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Ride with the Blue Angels offers front-row seat to precision flying

Blue Angels pilot Lt. Cary Rickoff was reflected in the visor of the helmet worn by Star Tribune reporter Pam Louwagie as he went over a few things with Louwagie before their flight Wednesday.

AARON LAVINSKY/STAR TRIBUNE (TNS)

By PAM LOUWAGIE | The Star Tribune | Published: July 18, 2019

DULUTH, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Navy Lt. Cary Rickoff’s voice was smooth and almost gleeful at the controls of a Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet cruising at about 3,000 feet over Lake Superior.

“What I’ve got for you next is my personal favorite maneuver,” he told me through a microphone system in my helmet as I sat fully strapped in behind him.

If I was game, he said, we would gather speed, then climb vertically into the sky, finishing it off with a corkscrew-type roll. I would need to use all my strength to fight the pull of 7 Gs — seven times the force of gravity — using a “hick maneuver” breathing technique taught to me earlier in the day: Flex every muscle in my legs and core as hard as I could, let my arms and hands lay loose, then push out a short breath making a “hick” sound and hold it for five seconds each time, all in hopes of keeping blood flowing to my brain.

I hid my apprehension. “Go for it,” I said. I was on a once-in-a-lifetime Blue Angels flight, and I wasn’t about to say no.

“Alriiight,” he said with cool confidence. “Reaaadddyyyy. Hit it!”

Hick! Suddenly, my body felt like lead, my internal organs pushing hard into my stomach. Rickoff somehow continued to talk cheerfully, coaching me through it as I poured all my energy into trying to stay conscious.

“You’re almost there,” he said as I winced from the effort. “Annnd you’re straight up and down. Here come the rolls.”

My body jerked to the right and my mind entered a strange, dreamlike state of anxiety. I knew I had been pushing against Gs in a fighter jet, careening toward the sky and twisting, but I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t push any longer to hold my breath. What was happening? Was I dreaming? Feeling lighter, I scrambled to reassure myself by grabbing for the harness and seat belts strapping me in.

And then, just like that, it was over.

“How’d you do?” Rickoff asked.

I wasn’t sure how to answer, my head still spinning. “I think I blacked out.”

“Alright,” he said cheerfully. “That’s OK.”

In my 45-minute flight, it wouldn’t be the only time.

That vertical corkscrew and other thunderous precision flying maneuvers will be wowing thousands this weekend at the Duluth Airshow, where Rickoff will narrate while six Blue Angel pilots showcase the prowess of the Navy and Marine Corps.

The team, which has been performing since 1946, appears in about 60 such shows a year as a marketing strategy that is part military recruitment and part community outreach.

“I like to say it’s very Americana,” Duluth Airshow President Ryan Kern said. “When you go to an air show, the amount of patriotism you feel is off the charts.”

‘An endurance thing’

It’s hard not to feel butterflies just watching the sheer power of blue and gold fighter jets turning into the sky at a 45-degree angle, flying so precisely that their wings are sometimes just 1½ feet apart.

It’s especially impressive after getting a glimpse of the exhausting physical challenge the pilots endure.

How do they do it?

“You learn,” Rickoff explained. “I always tell people it’s a bit of an endurance thing. Just like running every day. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”

I’m a runner. Somehow, I didn’t quite believe him.

But soon we were on to the next move: a minimum radius turn, simulating a fighter trying to shoot down another jet, passing by the enemy and turning behind them as quickly as possible. It would involve only 4 to 6 Gs, but for about 20 seconds or more.

“Reaaadddyyyy. Hit it!”

Hick! Hick!

“Keep working,” Rickoff coached. “Keep fighting. You’re three-quarters of the way there … Keep working. Thirty degrees left … 20 … 10 … You made it. See? You were doing fine.”

I was spent.

“Yeah, that’s a hard one,” he said. “It looks pretty benign from the ground, but now you know what it really feels like.”

Strenuous flight

The Blue Angels require passengers to get a doctor’s permission before they can ride along. They ask questions about whether you have a history of passing out, asthma, heart trouble or a host of other conditions. They ask whether you have difficulty jogging 2 miles in 20 minutes. They highly recommend riders remain free of commitments on flight day “due to the strenuous physical nature of the flight.”

They weren’t kidding.

On a demonstration flight with passengers, Rickoff will take the plane upside down for several seconds, arcing for weightlessness, make loops, rolls and sharp, vomit-inducing turns. He will go as slow as about 120 mph and as fast as about 690 mph — 98% of the speed of sound.

Through it all, I still couldn’t fathom how anyone could not only stay conscious during heavy Gs, but hold a casual conversation and keep enough wits to control a $21 million hunk of metal with perfect precision. I couldn’t let the question rest.

“Have you ever passed out as a pilot?” I asked.

“I have not,” Rickhoff assured me.

What about other pilots? I pressed.

“Ahhh, typically hopefully not,” he said. “If they do, usually it results in a crash.”

Gulp.

Pilots incorporate a lot of G force training into their regimen, Rickoff explained. They spend time in centrifuge machines on the ground to build up their tolerance. They even do specific workouts and exercises to help.

“It’s a constant fight,” he said.

Blue Angels pilots do not wear G suits, which inflate and deflate automatically, he said, because they rest their arms on their legs for stability while moving the control stick. If the G suit were to inflate and move somebody’s arm while they are flying 18 inches apart, it could cause a “mishap” he said.

Rickoff, a 32-year-old from Atlanta who has been flying since high school and who joined the Navy in 2009, had just done the same tricks with Minnesota’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, South St. Paul Secondary school math teacher Jess Davis as his passenger. But through his cool demeanor, I could see signs of giddiness.

“It’s not the worst office view, as I always tell people,” he said.

When it was time to land, Rickoff asked if I wanted to approach like a commercial airliner, or like Blue Angel jet, flying in fast and turning 180 degrees before touching the runway.

How could I say no to one more thrill?

“The most gentle Blue Angels landing you can muster,” I asked, my stomach churning.

Yep, I passed out again.

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