‘You’d be dead if you did that for real'
KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea
By the time I flunked parachute lessons, I was starting to worry.
For about an hour, two Air Force instructors had taught me what to do in case the F-16 fighter jet I would ride in the next day crashed. It seemed easy enough: Make sure the parachute wasn’t folded over or twisted. Move your visor. Pop off your oxygen mask, unbuckle a few straps and keep your knees bent when you land.
It didn’t seem so simple when I got to practice. Dangling from a harness with a simulator strapped to my face, I forgot everything I had learned a few minutes earlier as I watched myself plummet to the virtual ground. My instructors prompted me during each two-minute fall: Put your arms around the straps of the parachute, not through them. Kick your legs to help straighten the canopy. Pull these handles, unbuckle that strap, unhook that hose. Too bad I couldn’t find the buckles underneath all the bulky flight gear I was wearing.
On each try, I hit the ground with a tangled parachute — once, half-dangling from my harness because I had panicked and unbuckled the wrong buckle.
“You’d be dead if you did that for real,” one of the instructors joked, sort of. I caught the “what-is-she-doing-here?” glance that shot between them.
By the time I climbed into a real jet the next afternoon, I was thinking exactly the same thing.
Not to mention: How did I get here?
A few months after I began working at Stars and Stripes’ Seoul bureau, a public affairs officer at Kunsan asked me if I wanted to ride in an F-16. After all, if I was going to be writing about the Air Force, I should know what it feels like to ride in a jet, and see what it takes to get one of the more than $20 million machines off the ground.
Good idea, but I may have been the worst person possible to invite to ride on a fighter jet that goes 180 miles per hour on takeoff alone. I hate roller coasters. I’m the person who grips the armrest whenever there’s a little turbulence on a commercial airplane. I don’t even speed.
But everybody assured me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, something that even airmen who work on and around the planes their entire careers don’t get to do.
The few people I met who had flown in a fighter told me I’d probably throw up right after the flight began, but after that I would be able to sit back and enjoy the ride.
I was game.
When I arrived at Kunsan on the appointed day about two weeks ago, I spent several hours prepping for the next afternoon’s ride. I got fitted for a flight suit and helmet and practiced in a fake cockpit how to eject during emergency.
During briefings with a doctor and aerospace physiologist, I was told that I would probably vomit, and maybe fart, faint and pee on myself. I learned how to breathe in preparation for when we hit G-forces, the increased effects of gravity: Take a swift breath, lock it in at the top of my throat, then let out tiny pffts of air every three seconds.
I learned how to squeeze the muscles in the lower half of my body, and push the blood pooling in my legs to my head so I wouldn’t lose consciousness. And in case that didn’t work, I got fitted for a G-suit that snapped on over my abdomen and legs that would do the same thing, only harder.
The next day, a few hours before takeoff, the pilot told me that we would be one of four jets taking part in a mock dogfight, one of the hardest flights on the body.
By the time I was sitting in the cockpit, two airsickness bags pre-positioned on my knees, I was wondering if I really needed to ride in a jet to write about one. But it was only a one-hour flight — how bad could it be?
If measured by the intensity of the dogfight, pretty bad.
We started at 17,000 feet and spiraled down to 5,000 feet in 35 seconds. We pulled 8.5 g’s out of a possible 9, which meant I had eight and a half times my body weight pressing against me.
I didn’t pass out, but I did lose my lunch. More than a few times. During the roughest moments, my suit squeezed me tight enough to bring tears to my eyes, which I instinctively closed during most of the fighting.
But during the calmer moments, when I peeked out of the canopy, it was exactly like being in the “Top Gun” movie with nothing but blue sky around us. We seemed to be suspended in the air, even though we were traveling, at one point, 500 miles per hour.
It was both physically intense and surreal.
By the time we landed, I was a sweaty, dazed, puke-stained mess. But I managed to climb out of the jet on my own before I started puking again.
At least I didn’t have to use my parachute.
2 out of 30
F-16 pilots go through a rigorous, two-year training process that includes instruction in increasingly sophisticated aircraft and centrifuge conditioning.
“Really, experience is probably the best thing that prepares your body to handle the things you experience in a flight,” said Kunsan’s Lt. Col. Adam Kavlick.
Out of a class of 30, two students might make it to the end and become F-16 pilots, he said.
“It’s a very selective process to end up in the F-16, even more so now that we have fewer bases and fewer airplanes,” he said.