Flying with the Thunderbirds
To all those who have ever wondered…. what is it like waking up in the morning, knowing you are going to fly with the Thunderbirds?
It is SCARY AS HELL!
Perhaps as some sort of twisted joke, the Thunderbirds flight surgeon told me that I needed to get a good night’s sleep before my flight….. Let me put this into perspective… Sleeping the night before flying is like a kid trying to sleep the night before a Christmas where Santa brings him an F-16. Not Happening.
Nonetheless, after whatever sleep I could muster, I got in the car and headed to Luke Air Force Base. As the passengers in my car will attest, I listened to heavy metal for the entire drive, as it was the only thing that calmed me down. Upon walking into the briefing room I was immediately informed that the flight had been bumped up and that I needed to brief with my pilot right away. We would step to the jet in 30 minutes. Sitting there listening to Thunderbird 7 talk about everything from how I would need to sit if we had eject, to how I could stay conscious through 9 G’s was completely surreal. Before I knew it he said, “that’s it, let’s head to the jet.”
A quick mental image to tell you how crazy this moment was….
I remember very vividly walking down the flight line and there sat all the Thunderbird jets (the absolute pinnacle of the F16 fighter jet), lined up perfectly in a row. The last jet in the row had the cockpit canopy open, and no sooner than I could take in this sight, one of the flight engineers kindly said to me, “sir, your jet is ready.” Please forgive my swearing, but the moment you are informed that your F16 is ready is UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE!!!
With the Thunderbird crews standing around the jet, I walked up, put on my G-suit and went to climb up the ladder, only to realize that not only was this my seat for the next hour, but the plane also wore my name on the side. There is no way that I deserved any of this, and I can’t begin to tell you how humbling it was.
Sitting in the jet, G-suit, oxygen mask and seat belts hooked in, the nerves disappear. At that moment the world fades away, nothing goes through my mind. All this time thinking of what it would be like gives way to reality. The moment to wonder if I would stay conscious or get sick was gone. As the jet engine fires up, I know that I am along for the craziest ride of my life…. time to sit back and enjoy the ride… and take a selfie.
After a short taxi we sat at the end of a long runway on an airfield that we had all to ourselves. The pilot asks if I am ready. I could barely get the word “yes” out before the engine starts to run up, almost as if the rocket we are strapped to has just woken up and is angry. He releases the brake and we are starting to move… quickly. Not long after that, he ignites the afterburner and I find that this thing goes even faster. With the wheels up we stay barely off the the ground blazing like hell down a runway as he is calling out speeds to me…. 100 miles per hour, 200, 300 miles and hour, 400, 500 MILES AND HOUR! and then he says the most insane words that I can remember…. HERE. COME. THE. G’s.
No sooner than I could start my breathing he pulls the jet in a straight vertical climb and we scream away from the Earth. Where I could once see my friends and family cheering on the side of the runway, only a moment later we are punching through the clouds as the world curves. I am speechless, as any words that I could write down would never do the view justice. In short, it epitomizes every essence of the word “beautiful” in its most primitive form. As the pilot pulls jet from vertical to inverted I could breath, but was breatheless.
Leveled out, we head north to a range where the pilot can show me “what the jet could do” as if the takeoff wasn’t life changing enough… At this point I just kicked back and tried to fit my smile behind the mask. With no effort whatsoever, the jet tears through the sound barrier. I am sitting in peaceful bliss as the world breaks behind us in a 1000 mile per hour combustion that is heard for miles around. If I had a pen and paper, I could sit there and check off the bucket list items as we did them.
A couple maneuvers down and the pilot asks for a status update. At this point I am just laughing hysterically and every question of, “would you like to try?” is immediately answered with”YES.” Then comes the question that I had been dreading the most, “would you like to see if you can make it to 9 G’s?” Part of me wanted to say, “you know, the 8.5 we pulled on takeoff were good for me,” however, reluctantly I answered, “HELLLL YEAH!”
Now let me try my best to explain what 9 G’s feels like… Firstly, in no way is it comfortable, not even close. I began to feel my face melting away as the skin in my cheeks pulled down to my mouth. The color from my vision was the next thing to fade away, first the reds, then the greens. Squeezing like hell, I did everything I could to get air into my lungs as the G-suit wrenched it out. With all the color of a 1950’s television set, the next thing I noticed was that waves were starting to develop in my vision and a vignette appeared. All the while I am listening to the pilot’s breathing and trying my hardest to match it. At any point I could relax and immediately be unconscious, only to wake up and wonder where I am, but I had trained too hard to let this happen. Then, just as G’s set had set in, they began to leave and normalcy appeared. However, if I were to relax at that point, the blood would leave my brain too fast and knock me out as well, so I continually squeeze as the G’s lift and my body slowly returns to what sanity it had left.
With the chaos that maneuvers gave, a balance came as we traded G’s for the world’s craziest site seeing tour. Dropping down to the lowest altitude we were allowed, we decided it would be fun to give someone else a story that no one would believe. We found the highway that runs between Phoenix and Las Vegas and flew along it at a significant speed with the smoke on, topping it off with crossing a bridge low, for all the traffic to see and for none of their friends to believe.
From there we had reached bingo fuel (the max limit that can be used before returning to base). I took a couple minutes to take some pictures with my iPhone and send my wife a text as we flew home. While the engaging portion of the flight may have only lasted an hour, it was already starting to hit me with what I had just experienced. I thought about the kids like myself that looked up every time a jet flew by and the cadets at the academy striving to be the next Thunderbirds. However, more than anything, I thought about the honor that had bestowed me to be sitting in the seat of a Thunderbird jet.
Upon arrival, I watched as my friends and family came out to the jetway along side the many Thunderbird crew members. It was like a homecoming party for someone that had been gone for years, all excited for someone who had just sat in a seat and enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. It was the kind of celebration that the men and women that serve our nation deserve every time they come home, not me. I am thoroughly grateful for this experience and will always be in debt to the Thunderbirds for this. Every person, friend, family and crew member felt welcome and important and I can’t thank the entire squad enough.
In the coming weeks, we will be releasing another video of the photoshoot I did of the pilots and all the training that went into the flight. In the meantime, I encourage you all to head over to the Thunderbirds website and check out their schedule. Who knows, they might be in a town near you soon. I guarantee you, just watching the show will be one of the most incredible experiences you can have.
To the Thunderbirds, my crew and everyone that made this happen… Thank You.