The elite Navy aerobatics team taught us a few things from the cockpit of an F/A-18
When I was young, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was enamored with the idea of flying anything, really—the smaller the plane, the faster it flew, the more I wanted to be in control of it. I distinctly remember catching a TWA flight out of Dallas, Texas, and hiding under the red, almost felt-like blanket right before takeoff. I wasn’t afraid; I simply wanted to recreate the close quarters of a cockpit, rather than the dull middle seat of a Boeing 727.
Somewhere down the line, my dream got away from me. A few too inches short, a few too many pounds gained, and a prescription for contact lenses ended the fantasy. But this week, I had an opportunity to finally live out my childhood dream when the Wings Over North Georgia Air Show, currently setting up in Rome, Georgia, offered a media flight with the Blue Angels, the event’s signature attraction. Riding in a F/A-18D jet piloted by Lieutenant Brandon Hempler, I would experience all the power, excitement, and unparalleled joy that one of these fighters brings. Here’s what I learned during the hour-long flight:
1. These guys are tough as nails
It goes almost without saying, but almost every day these pilots pull off numerous high-G, high-precision, high-stress jet maneuvers. I kept hearing the same analogy from the pilots again and again—flying’s like an intense, two-hour workout. When you come down, you immediately want to rest. But in addition to the physical feats, the Blue Angels also keep a very tight schedule. They have Mondays off during the 300-day air show season, but that’s the only break. Tuesdays are spent practicing. On Wednesday, the No. 7 pilot—the one who leads media and VIP flights, currently Hempler—and the ground crew fly out to an upcoming air show while the rest of the team keeps practicing. The rest of the team arrives Thursday for practice and planning, using Google Maps to identify points that, while up in the air, can be used as reference for turns and maneuvers. Fridays are a dress rehearsal, and Saturdays and Sundays are showtime. On Sunday night, the team flies back to their home base in Pensacola, Florida. Oh, and there’s winter training during the off-season, too.
2. And the birds are fast
With a top speed around Mach 1.8 (just under 1,400 miles per hour), it’s safe to say you wouldn’t want to have an F/A-18 closing in on you. When Lieutenant Hempler flew from Pensacola to Rome on Wednesday morning, it took him less than 40 minutes. To put that into perspective, Pensacola to Rome is a 365-mile, 5-hour-and-45-minute drive.
Upon takeoff, Hempler took us up to roughly 5,000 feet in a matter of seconds. The rapid acceleration created over 5 G’s of force. By the time I even understood what was happening, we’d already leveled off.
3. The planes can also go really slow
I’ve been in a PT Cruiser—the bulbous, salt-of-the-Earth, oft-hated excuse for a car—traveling faster than the slowest our F/A-18 flew. In a dogfight situation, getting a trailing plane to pass you can make all the difference. Lieutenant Hempler demonstrated this by slowing the aircraft down to around 90 knots, right around 100 miles per hour.
4. And they can perform some incredible feats
If I haven’t already convinced you that an F/A-18 in capable hands is a modern marvel, then perhaps the maneuvers Lieutenant Hempler executed will. We traveled upside down, climbed nearly straight up, turned so tightly that we experienced 7.3 Gs, barrel-rolled, dipped, ducked, dived, dodged, you name it. At one point, Hempler guided the aircraft into a parabolic arc flightpath. After climbing, he descended sharply, creating just enough G-force to cancel out gravity. I experienced pure weightlessness, just like if I were in space.
5. Flying ain’t nothing but a G thing
Every twist, turn, climb, and acceleration has to obey Newton’s Laws of Motion, so we felt either more gravity or less gravity to balance out the cosmic ledger. That 7.3 G turn? My body essentially felt like it weighed about 1,600 pounds.
Aside from making you feel like you’re going implode, high G-forces make it difficult for blood to reach your brain. No blood means no oxygen, and if your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, you’ll get tunnel vision, then a million tiny grey spots will dominate your vision, multiplying like an infectious disease until you pass out. This is G-LOC—G-Force-induced loss of consciousness.
Rather than wearing G-suits to mitigate these effects, Blue Angels train using special breathing and muscle techniques designed to increase blood flow toward the brain. Before takeoff, I had to learn how to flex the lower muscles of my body to prevent blood from pooling my torso and how to control my breathing using the Hick Maneuver—quickly inhaling while making a “hic” noise, holding your breath for 3-5 seconds, and then exhaling on the “k.” You then have to “stack” your breath by repeating the process before fully emptying your lungs. Flexing your muscles is much easier—just squeeze your legs together and literally try to stand up from your aircraft seat.
6. The planes get up very close and personal with each other
Because of the dangers of G-LOC, pulling off the high-G moves requires incredible control and precision—something that’s only amplified when pilots are flying in formation at 5,000 feet alongside five other aircraft at 500 miles per hour. While in formation, the distance from one aircraft’s wingtip to the next is a mere 18 inches.
7. The team has a few local boys
Two current Blue Angels pilots, Commander Frank Weisser and Lieutenant Tyler Davies, hail from metro Atlanta. Weisser graduated from North Springs High School in Sandy Springs, and Davies is native to Kennesaw. Additionally, there are a handful of other team members who also grew up in Georgia.
8. Air combat isn’t exactly what you think
While the Blue Angels’ planes are solely used for entertainment (the guns have been removed to make room for smoke canisters), the F/A-18s were designed for war, and the pilots are trained to fight. But aerial dogfighting is more of a thing of the past. Modern missiles can guide themselves to their target even over long distances, and in most cases, a bad guy would undergo catastrophic aircraft combustion before he even saw you coming. So if you find yourself in a dogfight, something has probably gone wrong.
But—if you were in a dogfight, you’re wouldn’t solely be trying to shoot down the other plane. Your fellow pilots would work with you to set up an ambush situation designed for success. And your weapons aren’t your only tools—G-forces can be used against enemy aircraft, too. If you can disorientate a pilot through rapid turns or cause them to lose consciousness, your day just got a lot easier.
9. Georgia is gorgeous from above
When you’re flying upside down, looking up (er, down, rather) at the mountains, lakes, trees, and everything else that makes up our state, it makes you stop and think how lucky we are. Unlike an airplane window, the unrestricted view from the F/A-18’s canopy makes the experience feel much more real—you’re not riding in a plane, you’re flying.
10. I’m stronger than I thought
Before takeoff, I had only two goals: don’t vomit and don’t pass out. I’m happy to say I succeeded in both. Granted, when we hit 7.3 Gs, my vision started graying, but a narrow win is still a win. I didn’t scream out of fear, I didn’t say no to anything, and during the craziest stunts, I was all smiles. I’d go back up in a heartbeat.