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Thunderbird flight to the limit

Hirschman joins the 9 G club

An invisible elephant sat on my chest. An anaconda squeezed my legs.

On a brilliant, sun-splashed morning, these foreign and seemingly irresistible forces were creating my own personal eclipse—and its looming shadow threatened to make my happy little place in the back seat of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F–16D fade into oblivion.

The vibrant colors of the North Carolina coast slipped to monochromatic gray; my field of view constricted to a knothole. Even the Darth Vader-esque sound of my own labored breathing became oddly distant.

A fragmentary thought popped into my blood-starved brain, and it was something that would have been obvious to any intelligent person: Taunting a U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot right before he took me flying had been a deeply regrettable strategy.

Maj. Jason Markzon, a veteran fighter pilot who flies Thunderbird No. 8, seemed to take my baiting in stride. He said nothing, for example, about my bright yellow U.S. Navy F/A–18 Hornet T-shirt (a hand-me-down from my younger brother Harry) and did not respond to my gratuitous praise of the rival Blue Angels. He just smiled a dimply grin knowing exactly how he’d get even.

I let him know my ulterior motive for egging him on was my sincere hope that doing so would convince him to go “off script” during our flight and show me as much of the F–16’s performance as I could physically stand.

As a civilian, general aviation pilot, this flight was a dream come true, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was the only time I’d ever be in an F–16, and I didn’t want to hold back. If taunting was the way to get Markzon to unleash the real, unvarnished, essential Viper, I’d do it with gusto.

For his part, Markzon, an Arizona State University ROTC grad, didn’t need any convincing.

“Heck, all you had to do was ask,” he said. “The F–16 can pull up to 9 Gs, and if you want to experience that, I’m happy to show it to you. This flight is for you, and if you want it to be strenuous, it’ll be strenuous. I’m totally fine with that.”

'Puke and rally'

My personal airplane is a Van's Aircraft RV–4, and I flew it every day for the week before my F–16 ride in the hope of building G tolerance—but there’s only so much the 1,000-pound sport aircraft can do in that area. I’d lower the nose, advance the throttle, and turn hard to sustain 3 to 4 Gs as long as possible.

I’d practice anti-G breathing techniques and try to identify what worked. But a 160-horsepower sport airplane is no fighter, or a centrifuge, so it only hinted at the crushing forces to come.

The day before my scheduled F–16 flight, I traveled to Hampton Roads, Virginia, with AOPA colleague Warren Morningstar in a Bonanza A36, and we heard the Thunderbirds on the Norfolk Approach ATC frequency as they arrived at the nearby Oceana Naval Air Station where they were set to perform that weekend.

The weather was perfect and forecast to remain that way. But I tried to keep my hopes in check knowing the flight could still be canceled for any number of reasons.

The next morning, we arrived at the base, saw a line of spotless Thunderbird F–16s on the flight line, and met with team members for a standard series of briefings. Lt. Col. Noel Colls, a physician, talked about the importance of staying hydrated, practicing the G-strain maneuvers, and airsickness.

“If you get sick,” he said, “just puke and rally. Puke and rally.”

Things started getting real when Staff Sgt. Kyle Boddie fitted me with a G-suit, helmet, oxygen mask, and flight suit, and Staff Sgt. Chris Tidline talked about the ejection seats.

Markzon showed up at the appointed time and told about the flight itself. It would start with an “unrestricted” climb from the runway straight up to 15,000 feet.

“We’ll accelerate in afterburner to about 400 knots at the end of the runway,” he said. “We’ll pull about 5 Gs to the vertical. Then, after we level off, it’ll be about six minutes to the practice area where the fun really starts.”

He described a series of maneuvers such as the knife-edge pass, maximum deflection aileron rolls, point rolls, inverted-to-inverted rolls, loops, barrel rolls, vertical rolls, and slow flight at high angles of attack.

“If you want to join the 9-G club, we’ll do that, too,” he said.

It wasn’t until we walked outside to the waiting, two-seat F–16D with its open canopy, however, climbed the ladder, and cinched into the 30-degree reclined seats that I let go of my resistance and giddily accepted that this flight really was going to happen. The long, bubble canopy came down, the afterburning jet capable of producing 29,000 pounds of thrust awoke, and the forced air oxygen system started flowing.

“Go ahead and unsafety your ejection seat,” Markzon said. “We’re going flying.”

'That's the limit'

After a short taxi, we lined up with Runway 5 Right and were cleared for takeoff.

The runway is 12,000 feet long, and the F–16 didn’t use much of it. After a ground roll of about 2,000 feet, the airplane was airborne, and Markzon held it in level flight at about 20 feet as the acceleration became a blur.

At the end of the runway, he stood the jet on its tail with a firm tug on the sidestick controller and the long runway shrank behind us. The airplane weighed about 26,000 pounds at takeoff, so it had a greater than 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio—enough to accelerate vertically.

The rear cockpit has mostly analog gauges, two electric gyros, and a video feed from the pilot’s head-up display. Most of the instruments are early 1990s vintage, and I was surprised to see Markzon using an iPad Mini with ForeFlight and a Stratus ADS-B receiver for situational awareness and navigation.

“ForeFlight has changed my life,” he said. “I use it wherever we go.”

We flew south past Kitty Hawk, First Flight Airport, and the Wright Brothers Memorial to a military Restricted Area (R-5314) where Markzon seemed intent on diminishing my already unimpressive stature with level “warm up” turns of 5 Gs in one direction and seven in the other.

Despite the sudden and sustained increase in induced drag, however, the airspeed indicator barely budged. Markzon would start a turn at 450 KIAS and end it at roughly the same speed without changing the power setting.

“That’s a hallmark of the F–16,” he said. “It holds its energy like nothing else.”

A series of four full-deflection aileron rolls got the airplane rolling about one revolution per second.

At about 450 KIAS at an altitude of 5,000 feet, Markzon pulled up into a series of vertical rolls, then leveled off at about 15,000 feet. Frankly, I have no idea how many rolls he did, and he treated them as something of an instrument maneuver since he focused on the HUD and its flight path marker throughout the maneuver. I found the vertical rolls particularly disorienting because the reclined seat makes it feel as though the airplane is beyond vertical when the nose is straight up. Even from the rear seat, most of the airframe is out of view behind you.

Strangely, the vertical rolls followed a corkscrew pattern—not a straight, frozen rope. Our smoke trail showed what seemed like a series of mini-barrel rolls extending straight up into the blue sky.

Markzon was merciful in the sustained, high-G turn. Even though the airplane can hold max Gs for multiple turns, he subjected us to 9 Gs only momentarily during a 180-degree, level turn. Even with the G-suit squeezing my legs like a rogue blood pressure cuff, I could feel my senses fading. Blood pooled in my arms just above the elbows, and they felt almost too heavy to move.

At the conclusion of the maneuver, I noted that the analog G meter in the rear cockpit only reached 8.5 Gs—not the full nine. But Markzon said the more accurate digital one showed 9.1 Gs.

“That’s the limit,” he said.

We got a radio call from range control saying the people on the bombing range wanted a closer look at the Thunderbird jet. Markzon rolled in on the target, pointed the nose at the center of a circle, and the airplane remained rock steady as it accelerated.

“The trim doesn’t change at all,” he said. “The nose stays where you point it.”

Markzon asked me if I wanted to fly, and that was something I couldn’t possibly turn down. A barrel roll, loop, point roll, and a series of aileron rolls gave an immediate sense of the airplane’s unique handling and its pioneering fly-by-wire system. The sidestick moves slightly, but there’s no tactile feedback from the stick itself. It feels exactly the same regardless of the airplane’s speed or its flight attitude. You use the stick to tell the airplane what you want it to do, and it responds instantly—but the communication is a one-way street. The stick doesn’t tell the pilot anything. Only the airframe and instruments do that.

Also, there’s almost no correlation between the airplane’s attitude and its airspeed. It can go really fast straight up, and it can be pointed at the ground going relatively slow. To a piston pilot like me, that’s unnatural.

After one glorious, enlightening, exhausting hour, we returned to the airport where Markzon flew an overhead break starting at about 400 KIAS, lowered the landing gear, and smoothly decelerated to about 150 KIAS on final. There were no flaps to lower or other adjustments to make. The airplane knows what the pilot is trying to do and sets the control surfaces accordingly.

Markzon let the airplane cool down after pulling into its tie-down spot, and the Thunderbird ground crew quickly surrounded us.

I triumphantly held up a pair of empty airsickness bags that the crew chief had strapped to my leg at the beginning of the flight, and he smiled, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, and pantomimed wiping sweat from his brow. No one would have to clean up the cockpit with a mop and bucket. I thanked Markzon for the flight of a lifetime and the ground crew for their patriotism, professionalism, humor, and friendliness.

Afterward, I couldn’t wait to call my brother and let him know that his musty old VFA–151 Hornet T-shirt—one that he had worn on dozens of demanding flights around the world—had had made its way into a U.S. military fighter one more time.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
Topics: Training and Safety

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