November 20, 2005 (by Stars & Stripes) - I used to want to be a fighter pilot. When the movie "Top Gun" came out in 1986, I was in high school, and nearly every teenage male dreamed of flying a fighter jet.
The film did wonders for recruiting, but bad eyes and mediocre math grades sunk any shot I had at becoming the next Tom Cruise in aviator glasses. The goal of flying a fighter eventually faded into a far-fetched fantasy.
That was until a few weeks ago, when the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base invited me to fly in the back seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon with the famed 23rd Fighter Squadron.
The flight was meant to give me an education on the Air Force's premier, venerable fighter from the cockpit, but the trip was so much more than that.
It turned out to be a once-in- a-lifetime ride — even if it made me a little queasy.
To get an idea what my maiden voyage was like, imagine having the greatest sex of your life, chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels whiskey and then running in circles until you puke. It was the most exhilarating, intoxicating, tiring and nauseating 1ï¿½-hour experience I've ever had in my life.
As incredible as the experience was, the flight involved much more than just strapping on a helmet and climbing into the sleek fighter.
I arrived at the 23rd Fighter Squadron's headquarters around 6:30 a.m. to get a medical screening and training before my afternoon flight. Once there, I got a crash course on what's in the cockpit, what to do if you're ejected and how to survive a crash. The sobering lesson ended with the signing of a waiver that cleared the Department of Defense of any liability.
Before takeoff, I was outfitted with a flight suit, some boots and what is called a G-suit. Air Force pilots wear the G-suit to help them withstand the gravitational forces subjected on their body as they make tight turns.
The flight suit's pants look like chaps and are uncomfortably snug.
"They should be as tight as a pair of pants you would never buy, but an Italian guy might," pilot Capt. Christopher Moeller joked.
A considerable amount of planning goes into flights regardless whether it is a routine training mission or not. A cadre of schedulers, maintainers and support personnel ensure the plane is ready to go, safe to fly and on time.
Many airmen work 12-hour shifts to make sure the process runs smoothly. Everything from the weather to the engines is checked right up until the moment the pilot blasts off from the runway. Moeller, who goes by the call sign "Stac," would be my pilot for the day and showed me around the aircraft.
We took off shortly after lunch on a beautifully clear day. We flew south past Ramstein Air Base and just east of the city of Kaiserslautern. What takes more than an hour by car took only minutes. The flight plan would take us just north of the Swiss border past picturesque towns.
We circled the magnificent Hohenzollern Castle, the seat of the last German imperial dynasty southwest of Stuttgart, before heading north to the winding Mosel River.
That is around the time I reached for the barf bag strapped to my flight suit. Up to that point, I was doing OK, enjoying the scenery and taking photos. But as we followed the twisting river, I had dark thoughts of pulling the ejection seat just to get out.
That's when I flipped off my microphone as a courtesy and let it out.
Soon after, "Stac" asked if I was "ready to really fly." After filling my bag to the brim, the correct answer was "no."
But I gave it a shot.
"Let's try one," I said.
As soon as we began starting to pulls 6 G's, my right calf muscle cramped. That would be the coup de grace for my first flight in an F-16. No jackknife turns, loops or barrel rolls. I was finished.
"We'll be at Spangdahlem in about five minutes," he said.
The F-16 might be able to withstand nine times the force of gravity, but not me. At least, not today.
When we got on the ground, I couldn't have been more embarrassed. The patch on my flight suit read "Hawk Stud," but I was clearly a fighter-jock dud.
The flight did open my eyes, though.
I have written about and seen fighter jets for years, but I never realized how physically and mentally demanding piloting the aircraft is on the pilots. I got a taste of that in my flight and have a newfound respect for what they do.
As for those adolescent aspirations about becoming a fighter pilot, I realize why some things are just not meant to be. I'm no "Maverick
I'll leave the flying to the professionals.