that. Took out my ear plugs and was ready to descend the stairs and put my feel on the ground.
Once down the ladder I took off my G-suit and Vest and had a nice drink of water. I needed one because I was tired from the G-strain and well my extra abdominal workout provided by my upset stomach. I looked up to see the Thunderbird team standing in front of me along with my photographer from the station and my father. Major Fisher was at my side and told the team what we did that day and that I pulled 9 G’s. They presented me with my VIP certificate showing the date that I flew with the Thunderbirds and also my 9 G pin signifying that I pulled 9 G’s. With those presentations Major Fisher turned over the floor to me. What was I going to say to verbalize my appreciation for this once in a lifetime experience? All I could say was growing up in an Air Force family that I know the significance of serving our country and that I am grateful for your service. I thanked the Thunderbirds for my freedom and told them that I am able to go to work, to school, to the grocery store because of my freedom today. I thanked them for their service from the bottom of my heart.
I thanked Major Fisher and then I didn’t expect what came next. Each member of the Thunderbird team lined up to shake my hand and in turn I was able to thank each of the team members on sight. I even was able to pass on to Staff Sgt. Hooks that I kept his plane clean.
As I reflect back on my experience with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds I am filled with so much pride to part of an Air Force family. The Air Force members that serve our country are some of the finest men and women I have met in my life. I told my dad as we drove away from Homestead Air Reserve Base that I am very grateful for his service to our country and for an amazing childhood. Because of the Air Force, I had the opportunity to live in two foreign countries and travel to many more. I learned at a young age to be able to adapt to any situation quickly and learned the bonds of friendship and family grow strong within the military. I was reminded of the dedication of our military, the attention to detail and the pride in a job well done every moment of my journey with the Thunderbirds and it is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
So when I went to the Wings Over Homestead air show a few days later and watched the Thunderbirds show I was able to say to my friends, “ I went up in that plane!” and smiled at all of the memories of my childhood of watching the Thunderbirds on my Dad’s shoulders to seeing my Dad smile as his son flew into the Wild Blue Yonder with America’s Ambassdor’s in Blue.
Thunderbirds Team Bios: