Many G’s later, reporter’s got head in clouds

first_imgAt one point, we were pulling between 31/2 and 4 Gs, meaning the force I felt was 31/2 to four times the normal pull of gravity. As we “pulled Gs,” the plane pumped air into the bladders of my G-suit, squeezing my legs and lower stomach to restrict the blood flow. G-suits are designed to help air crews avoid losing consciousness by keeping blood from pooling in the lower part of the body. It would be the first of many times on the day that I would feel that squeeze. Before we rolled out at the top of the maneuver, I had a great view – upside down – of Edwards. “Now that’s an E ticket,” I told Bowman, instantly pegging myself as a baby boomer. After that, we gradually descended to about 1,000 feet as we flew north, first over the eastern Kern County desert and then into the Sierra Nevadas. After passing over Lake Isabella, we bobbed and weaved through Sierra canyons, at times hitting more than 500mph anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground. Flying down between the mountains is called “terrain masking” – using the terrain to hide from enemy radar. “This is how we would do it tactically – stay down in the valley,” Bowman said. “The only way they would see you is if they were straight above you.” We exited the Sierra Nevadas in spectacular fashion – a dramatic, turning drop into Owens Valley about 8,000 feet below. My words cannot do justice to the view of going from a mountain range into a low valley; all I can say is it ranks as one of the major highlights of the flight. “This is as cool as it gets,” Bowman said of the terrain drop. “I never saw anything like this until I got to Edwards.” One thing that will stick with me from the flight is the variety of terrain the R-2508 airspace covers and how spacious it is – 140 miles at its longest point, 110 miles wide and used by 15 military bases. I better appreciate why military officials want to protect it from tall structures, flight restrictions and other threats and call it a national treasure. Bowman asked me periodically how I was doing, and I said I was all giggles and grins. We continued into Death Valley National Park. There, Bowman let me have a turn at flying the jet and told me to climb from our altitude of 2,000 feet to somewhere between 10,000 and 18,000 feet. The jet was incredibly responsive to my control inputs, as clumsy as they were. “Yeah, it’s like a video game,” Bowman told me. Over the Saline Valley, I made a banking right turn to head us south back toward Edwards. I asked Bowman if I could do a roll, and without hesitation he said yes. As I started the roll, Bowman told me: “Keep it coming, keep it coming. Don’t bury the nose.” I finished the roll, but it was ragged and I let the airplane’s nose drop – something you shouldn’t do unless you want to lose a lot of altitude and risk becoming a smoking hole in the ground. A couple of minutes later, I asked to do another roll. After a second of hesitation, Bowman agreed. This time, I started the maneuver so poorly that Bowman quickly got back on the control stick to finish the roll. Bowman showed me how to properly do a roll and then gave me another shot. This time, my roll was quicker and smoother, but I still let the plane’s nose drop. Back over Edwards, Bowman asked if I wanted to go supersonic. We headed toward the Black Mountain flight corridor over the desert north of Edwards, where we could pop off a sonic boom without rattling populated areas. I was allowed to fly the jet to the corridor and to climb from 9,000 feet to above 20,000, occasionally with assistance from Bowman. We lined up for the supersonic run, and I was given the opportunity to operate the throttle. I could feel a bit of kick as the jet’s afterburner kicked in and we accelerated, peaking out at Mach1.25, about 875mph. Like Chuck Yeager 59 years before, I broke the sound barrier on an October day over Edwards Air Force Base. We headed over to Harpers Dry Lake in northern San Bernardino County for aerobatics. I started by flying a loop. Next, Bowman showed me how to do a barrel roll. His barrel roll was smooth as silk; I follow with two of my own – less than smooth as silk. Bowman then showed me the proper way to do a loop. It started with us pulling about 4 Gs as we went up; then he let up slightly on the stick to let natural gravity, or as he called it “God’s Gs,” help make a smooth turn over the top; and then it ended with him pulling back on the stick to pull us level. I had felt great throughout the flight up until that point. I wasn’t sick, but I was definitely on the borderline. We headed back to base, airsick bag empty, I’m proud to say.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – Before climbing into the back seat of a 1,300mph F-16 fighter jet, I was given a piece of advice – keep the airsick bag tucked in at the top of my G-suit in case I needed it in a hurry. As a roller coaster junkie, I scoffed at the idea of filling up an airsick bag. But I did keep the bag tucked at the top of my G-suit – just in case. The plan was for an Edwards pilot to fly me over the R-2508 airspace, a massive military testing and training flight area covering much of eastern and central California, including the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Death Valley National Park. “I’ve never seen a place with so much airspace,” my pilot, Maj. Tom Bowman, said on a recent arrival to Edwards. “For me, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.” Bowman, a full-time reservist who has a dozen years’ experience flying F-16 fighters in combat units, is in a newly created position as an instructor pilot for Edwards’ 455th Flight Test Squadron. Bowman flies safety and photo chase missions and provides instruction for test pilots about to go into F-16 flight test work but who haven’t flown that aircraft on a regular basis. John Haire of the Air Force Flight Test Center’s public affairs office helped get me the rare chance to fly in a high-performance jet. Having gone through my medical check and gotten my gear the previous day, the morning of my flight last week was spent learning how to exit the airplane in an emergency and taking in a quick mission briefing. We headed out to the airplane and, with the help of a ground crew, got settled in. After one last ground check, we headed out to the runway and began our takeoff roll. My first thrill was the takeoff: We shot up 14,500 feet in seconds and did an Immelmann turn, a maneuver named after a World War I fighter ace that is a 180-degree turn involving a half loop with a roll. last_img

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