I’ve been flying since I was 2 weeks old, but nothing prepared me for this.
“Are you ready to pull Gs?” asked my pilot, Maj. Tyler “Wolf” Ellison.
“Yes,” I replied, lying.
With a Darth Vader-sounding oxygen mask strapped to my face, the roar of the engine in my ears, and a collection of levers, switches and gauges surrounding me in the cramped cockpit, I was about to experience the thrill of my life.
As part of a preview for this weekend’s Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, I was chosen to fly in the back seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon with the Air Force Thunderbirds.
I grew up with airplanes. My dad is a commercial airline pilot and owned a much cheaper and slower two-seater when I was a kid. Like the hundreds of other flights I had been on before, the F-16 lifted gently off the runway Thursday morning — a completely normal takeoff.
Then Ellison pivoted the plane into a steep vertical climb — and nothing felt normal again for the next hour.
The force of the climb slammed me into the seat, and the anti-G suit — a special suit that keeps blood from rushing to your toes during intense gravitational pulls — started to squeeze my abdomen and legs to keep me from blacking out.
In mere seconds, we were flying up through the clouds — “cloud chasing,” as Ellison called it.
The glass of the canopy was so clean and the cockpit so small that I felt as if I could almost reach out and run my fingers through the white puffs.
We soon arrived at our playground, open airspace about 100 miles from Alliance Airport.
Nothing could have prepared me for the feeling of pulling Gs, not even the two hours of preflight safety briefings that I instantly forgot.
Ellison banked the plane to the left and the gravitational pull shot way up, from the 1 G we are used to on Earth — where I weigh 120 pounds — to about 4 Gs — where I weighed 480 pounds.
The force made it almost impossible to move, even to take a breath, which quickly became an issue. As part of the training that morning, I was instructed to take a deep breath right before he started the G-pulling maneuver.
I took mine too soon and panicked.
“Am I going to have enough air?” I wondered frantically.
But in just a few seconds the pressure settled back to normal, and I breathed a deep, appreciative breath of the 100 percent oxygen flowing through my mask.
And then we did it again, banking hard to the right.
This time, I was ready and took my breath at the right moment.
Still, the pressure was so intense that I couldn’t lift my hands out of my lap and my head was stuck in one spot. All my focus was on keeping my muscles tight enough to stop the extraordinary forces of gravity from draining the blood from my head.
I did not want to pass out.
Though the plane and its crew can handle up to 9 Gs, we topped out at 7.3 Gs. At 7.3 Gs, I weighed 876 pounds and Ellison weighed 1,460 pounds.
Then the fun started.
We rotated, rolled and turned.
We flew upside down and waved at the shadow of our plane below.
We looped — Ellison’s favorite trick — and the plane flew vertical before falling backward until you could see the ground from the top of the cockpit.
We rolled some more — my favorite trick — where the plane makes four complete continuous circles while flying horizontally.
And then, in what felt like minutes, my hour as a Thunderbird was done.
My weight returned to normal (thank God!), and I turned in my honorary patch and left the real Thunderbirds behind to prepare for the weekend’s show.
“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to fly fighters,” said Ellison, who started flying at age 8. “So that was my initial drive to get into the Air Force.”
Ellison, who has been flying the jets for 12 years, has also flown F-22s and F-15s. He got his call sign, Wolf, while on a security detail for President George W. Bush.
The Thunderbirds, or Ambassadors in Blue, are a premier air show team that travels the U.S. to represent the Air Force and recruit new airmen. The Thunderbird team consists of 134 airmen — including pilots, maintenance and operations specialists, crew chiefs and even a doctor. They’ll do 66 shows in 34 locations this year.
“The Thunderbirds have a very unique mission, because we go around the world, primarily around the United States, representing the world’s greatest air force,” Ellison said. “We are able to bring a tie between the civilian population and the military that most people don’t get to experience.”
It’s certainly an experience I’ll never forget.