Flying high in the fast lane Blue Angels: At 700 mph-plus, a reporter gets a taste of what it's like to loop and roll with the Navy's precision flying team.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OVER THE EASTERN SHORE -- Let's get straight to the point: No, I didn't get sick.

But it crossed my mind -- and my stomach -- as I peered through the canopy of this F/A-18 Hornet knifing through the skies and saw the Nanticoke River, curling beautifully ABOVE my head.

"Straight up and over the top," squawks Lt. Scott "Yogi" Beare into my headset, with the nonchalance of a guy pulling his Dodge minivan into the driveway. "Now you'll feel a little bit of a pull coming back." The horizon and sky appeared again, and sure enough, my body tugs into the seat.

I'm on a "media flight," harnessed into Blue Angel #7 as it banks, rolls and climbs above Southern Maryland and the Shore. The plane is an airborne Ferrari to the shuttle-bus lumberings of a commercial jet. Forget roller coasters and Space Mountain. If the government made this experience widely available, Disney World would nose-dive into Chapter 11.

"It's the most stressful thing you'll ever do in your life," drawls Petty Officer 2nd Class Ronnie Harper of Kentucky, who is part of the crew of the Navy's precision-flying team, just before takeoff at Andrews Air Force Base.

Hmmmm.

The jet will travel faster than 700 mph, just short of the speed of sound. And the "G-force," or gravitational force, he explains, will exceed 7.5. Multiply that figure by your body weight and you'll get the meaning. "It's going to feel like it's pulling you through the bottom of the jet."

"OK," I lie, jotting down notes.

The passenger fights the "G-force," Harper says, by doing the "hook" maneuver: bending your arms and tightening your abdomen, thighs and calves. This prevents blood from leaving the head, which leads to "tunneling out" and a quick nap.

"If you're going to get sick, get it over with," he says finally, noting that airsick bags are tucked into pockets on both sides of the jet.

Oh no.

The next thing I know, I'm wearing a yellow helmet and blue flight suit with "VIP" on the chest, barreling down the runway like a toboggan. I'm told we have clearance for a "low transition, high performance climb on takeoff."

This means little -- until we reach the end of the runway. "Three two one pull!" Beare squawks. We are vertical with a whoosh of air, my face flattened by the force, climbing to 8,000 feet. The Hornet becomes the space shuttle.

8 miles a minute

At 11,000 feet, we flatten out and cruise along at 8 miles a minute.

Beare, an Alexandria, Va., native and Persian Gulf war combat veteran, chomped on an egg sandwich before takeoff (at a time when I was still worried about the bagel I had eaten two hours earlier). He won his wings in 1989 and joined the team in October. The seven-member team flies about 70 performances at 35 locations each year.

He gestures toward the wing and its gold, arrow-shaped "lau" tip. During formations, he says, the helmet of another pilot will be about 36 inches below that point.

"We'll do a bunch of maneuvers that you would see during the show," he squawks between competing radio messages from the tower at Patuxent Naval Air Station. "Then a few things on top of that."

He starts with a "diamond roll," turning the plane over and upright with such slow ease that it is barely noticeable.

Then he performs a "loop," shooting the plane straight up and over, a dizzying blend of sky and earth. So far, so good.

"What I'm going to do is give you the airplane," he squawks, calling for another "loop."

What?

'More aggressive'

I pull the stick, set on a spring that requires 35 pounds of force to operate and allows the Blue Angels to fly in a tighter formation, he says. Keep pulling. Keep pulling. We curl over to see the plume of smoke we left behind.

It's time, he says, to get "a little more aggressive."

Beare begins a "four-point roll," jerking the plane around at 90-degree intervals, stopping at each point for a few seconds. "Amazing," I find myself saying, my head still spinning.

He quickly flips the plane over like a hamburger, and we're hanging by our harnesses, watching the Eastern Shore stream past. Will this harness hold, I wonder, and what about the canopy? We flop back.

Beare begins to execute a 4.5-G turn. I "hook," and he counts off the G's as my body tries to become part of the seat. "How're we doing back there?" the Dodge minivan driver wonders.

"Great," I think.

"We're going all the way to 7.5," he squawks, beginning the turn and counting off the G's -- 3 G's 4 G's 5 G's 6 G's. He's almost shouting now.

Every muscle, tendon and cell becomes heavier and heavier, pulled by some demon force. At 7.2 G's, my body (with bagel) is 1,152 pounds. My head becomes a watermelon that tumbles forward nearly to my knees before he pulls out of the turn.

Heading back to Andrews, I'm thinking of my stomach. Beare talks of growing up and watching air shows at Andrews, seeing the Blue Angels angle into the sky.

He never dreamed he would be part of the squadron, especially after his first ride on an A-4 Skyhawk jet when he was in the Navy ROTC at George Washington University.

"I was kind of claustrophobic. I didn't much care for it at all," he squawks. "When I got back, I swore I'd never be a jet pilot." Those days are long past. He makes a slow, sweeping turn around Andrews, explaining that this is how a fighter jet would approach a carrier.

Beare says he is often at a loss to tell what it's like flying a supersonic aircraft over the water or past the snow-capped mountains of Nevada.

"You really can't explain it to people," he squawks, "until you feel it."

Roger that.

Pub Date: 5/23/96

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