By lex, on Mon – April 25, 2005
A sea story. Are you relieved?
When I was an adversary pilot in Key West, Florida, eventually the day came that my buddy and I, who arrived at the squadron about the same time, got to begin F-16N training. That was a moment long looked for, eagerly awaited. We’d been flying the A-4 Skyhawk for just over six months, and while it had been fun, say thankya, it had been something of a step down from the FA-18’s we’d flown in the fleet. We were looking forward to a little “strange,” in the form of F-16 training. Looking forward to flying the “Viper.”
But before we could start flying the “Viper,” we had to go to Warminster, Pennsylvania.
And get a few rides in the centrifuge .
My buddy and I were given travel orders to head up the next week. We were, to tell the truth, a little bit concerned, although we struggled to hide it from our peers.
You see, with 7.5 g’s available, the FA-18 that we both grew up flying was considered a high-g airframe. Seven and a half g’s is no joke, it’s the real deal. At 7.5 g? Your standard, Mark I, Mod 0, fleet naval aviator, who checks in at maybe a buck-eighty with his boots on concrete weighs a little over 1300 pounds at 7.5 g.
It’s that whole mass vs. weight thing you read about in high school.
That’s a lot, 1350 pounds. A lot.
More than you’d think.
But we’d done it successfully for the better part of three years, so we knew we had that.
But the Viper had a little more to offer. Nine g’s, in fact. Which is only 1.5 g’s more than the Hornet’s 7.5, so it probably doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you.
Which is only because you’d never pulled 9 g’s. And neither had we. At 9 g’s, that fleet standard pilot would be clocking a shade over 1600 pounds. Which is the better part of a Michael Moore more than 7.5 g’s gave you.
(You: Is there a better part of Michael Moore?
Me: I don’t think so.
So we weren’t entirely sure we had that. Nine g’s, that is. And there’s always the lingering concern that AHA! finally! the company will discover that critical chink in your armor, the one that turns you from fighter pilot into mere mortal, the one that means you’ll be banished to Coventry, or submarines, or some other, more horrible fate. This would come in the form of being unable to hack the maximum g. Passing out under pressure. And then doing the “funky chicken.”
The funky chicken occurred after a pilot blacked out under g – once he let the control stick slip from his hands of stone, the g would ease off. When the g eased off, the blood returned to his head and he would come rapidly back to consciousness (but as yet, with no real sense of himself, or of who he was) and finding, to his amazement, that he was in the cockpit of a fighter, going God knew where, at very high speed. With no recollection of who he was, or how he got there, or when, or why.
Many people would find this a little disorienting.
The pilot, upon waking to this sight, would frequently make random movements, casting his arms, hands and legs around the cockpit, seeking some sort of reassurance. He would snap and jerk and say vague, uncoordinated things. This period would last perhaps five seconds, so long as he didn’t hit anything unyielding in the intervening time. And it would, if captured on video tape, lead to no end of fraternal amusement, not to say hilarity, among his many aviating friends. Oh, there is nothing quite so funny as someone else’s incapacity, caught on tape.
Until, that is, it came your turn to face the ‘fuge. Because facing meant the possibility of failing, of being a “non-hack.” And culturally, we are simply unable to accommodate being non-hacks. It is impermissible.
Now, it came to pass that there were other pilots in the squadron that had gone before us to Warminster. One of these worthies was a man that I’ll call “Biff.” He was a very good pilot, but a difficult man. He was an old school Tomcat guy, puffed-chest arrogant, the kind of fighter pilot you maybe read about in books, or walk away from the movie “TOP GUN” thinking represents the mold. He could be a wonderful friend, if he chose to be. If he decided that you were unworthy of his attentions, the depth of his scorn was immeasurable. He never met a man he hadn’t gunned, and was clearly, himself, the best fighter pilot he ever knew. You had a story, calculated to throw your professionalism in a positive light? He had one that was better. You’d done something really well, that one time? Child’s play.
He could be a hard man to love. You had to really try. And at the end of the day? You would never love him as much as he loved himself.
He was the very avatar of a fighter pilot. Because all of us felt that way about ourselves. We just thought it bad form to say it aloud.
And there was this: Biff tanned well. He had an olive skin that soaked up the sun’s rays, except for those parts he covered with his high speed, low drag Oakley sunglasses. The net effect was to make him look a bit like a photo-negative of a raccoon – dark face, white rings around his eyes, and dark brown pupils. The effect was striking.
So anyway, my buddy and me decided to check out some of the training videos taken when our predecessors went through the centrifuge – get a leg up on what we’d be facing. And somehow, Biff’s came to hand most readily.
The first thing you are tested to, when you strap into the ‘fuge, is the baseline tolerance test, a measure of your resting g capacity. There are lights set on a forty-five degree arc in the simulated cockpit straight ahead of you. Your g-suit will be disabled, and the centrifuge will be spun up to a velocity sufficient to draw enough blood from your brain to cause your peripheral vision to dwindle. When you can no longer see the lights, you are instructed to hit a red switch on the control stick, at which point the ‘fuge will rapidly decelerate, and the blood return to your brain.
Biff couldn’t bother to listen to instructions though, not all of them anyway. He got the part where his g-suit wouldn’t be hooked up. He got the part where he wasn’t supposed to strain against the g. He didn’t get the part about the lights, and punching out. The problem was a cultural one: The people talking to him weren’t fighter pilots. They’d nothing to teach him. So he strapped into his chair, got whirled around (sans g-suit pressure) and watched placidly as the nighttime gradually overtook the lights, then overtook the world, then faded entirely to black.
He passed out. Right there on tape. Right there in front of God and everybody. And here’s the thing about G-LOC (g-induced loss of consciousness, pronounced “gee lock”): Once you’ve passed out once? Your resistance is greatly reduced. You are far more susceptible to follow on G-LOC events.
You’re pretty much screwed.
So my buddy and I sat in the briefing room, watching Mr. World’s Finest Fighter Pilot Guy hit the pillow run after run for the next half an hour or so. Each time his dark brown eyes would roll frantic circles in the white rings around his ocular orbits, as his head slumped over against his shoulders. Each time waking up and making antic gestures and vague exculpatory statements.
Did we not laugh gentle reader? Oh, indeed we did. You would have had to have your sense of humor surgically removed not to laugh with us. It was delicious, at so many different levels. We laughed until we could not speak, we gasped for air, wiped tears from our eyes. At one point we froze the tape to take full benefit of a particularly ludicrous scene, and bent over, slapping our thighs, entirely unstringed, inarticulate, choking.
And at just that moment, the door to the briefing room opened, and Biff walked in. “Hey guys, what are you watching?”
So suitably instructed, we headed up to Warminster, and did our thing. The first day was all classwork, and were admonished afterwards to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day’s trials, and to drink lots of water. Being who we were, we headed out into the town to seek our fortunes in some of the less respectable establishments, raising the roof as far as we could without being actually arrested.
We did well, of course.
After all, it’s me telling the tale.