Flying In A Jet Fighter

One of the programs on TV is "Wings".  It visually documents the history of aviation in the past Century and this one.  If you've ever watched any of these programs before long you might be asking yourself what it's like to fly in a jet fighter.  I've had a few opportunities to do that and while it might sound exciting it is not anywhere near as comfortable as you might think.  It’s a lot of fun…but not comfortable.

The first jet fighter I ever flew in was an F-100 Super Sabre.  In terms of technology it was about three or four generations ago.  It was 1969 and I was at Luke AFB near Phoenix, AZ.  The airplane is a single seat fighter which means that when it goes up on a mission the pilot is alone inside the airplane.  There were, however, two seat versions of the airplane made for training and that's how I was able to fly in it. 

There are several obstacles to overcome before one is allowed to fly in an Air Force fighter.  The first requirement is a current physical examinations.  That was not a difficult because when I was working as a radar controller we had the same requirements as the aviator which was a complete medical examinations each year.

The next requirement involves a two day course called physiological training.  This is just a fancy name for what is commonly called the altitude chamber.  The course discusses changes in liquids (like blood) and gases (like air and oxygen) relative to the human body at different altitudes.  After the classroom comes a trip in the altitude chamber.  The chamber is a steel tank the size of a small travel trailer.  At one end is a very heavy steel door which seals tightly when locked into place.

It holds about a dozen people that sit down and experience the feeling of breathing with an oxygen mask.  There's a tiny microphone inside the mask which permits talking on an intercom system.  In addition to the students in the chamber there's also one or two technicians inside. 

The air is slowly pumped out of the chamber to replicate the thinner air of high altitude.  A large altimeter on the wall shows provides a visual depiction but it's not necessary.  That's because your own body provides a constant reminder as your stomach begins to swell.  The magnitude of this discomfort is related to what you've eaten lately.  The technicians prepared you for this addressed the solution -- pass flatus.  The next portion of your training is more difficult.  Half of the individuals are instructed to remove their oxygen mask and to breathe the rarefied air.  You're provided a pencil and paper and asked to do a simple task like writing the alphabet, numbers, or your name.  The first shock to your being is the smell when you remove the mask.  That's because everyone has being following the technician’s instruction to relieve that bloated feeling!  Within just a few seconds you become light-headed, then groggy, and then on the threshold of losing consciousness.  Your partner helps you replace the mask so you can to breathe that life-giving oxygen once again.

When everyone has experienced hypoxia firsthand it's time to return the chamber air to sea-level.  A valve is thrown and instantaneously the chamber feels with a white mist.  Moments later you've completed the training and you’re given a card that reflects this fact.  Each time you fly as a passenger in a fighter you'll probably be asked to show that card.

As you leave the base you see a large steel leaning tower.   It's almost a tall as an oil drilling derrick and has a seat attached to the side.  This device is a simulator of an ejection seat but only student pilots have to complete the training.

As you might expect there's a long list of college graduates in this country wanting to be fighter pilots.  The determination of what type of airplane a student pilot goes to upon graduation is not done by chance.  After pilot training each student throughout all of the training bases is put together in a pool and assigned a number based upon where they finished in their class.  Once a year an event similar to an NFL draft is held where the top performers pick first -- fighter slots are almost always the first to go.  Which is strange because flying the large airlift airplanes would better prepare someone if they wanted a job in the airline industry.

Most training missions for a fighter pilot probably don't last much over an hour and they probably only fly every second or third day.  So what do they do the rest of the time.  There's hours and hours and hours of memory work and academics necessary to prepare the pilot for that one hour of flight training.

Preparation for a flight begins 2 or 3 hours before the flight begins.  Even when you are only a passenger you sit through the preparation.  This is called the pre-brief for the flight.  This is the time when everyone discusses in minute detail what they are going to do.  The pilots take extensive notes about the upcoming flight on a small tablet that straps to their thigh.  This provides a tiny desk to write notes and refer for information about the flight.

Once when I flew in an F-100 we took off with a load of practice bombs and went up and joined with a 707 tanker or flying gas station.  After getting gas we went to a desert range and dropped bombs and then used the internal gun or cannon to shoot at a piece of cloth the size of a couple of bed sheets stretched between two poles before returning to the base.  The entire mission was less than two yours and longer than most because we received additional fuel from the 707 or KC-135 as they are called.

One of the pieces of clothing that is required when flying in a fighter is called a G-suit.  It's like a pair of long underwear that encases you from your ankles upwards to your mid-section.  Inside the fabric are tubes that stretch and tighten when filled with air.  The amount of tightening is comparable to when a nurse inflates the cuff to test your blood pressure.  There's a hose that hangs from the side of this suit that is attached to a device in the airplane. 

The G-suit was invented to prevent all of the blood in your body from pooling in your lower extremities and with the loss of blood in your brain passing out.  That's happens when the airplane is going fast and makes a sharp turn or is diving downward and quickly pulls upward.  "G" is short for gravitational force and is measured in multiples of your body weight.  The upper limit on older generation airplanes like the F-100 was around 7 g's.  A pilot in good condition and a G-suit could withstand that amount for short periods of time without blacking out.  The newer airplanes can go toward higher numbers but the pilot has made little progress.  Physical conditioning is stressed but has only provided marginal improvement.  So while the newer airplanes may withstand the pull of gravity better the AF still lose pilots to a term called G-LOC which means Gravitational Loss of Consciousness. 

Before I went on my ride I had my G-suit on, a proper fitting helmet, the parachute on my back and a myriad of wires and hoses sprouting from me.  There's so many that when you get to the airplane the crew chief helps you get in and settled.  A steel ladder hangs from the side of the airplane and you have to climb that ladder before squeezing into your seat.  After you are in the seat, the crew chief helps you attach everything and double checks to make sure it's done properly.  You're thankful since your life might depend on it being done correctly.

It takes only a few minutes to discover few similarity between sitting in a car and sitting in a fighter.  There's no cushion to sit on.  You're sitting on part of your parachute and it's sitting on a piece of steel.  You'd think it could be a little more comfortable but it can't.  Here's why.  If you should have to eject from the airplane there can't be any soft space between the seat and your spine.  Even with the precautions a damaged back is highly likely after ejecting from a fighter.  That's because it uses an artillery shell to detonate the device throwing you and the seat upward away from the disabled airplane.  Then another device throws you away from the seat before your parachute opens.  When I flew in the F-104 Starfighter you wore a set of steel spurs that strapped on the heel of your boot.  When you got into the cockpit these were attached to cables.  If you ejected the cables pulled your feet back tight against the base of the seat to keep from having your legs torn off by the instrument panel on the way out.  Of course as you climb into the airplane you try not to think much about having to eject.

The jets I've been in didn't have enough batteries on the airplane to start it.  Batteries are heavy and weight is critical on an airplane.  Therefore the crew chief uses a big cable to hook a large generator to the airplane until the jet engine starts.  The crew chief stands away from the airplane as the pilot starts it.  You feel a shutter in the airplane as the engine spins up and ignites the jet fuel.  When the instruments show everything is working properly the pilot gives a "thumbs up" and the crew chief returns with a salute.

A jet taxies around on the ground similar to a propeller driven airplane.  One of the major differences is that normally in a jet fighter you never go anywhere alone.  So before the pilot can taxi he must insure the other pilots are ready to go in their airplanes.  Sometimes two airplanes fly together but often it is four airplanes.  Everything is highly orchestrated regarding the time you take off and the time you get to a particular point.  This high degree of orchestration reached its peak during World War II in England when literally hundreds of bombers and fighters would take off and join up together before crossing the Channel headed for Germany.

Sometimes two fighters can take off together in what is called a formation take off but usually each one takes off with a few hundred feet separation and join together once in the air.  The pilot taxies on to the runway and increases the speed of the engine with the brakes still on.  When everything is working properly the brakes are released and the airplane starts to accelerate.  Now it's time for afterburner.  Near the round tailpipe of the airplane there's a series of small holes.  Jet fuel is forced through those holes and ignites immediately.  This causes a bright plume of fire to shoot out the back of the airplane and makes the airplane leap forward.  At that moment it's like someone kicked you in the seat of the pants.  In a matter of moments markers along the edge of the runway are speeding by.  The higher you climb the slower you seem to be going.  You're not.  It's just that the distance from the earth and visual reference points decreases your sense of velocity.

After all four airplanes are in the air with no problems the first requirement is to join up.  Afterburner is stopped and the pilot in the lead airplane slows down slightly to give the others an opportunity to catch up.  The other way is to make a slow curve and allow the others to cut across the arc.  When all four airplanes are together it is quite a sight.  There's only four or five feet separation between each airplane.  Why don't they run into each other?  Because the only the flight leader is picking the course of travel.  The other three pilots have their eyes glued on the lead airplane and are concentrating on maintaining their minimum separation.  This normally works well but occasionally can have devastating consequences.  A few years ago in Nevada the Air Force Thunderbird Demonstration Team was practicing.  There the separation is probably closer to one foot than four or five.  Four of them were in formation doing a loop that terminated with all four airplanes crashing into the desert with that same minimum separation.

The first order of business for our mission was to go practice air refueling.  Air refueling is a challenging task that requires a steady hand.  It is important because it takes a great deal of fuel during take off when the airplane is in afterburner and refueling in the air provides an opportunity for a greater time in the air.  The tanker flies around in a racetrack pattern which is called an anchor.  As a result of experimenting in Southeast Asia we've figured out how to have the tanker and fighter on opposite and parallel headings but several miles offset to the side.  At the appropriate time the tanker turns in front of the fighter and rolls steady a mile or so in front of the fighter.  This is especially important when the fighter is carrying bombs because of the difficulty of making turns with heavy loads. 

I've always enjoyed this activity because as a radar controller part of my responsibility was setting up each aircraft on opposed but offset headings and then telling the tanker when to turn.  The calculation included variables such as wind direction and speed as well as the speed of both the tanker and fighter.

On a clear day the fighter pilot can look off to the side and several miles in the distance see the tanker slowly turning in front.  This is an example why one of the prerequisites to being a pilot is perfect vision.  While we did the refueling during the day they also practice at night which makes it even more difficult to see. 

There are two methods of refueling.  The modern approach involves flying up behind the tanker and trying to remain in a stationary position while a person in the tanker shoves a pipe into a hole on the back of the fighter.  Once they are connected the gas is forced through pipe.  Depending on how much fuel is transferred, the two pilots must keep their airplanes as steady as possible for 10 to 15 minutes.  Air turbulence can cause problems.  They may have to disconnect or occasionally in unexpected turbulence the pipe is broken.  In such cases other fighters waiting for fuel must land of find another tanker.

The older method of refueling, and the one we used the day I went, involves a large hose with a steel basket on the end.  The basket is about the size of a five gallon bucket and trails along fifty feet behind and below the tanker.  The fighter has a steel pipe pointing forward and the pilot slowly flies the airplane forward until the pipe goes in the basket.  It may sound simple but it is not.  The basket bobs and weaves in the air current and, as in the previous method, the turbulence can be extensive.  Each of the fighters spread apart from each other as they approach the tanker.  They remain in that position as they each take their turn at getting refueled.  When all are finished the fighters bid adieu and go on their way.

Our next stop was the bombing range.  The airplanes did not carry real bombs but rather practice bombs.  A practice bomb is about the size of a loaf of bread and when it hits the ground gives off a small amount of smoke.  While it is much smaller than a real bomb it behaves the same. 

On the desert floor about thirty miles south of Phoenix is an AF facility with a series of bombing ranges.  There are people in two towers a safe distance away from the target on the ground.  Before each pilot is allowed to drop a bomb the people in the towers must assure everything is safe.  Each airplane gets a couple of miles behind each other and takes turns diving down toward the target and releasing a bomb.  Each of the pilots make numerous passes and after each bomb is released the people in the towers provides a score.  The score consists of the direction from the target and the number of feet away from the target.  The reason that two towers are required is to be able to triangulate to the point of impact to arrive at the score.

Sitting in the back seat as the jet plummets downward in a steep dive at 300 or 400 hundred miles an hour is an experience.  After the practice bomb is dropped and the pilot rapidly pulls the nose upward toward the sky you feel like your entire body will be pulled through the bottom of the seat.  The G-suit inflates to squeeze your legs and lower torso in a tight grip and you wonder when it will stop.  At the top of the climb the pilot levels off and now the negative g's give you a feeling of weightlessness and that your stomach is going to come out of your mouth.  The pilot had given me a pad to record the bomb scores as the people on the ground announced them over the radio.  This was to help me from getting sick in the back seat with nothing to do.  I tried to keep up with the scores but found myself more concerned with living.

When we had finished practice bombing we went to another range and shot at the "rag".  That's what they called the cloth target which we took turns attacking.  Each airplane made several passes at this target and thankfully the dives were not a steep as the bombing range.  A sonic device on the ground determines whether the bullet passed through the target in arriving at a score.

Soon that portion of the mission was complete and we were on our way back home.  As we came back in for a landing once again the sensation of speed returned as we approached the end of the runway.  When I got out of the airplane I could hardly stand up.  My rear end was sore and my legs were shaking.

I've thought about that many times when the subject of taking jet fighters across the Pacific or the Atlantic comes up.  Those missions can be 12 to 16 hours long without a stop.  I was working in the basement of the Pentagon and had a friend that had to answer some of the letters from the public written to the AF.  One of them that was asked was how do pilots go to the bathroom on those long flights.  There's a relief tube for the males to use and the females wear Depends.  They're are still mighty sore and tired after sitting in one spot for that length of time.

I was always happy to be back on the ground after my flights.  On the other hand I never turned down a chance to go.  It wasn't comfortable but it was exciting.