On December 6th, 1995 I had the distinct pleasure to get a one hour flight in the back seat of F-16D #794 assigned to the 68th Fighter Squadron located here at Moody AFB, GA. As a private pilot, lifelong airplane nut, and someone due to start USAF pilot training this upcoming May, this ride was something I was looking forward to with extreme anticipation. In the days leading up to the flight, it became just about the only thing I could think about, and the night before brought little restful sleep. In this post, which I hope is not deemed too lengthy, I will try to capture some of the experience of flying in the worlds finest multirole jet fighter, for it really is as good as you dream it is.
14:00, 6 December. It is two hours till step, the time when the crew reports to the jet, and its time for fitting the flight gear. The life support NCOs find helmet, harness, G-suit, and mask and proceed to adjust them so they'll do their job during the upcoming flight. The pilots have their own personal gear, fitted long before so this isn't neccesary for them. they're in the planning room, working the plan for the flight. The G suit is fitted over the abdomen and legs, and then adjustments are made so it becomes tight, almost form fitting. Once airborne and under Gs, the suit, thanks to the inflatable bladders inside, will become tighter still. The heavy strapped harness, your connection to the ejection seat, is adjusted next so it to is tight, but not binding. Wrongly adjusted harness straps have been known to cause great bodily harm during ejections, so the fit is important. Helmet and mask are then selected, with the mask being pressure tested while worn to ensure no leaks should the cockpit depressurize. That pretty much covers the fitting session, as I already had my own flightsuit and gloves. The gear is all then removed and its time for the preflight breifing. One hour to step.
Preflight for this type of sortie, an "incentive ride", is simple compared to what is covered for a training or combat mission. The breifing itself lasted only 15 minutes. Quick coverage of where we were going, our airspace and altitude boundries, crew coodination in case of emergencies, signals for ejection, signals for ground egress and procedures for birdstrike were the main topics. At the end the pilot said "Really, this flight is up to you. What do you want? We'll do it." Just what I wanted to hear! I knew it would be a great time. Medical exam (2 days prior) egress/ejection seat training (1 day prior) were complete, life support was done, now so was the prebreif. Thirty minutes to step!!
Those were thirty of the longest minutes I have ever spent. We had to go at our assigned time so we wouldnt conflict with other aircraft already using the airspace we were assigned. Live Oak MOA, our area, is controlled by Jacksonville center, and they're pretty strict on when aircraft are due in and out of the box.
Step + 0. Its just a short walk from the squadron building, through the flightline entry control point, to the jet. When we arrived there the fuel crew was just finishing topping off the internal fuel and the 300 gallon ventral external tank. The jet was also configured with two 370 gallon wing tanks (both empty, left over from the previous flight), a training AIM-9L, and a SUU-24 practice bomb dispesnser. Below the intake were the LANTIRN targeting and navigation pods.
The pilot and I boarded and with the quick assistance of the crew chief, we were strapped in, helmets on, ready to go. The canopy closed and the loud din of the flightline became silence. This suprised me just how quiet it was in the cockpit, even when the JFS engaged and the GE F110-100 came to life, the sound inside never came above a faint whine. We did a quick comm check and after the crew chief finished his prelaunch check and disconnected his comm cord we began out taxi to runway 18L.
Taxiing by the tower we did the traditional motivational salute to the SOF (supervisor of flying, a pilot monitoring flying conditions and safety) which consisted of pumping our arms above our heads as he did the same. The enthusiasm I was feeling by now made this part real easy! I was flying and we hadn't even reached the runway yet!
At the end of the runway the EOR troops did a final check of the aircraft, pulled the gear pins and remaining "remove before flight" tags and ok'd the jet to fly. We taxied into position and after calling the tower, were given clearance for takeoff.
The takeoff roll was unbelieveable. The pilot advanced the throttle to mil power and into afterburner and the acceleration was incredible. I was pressed into the seat and the jet was way ahead of me. Time to 160 knots, 11 seconds, rotation immediately thereafter. We were up! I let out a whoop. and thought that this sure beats the 172 I was flying in the week before! Gear was up before 260 knots and we came out of burner at 300 knots, approximately 25 seconds after brake release. At 800 feet we hit a cloud layer and we were in the soup for about five minutes until be broke out of it at 11,000 feet. center had us gradually climb to 13K, which we cruised at for another 5 or so minutes until we hit Live Oak MOA. That takeoff, although not spectacular by F-16 standards, is a moment I won't soon forget!
The pilot gave me the stick soon after takeoff and I flew the climbout and cruise to the MOA. I had never flown so long in clouds before, being a VFR pilot, and I initially found it difficult to hold a heading without an outside reference. After a couple of minutes I figured out exactly what to look at on the HUD repeater screen in front of me, and my climbout improved.
The jet is easy to fly. Being fly by wire, only the lightest pressures are required on the stick to effect a maneuver. Slight maneuvers, like minor corrections on climbout, require such little effort it almost seems to happen by merely thinking what you want the plane to do. When we broke into the sunlight above the cloud deck I was able to appreciate that bubble canopy for the first time. It was so neat being in a plane that you could see all around and with hardly any visual restriction! I was impressed.
Before we knew it we were in the MOA. The pilot checked in with Jax center and we were cleared a block of space between 10 and 23K and 20 miles on a side. After that, the pilot said "It's all yours, I'll let you know if you're doing something stupid" and we were ready to play. I immediately rolled the jet into a 90 deg left bank and pulled. I was answered just as swiftly with a 6G body slam. Wow! How cool! I'd never felt real Gs before! I was pressed heavily into the seat and could feel the force tugging on every muscle in my body, trying to put it all in my boots. The G suit inflated hard and I did the G straining maneuver. I maintained the turn until our airspeed bled from 400 kts to about 280 and the Gs subsided to a comfortable 3. I then went wings level, the airspeed jumped quickly back to 400 and I did the same thing to the right, piling the Gs on again. I loved it!! While still in the turn I turned my head and watched the vapor vortex whipping in the air above the leading edge strake and another streaming off of the right wingtip missile rail, standing out brightly against the darker cloud deck below. I was in heaven and I didn't have to die to go!! I stopped the turn and whacked the stick hard to the left and the jet cranked out two rapid, very rapid, aileron rolls. Whooeee! that was FUN! The pilot said that I seemed to be having fun and with his direction I climber a little higher to set up for some different maneuvers.
In a few seconds we were at 20,000 and I was told to nose over in a 20 degree dive to build airspeed to 500kts. We were setting up for a maximum G turn and the more "smack" we had going in the better it would be. At 15,000 he had me roll 90 deg right and pull for all I was worth. The onset was amazing, in less than a second we racked 7.3 Gs, the maximum the flight control computer would give us with this for configuration and altitude. This was maintained, with full afterburner blazing for a complete 360 degrees! What a ride! It was like two giant hands working on you at once, one mashing you into the seat and the other, the G suit, squeezing your lower half like some wet dishrag. Not comfortable, not unbearable either, but tiresome after a long hard turn. After completing the 360 having dropped to 13,000 we let the airspeed get up to 450 kts and launched into a slow 10,000 foot diameter loop. The canopy was filled with blue, then white of the clouds far below as we came over the top at only 180 knots and .3 of a G. The distant clouds grew rapidly as we dove toward them and pulled 4 Gs to level off right at the top of the deck, cloud wisps ripping by just outside at nearly 500kts.
This led me into "cloud combat" as I pulled the jet around and punched through a cloud hump higher than the others. I celebrated with the obligatory victory roll my first air to air "kill". After a few minutes more of yanking, banking, rolling and cloud busting, the pilot brought up the radar and LANTIRN pod for a demonstration.
The radar came up and displayed all other aircraft ahead of us for at least 60 miles. He used the radar control switch on his throttle to target one of the blips 27 miles out that was at 37k going 280 kts for a simulated AMRAAM attack. Immediately the right multifunction display came up with the infrared view of the target provided by the LANTIRN targeting pod. The "enemy aircraft" was quickly and clearly recognizable as a DC-9 airliner with a "death diamond" superimposed over the image. This from 27 miles away! Had we been armed, we could have taken them down with no trouble. Amazing! We then targeted another closer jet only five miles out and 20k ft above heading our direction. We pulled around until they were off the nose and then climbed straight at them. by that time they were directly overhead and we were pointed at the Boeing 727 vertically, tracking to within 7,000 ft below them before we let the jet arc back down, but not before loosing a simulated Sidewinder at them, bagging our second kill of the day. They never knew we were there. Big fun!
Soon after our air to air activity, the pilot switched the jet to air to ground mode and locked the targeting pod on some poor guys farmhouse. I rolled the jet into a turn and the targeting pod's viewing ball stayed put on the target as I turned, dove at, then pulled away from the target. The targeting computer simulated the dropping of two Mark 82 bombs at the appropriate time. Had they been laser guided, they would have gone right into the house's chimney, ala. Desert Storm. This convinced me that I wouldnt want to be a bad guy on the receiving end of an attack by this jet. There wouldn't be much chance for escape other than to hope for a dud bomb. This was a great deal of fun to do, and I was really enjoying the flight. I was able to get in a few other high altitude bombing attack runs on unsuspecting targets before the Bingo fuel warning came up.
At Bingo (fuel required to return to destination with required reserve), we had to stop killing innocent civilians and think about heading home. I rolled the jet through a fairly smooth slow roll to just to celebrate, as we'd be leaving the MOA soon and returning to base. 50 minutes and quite a few thousand pounds of JP-8 has gone by in what seemed to only be a brief instant. Time flies when you're having fun, time flies even faster in an F-16!
The pilot let me keep the stick for the return trip and we descended to 8,000 ft for the return. The steerpoint for the base came up in the HUD repeater and it was simply a matter of keeping it centered and descending when the controllers told us to. At 15 miles from base, 2,000 ft, and thickly immersed back in the soupy cloud deck, we were switched to the PAR (precision approach radar) controller who would give us vectors right to the runway. The pilot hadn't said anything yet about wanting the jet back so I just kept following the controllers directions while the pilot acknowledged them. While It was not the prettiest PAR pattern flown but I was able to keep on headings and altitude well enough to get us to 3 mile final, 180kts airspeed and 1,200 ft altitude. The pilot took over there and brought us out of the soup at 500 ft and a smooth landing. We rolled the entire length of the wet 8,000 ft runway and turned off at the end for EOR to do the postflight check and safing of the jet exactly 1 hour after takeoff.
While waiting our turn at EOR as the guys inspected and safed other jets ahead of us, the pilot turned on the targeting pod and demonstrated its fine targeting ability. He was able to lock onto the head of one of the EOR men and focus it until an IR image of his face was visible. The pod then automatically tracked him (his face was hotter than the backgtound behind him) as he moved about the ramp. He noticed the ball following his movements eventually, and started eyeing it suspiciously. At that point we knocked it off and having been safed, taxied back to the parking apron. It had been one hell of a good time!!
After shutdown the canopy popped open and the noise and really the whole real world returned. It was such an amazing time I didn't want it to end. We hopped out and after doing the postflight walkaround it was over. I had flown the worlds greatest (in mine and many others HO) jet fighter!!! I was incredibly pumped up. I wanted to get back in and go again. No other thing I've ever done (except maybe my first parachute jump) was as thrilling as that flight had been. Even now, nearly two weeks later, I get goosebumps thinking about just how cool it all was. For someone who has always gotten really excited about fighters by just watching them fly, this was an ultimate thrill. With effort and a fair share of luck, maybe I'll get to fly one after graduating Pilot Training. If its a question of determination, then I'm as good as already there, because there is no better motivation than a flight like this!!!
It's an experience I'll never forget!