"Mr. Carter, Garrett Kasper here. How would you like to go flying today?" A surge of hopelessness gushed through my head like a broken fire hydrant. Today? What was he thinking? He knew my flight was scheduled for tomorrow. Had someone jumbled up the schedule? Was my once-in-a-lifetime chance of flying in a F/A-18 Hornet vanishing in thin air like a wisp of smoke on a windy day?
"I'm supposed to fly tomorrow," I exclaimed desperately trying to hold on to the last shreds of flying with one of the US Navy Blue Angels. Be aware that this is not just any ride in the back of any aircraft. It was a prestigious backseat ride with one of the esteemed pilots who is part of the 86th Squadron and are formally known as the US Navy Flight Demonstration Team.
"Yes, that's correct, but we want to take you up today. Some of the pilots want to leave early to get to our next air show," Lieutenant. Kasper explained. "Can you be here by 1:00 p.m.?", he asked matter-of-factly. Lt. Kasper's duties involve running all of the public relations activities for the Blue Angles. It is not a job for the faint of heart.
Sure, no problem. I'm only 725 miles away and it's 8:30 a.m.! Granted, I was getting ready to leave for the airport to take a leisurely flight to Pensacola, FL, better known as the cradle of naval aviation, and home of the Blue Angels. My intention was to arrive in plenty of time and be well rested for my next-day flight. But now my mind was racing. In a little over six hours I would be flying at 5,000 feet doing barrel rolls, loops and high-speed turns with one of the finest pilots in the world! Did I say no problem?
Who Are the Blues?
The Blues, as they are affectionately known by many of their fans, are a collection of some of the finest people on the planet. Many think the Blue Angels are simply eight pilots with exceptional skills. The truth be told, the pilots are just part of a large team that makes up the 86th squadron. On the other side of the F/A-18's crystal-clear canopy, there are many officers and enlisted men and women who work to bring you the magnificent air shows seen each year across the USA. These selfless individuals who toil behind the scenes understand that the spotlight will rarely, if ever, shine on them. They beam with pride to be part of the storied tradition of the Blues.
For eight-plus months of the year, the pilots succumb to a punishing schedule of daily practices, meetings, physical training, charitable visits to hospitals, etc. The support staff of the squadron busies itself taking care of all details for upcoming air shows and appearances.
March to October is the high season for the Blues, as they are traveling each week to air shows around the nation. The remainder of the year is spent in six-day-a-week training at their winter base in the Imperial Valley of California.
The glamorous air-show aspect of the Blue Angels that the general public sees somewhere each weekend eight months out of the year in our great nation is very different from the reality I was exposed to over a period of just 24 hours while visiting them at their home base.
Hitching a Ride
My torrid tryst with the US Navy started six years earlier in the spring of 1999 in Norfolk, VA, home of the U.S. Second Fleet. This section of the United States Navy is responsible for patrolling the Atlantic Ocean from pole to pole from the eastern shore of the United States to the western shore of Europe. While attending an editors conference, I was introduced to Captain Roxanne Merritt while having cocktails and dinner with 30 of my peers on board the USS George Washington, CVN-73. The local chapter of the US Navy League arraigned for this unique dining experience. My gushing enthusiasm for the ship and what it does made a difference. One month later, I received a priceless once-in-a-lifetime invitation from Captain Merritt to stay for two days aboard the magnificent ship while it conducted carrier qualifications for new pilots.
Now mind you, I didn't sail to and from port with the ship. I was delivered to CVN-73 via a large transport plane that landed on the deck while the USS George Washington sailed 200 miles or so beyond the Outer Banks of North Carolina. From the moment we landed until takeoff the next day, we toured the ship non-stop, albeit a brief seven-hour sleep period, while jets flopped onto the deck just above my stateroom bunk. There’s lots to see and not much time to do it. The following day we were briskly thrust off the deck via the steam-powered catapult. Believe me, those 24 onboard hours of heavy breathing from all the climbing of the steep ship’s ladders are enough to sustain a relationship for years.
The US Navy simply doesn't call up random US citizens to take rides on expensive ships and airplanes. Nor do they simply answer, "Yes" to the thousands of written requests they receive each month for cruises and rides. Captain Merritt and her staff extend invitations to just a small handful of individuals each year.
The priceless cruises and aircraft rides are only granted to those people the US Navy feels will help spread the word to tens of thousands of people about all of the positive qualities of the US Navy. In other words, the decision makers in the US Navy feel you must be a person who can influence many, many others. You have to have a platform of some sort that reaches tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Members of the media and certain celebrities who can influence the minds of young people are those that often meet this requirement.
Maintaining a giant list of friends and neighbors who you regularly send email does not qualify you for this assignment. Not on your best day. Keep in mind that the US Navy invites reporters and dignitaries like me who have an audience that listens. They know that many people in the United States trust the opinions and reports of certain individuals. People in this position can influence the decisions of young people and their parents. It just so happens Captain Merritt felt I was one of those people. I was soon to discover that the Blue Angles and Lt. Kasper felt the same way.
Dreaming of a Ride
Seeing F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats land on the four acres of sovereign US territory that make up the deck of an aircraft carrier is a sight to behold. It’s even better leaning against the rail of Vulture's Row on the carrier's island. The warplanes just seem to glide onto the deck.
As they make their final curving approach to the deck, it seems so effortless. I distinctly remember a fleeting thought while on the carrier that night, "Gosh, it must be cool to ride in one of those fighter planes." Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. It depends upon your attitude, your physical condition, your age and what’s in your stomach the day of the flight. Little did I know I was about to find out if I had just enough of all four to walk away with that same feeling.
Surviving a flight in a F/A-18 requires one to be in pretty good health. The flying experience is so intense, you must pass a physical exam. The US Navy wants to see if you have the basic physical qualities to endure the one-hour ride sitting in the backseat of a giant dagger powered by two enormous jet engines as it slices through the clouds, claws its way straight up, dives at supersonic speed and turns on its side with such force that your body thinks it weighs over 1,500 pounds.
But the exam simply tells them you will survive the ride. The bigger question is are you in good enough shape to stay awake during the entire flight so you clearly remember the experience? There may be people who can step off the street and remain conscious for one hour in a screaming F/A-18, but unfortunately I discovered pretty quickly into my flight that I’m not one of them.
Pensacola - I Made It!
My commercial plane ride to Pensacola was uneventful. My mind was spinning as fast as the turbine blades inside the airliner's engines. The next thing I remember was being cleared through security at the front gates to the Naval Air Base. Five minutes later, I was walking from my car to the Blue Angels headquarters. It was 12:45 p.m.
The large hanger that houses the Blues headquarters is packed full of history. Lining the corridor walls and stairwells are photos of past Blue Angel team members and many of the aircraft that have had the distinction to be part of the Blue Angels legacy.
I tried to soak up as much of this sweet nectar as possible, as I knew I would never again be in this temple. It’s a sacred place not open to regular citizens. If you want a chance to see it, go visit the closest US Navy enlistment office in your city or town. But even that’s not a guarantee, as you must be fortunate enough to be assigned to the Blue Angels squadron.
Speed and Efficiency
On the second floor of the headquarters, I found my way to Lt. Kasper's office. He was in the center of a vortex of phone calls, emails and subordinates who had a seemingly endless number of questions and reports to file. He was happy to see me, and informed me that wheels up would be in a very short amount of time.
But before I would fly, I had to be briefed and needed to change clothes. I was given a soft cotton bright blue and gold jumpsuit to wear. Putting on the identical colors of the squadron in the same locker room used by the Blue Angel pilots made me feel completely insignificant and unworthy, and I had not even stepped near the aircraft.
Moments later, I was greeted by Chief AD1 Patrick Palma. Chief Palma was young enough to be my son, and enthusiasm oozed from his skin like the sweat that would nearly drown me in just 90 minutes.
Patrick’s briefing took ten minutes, and he told me the do's and don'ts of the controls of the aircraft, and how to try to offset the agonizing and debilitating pull of Mother Nature's gravity. I asked Patrick, “Pat, do I put on my G-suit out at the airplane?” Grinning and holding back laughter Patrick said, “Mr. Carter, you don’t wear a G-suit. Neither does the pilot.” My body language response was simply raised eyebrows and a gulp, however internally I said to myself ‘Uh Oh’.
Patrick was a fantastic instructor, but I was a student that was in marginal physical condition. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he knew what he was working with, and he hoped for the best. I say this because at the end of the flight, Patrick graded my survival skills based upon other backseat riders he had coached. How did I do? You’ll soon discover.
Gravity - Resistance is Futile
When a high-performance jet makes sharp turns or goes straight up at 400 mph or faster, the pull of gravity dramatically increases. When you stand on the surface of the earth, you feel one gravitational force or 1G.
Your body is three dimensional and has three different axes, or lines, that penetrate it. The most common G forces you and I feel in day-to-day life are those that push through your body from front to back. This is what you feel when you sit in a car and it accelerates or brakes rapidly. G forces can also pass through your body side to side. This is the force race-car drivers feel as they go around tight turns on a race track.
The final axis in your body is from top to bottom. G forces can penetrate your body up through your feet to your head, or down through your head to your feet. When the forces come up through your feet, anything in your stomach tends to come up your throat. When the forces go down through your head, the blood in your body goes down to your feet. Weaklings, like me, tend to pass out when this happens.
Airplanes don’t go around corners like cars. If a pilot wants to make a quick turn, he’ll tilt the plane sideways, pull back on the stick and give it a little rudder pedal so the nose of the aircraft doesn’t drop. If it’s an inside turn, the G force is down through your body.
Depending upon how quickly a turn is made, the gravitational forces (G-forces) increase significantly and rapidly - in seconds. It’s not uncommon for certain maneuvers to create G forces of 4 or 5. The highest G force I was subjected to during the flight was 7.5.
These extreme forces do all sorts of funny things to the liquids in your body. In addition to your blood and whatever may be in your stomach, you have other fluids in your head and ear canals that operate as your internal gyroscopes. The G forces cause these liquids to slosh around like water in a dishwasher.
Nothing Like it in the World
The number seven Blue Angel pilot, Lt. James "JB" Allison had the pleasure of breaking the bonds between the Hornet's wheels and the tarmac's paved surface so he could ask me in-flight questions like, "Are you feeling a little woozy? How did you like that! Wasn't that cool?" I’m quite certain there were other questions, but as I drifted in and out of consciousness during the second half of the flight, they’re all fuzzy now.
To create a lasting memory of the flight for people like me, the US Navy has installed a camera that catches every word and image of the person in the backseat. Fortunately, I can listen to all of JB's questions and watch my head droop whenever I want to relive the experience.
Before JB walked out to the flight line, Patrick and I were already in the plane getting me strapped in. A massive strap goes over each thigh and one each goes over each shoulder. Patrick pulled them so tight I simply couldn’t move. The reason became apparent soon after takeoff as without the straps, I’d be bouncing around the inside of the cockpit like the silver ball inside a pinball machine.
JB climbed the tiny fold-away ladder that grants you access into the cockpit of the blue and gold dagger that was about to roar to life. He politely and professionally greeted me asking me if I was ready to have a great time in the sky. “Yes!,” was my enthusiastic reply. Patrick made sure both of us were set, and JB proceeded to do his preflight checklist and communicate with the control tower. We were minutes from taking off. It was surreal to say the least.
When JB lowered the crystal-clear canopy, I was in awe. Never before had I been in an aircraft where you can see through the roof. The shield had no distortion that I could discern, and it was completely transparent. I don’t recall any glare - it’s as if it were invisible. I recall trying to touch it numerous times to see if there was something there. As you can imagine, you had perfect visibility all around and above you.
Once Lt. Allison got the formalities out of the way he said, “Tim, how’d you like to do a high-performance climb?” “Absolutely yes,” was my response. I hesitated and then said, “What’s a high-performance climb?? JB said, “Well, we light up the afterburners at the end of the runway to produce as much speed as fast as possible. We lift off the ground just after 150 knots flying parallel with the runway. Once we get to 300 knots, I pull back on the stick and we climb up at a very steep angle. It’s a ton of fun.”
He wasn’t kidding. We were cleared by the air-traffic controllers to rocket up to 6,000 feet, and it only took ten seconds to get to that altitude. It was an intense rush, unlike anything I’d ever done before. I knew at that instant the next 45 minutes were going to be burned forever into my memory.
Ratcheting it Up
JB and I had to fly 30 miles south of Pensacola to a restricted fly zone over the Gulf of Mexico. The US Navy uses this area to train future pilots. As you might imagine, it doesn’t take long in a fighter jet to go thirty miles. Within minutes, we were in the zone starting to do many of the slow, gentle maneuvers you see the Blue Angels do in their superb air shows each week. But as the precious time ticked away, JB started to make the plane do what it was born to do - screeching turns, corkscrews, loops, rolls, evasion maneuvers, bombing run profiles, etc.
"Tim, I say we break the sound barrier. How do you feel about that?"
Seconds later I could see the air speed indicator climbing. 0.7 Mach, 0.85 Mach, 0.98 Mach and then 1.1 Mach.
Thinking the plane would shudder or I'd hear a pop, there was nothing. Since you're up in the air and have no fixed objects next to you as a reference, you have no clue how fast you're going.
The sleek plane sliced through the air above the Gulf of Mexico like a needle going through soft cotton.
I passed out at least seven times during the flight, and as the time and my composure melted away in the cockpit, I had less and less fun. I clearly remember being upset at myself for not being in better shape and not doing everything physically possible to enjoy this one-in-a-million ride. It didn’t do any good.
By the end of the flight, I was so fatigued and disoriented, I could barely keep my eyes open. Just before landing we did the traditional carrier break where the jet bleeds speed away in a very tight sideways turn. I passed out instantly even though JB told me to really squeeze hard. It was no use, I was totally out of gas.
Just after I received the invitation to fly with the Blues, I got online and did some research. I read other stories about civilians who got the coveted backseat ride. All of the stories involved regurgitation. I was bound and determined that it wouldn’t happen to me.
I distinctly remember having nothing to eat or drink after breakfast earlier in the day. It turns out that was an enormous mistake. Not only did I need the energy to offset the G forces, I was unknowingly fairly dehydrated before we even took off. Several times I tried to use the air-sickness bag during the flight, but nothing would come up.
The dehydration issue became horribly problematic at the end of the flight. Remember how I said the G forces displace liquids? Well, at the end of the flight I had a significant case of vertigo. It was scary bad. I later found out that dehydration can intensify vertigo.
If you’ve never experienced vertigo, you don’t want it. The best description I can conjure up is it’s like being very drunk, but with no loss of sensory input. If you’ve ever been intoxicated, you probably don’t remember much of what happened when the alcohol content peaked in your blood stream. I’m sure this happens for a reason.
Well, imagine having the loss of balance, woozy feelings, disorientation, but remembering it all and being powerless to stop the acute unnatural feelings. You don’t want vertigo, not on your best day.
Once we were parked and the canopy was raised, Patrick came immediately to unstrap me. I could tell from the look on his face that things were bad, and immediately apologized telling him I knew it was impossible for me to get out of the plane at that time. “Mr. Carter, I’ll stay here with you as long as it takes for you to climb down the ladder,” Patrick said. “Patrick, tell me the truth. How bad am I on a scale of 1 to 10,” I murmured. “You’re a 9,” Patrick said without hesitation. Just what I didn’t want to hear.
My vertigo was so bad it took hours to go away. It took me 20 minutes to walk from the hanger to my car. Once in the car, I laid down in the back seat for an hour, as I knew I would crash the car trying to drive to the motel. I was so disoriented two hours after the flight, I couldn’t use my cell phone to call my wife. By that time, she thought I was dead as I promised her I would call her immediately once on the ground to tell her I was safe.
Living a Dream
JB made a perfect landing catching the imaginary number three wire on the aircraft-carrier deck that’s painted on the runway. I vaguely remember touching down. Just moments before I was passed out from the intense carrier-break turn that set us up to land. Once wheels were on the runway, JB immediately asked me how I was and if all was well. I lied, but he knew the truth. I was a wreck, but a very grateful one for him having taken me up on the ride of a lifetime.
As we taxied back to the Blues hanger apron, we passed the fencing that separates the hanger area from the parking lot. JB said, “I remember coming here as a flight student going through API and standing out there behind that barbed wire watching these guys taxi around and stuff thinking ‘Wow, that’s pretty neat’.” My immediate response was, “You’re livin’ a dream.”
My biggest takeaway from this unreal experience with the Blues, JB, Patrick and all the other patriots who make up the 86th Squadron, is that dreams can indeed come true. Each day the families of the pilots sacrifice to transform the Blues’ dreams into reality, as they climb in and out of the sleek Hornets for their twice-a-day practices. The dreams of the entire 86th squadron in and around that hanger were as thick as any fog I’ve tried to peer through. Perhaps it wasn’t vertigo that I suffered from that sunny afternoon in Florida. Maybe, just maybe, JB and I were cloud surfing through all the dreams that have yet to come true. Only time will tell, but it’s as quiet as a Trappist monk in church.
Please watch this great video showing the many maneuvers that the actual Blue Angles do. These were taken with cameras on board so it's exactly what it looked like when I was inside the cockpit, that is when I wasn't passed out.