Sunday, April 24, 2005

Acceptance and Vomit

Great things can transpire in the same week. A few weeks ago, I finally heard from my preferred grad school that my application was accepted. So now what do I do? I have to actually act like a graduate student--a scientist/researcher wanna-be. This could be interesting. My hope, of course, is that I will maintain the required 3 GPA to retain my funding and academic stature. I've been told by those who've trudged the path before me that grad school mostly amounts to perseverance, discipline, and organization; it has less to do with brain power. This gives me optimism, though I'm certain some amount of intelligence is required. That stupid GRE proved it. Man, I sucked at the GRE. Clearly I can't think my way out of a paper bag at hypersonic speeds; I need increased time and clambering to get to the same place others will easily reach in an ephemeral time. So is this acceptance a blessing or a hex?

Somewhere along the same timeline of the acceptance news (and speaking of hypersonic), I was given the opportunity to fly in the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle. This is a twin-engine jet fighter with more than adequate horsepower to elicit the loosening of various digestive sphincters, which keep stomach juices and contents in their proper places. I was given some initial training, to include instruction in the so-called G straining maneuver, which is the way you should tense up your lower body and breathe while under the affect of positive G forces. I had to go through a miniature flight physical and get fitted for my flight suit, G suit, and body harness. Other training topics included means for emergency egress, both in the air and on the ground; egress simply refers to exiting the aircraft in a hurry, so I was somewhat alarmed to learn how to eject my seat and collapse my body upon landing, after floating to the ground on the end of a parachute.

Sparky and Shane

So there I was--the guy who doesn't partake of roller-coasters, bungie-jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, or any of the other various X-game type behaviors--walking out to row Juliet among a multitude of fighters, where my F-15 and its maintenance crew awaited. They took time to tether me securely to the airframe: first, my seat kit; next my lap belt; followed by my shoulder harness straps; then my G suit connection; and finally my oxygen connector and radio connections for my helmet. My assigned pilot, Sparky, was a very nice chap and took it easy on me, but there's no real tranquil way to fly in an F-15. Even though the take-off, flight, and landing can be conducted in the same manner as a commercial airframe in terms of speed, altitude, and turning, the fact that one can easily view anything 360 degrees in any direction through a transparent canopy really forces one to come to grips with what's actually happening; our dispatch, though no more remarkable in speed or maneuver from a Delta Airlines flight, was quite exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying, as I was forced to actually notice our extreme acceleration when the landscape turned into a blur-scape and the jet pulled up and away. Our jet's mission call-sign for radio purposes was DIME 41.

Once airborne, things felt fairly normal (as normal as they can in a fighter jet), as we made our way to our assigned mission airspace, where we would be free to perform some "aerial acrobatics". Our sortie was part of a two-ship formation, so Sparky, being the lead pilot, demonstrated various ways he could communicate intentions to our sister F-15, DIME 42, (the pilot's handle was Sloppy) by merely jiggling his wings a certain way. This is quite a weird feeling too, as one never feels this sensation on a commercial flight unless something is very wrong. I thought to myself this is a portent. Sparky shook his wings side-to-side and Sloppy obediently maneuvered his F-15 from our right side, went under us, and came up on our left side. Another neat aspect of this trip was just observing the other jet get close enough to see and wave to the other two fellows inside it; I felt almost as if I could jump right into their jet, though one should obviously take that only for illustrative purposes.

Finally the time came when we had arrived at our airspace and Sparky asked, "So Shane, are you ready to try some Gs?" My reply was a weak and tepid, "I guess so." He instantly banked abruptly right and accelerated, and I felt my first positive G-force--a weak 2 G turn (my body felt twice as heavy as normal), which for me might as well have been a 9 G turn. As we came out of it, Sparky asked, "How was that?" "Uh...okay I guess." I felt myself becoming squeamish. The turn, even with the G suit and G straining maneuver, made my lips and skin tingle. Then a hard bank left into a slightly stronger 3 G turn. My body was suddenly three times it's normal weight, and my lips and skin went numb for a second. I immediately opened up my airsick bag, unlatched my oxygen mask, and proceeded to dry heave a few times. "I'm not doing too well with those Gs," I told my pilot in a feeble voice. "Okay," he replied. "We'll just fly straight and level for a while." I'm such a wimp.

At around this time, Sparky gave me the stick saying, "You've got the airplane." I wiggled the stick as he had instructed me before the flight and replied, "I've got the plane." He had explained before our sortie that there was nothing I could do to hurt us or the plane by taking the stick, but I found myself just gently banking the plane, first right then left. The whole time the nose of the jet was rising, and Sparky told me, "Dude...we're climbing outside of our ceiling. Nose it down a bit." I pushed down on the stick minutely but sharply, and the jet dove quickly down a story or two and took my stomach with it. I couldn't believe how responsive it was. Sparky told me the jet would literally respond to exactly how I manipulated the stick. Jerk it sharply left and that's what will happen to the jet. Push forward and to the right and you perform a diving right turn. What a sickeningly good time.

After a time, Sparky made another suggestion. "At this altitude, you really don't get a good idea of how fast we're going. Let's drop down to cloud level and get a reference point for you to look at." That day we were flying at a ceiling of 18,000 feet. Below us was a nice, fluffy blanket of clouds extending from horizon to horizon, and above us was pure blue sky. After a few seconds we had gently descended down to the clouds, and I noticed them begin to zing by at a rather high rate of speed. He was right; a reference point definitely clarified things. "We're going about 215 mph right now," explained Sparky. "Let's punch it up a little bit." He hit whatever knob, button, or lever that controls the throttle, and two seconds later he said, "400," meaning 400 mph--in just two seconds! Then he said, "afterburners," and two additional seconds later our airspeed was up around 600 mph as the afterburners kicked in. So in a mere four seconds we had tripled our airspeed; the cloud cover transformed from a discernible cottony field into a sheet-like white blob. We hadn't even neared passing the first Mach level the plane is capable of hitting. I immediately exclaimed, "Dude, I'm going to throw up!" So he killed the throttle and we moderated back to a more acceptable airspeed. So far I had managed to avoid actually puking.

We met back up with Sloppy and his passenger and dumped some fuel to be light enough for the landing. Then we flew a straight vector back to our home base. As we approached the airfield, Sparky said, "Shane, we're going to have to do some turning to line up for the landing. One of the turns has a little more G action than you pulled before, but don't will be over quickly." We flew straight over the airstrip far too high to touch down; then we banked hard right, flew in a semi-circle vector parallel with the ground, and pulled 4 Gs. The G suit squeezed me tightly and I strained the way they taught me under the G-forces. My pilot never uttered a sound; obviously a puny 4 Gs was nothing to him. We seemed to travel the length of the runway again, and made an additional diving tight turn, this time without any Gs thank goodness. As our wheels touched down on the glorious Earth, I proceeded to vomit into my airsick bag a few times, and I caught Sparky smiling at me in his rearview mirror. I somehow had survived this brush with the Top Gun experience and definitely underscored the fact that I'm currently in the correct line of work. I wasn't meant to be a pilot or any other sort of flying person; I belong in a laboratory behind a microscope or in a studio behind a guitar.

Sparky told me that my incentive ride was pretty typical; I guess most non-flyer types can't handle the 7-plus Gs that the F-15 routinely pulls on a sortie (the F-15 can pull up to 9), but I also think Sparky felt sorry for me and was just attempting to boost my ego up a bit. He told me, "No matter can say you've flown in an F-15 Strike Eagle. Not many people can say such a thing." And this was true. I had flown in it and flown it, even if for only a few minutes. Man, am I dumbass or what? I'll never do that stupid crap again! But I faced my fear and did it anyway. Like I said...dumbass.

No comments: