It’s the G’s that get you, they pull and tug and beat on you and eventually wear you down.
One second you’re flying straight and level at 500 miles-per-hour and the next you’re in the climbing side of a loop and pulling three G’s — that is, a 200 pound man now weighs 600 pounds — and movement is nearly impossible because your arms are literally pinned in your lap.
Seconds later on the downside of the loop, trading altitude for airspeed, the positive G’s have disappeared and you are near-weightless — negative G’s!
Then suddenly you are dumped back into your seat as you return to straight and level, but your stomach is still a couple of thousand feet above you. It brings to mind the old joke about the sloppy co-pilot who was told by his pilot that the co-pilot would never have to worry about dying in a airplane crash because he was always five miles behind the plane.
It was September 1978, and the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying team, was paying a visit to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, Maryland, for the base’s annual air show. As part of the Navy’s promotional program, the Blue Angels give rides for the local and regional news media. For three years I had waited, and now it was time.
As Lt. Mike Nord taxied the diminutive A-4 Skyhawk to the runway he reviewed the various check lists and said that the Blue Angels’ A-4 were identical to those used in the fleet with the exception of smoke generators to allow viewers on the ground at air shows to better spot the airplanes during their routine. Also, he explained that we would be the same maneuvers the flying team does during its shows, except that we’d be at 10,000 feet rather than 100 feet. As we waited for a T-38 to clear the runway and sweltered in the early autumn sun — the A-4’s air conditioning never was any good — I volunteered that only weeks earlier I had received my private pilot’s license.
Nord’s take-off was classic Blue Angels. Lifting off at 140 knots, Nord retracted the gear and scooted the entire length of the 10,000-foot runway about 10 feet above the surface. Once he crossed the opposite end, doing about 350 knots, he eased back the stick and went into a sharp climb, executing a perfect half-loop. At the top he came on the intercom and said, “If you look over your head you’ll see the runway we just left.” With a flick of the wrist, the A-4 was right side up and Nord headed out over the Chesapeake Bay. Elapsed time since beginning the take-off roll was about 20 seconds. The altimeter was pegged at 3,000 feet.
Once clear of the base, we executed a rapid climb to 10,000 feet, giving me my first experience with positive G’s. “No that bad, ” I thought, “I can handle this.”
The first maneuver was a snap roll. The A-4 is capable of rolling at 720 degrees per second, but because of the heat and humidity we were down to about 600 degrees per second.
“Brace yourself, this may toss you around a bit,” Nord warned over the intercom. And then, WHAM! a violent bank to the right, and my neck muscles tried to counteract the centrifugal forces pulling my head and helmet to the left. A blur of blue sky and green-brown earth, and just as suddenly we were back to straight and level.
For the next 30 minutes we danced all over the high skies of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore doing loops, rolls, knife-edge turns, barrel rolls, Cuban eights and a host of other maneuvers I only vaguely remember. The little A-4 skittered about the hazy September sky like a jackrabbit, running full-bore straight-and-level one second then lifting into a graceful loop the next. And the G’s were always there, picking me up and putting me down, pushing in and pulling out, always trying to force me one way or the other.
About 15 minutes into the ride, Nord told me to grab the stick and he’d guide me through “a few basic maneuvers,” the first of which was a loop, something I’d never done before and certainly didn’t think fit into the “basic” category.
With Nord controlling the throttle we began the loop, “Slowly pull up the nose,” he instructed over the intercom, “Ten degrees . . .20 . . . holding it back . . . 30 degrees . . .more, more . . .60 degrees . . .keep it coming back . . . if you look at your gyro you’ll see we are now standing on our tail, and if you lean your head back . . . keep pulling back . . . . and look out of the top of the canopy you’ll see the horizon coming around from the opposite direction.” And he was right.
After getting back to straight and level, Nord told me to take the controls, at which time he held both hands up for me to see, and said those magic words, “You got it.”
Gingerly, I took the stick in my right hand, fearing that the slightest touch would send us careening out of control. For the first few second I kept the Skyhawk straight-and-level, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. Then Nord’s voice came on the line suggesting I try to roll it, “Just ease the stick either way, go ahead.”
Keeping the nose a few degrees above the horizon, I cautiously pushed the stick to the right and the plane began a slow and lazy roll to the right. I held the roll for a few second congratulating myself for doing it right and doing it smoothly. It was somewhere during the self-congratulations I screwed up and Nord came back on the line and asked me which way I would like to fly his airplane, left or right.
“We’ve been inverted for the last 10-15 seconds, either continue the roll to the right or roll left and come out of it,” he said. The second attempt was much better as the Skyhawk rolled the full 360 degrees and I recovered with 10 degrees of straight-and-level.
Next were several steep turns (70-plus degrees of bank) followed by Nord’s announcement that the final maneuver would be a high speed pass the length of the runway just off the deck. This, I knew, would be fun.
But it would have been more fun if it wasn’t for the fuel warning light.
The A-4 has a low-fuel enunciator light on the leading edge of the glare shield. When the fuel gets low the red light blinks, and as the fuel gets lower it blinks faster until it goes solid red. At that point the pilot should find a runway because the airplane is coming down real soon.
From 5,000 feet Nord started the high-speed pass and almost immediately the fuel light started blinking. Very slowly at first, then faster and faster as we quickly lost altitude and came howling down the runway at 450 knots, 100 feet above the concrete surface. At the end of the runway he chopped the power and climbed to pattern altitude for a right entry into downwind. Once on downwind, with the fuel light flashing faster than a bad tappet valve, the gear came down, the flaps were set, and we leisurely turned base, then final.
On final the light went solid red and my pucker factor was nearing nine. Effortlessly, Nord eased the Skyhawk onto the runway and we taxied back to the ramp, red light blazing away. After the debriefing, I asked him about the fuel warning system, and wasn’t he worried he might run out fuel.
“No,” he said, with the typical confidence of many pilots, “I’d filed for a 30-minute ride, so I took 30 minutes of fuel. No problem.”
Dennis McGee is an aviation writer living in Annapolis, Maryland.