I had a unique experience today as a good friend of mine, Robin "Hammer" Thompson invited me to meet him at Raleigh Durham Airport and take a spin (literally!) in his L-39 light-attack fighter jet. Damn... and I thought Ol' Huck looked good in my garage, you should see the sexy bitch he has in his hangar!
It ain't a bad feeling cruising 75mph down the Interstate on a Harley, especially knowing you're soon to be airborne in an authentic Czech Fighter Jet. Reality comes into focus when the big hangar doors are muscled out of the way to reveal this sleak, menacing-looking fighter (Pic #01 with the nose access panel open revealing the avionics and pressurized gasses). The Line Crew pulled it out of the hangar into the sun with me tagging along drooling all over my shirt, digital camera in hand, snapping pictures. ( Pic #02)
We go over the pre-flight procedures, with Robin explaining all that he was doing...tapping on various tanks and lines, scrunching up his brow saying "Hmmm that doesn't look good"... Funny guy - Doesn't phase me a bit. I know he's just screwing with the newbie. He offers me the largest flight suit he's got, along with the biggest helmet/visor...neither one of which is big enough, so I opt for the squadron ballcap and a headset, and my Las Vegas Harley T-Shirt with a big eagle on it - appropriate maybe, yet perhaps not stylish enough for this exercise.
A quick look into the cockpit of this two-seater aircraft reveals a tight fit as well, with half of the controls still labeled in Czech... sure hope they're not too important. Pic #03 is the front cockpit, the rear sits up a tad higher with a few less gizmo's for me to fool with, but has a control yoke and throttle and most of the avionics repeated for me, along with a GPS III just like on my Harley, to keep me informed on altitude, speed and distance readings.
(Pic #04 shows Hammer getting me settled in - strapping all the belts and hooking up the communications gear.... and repeating several times NOT to touch any of the red levers, especially the one labeled EJECTION! (Which I find out after we hit the ground is only rated at 220 lbs... I guess I was destined to ride it to the ground if anything happened.)
Once we were all strapped in, he fired this powerful beast up and contacted the Air Traffic Control tower, saying his tail numbers and aircraft type (L39). A full 30 seconds went by before the lady in the tower responded by aking him to repeat his aircraft type...she musta been looking for us on the ground before giving us instructions. He repeated "L39"... 10 seconds later she came back with a higher degree of skepticism in her voice...."Are you the fighter jet?" I could almost hear her follow with a respective "COOL!", but she went on to give us ground directions to the runway and we rolled into the commercial traffic pattern on the ground, immediately in front of a 757 and poised in position at the end of the runway waiting for the ATC to give us permission to go play in the skys over eastern NC.
I gotta tell ya, this was a high moment in my life to sit in a bubble cockpit like this, easily looking over Robin's head out the front window, as we applied full Military Power to the Ivchenko AI-25TL (not that you care) single engine, the air intakes at either ear, and feel the thrust hurtle you down the runway. It was a really hot muggy day and it took a longer rollout than usual to get airborne, but once the wheels were locked up and we were rolling out over I-40, it was surprisingly quiet and smooth with an incredible sensation of speed as the world spits by past my entire field of vision.
We climb out to around a 1000 feet for a while to watch the ground zoom by, and then go up to about 15,000 feet. The cabin is pressurized and air conditioned so it was a comfortable ride...for the moment anyway! Out over Rocky Mount, NC, we begin our playing around, starting with a snap 90-degree turn to the left at full power, pulling 3-G's ... holy shit! I always thought G-forces would just kinda make you feel heavy and light headed... I was slammed back and down into my seat uncontrollably feeling like my cheeks were wrapped around my shoulders. My other cheeks were gripping the seat so hard, I was sure I'd leave teeth marks. It didn't last too long, and as I assured my pilot (who performed the maneuvar superbly by the way) that I was still with him, I wiped the sweat off my brow thinking this is some serious shit!
Robin announced we were gonna do it the other way, followed by a repeat snap the other direction...another 3-G's and my head beginning to tell me to cut it out. Lieing just a little bit to Robin, saying I'm just fine, not much worse that a tight turn on the Harley, we followed that with two rolls - wing over wing to the right and then to the left. These were great as they do not creat any G-forces, almost zero-gravity when you're at the top of the roll. You can see the tail-cam view of this roll by CLICKING HERE to play a WMV Video clip. If you have a Windows Media Viewer installed it should fire up for you after it downloads.
Once confirming that I was OK, we did a double roll. It took a moment for my eyeballs to catch up with he rest of my face after that one and the first signs of ...hmmmm.... I shouldn't have had that Apple Danish at breakfast... feeling come over me. We then did a loop, where he dips down 10 degrees to pick up some airspeed, up to almost 300 mph and pulls it back into a 4-G loop. I was fighting to keep blood in my head by holding my breath and squeezing, scrunching down with my body in an attempt to keep the blood up high, with little success. Up to that point I was having a blast, but this last one was the beginnings of a not-so-fun feeling. And I told him I got pretty feint on that last one, but he said it was pretty common for first-timers to feel that. CLICK HERE to see a clip of the tail camera during a loop.
Then we did it again...another 4-G loop that caused my color-vision to fade to Black and White - a grey-out they call it, and the first signs of blacking out. I had an immediate sensation of being drunk on the verge of collapsing but got on the intercom in time to tell Robin, in a slurred drawl. Fortunately we hit the top of the loop about then and never really lost it. Vision came back immediately, but from then on I had a fairly unpleasant feeling all the way back to the airport. Tingly feet, legs, hands and arms, and an oncoming nausea. I am thankful I never puked in his nice cockpit, but I should advise him to steal some barf bags on his next airline flight to keep in the back seat!
The landing was perfect - he really nailed it. As we taxi'd to the General Aviation hangars, I spotted more than one ground crew stop and stare as we rolled past the gates. At the time, though, I was wondering if I would be able to climb out of the cockpit and whether or not I would be able to walk. I gotta tell ya, the effects of two 3G and two 4G maneuvers really takes it out of ya on your first try.
Here are a few more video links to other maneuvers taken from the tail camera...
All told we spent less than an hour airborne, but my shit-eating grin lasted through the rest of the day and into the evening when I showed some friends the pictures, showing off what I did today. I still have the grin as I write this...
Even the ride home from the airport on the Harley wasn't as fun anymore...but I had a damned site more control of my two-wheels. Appreciate the ride, Hammer!
If y'all want to check out the 39th Aggressor Squadron website, go to http://www.aggressor39.org/