Here...Come...The...Gs. My pilot's voice said through the earpiece of my helmet. On the word 'Gs,' the F-16 D-Class Fighting Falcon warplane I was riding in shot vertical for takeoff. The pressure I felt against my body was so intense, it felt like a hundred bears were hugging me. But as quickly as that pressure and feeling came on, it was gone and we were at about 17,000 feet, our cruising altitude.
I was on the ride of a my life with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, a precision flying team made up of the best pilots in the world. The 8 F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft and their team of more than 100 dedicated support crew were in town to perform in Oshkosh at EAA AirVenture for the first time.
My memorable day started at the Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh. As soon as we walked into the terminal, the Thunderbirds were visible through a window that stretched the length of the building. The red, white, and blue jets were lined up perfectly in numerical order. Seeing them and knowing that they would soon blast me into the sky made me feel a rush of emotions. I was excited, scared, but mostly honored to be given the opportunity to fly with the Thunderbirds.
But jumping into the cockpit of a multi-million dollar aircraft isn't the same as boarding your everyday 737. Instead I had to be fitted for safety gear and sit through nearly two hours of briefings. Instead of being shown how to put my tray table up, I was taught how to breathe through 9 G turns, how to eject if necessary, and what to do if my parachute malfunctioned. The ejection and parachute training were simply a precaution, the breathing and learning how to high G strain were not
After getting the all clear from the medical officer, it was time to meet my pilot, Thunderbird #8 Major Michael Fisher. Using a toy-size model of the F-16, he explained some of the maneuvers we would be doing and the flight path we would follow. Watching the model bank, rollover and shoot straight up vertical was exciting to watch, but terrifying to think I would soon be in the real thing, doing those crazy maneuvers.
G force is a unit used to measure acceleration. One G is equal to the natural force of gravity while at rest. Acceleration can happen in 3 ways:
- Linear acceleration- changing speed in a straight ling
- Radial acceleration-turning or changing direction
- angular acceleration-simultaneous change in speed and direction
In short, F-16s can go very fast and change direction very quickly meainig they can generate up to 9 G-forces. This roughly means person experiences 9 times the natural pull of gravity. That's so much force that a pilot's blood would be pulled into their lower extemities if they weren't wearing G-suits to essentially squeeze it up into their chest and head to prevent them from passing out.
As I sat in briefing with my pilot, I was also aware of the activity going on out on the tarmac. The Air Force support crew that accompanies the planes everywhere they go were hard at work. Officers stood on ladders peering into the cockpit. Others were running their hands down the entire length of the wings and I can only assume they were checking everything by hand to make sure that it was perfect.
From the time I met the first officer of the day until the time I shook hands to say goodbye, one of things I noticed most about the Thunderbirds was order. Every move each crew member made was calculated. Each plane was meticulously positioned, each planes' accompanying ground equipment was in the exact same place as the one next to it, every briefing lasted exactly as long as it was supposed to and every piece of gear was strapped, laced, or zipped onto me precisely.
F-16 Fighting Falcon Statistics
- Speed: Mac2+ (1,500mph)
- G limitations: -3 to 9
- 49.3ft Long, 31ft wing to wing
- Rate of Climb: 30,000 feet per minute
- Thrust: 29,1000 pounds
With all the briefs complete and the weather looking perfect, it was time to head out to the plane. To be exact, we flew in a Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon D-Class. The D-class means that the plane my pilot would take me up in was specially modified for a ride along. Thunderbirds 1-7 all have one seat for the pilot only. However, Thunderbird 8 has two seats. In order to accomplish this, part of the fuel tank was taken out and attached onto the bottom. Having the second seat allows the Thunderbirds to not only take people like me up for a ride, but also gives the ability to provide important training for pilots.
As Major Fisher led me to the plane I felt a little sick to my stomach, the butterflies were definitely there, but then I remembered how thorough the Thunderbirds were in my briefings and those nerves turned to excitement. And then I saw it, on the side of the jet, just outside the cockpit, "Emily Matesic" was written on the exterior of the jet, just like the real pilots. I didn’t have a call sign, like my "Drago" my pilot, but that's okay. I was about to climb into the cockpit on an F-16 and fly with one of the best pilots in the world. It was REALLY happening.
Take Off Location
After takeoff, we traveled about 70 miles north to an area of airspace that was restricted just for us. It took less than 15 minutes to get there. We were moving pretty fast! Upon arrival my pilot asked me if I was ready to go. "Of course,"" I said. We started with, what he would consider benign maneuvers, just to test our bodies and for me to practice my breathing. Those test turns felt great and "Drago" said I (my breathing) was good too. Now it was time to play.
We started with some of the tricks the Thunderbirds do in their shows. We did the clover leaf, some barrel rolls, and one of my favorites the four-point turn. That's when you start upright and then turn to the left once, twice and your upside down, three times, and then four returning us to the upright position. The turns felt so sharp, just as you would see them if you were watching the Thunderbirds from the ground.
Up until that point, we hadn't pulled more than 6 Gs. Drago asked me how I was doing and honestly I felt amazing. All of my friends and family had joked and told me not to get sick. I didn't feel sick AT ALL! I was ready for some more.
It was finally time to try a high G turn. We would max out at 9 Gs, the most the jet could pull. I was READY! As promised, my pilot gave me the warning and I tensed up my body and took a breath like I was supposed to, and then BAM! The extreme pressure against my body was unbelievable. I didn't know if we were up or down, I have no clue if I even took a breath. I remember grunting as the pressure subsided and I heard Drago tell me to relax. He said we just did 9 Gs.
I did it! I pulled 9 Gs. I asked if he was just saying that to make me feel good, but he told me to look at the gauge in the cockpit. It did read 9 Gs. "Drago" said I did what very few people who fly with him even want to try. I felt a sense of accomplishment.
After some more tricks, it was time to return to Oshkosh. We weaved in and out of some storm clouds on the way back. He flew us over the Bay of Green Bay. I was pretty quiet on the way back to the airport, at least I think I was. I was in awe of what I had just done and what an opportunity I had been offered.
After we landed and climbed out of the cockpit, "Drago" addressed me, the jet"s crew that was almost standing at attention (all with Ray Bans on of course), and a few of my friends who came to watch me take the flight. He thanked me for flying and explained the Thunderbirds perform to help the tell stories of the men and women who are deployed all around the world. Major Fisher told everyone about our flight; the maneuvers we did, the Gs we pulled, how fast we flew, and then the Thunderbirds presented me with a personalized framed photo of the team flying in formation that was signed by the 12 officers.
This is when I started to get teary eyed. Reality hit me! I had an opportunity to address those standing on the tarmac including the team that prepped me, got me in the air, and took me on the plane ride of my life. As someone who writes for a living, I told the crew I was at a loss for words. I thanked them for all they did for me that day, for their service to our country, and hopefully I conveyed how much it meant for me to ride with the Thunderbirds. It really was an honor to be selected to for the flight. And something I will never forget.
And while the flight was something I could have never imagined doing and the thrill of my life, shaking the hand of every single crew member who helped make this all possible was my favorite part of the day!
There aren’t enough words to express how cool, amazing, exciting, terrifying, and just downright unreal my Thunderbirds experience was. I just hope the brave men and women of the team know how thankful I am and how the memories will last with me forever.