Seconds later the Buckman Bridge looked like a prop to a model train set. The jet soon flew faster than the speed of sound — passing 762.2 mph. (Check out the video of his flight at youtu.be/IOpchoLDg4Y.)
The next 45 minutes felt like a mixture between a magic carpet ride and a terrifying tumble through a clothes dryer.
Sweat seemed to constantly drip from under my helmet’s visor. Most of my stomach’s contents ended up in one of two air sickness bags tucked into a pocket in my flight suit.
The ride with the Blue Angels is about the farthest thing from flying Delta from Jacksonville to Atlanta.
That much I know after Wednesday afternoon’s experience.
Each year the Blue Angels offer a few civilians the rare chance to ride along in the cockpit of a Hornet to experience the power and grace of the aircraft in an effort to promote the annual air show — this year taking place Saturday and Sunday at Jacksonville Naval Air Station — while at the same time providing a brief glimpse into the work of the pilots, who are impressive.
There was nothing I could do to prepare myself for what happened.
The three civilian riders met at 11 a.m. on the base for a safety briefing where butterflies already danced in my stomach.
I was joined by Alexis Crouch and Glenn Morningstar in a room that overlooked the runway. We went through a quick course where we learned breathing techniques and how to flex our legs and abdominal muscles to keep blood in our brains, which would hopefully prevent a blackout when those afterburners pushed the fighter plane through steep turns.
The techniques ended up working for all of us, although we all experienced tunnel vision that meant we were on the verge of losing consciousness.
Crouch was selected because of her work as a science teacher at the Ed White High School Military Academy of Leadership, and Morningstar was picked because of his role as military liaison at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Crouch was the first to take to the sky.
She put on her flight suit once the safety briefing ended. She then was strapped into the cockpit for the day’s first flight.
The engines roared, and after a short taxi on the runway she was cleared for takeoff, pushed out of sight within seconds by the dual jet engines. When she landed about 45 minutes later, she beamed because she hadn’t thrown up or passed out.
A little wobbly on her feat, she was excited about soon eating a hamburger to fill her empty stomach. She said she felt both thrilled and exhausted at the same time.
The breathing and muscle flexing techniques were much easier in the air, Crouch said. The gravitational pressure, she said, felt like she was getting crushed by her own weight. The safety techniques were the only things that could save her.
“Your body feels like lead,” Crouch said of the pressure when her body fought from the gravitational forces.
After quickly refueling the aircraft, it was time for Morningstar to climb the ladder into the cockpit and another 45 minutes before he touched down. My nervous conversation with his family and longtime police partner did little to ease my apprehension.
Finally, it was my turn.
Lt. Brandon Hempler climbed onto the wing once I was strapped in to reassure me there would be no need to pull the ejection handle directly between my legs, although we did have to go over the procedure during the safety briefing.
A crewman strapped him into the seat directly in front of me and from that point on we communicated by radio.
After a few moments of chatter between Hempler and the control tower, it was time to roll down the runway.
We were cleared for takeoff and soon moved down the runway at increasingly faster speeds. All of a sudden, Hempler told me to flex my legs, and the nose of the Hornet pointed straight toward the sky.
The force pressed my head against the back of the seat. My face was pushed into an awkward smile.
It seemed we were instantly cruising through the clouds above Jacksonville. The Hornet’s glass canopy gave me a panoramic view of the city, and the feeling of flying on a magic carpet was in full effect. No bumper-to-bumper ride down Beach Boulevard.
Soon we were out over the ocean where Hempler could really show me what the aircraft — first manufactured in 1978 and much refined since then — could do.
First he made a hard left turn to test my ability to embrace the G-forces. It didn’t seem too bad, but we also only reached 4 Gs on that first turn, or four times the force of gravity. He then took a hard right turn, ramping up the pressure to about 6 Gs.
That pressure sucked the corners of my mouth toward the floor of the cockpit. I quickly did my breathing techniques for the first time.
Hempler leveled the Hornet and things returned to normal. I was back on the magic carpet.
Next was a complete roll that felt pretty smooth because we stayed at 1G the entire time. Shortly after that we did a loop where I could see the smoke trail from the jet directly above my head.
My stomach started to feel the movements, but I kept telling myself there was no way I would get sick. We flipped upside down where the only thing holding me in place was the harness that felt so tight when we were back on the ground.
Hempler slowed the jet down before he pushed the throttle to reach supersonic speeds — a 762.2 mph speed my Nissan Sentra could never do. I passed most of the hardest tests with flying colors, but a couple more rolls and I felt like I was tumbling in a dryer again.
Following earlier instructions, I quickly moved the microphone away from my mouth and grabbed my first air sickness bag of the day. After that, we calmly cruised through the clouds for a while and then turned back to the beach.
Hempler took me on a smooth ride past Mayport Naval Station and then above the St. Johns River for our ride back to the runway.
A sharp turn above the runway gave me the chance to use my breathing techniques one last time to combat the gravitational forces. It also shook my stomach to the point where — as we came in for a smooth landing — I reached for my second air sickness bag of the day.
Back on solid ground I thanked Hempler for the ride and apologized for getting sick.
My head still felt like it was in the clouds on what turned out to be both the smoothest and roughest ride of my life.