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A Day in the U.S. Navy

Fancy Flying with the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and a Day in the Life of the Aircraft Carrier USS John C. Stennis
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

"Now what would you like to do?" says the tinny voice over my headphones. All his years of training to be a fighter pilot have in no way prepared Lt. Scott Ind for what he will hear next.

"I think I've seen enough," I say rather nonchalantly, really more addressing the mountains off our right wing than him specifically.

Obviously there's no way anyone would want a flight in an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet to ever end, especially after only 15 minutes of gut-wrenching aerobatics with one of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, so Ind begins offering options in case (perhaps) I'm simply too disoriented to think of them on my own after what amounts to a ride on a 7,000-foot-high rollercoaster at near-sonic velocities. * Hey, he suggests, we could fly the solo routine that they perform during one of their air shows. "No, that's OK," I reply. Then how about if he lets me fly a huge loop like the one we just

finished--ascending with the needle nose pointing up into the deep blue of space, a brief weightlessness while floating over on our backs, and then rocketing toward the ground, pulling back on the stick until the g-forces have you weighing about four and a half times normal? "I'll pass," I say. I'm still too cool to plead at this point, but I am seriously ready to blow chow inside the very clean cockpit of his $24 million fighter jet. If I can keep saying no long enough, I know he'll give up and take me back to the base.

"What if we fly some nape-of-the-earth combat maneuvers?" he asks. Oh, all right, I think. So, pretending that we're avoiding an Iraqi radar screen, we descend until we're what seems like five feet off the rocky desert plain and scream like a banshee toward a barren ridge in the distance. Now we pop up over the ridge, hugging it by rolling over on our backs, then descending nose-first before rolling upright again. Sweat's really pouring off me now, even though the temperature remains quite pleasant inside the cockpit.

The lieutenant wants to know how great that little maneuver was, and I think I managed to force out an unenthusiastic "oh, boy" while thinking that the true meaning of heroism can be encapsulated by my attempt to hold down lunch. Again, he wants to know what other fun stuff I want to do. "I think I've seen enough," I repeat.

At this point I don't know which one of us is trying hardest to keep from begging.

Ultimately, though, my cause prevails, if only because the fighter carries only so much fuel. So we head back to the base--but not before he promises me a landing just like the ones they do out on an aircraft carrier. I groan mentally. He lines up on the runway coming in hot about 200 feet above the surface, and right above the point where we're going to touch down he rakes the fighter over on its side and yanks back hard on the control stick. This tight circling approach is designed to bleed off airspeed while taking us back around to the end of the runway. My role in all this is to hold on and grunt hard enough to feel my eyes bulge, because such high-g maneuvers drain the blood from your head and that makes it tough to stay conscious. Of course, all this would be easier if I had on one of those nifty g-suits that keep blood from pooling in your butt and legs, but the hot sticks in demo squadrons are so acclimated to g's that they never wear them--nor do they offer them to their decidedly wimpy passengers. Of course, this turns into another battle of wills between the lieutenant and myself: it seems that the harder I grunt the harder he turns, and before I know it I'm having a hard time keeping my head from lolling over onto my chest. Milliseconds later I stop grunting to concentrate on holding my head up, and then, POOM! It's over: I'm in dreamland. Something in the back of my brain tells me: Wake up! We're too close to the ground and we're gonna crash--like it thinks I'm at the controls or something, and so I force myself back to consciousness in time to hear Ind ask me if I'm OK. He begins apologizing.

"You're already forgiven," I say.

Back on the ground they tell me that I'm the third one he's put to sleep this week. But at least I held down lunch. No afternoon cleaning chunder off the instrument panel for this honorary Angel.

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