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Stopping By: Flying high with physics

Flying with the Blue Angels was the second-best thing teacher Juanita Clarno did during her summer vacation.

Just before her flight with the Blue Angels, Juanita Clarno gives a thumbs up signal from her seat in the rear of an F-18.
“It was a
living physics experiment. It was awesome!” said Clarno, who teaches
manufacturing in McMinnville High School’s Engineering and Aerospace
Sciences Academy.
In her
fifth-year as an EASA teacher, she was nominated for the Blue Angels
flight by a parent, Col. Kelly Smothers, commander of the local National
Guard Armory.
Three of
Smothers’ children have been in Clarno’s classes. The colonel himself
has helped out with the EASA robotics team, the NerdHerd.
Clarno was
pleased just to be nominated. But she was overwhelmed when she learned
the Blue Angels pilots had chosen her as one of two community
representatives getting the chance to fly with them at the Hillsboro Air
Show in July.
She was
picked because of her activities with science, technology, engineering
and math. In addition to teaching STEM classes at Mac High, she also has
trained other educators in STEM curriculum.
The team is
made up of six single-seater F-18s and one two-seater. The pilot of the
latter takes two or three people up the day before each performance,
then acts as MC as his buddies fly their breathtaking maneuvers.
she would be subjected to strong G forces on her flight, Clarno stepped
up her workouts. She hiked more and started doing situps.
She didn’t need to do any weightlifting, she joked. As the mother of a 2-year-old, she carries 30 pounds around all day long.
The Blue Angels pilots work out six days a week, she said. “They’re in very good shape.”
They have to be to deal with the physical strain of flying the elite planes.
their shows, they experience up to 7.5 Gs. One G is the gravity we
experience in normal life, Clarno explained, while 2 Gs is double that,
so it feels as if a person weighs twice as much.
At 7.5 Gs,
seven and a half times normal gravity, even a highly trained, strong,
buff pilot can barely move. Yet they experience that level of gravity in
the finale of every show.
The pilots
must be at the top of their game on every flight. The precision flying
done by the Blue Angels includes rolls, right-angle turns and formations
in which the planes sometimes are only 18 inches apart.
The Blue
Angel pilots, all in their 30s, were top fighter pilots prior to joining
the team. Most are Navy pilots, but the one Clarno flew with was from
the Marines.
After a four-year stint with the Blue Angels, they return to active duty in regular aircraft.
“It’s a
plum assignment, but it’s hard, too,” said Clarno, who talked at length
with her pilot during the flight. “They’re home only 60 days a year. The
rest of their time is spent training or traveling to air shows.”
Before her turn in the air,
Clarno went through an orientation that included lessons in the HICK
maneuver, a process of clenching muscles in order to force blood to the
torso and brain. The practice is named for the distinctive sound flyers
make when they tighten their jaw muscles, going “hick! hick! hick!”
It really
helped, she said. She felt close to passing out when her plane pulled
5.8 Gs, first losing her color vision, then much of her field of vision.
But she flexed harder, and, thanks to the HICK maneuver, remained
Prior to
takeoff, she also donned a flight suit like the Blue Angel pilots wear —
a regular fireproof suit, not one designed to counteract the effects of
gravity. She fitted a helmet on her head and confirmed that she could
hear and speak to her pilot, Jeff Kuss.
“It was interesting to pick his brain during the flight,” she said.
While many military pilots learn to fly after they’ve joined up, Kuss became a private pilot before enlisting.
He told
Clarno that his interest in flying and joining the Marines were sparked
by his high school science and technology classes. “STEM really impacted
him,” she said, relating his experiences to the lessons her students
engage in daily.
Then she was strapped into the rear seat of the F-18. It’s a snug fit, she said, but there’s plenty of leg room.
The seat was adjusted so there was about 4 inches of headroom between her helmet and the canopy.
In the
event of an emergency, she was told, the canopy would blow off. She
would be ejected, attached to her seat, which contained a parachute that
would deliver her safely to the ground.
Then it was
time for takeoff. Her pilot engaged a pneumatic force generator that
built up pressure to start the jet engines. And they flashed down the
runway at 1,500 feet per second — more than 900 miles per hour.
“It was the most fun, a high-performance climb, a 45-degree angle and 5 Gs,” she said.
Clarno said
she felt G forces during the acceleration, but since gravity was
pushing her back against her seat, it didn’t bother her. The “delta,” or
barrel, roll was fine, too, she said, and so was the “squirrel cage”
In fact, she said, “experiencing the G forces was neat!”
But gravity
nearly won when the plane changed direction in mid-air. It was during a
quick 90-degree turn that she felt “the G Monster coming” and increased
her HICKs.
flight took her west over Tillamook and the ocean, then back over
mountains and farmland to Hillsboro. She experienced a variety of Blue
Angel maneuvers before landing in Hillsboro.
“Let’s do another!” she enthused as they taxied back to their starting point.
As much as
Clarno loved flying with the Blue Angels, it was the next day, when she
returned to the air show, that she experienced the highlight of her
The show’s
theme this year focused on STEM, so EASA was given tent space. Clarno’s
students set up a display of their engineering projects and demonstrated
their robots and hovercraft.
The teacher
was pleased to see the McMinnville teens show off their projects and
network with technology professionals. She encouraged them to talk with
the Blue Angels pilots, too, and get their autographs.
kids even helped the staff of the Intel booth repair some drones,
leading to a lengthy conversation about careers at Intel and other tech
“My flight
was really cool, but taking those students and seeing them experience
the air show was even more exciting,” Clarno said. “It was more
important. If I hadn’t flown, but had just taken the kids, that would
have been just as valuable.”