Fly Like an Eagle - Yankin' and bankin', a photojournalist gets the ride of his life

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
My brains felt like they were going to explode inside my helmet as the F-15 Eagle corkscrewed through the atmosphere, dropping about 10,000 feet per minute on a collision course with the deep blue sea. Reaching speeds up to 510 mph, we pulled close to eight Gs - the gravitational forces placed on your body as the fighter aircraft yanks and banks. Pulling eight Gs amounted to roughly the same as having a 1,200-pound milk cow sit on my chest. I nearly blacked out. And for a moment, I was sure the cheese omelet I'd eaten that morning would splat for the second time in one day.

The pilot called these basic fighter maneuvers - the kind you'd use in an eyeball-to-eyeball dogfight against enemy air forces. Basic? Good thing they weren't "advanced" fighter maneuvers. Otherwise, I might have been spitting out pieces of my lung, liver, intestines and bladder as I literally puked my guts out.

As an Air Force aerial photographer, I'd flown in nearly every aircraft the Air Force has in its inventory, from T-38 Talons and F-16 Fighting Falcons, to the C-130J Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster III. I'd even flown in the newest aircraft to join the Air Force inventory - the CV-22 Osprey (kind of a cross between a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft). But a ride in the F-15 Eagle had eluded me to this point in my career. So when duty called and I was tasked to take aerial photos of the F-15 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., I chomped at the bit in anticipation of my flight in this highly maneuverable tactical fighter.

Maj. Andrew "Stoep" Dean from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall would be piloting the aircraft I'd fly in that day. I felt good about that as the major had a stellar reputation within his squadron, logging nearly 1,000 hours in the F-15 with nary a mishap.

Of course, safety first. You don't just get to jump into the back seat of a high performance fighter jet and enjoy the ride. I received refresher water survival and egress training first. Egress training teaches you how to safely get out of an aircraft if things go terribly wrong, and water survival training was necessary because we'd be doing most of the flight over open water above the Gulf of Mexico.

Next I got fitted for personal protective gear - specifically, my G-suit and helmet.

Then I waited for the crew brief, where the pilots discuss the training flight in detail to help them prepare for the mission and to anticipate anything and everything that could go wrong.

After the crew brief, we still had nearly an hour before takeoff. That gave me time to stew in my own thoughts. While I'm a seasoned flyer, I still get nervous before a flight - especially in an aircraft I've never flown in before - and like to meticulously go over the game plan in my mind. I mean, let's be honest, you never want to be known as the guy who accidentally bumped the stick that caused the aircraft to go out of control or the one who inadvertently pulled the ejection handle that unnecessarily put water survival training to the test.

Thoughts like these tend to get my heart pounding and are the reason why I have to make three or four trips to the restroom before a flight.

As final preparation before we stepped to the plane, I met up with Major Dean for a flight brief to go over our mission plan one last time. Yes, these guys are thorough; but you have to be when you're "driving" multi-million dollar jets and lives are at stake.

While the pilot performed his pre-flight inspection of the aircraft, I finally strapped into the jet. The crew chief helped hook me up to the oxygen, the G-suit, the communication system, the seat belts, etc. There were so many cords, straps and plugs coming off of me that I looked like a puppet.

Major Dean told me to hang on because we were going to practice basic fighter maneuvers. This is great news if you like roller coaster rides on steroids (which I do), but bad news for an aerial photographer (which I am). It's tough to get good quality photos when the camera feels like it weighs 100 pounds from the G forces and you're being jerked back and forth.

We soared to 30,000 feet to avoid other aircraft as we began our game of cat and mouse. We started out as the mouse, so we scurried away at a mere 500 mph. That's what you call Mighty Mouse! With another F-15 screaming in hot pursuit, the major performed a series of maneuvers that caused my G-suit to tighten so much I had bruises on my legs for two weeks afterward. Not surprising since the most intense maneuvers made me feel like a bug smashed on a windshield.

During the mock dogfight, I had to use all my training to avoid passing out. I performed my anti-G straining maneuver to keep the blood and oxygen in my brain. Still, my vision got weird at times, and the sides started getting black - kind of like I was peering into a tunnel. Only the breathing techniques and muscle contractions I was taught kept me from fading into "la-la land."

Additionally, I felt queasy several times, but somehow managed to keep my breakfast down.

Despite some of the more obvious drawbacks to engaging in a dogfight, flying in the F-15 Eagle proved to be one of the most thrilling experiences I could imagine, next to landing on the moon. Now I know why they call the pilots "fighter jocks." Major Dean is a real pro. And the F-15 can do things no machine should be able to do. It was the ride of my life!