Supersonic speeds, 9-G turns, and 600 knots at less than 1,000 AGL. The stuff of dreams - or nightmares, depending on your point of view. But it was a dream come true for a young Air Force crewmember.
If you're an actor, like Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford, or a well-known TV Reporter, it's usually not too hard to get a ride in a jet fighter, just ask. But for the common man, they are extremely hard to come by - even for a member of the Air Force team. I earned my chance though, in 1988, by being a member of the winning crew of the quarterly F-16 weapons load competition.
Having been submitted to a rigorous physical examination and ejection seat training, the day finally came for a twenty-year-old Airman First Class to get the flight of his life. I went over to the squadron ops building and was introduced to my pilot, who was - as are all fighter pilots in the Air Force, a commissioned officer, 1st Lieutenant in his case, still pretty young. He told me to call him Steve, as long as his boss, the squadron commander wasn't around. "We'll be taking off in two hours, right after your partner returns, so we better get moving," he told me. He told me we had a block of range time allocated, for 'aerobatics', but it wasn't until the last half-hour of our two-hour flight. He laid out his prescribed solution to the dilemma; "We're going to have an hour and a half to kill and a bunch of fuel to burn out of the auxiliary wing tanks so we can pull max G-forces. I planned out a little cross-country trip, have you seen the Grand Canyon from the air?" I told him I hadn't and that the combination of sightseeing and then aerobatics over the range would be perfect.
Steve stepped up to a large, angled table with many partitioned slots underneath. He grabbed a couple of maps from different bins, then searched for awhile before securing the third, and final one. He unfolded them and took a razor knife to each, cutting out the sections he wanted. He tossed the excess, more than two thirds of each one, into a large trash can, nearly full with many other cut-up map discards. How wasteful, I thought, but then again, when you're burning ten gallons of fuel a minute, what's a four or five dollar map. I looked at the Plexiglas sheet that covered the table and the countless cuts scored into its surface. I multiplied this scene times four considering the other three squadrons on base and thought, man, I could afford to get my pilot's license, own my own plane and fly twice a week if I had the money this base spends on maps!
As we walked out to the flightline, a crowd of my peers was forming and they challenged my pilot to get me sick. They promised him a case of beer if he could do it. He blew them off with a light chuckle, and climbed up behind me on the back ladder to help me strap in. He showed me a little bit more about the REO (Radar/Electro-Optical Display). It was a small TV screen that was in the lower-right portion of the instrument panel in the front cockpit of an F-16, but in the rear cockpit of this two-seater it was right at top center. The front seat had a HUD or (Head's Up Display" top center which shows pertinent information from main flight instruments on a glass panel right where you're looking out the canopy as you fly.) The rear-seat REO was different in that it had a switch, which converted it from the radar screen to a monitor of the gun camera. The gun camera was very small, about the size of an AA battery and was mounted so as to have a constant view through the HUD in the front cockpit. This way I could see what otherwise would have been blocked by the pilot's helmet and his seat.
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