HOUSTON (KTRK) -- I have always considered it a tremendous blessing to be a reporter. I've traveled the world for 30 years and covered some of the most pivotal, transforming events in recent history. And not surprisingly some of the most memorable, tragic, or thrilling stories that I have covered involve the U.S. Military. Today, Friday, I add to my list of most memorable my incredible flight with the F-16 Falcon Thunderbirds! This team of U.S. Air Force pilots rank among the most elite flyers in the world and today they proved to me, why.
My training with the Thunderbirds actually began Thursday after being medically approved to be an honorary team member. The training was intense, comprehensive, and of course, direct. Yes, I learned I could die in this aerial exercise. Duh. The Jet could crash, explode or catch fire. I may have to eject and would be at the minimum, injured. But then again, the same could happen on my drive home from work. We went through the equipment list, controls, the maneuvers, breathing techniques to control the stress the body receives from the gravitational pull from the maneuvers, and our flight plan. I was anxious through it all but felt more at ease after the training was complete.
The time came to enter the jet. With my cool looking flight suit on, I then strapped around me something called a "G Suit," which tightly wraps around your belly and legs, applying increasing pressure to counteract the "G" forces the body has to endure. To put it bluntly, it squeezes your body so that your feet don't explode from the rush of blood and keeps blood circulation to your brain so that you don't pass out. I slipped into the back seat of the fuselage, buckled myself in, donned my helmet and breathing apparatus and held on for the greatest ride of my life.
The canopy dropped and we were off with the Pilot rattling off our air speed, "200, 250, 300, 350, 450." Then came the unsettling words, "here come some "G's". I took a deep breath and the training took over as I heard the after burners of this remarkable mechanical wonder fire up and drive us literally straight up. We climbed to nearly 20,000 feet in seconds. I felt the "G" suit rapidly inflate with air, clutching itself around every blood flowing vein in a frantic effort to keep me conscious. As frightening all of this might sound, it was truly unbelievable. An incredible experience. Twists, turns, hard banks, inverted flying, loops, and all with the end result of a dizzying nausea. Air sickness set in. Again the training set in and I looked at the horizon in a desperate attempt to stabilize my equilibrium. It worked for a short time until the next round of maneuvers. My balance was so disjointed that I just knew I was going to lose it. I recalled the words of the staff sergeant who buckled me in, "Don't dirty this jet!" he said emphatically. "We don't want to clean up these controls." He then handed me a few airsickness bags.
I pulled out a bag, unsecured my breathing mask, and placed the bag to my mouth. This is where your imagination kicks in. It's happened to you before. You can feel it coming. But nothing came. I went into a frenzy of several dry heaves. Still, nothing was released. I was grateful that I followed the Thunderbirds strict diet. Soon enough the motion sickness eased up enough to allow me to enjoy the remainder of the flight. Again, more unbelievable maneuvers testing the ability of this premier fighter jet. My favorite was the slow roll, almost like flying in a screw-like fashion. The precision of these jets is stunning. They twist, roll, incline and can abruptly stop a maneuver so incredibly fast, I was genuinely shocked.
But, soon enough, it was over. The thrill was gone and we were headed home. I sat in awe, calm as a summer's morning, admiring the beautiful clear ski and the whole of the Houston metropolitan area below me. I thought to myself, "I have just experience the most thrilling, unbelievable ride ever with the most recognized, elite flyers in the world." Cool. Really cool.
After departing the jet, back on the ground but feeling on top of the world, again the air sickness, nauseating, vomiting feeling was back. And with a vengeance. Only this time I had a bathroom to run to.
The Wings Over Houston Air Show runs Saturday and Sunday at Ellington Field. Gates open at 8am. The Thunderbirds, along with several other incredible jets and planes, will put on an unbelievable demonstration.
abc13 anchor Art Rascon flies with the Thunderbirds