TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
Careful What You Wish For…
There’s no denying that those with a remote fascination of aviation would donate any given body part to fly in a state of the art US Navy fighter. What they don’t tell you is the metamorphosis one needs to embrace in order to enjoy the thrill.
Perhaps you’ve read articles or listened to comedians describe their nauseating experience of an incentive ride in a military jet followed by weeks of therapy. Apparently they seemed to have skipped the part where they had to squeeze into an outfit purposefully designed to be four sizes too small and become a human origami project in order to slip on everything else. But I digress…
While working with VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” during the historic “Tailhook Legacy Flight” training program, I along with the attending warbird pilots, had the great honor of being allowed to fly in an F/A-18F Super Hornet.
It all began with our mock physiology training. Instead of being shot out of a canon or subjected to the swirling t-cup ride at Disneyland, we were taught the miracle of the “Hik Maneuver”. Not to be confused with the complexities of a “Red Neck” tractor pull, the “Hik Maneuver” involved the rapid and specifically timed process of exchanging air in the lungs combined with muscle tension to prevent loss of consciousness during high g-load. It used to be called the “Hook Maneuver”, but grunting “Hik” while popping a forehead vein sounded better.
Along with the brief training we were also shown what the various yellow handles, buttons and knobs with black stripes were for. This was of course not to be confused with the black handles, buttons and knobs with yellow stripes. You don’t want to touch those…I think. One was to arm the ejection seat, one was to eject, one was to make the pilot eject, one made expresso and another was for the windshield wipers. This was one cool seat!
Following our short introduction to the Rhino’s WSO Chair, Lt. Schwerdtfeger showed us around the Flight Physiology compound at NAS Lemoore. The tour included checking out the twirl-a-hurl centrifuge machine, the braincell-killing altitude chamber and every Aquaphobiac’s vacation destination, the dunk-tank.
My scheduled hop in the Super Hornet followed all the other warbird pilots’ opportunities. I had the joy of sharing their experiences and fears vicariously through them. What was once a dream soon to come true turned into a fear similar to being called next at a talent show.
When it was my turn to prepare for flight, I was sent to the paraloft where I would get sized up…in gear that is. This big dude who obviously works out gave me a quick look over and compared me in size to pilot similar in stature i.e., short. He then opened a locker belonging to a Commander of the unit and instructed me on how to look my best in olive drab.
Now, I had my own flight suit so I was certainly doing my best to look the part, but wearing blue jeans under that flight suit which were then covered by a blood-constricting G-Suit, might not have been the smartest thing. It took me nearly thirty-minutes to zip up those damn military leg warmers! Then came the harness. I was too exhausted to put on a harness, but alas, somehow I did it. And after that was the 216-pound survival vest consisting of the inflatable horse collar, oxygen mask and filter, flares, a Vietnam-era flashlight, a Jenny Craig meal for four including place settings, and a bunch of other stuff I was really hoping not to use. Oh yeah! I looked sexy…kinda like an Oompa-Loompa that was being cast as Rambo.
By this time I was all suited up and ready to go. I hobbled down the stairs and toward the hangar door before one of the guys in the paraloft noticed my bright white tennis shoes peaking out from my all green garb. Apparently tenny’s aren’t the in-thing. Off came all the gear and on went some loaner boots. If getting the G-Suit on before was hard, strapping them around the added circumference of a boot-neck was impossible.
I’ll spare you with the excitement of flight-suit deja vu, but let it be known it involved sweat, blood (literally) and my pilot to help get the crap back on. I had a new found respect for pilots everywhere, and I hadn’t even climbed into the plane.
Speaking of my pilot, Lieutenant Alex “Stranger” Wright was awesome! He had the patience of a saint and was willing to carry me out to the plane. Well, maybe not that last part.
With all my gear on, sensation in my limbs was disappearing fast. Fortunately we were assigned an aircraft that was parked furthest away on the ramp. That was by no means comforting. Even better, I was told we were to do a “Hot-Swap”, a process where the aircraft would remain running as we swapped pilot and crew. I really should have listened…was it the yellow and black striped handle or the black and yellow striped handle?
Once strapped into the seat, by my pilot, because I had no strength to do it, I checked the oxygen flow. There was none. Inhaling simply caused the O2 mask to adhere to my face like a plastic bag. Nothing to worry about there. I asked “Stranger”, who was now comfortably strapped into his seat, how to adjust the O2. He made me aware of a knob by my left butt-cheek that needed to be rotated 90-degrees. I couldn’t see past my knees let alone over my shoulder and down by my side. Of course he chuckled, “Oh, you may need to feel your way around to find it.” Oh sure, I’m sitting on a friggin’ rocket and you want me to start feeling around? The last person who asked, “What does this button do?” didn’t fare so well. Nervousness aside, I found it. I could now breathe. That was a good thing.
We launched as a flight of four consisting of an F-6F Hellcat, Helldiver and another Super Hornet. I had brought with me a loaner D3x from Nikon and a 24-120mm to record this glorious moment. Though every time I raised the camera to my face, my O2 mask would leak slightly forcing a steady flow of oxygen directly into my right eye. I quickly learned how to hold the camera with my left hand, position my right hand on the shutter with my thumb awkwardly jamming my right eyelid shut. I’m sure I looked perfectly normal to everyone in the flight.
It wasn’t until the group of aircraft broke formation and the two Super Hornets were left to play that things got really interesting. “Stranger” pulled hard back on the stick enabling the G-meter to reach 7.5 and I decided to try out that “Hik Maneuver” thing. While holding a camera now weighing nearly 45-pounds up to my face, I nearly knocked myself out keeping too much blood in my head. Apparently I am G-tolerant far beyond the 7-G range. I resulted to giggling like a schoolgirl instead. Any remnants of masculinity were long gone. All the while my G-suit was painfully contracting forcing my spleen to tickle my tonsils.
It had always been my dream to get that over-the-shoulder shot of the aircraft engulfed in vapor. As we pulled hard to the left for the “Banana-Pass” followed by an abrupt break to the right, all I could think about was how I got in the position of resting my head on my shoes. The last thought on my mind was how to raise this insanely heavy camera above my head. Nonetheless, I did my best to capture the moment and am proud to say I never incurred any sign of losing the G-war. I think I even managed to get a picture or two.
“Stranger” put the Hornet on the deck effortlessly and we taxied back to the same spot we started and were again to exercise a “Hot Swap”. Once pried from the rear seat of the Super Hornet, I made my way down the ladder and waited for “Stranger” to accompany me on the ramp. While waiting, Lt. Erik “Dookie” Kenny informed me that the back seat would be empty for this next hop and asked if I wanted to join him for a second flight. Amazed at the incredible offer bestowed upon me, I politely and quickly responded, “No.” The look on “Dookie’s” face was priceless.
Earlier in the morning I had briefed with Peter Kline, pilot of the T-2 “Buckeye” also participating in the Legacy Flight Program, regarding an aerial photoshoot. Time simply did not allow for another Hornet hop. But rest assured, this would be the only time I’d pass up an opportunity like this.
“Stranger” and I walked…or rather he walked, I waddled back to the paraloft and we removed our gear. I quickly rushed back to the T-2 and we immediately fired up and got into the air. The shoot was amazing for many reasons. Mostly due to the fact that Capt. Mark “Mutha” Hubbard, Commodore for the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific (SFWP) was at the controls of the F-6F Bearcat with two Rhino’s in trail. The other amazing fact was that holding the #3 position was “Dookie” flying “143”, the SuperHornet I had just crawled out of.
Although I mock my experience, the fact is I can’t thank the folks at VFA-122 enough for hosting the entire Legacy crew and enabling all of us to see first hand what our Naval Aviators endure. It goes without saying I have a new found respect for our military pilots. Additional thanks to Dr. Rich Sugden and Peter Kline for including me in the Legacy Program and enabling me to document such an incredible joining of the past and present. Putting commemorative aircraft in the air that were not scheduled to fly was due to the amazing efforts of Demo Coordinator, Lt. Erin “Eeyore” Flint. The passion of Capt. “Mutha” Hubbard is without a doubt a critical element to insuring the success of the Legacy Program. His unwavering desire to see the history of Naval Aviation celebrated in front of millions of aviation enthusiasts and air show spectators is an invaluable asset. The Legacy Program is truly honored to have such a great representative. And of course the program would not be what it is without all of the Legacy Pilots, warbird owners and Navy demo pilots who choose to participate and remain involved in such a historic program.