Sentinel editor’s time with jet set likely his last

Sentinel editor's time with jet set likely his last

Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Editorial Page Editor readies for his ride in #7 Thunderbird.



U.S Air Force Thunderbird No. 7 takes off with Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Andy Smith in the rear seat of the F-16 at the Grand Junction Regional Airport.



QUICKREAD

LOOK TO THE SKIES

The Grand Junction Air Show 2015 presented by West Star Aviation is today and Sunday, as western Colorado welcomes the world-renowned U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

The tentative schedule for today looks like this:

9:30 a.m. — Gates open

10 a.m. — Opening ceremony

10:15 a.m. — USAF Wings of Blue - Flag Jump

10:30 a.m. — Tora Tora Tora demonstration

11:15 a.m. — AT-28

11:35 a.m. — Buck Roetman-Pitts

11:50 a.m. — Rocky Mountain Renegades

12:20 p.m. — Gary Rower - Stearman

12:35 p.m. — Matt Younkin -Twin Beech

12:55 p.m. — USAF Wings of Blue

1:15 p.m. — Redstone College Jet Car

1:40 p.m. — Barry Hancock - T-6

1:55 p.m. — Brad Wursten - MX

2:15 p.m. — Squirrel Cage

2:30 p.m. — USAF Thunderbirds

Times and schedule subject to change. More info is available at gjairshow.com.



The flight surgeon suggested no Dramamine. There was a sound medical reason for this advice, but I don’t remember it because anxiety was getting the better of my faculties during my pre-flight orientation.

But I think it boiled down to this: Dramamine won’t make a lick of difference when the weight of a Cape Buffalo is crushing your lower spine into your seat.

That’s exactly what it felt like for the eternity (OK, maybe four seconds) of the six Gs we pulled arcing into a sheer vertical ascent from the Grand Junction Regional Airport into the perfect blue skies above the Grand Valley on Thursday. Six Gs means six times the force of gravity, turning my stocky 200-pound frame into 1,200 pounds of fear and adrenaline.

I was a passenger in the cramped two-man cockpit of a Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. The percentage of Americans who get to experience this is infinitesimally small. But the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are in town to perform their precision aerial maneuvers during the Grand Junction Air Show and part of their mission is to give the public a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what they do.

I’m the lucky guy who was chosen for a Thunderbirds “familiarization” flight.

These airmen are ambassadors representing the 700,000 people who serve in the U.S. military, 22,000 of whom are deployed in contingency operations. They dedicate each show to a fallen warrior. Sunday’s performance will be in honor of Air Force Capt. William DuBois of New Castle. DuBois was killed when his F-16 crashed over Jordan last December.

Thunderbirds aren’t just the pilots. They include every man and woman — the majority of whom are enlisted personnel — who serves on the Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron and they take their ambassador role seriously. I’ve never been treated better as they fitted me for my G-suit and explained what I was about to experience. They made me feel like a rock star.

Unfortunately, unrelenting nausea took the shine off this once-in-a-lifetime experience. After the first “maneuver,” which was going straight up to 16,000 feet, I was ruined. I told the pilot, Maj. Tyler Ellison, to take it easy on me.

And he did. We flew smooth and steady at 300 knots to Green River, Utah, which revived me slightly. Enough for Ellison to coax me into trying some of the maneuvers Air Show spectators will see this weekend.

“Want to try a barrel roll?” he said.

“Let’s give it a shot,” I said. It wasn’t bad. Focusing on the exercises to combat G forces seemed to take my mind off puking.

We did a complete inverted loop, hitting the jet trail when we returned to our starting point. We did an eight-point turn, where Ellison tilted the wings 45 degrees eight times in succession. That means we flew sideways (twice), upside down and every angle in between — but straight ahead. When Ellison put the plane on its side and then pulled the nose back, I thought I was going to lose it.

“OK, I think I’ve had enough of the maneuvers,” I said.

Ellison said we could do some sightseeing. He pointed the fighter jet to Moab and I watched the La Sal mountains quickly zoom into view. I tried taking some photos with my iPhone, but focusing on the shutter button seemed to make my nausea worse.

Ellison grew up in Layton, Utah, and had great familiarity with the area. He pointed out landmarks like the Slickrock Trail near Moab where he spent part of his youth mountain biking. I tried to drink in the spectacular scenery, but I couldn’t. Most of the time I had my eyes closed with my mask off and air bag at the ready.

I’m certain I would have enjoyed the flight if I had just been able to puke. I’ve only thrown up a handful of times in my life. The last time was 1987.

“I’m ready when you are,” I said feebly into my mask. “I don’t think I can last much longer.”

It only took minutes to fly from the La Sal mountains to the edge of the monument. Then, a smooth-as-glass landing and it was mercifully over. I got to shake hands with the entire flight crew. Ellison explained that for every hour in the air, the F-16 undergoes six hours of inspection and maintenance.

I’m glad I did it. The memories will last a lifetime. And they’ll have to. Because I don’t think I want to do this again.


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