Once in a lifetime

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dawn Larrieu
  • 81st Aerial Port Squadron
As I stood in the pre-flight briefing listening to my pilot, Frosty, receive our sortie information, the initial tingle of realization awakened the butterflies in my stomach. Anticipation was the nectar feeding them into a flurry of activity. 

Was I actually going to board an F16? Was I actually going to fly that fast? Was I actually going to experience those infamous aerobatics? Standing there in a flight suit, I felt dressed for the part, but I couldn't help wondering, was I fit for the part? 

Nervousness fleeted by for just an instant, quelled by surreality. I couldn't believe what was about to happen. I shifted my focus back to the pre-flight agenda where weather reports, missions and flight plans were the points of interest on the board. 

As Frosty was appearing and disappearing from the operations desk doing whatever pre-flight pilot type errands were necessary, I was growing comfortably cozy in a cloud of small talk, a mere tactical maneuver dodging the panic mode. 

Then, faster than a snowman melts in Miami, Frosty said, "Are you ready?" 

My head nodded in affirmation without my consent.
Oh my gosh! We weren't even off the ground and I was on autopilot! 

Somewhere between the Ops desk and the life support room, I wondered again about that panic monster. 

However, concern over impending panic was soon displaced by confusion regarding "suiting up" in the G-suit. This task gives the term "wingman" an entirely new meaning. 

Just as the act of getting dressed thoroughly occupies a child, I had been distracted from anything other than the "here and now." But having donned the G-suit, the "here and now" moved right on to "now, here we go!" 

It was time. I faced the great outdoors, the very host of the wild blue yonder. I saw sky. I saw tarmac. I saw planes. What a wonderful natural progression. Any remnants of surreality were rapidly succumbing to sweet excitement. 

The hibernating butterflies resurfaced. This time, they weren't just stirring the pit of my stomach. They had metamorphosed into creatures that crave adventure. They felt like "Mach-one" butterflies. 

They filled me with a cool sense of anticipation on me and once again, I was able to focus on the upcoming flight. 

I was dressed for the part. I felt fit for the part. Now, I had to act the part. 

I glanced at Frosty. I was ready and I knew it! 

As I approached the plane, I sized up the beast. The Falcon was waiting, talons touching down, but eager to surrender the surface. Beak opened wide, beckoning me aboard. Wings steady- ready to carry me through the skies. 

I couldn't wait. As quick as a kid crossing monkey bars, I climbed up the ladder and plopped into position. 

Strapped in, helmet on, O2 mask in place- I gave the "thumbs-up" to my on-lookers. Frosty was cleared to taxi and I was clearly thrilled as I waved to everybody as we pulled away. 

Taxiing out was actually very calming. Frosty and I were talking about everyday things- families, jobs, even about good restaurants in the area. Then, we were cleared for take-off. It was fast, but smooth sailing. 

The nose of the plane rose sharply, and I felt my seat pushing me straight through the clouds. Before one lung-filled cheer was over, we were 15,000 feet high. I knew what was coming next. Breaking away from the after-burner take off, Frosty slowed the throttle and pulled back to the right. I was looking up to see the ground. The wing-over's negative G's redistributed the blood flow throughout my body and the pressure of the G-suit's first inflation released. 

Oh yeah! The game was on! I had escaped the panic monster. He was completely blown out the backside through the after burner during the 5.4 G climb! 

After the ascent and wing-over, Frosty leveled us out at 1,000 feet and cruised around 500 mph out to the Florida Keys. The water was unbelievably beautiful. Boats were everywhere. We followed the coastline for about 10 minutes, then we took off to an area cleared for aerobatics. 

Once the flipping around stopped, I started feeling better. Frosty asked me what I wanted to do. He asked if I was ready to fly the plane yet. But I was too 'top-gun' shy for that! So he dove straight in for the big one. He asked if I was ready to experience 9 G's. I said "yeah." He asked if I was sure. And I said "yeah, sure!" Then he said, "it's gonna hurt!" Even though I tried to ask, I couldn't get the next question out coherently. It came out something like, "Whudyameenizgunnaahhgghurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr?" 

9 G's later; I realized I had had no expectation of what I'd been in for. It was one of those things you experience for the experience. Because of the force of the G suit against my stomach muscles, I had another battle with air sickness. 

After securing my mask into place, we did an aileron roll and then a loop. The loop felt like it pulled about 6 G's. Of course after all that, I have been totally ruined for all future roller coaster rides. 

Frosty straightened it up for a stretch and we chased some waves- sound waves. He made it to Mach 1.04. Having achieved over Mach 1, Frosty abruptly kicked it back. We were burning fuel like crazy with all the aerial antics. 

Frosty asked me again if I wanted to fly some and I knew I couldn't pass it up. I tried a few of the things we talked about during the pre-flight briefing. He explained how an F16 turns. To make a left turn, I tilted the plane on its left side and then pulled up on the nose. I straightened that out then went for an ascent. I climbed for a little while then tried a few more turns. I pointed the nose down for a descent and hit a few negatives G's. 

The time came for Frosty to take over the controls again and take us back to base. We made it back to Homestead way too quickly. My head was still buzzing from the experience; landing hardly registered. 

I climbed down the ladder and my feet may have actually touched the ground. But I was so elated from this thrill of a lifetime it would be days before my head would come out of the clouds and catch up with reality.

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