This is a guest post from Tom Lodge, GE Aviation Chief Marketing Officer of Military Systems.
After four months of diligent preparation and thorough documentation with multiple layers of approvals, I had the privileged opportunity to experience first-hand the environment in which the warfighter takes his or her bravest work to the sky. I got to fly in the back seat of a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet through the most magnificent training routes in California. It was an experience of a lifetime and my learning capacity expanded into dimensions never tested.
It was my first time flying in a high performance tactical military aircraft. Everything I was about to encounter was new.
My host was the US Navy’s Strike Fighter Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) One-Twenty-Two Flying Eagles. This unit is responsible for training all aspects for the operation of the Super Hornet and to provide replacement aircraft and aircrews for the strike fighter units of the Pacific region.
VFA-122 is the largest operator of the Super Hornet globally with over 100 aircraft in inventory. Typical training for a new pilot to the Super Hornet is approximately one year which includes many phases from aircraft familiarization to weapons delivery to carrier qualification. Upon graduation the student is assigned to a squadron attached to an air wing that will eventually deploy for months at a time at sea to many regions around the world.
The amount of training and intensity of the curriculum to prepare for operational deployment is without peer.
The Navy values the partnership it has with industry and the community. The flight orientation program for civilians is designed to enable selected individuals the rare opportunity to observe the squadron operation and physically experience the world of flight in a high performance tactical aircraft.
As GE Aviation’s Marketing Leader for Military Systems Operation, I was honored to be selected by the Flying Eagles for this flight. In return, I’m committed to telling my story through the eyes of a civilian … a partial glimpse of the intensity of the Naval Aviators world.
I arrived for Class 1 Aircraft survival training at 0730 hours at the Navy’s Survival Training Center at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore. I was one of three civilians in a class of 20 students. This was a mandatory course for anyone flying in an aircraft with an ejection seat.
I gained familiarization of flight physiology (how your body responds to extreme environments), managing through high Gs (keep from passing out), survival equipment inventory (make yourself more visible to rescue and survive until help gets there), ejection seat operation (what handle to pull and when because you are out in 0.45 seconds), and finally parachute landing technique.
That’s right, just because you eject doesn’t mean you’re home safe yet. These are survival parachutes, not sport jump chutes where you see soft landings into football stadiums. You land at approximately 16 MPH and that will do a lot of damage if you don’t roll to absorb the energy. Then you got to keep from getting dragged across the ground once you land.
At this point I was just starting to appreciate the level of risks I was volunteering to take. Eight hours later I successfully completed the course having received a high level, yet, very necessary introduction to basic survival.
I was assigned a very experienced Instructor Pilot, Lieutenant Commander Mycel Scott, call sign “Radio.” A pleasant meet and greet followed by a visit with the Flight Surgeon (the squadron medical doctor) to receive my Up-Chit (documentation that says I’m physically fit to fly). He was very thorough and wanted to make sure all the details were covered so both the Navy and I felt safe.
Day 2: Final approval, cockpit and ejection seat orientation
This was reassuring and I had total confidence in the system to ensure my safety. Once I was officially good to go, I donned my cranial (half helmet with ear protection) and went out to the flight line with the ejection shop technician. We reviewed all the key aspects of the Martin Baker Mk14 ejection seat, 8-point strap in, oxygen line plug in, G-suit plug in, emergency oxygen bottle handle, ejection seat arm handle, ejection activation handle, dual seat position handle, oxygen flow control, and basic cockpit intercom operation.
Now the gravity of my responsibility during the flight began to set in. I would be sitting on a rocket seat that explodes me out of the jet in a half second with 2600 pounds of thrust with 500 instantaneous Gs.
This flight is for real and I needed to be a participant, NOT a passenger.
Day 3: Game day
“Radio” and I entered the briefing rooms where we began the brief for the planned flight. His cadence and tone were professional and direct. The mission intent was clear and thoroughly planned.
We reviewed navigation charts, discussed the route, ingress/egress points to the operating area, communication points with traffic control, and alternate airfields if we needed to use them. Our objective was to experience the performance of the jet with a good portion of the flight at low level simulating terrain masking.
We also had a thorough and humbling discussion about emergency procedures … the different magnitudes of events at the various phases of flight. It was good for me to be aware so I could assist “Radio” and save my own life if needed. However, I never felt scared. My confidence in “Radio” and the aircraft was absolute.
While walking down the ramp in the 80-degree sunlight—a picture perfect day to fly—I could see our aircraft with the canopy up, access doors open, and plane captain and crew waiting for our arrival.
After a professional salute between the plane captain and “Radio,” we had a brief discussion on the aircraft condition and our mission timing and arrival procedures.
Up I went, climbing the aircraft ladder and settled into the cockpit with the assistance of one of the squadron student pilots.
Smooth auxiliary power unit and engines start up, canopy down, we were rolling.
Positioned on the runway, “Radio” pushed the throttles to full military power, then engaged the afterburners … now I felt acceleration … about three times the rate of a commercial airliner!
Forty-four thousand pounds of thrust were just a few feet behind me and we were moving fast … airborne in fifteen seconds. The acceleration continued as we entered a 15 degree nose up climb.
It was surprisingly quiet … mostly interior cockpit air noise and a howling of air coming from the engine inlets. You couldn’t hear the loud, crackling roar of the exhaust—that was all behind us and moving rearward.
We had a smooth ride at 21,000 feet for about 15 minutes to the operating area. As we approached the operating area we did two “G-Warm” maneuvers. This gets your body acclimated to G-onset by keeping blood in the upper portion of your body. We turned 90 degrees to the left pulling 4Gs, then 90 degrees to the right pulling 6Gs with an ease to 4Gs. I squeezed all my leg muscles, took in a deep breath of air and created positive pressure in my chest by doing the “Hick ….ka, Hick ….. ka” breathing.
I could feel my heart rate increase due to adrenaline, and of course I was breathing too fast. This takes practice and training. This is why I was here … not to do an academy award performance, but to feel what fighter pilots need to endure.
I hung in there, the lights got a little dim, but I never passed out.
We approached the entry point of our low level route. There are a lot of military aircraft flying in California, especially in the restricted airspace for military training. All the routes are clearly designated on the navigation charts and everyone out there knows the rules of the road.
We made a gentle descending right hand turn over Isabella Lake and started to position below the mountain peaks as we entered the canyon over the Kern River. NOW I could really start to sense the aircraft speed. “Radio” rolled the Hornet onto its back and pulled up (down toward the ground) to get tight into the canyon.
We were off and running … and fast, turning following the signature of the river … 500 feet going about 400 miles per hour. We experienced Gs in every turn and I could feel the G suit pumping automatically.
We traversed through several canyons, over two or three mountain ridges and several meadows. The view was spectacular through the bubble canopy, like an IMAX on steroids with crystal clarity. We’d cross over a ridge and I’d look up to see granite rock and pine trees. We did this for about 15 minutes … or 80 miles of terrain until we crossed over the final ridge of the Sierras.
I was excited to approach the Jedi Transition through Star Wars Canyon. Officially called Rainbow Canyon, it’s a mini-Grand Canyon just west of the Death Valley.
Now we were cooking … over 500 knots at 500 feet following California route 190 all the way to the canyon. What a thrill … I could see cars going in the opposite direction … we were giving them an airshow!
I could see Star Wars Canyon out of the upper left of the canopy as “Radio” made a 90 degree left turn to get lined up. Then we descended into the canyon and I watched the ridge line rise above me … WOW I was here and living it!
I wanted to absorb every turn. It only took 25 seconds to transit through the canyon before we entered a large valley with a dry lakebed. By now I was wiped out … I never realized how fast your body gets affected by yanking and banking low level for 20 minutes. My internal gyros were knocked off center and I felt extreme tiredness. Granted I’m a civilian with no training, I can really appreciate what regular crew members need to endure and overcome while in combat.
Flying fighter jets is not for the faint hearted. I put them on par with professional athletes. I compare this flight to spending a few minutes on the field with a hall of fame NFL player catching some passes and taking a few tackles.
The flight home was magnificent. We flew over the Sierras at 20,000 going Mach 0.93. “Radio” set up for a standard carrier approach with pattern altitude of 800 feet at 350 knots and a break to the left holding a 3G turn while positioning for final with a sink rate equivalent to the approach on a carrier.
With solid contact we were back on deck. Right after we turned off the runway, the static discharge crew wiped the aircraft then we taxied to the refueling pit to get the jet ready for a quick turn for the awaiting aircrew for their training mission.
After one hour and two minutes and 10,000 lbs of less fuel, my flight of a lifetime came to an end. I now see what fighter aircraft do and the talented crews that fly them through a different lens.
Military aviators are a special breed and I’m glad they volunteer to defend our great country and those of our allies’ interests. I’m truly proud to be part of the industrial team that innovates, manufactures and supports the world class engines for this world class aircraft.
Flying in the Super Hornet was a physically and emotionally exhilarating experience. Here are a few things that I learned:
- The power of the aircraft: The Super Hornet (and all combat aircraft of this kind) is a force to never be reckoned. The latent energy of this machine can be overwhelming and there is no room for complacency.
- The professionalism of people: Meeting young enlisted to senior officers allowed me to hear their stories, backgrounds and see their passion for the Navy. They come from all walks of life and are part of something bigger than themselves. Their dedication and professionalism inspires the confidence they have in each other to put their own lives at risk. Transparency and communication are essential ingredients to this high performance team.
- The importance of good training: The amount of effort it takes to train one aviator to be ready to fly an aircraft is massive. It takes years to recruit, develop, specialty train, and maintain proficiency to employ an effective naval aircrew. This is equally important for the logisticians and maintainers of the aircraft fleet.
- The value of industry integration: The relationship between the operator and the industry teams are complementary and invaluable. An aircraft is a complex machine that needs to work in harmony to be safe and mission successful. The equipment and aircrews need to be in the best condition possible and we in industry must maintain our commitment to play a big role in keeping the warfighter safe.
I have great gratitude and appreciation for all those who made it possible for me to take part in this wonderful experience. I thank all the men and women of VFA-122 for allowing me to be part of their world for a few days. I also want to give a very special thanks to the individuals who had a hand in my adventure:
CAPT David “Mongo” Koss
CAPT Markus “Goody” Gudmundsson
CDR Ernie “Sista” Spence
CDR Christopher “Patty” Hurst
CDR Joshua “Ghost” Keever
LCDR Mycel “Radio” Scott
LT Jeremy “Trigger” Miller
LT Mark Hubbard
LT Phillip Buster
LT Neil Armstrong