The official reason for my 1-hour joy ride in a US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet on June 20 at the Paris air show is quite sensible. I am after all a serious journalist and non-pilot who writes regularly about the aircraft. The real-world exposure, compliments of Boeing’s generous invitation, would add a valuable perspective to my understanding of the aircraft and an appreciation for its strengths and limitations.
Or something like that.
Unofficially, my reason for accepting a back-seat ticket in the world’s newest carrier-borne aircraft was to have as much fun as possible without throwing up. (Some may argue the no-vomit proviso would seem to be in contradiction with the have-fun philosophy, but I was willing to live with it. It was my key performance parameter, if you will.)
Let’s just say the flight and my pilot — US Navy Lieutenant Page Felini — exceeded my expectations. Felini, a war veteran, likely felt the fighter pilot’s universal temptation to make an intrusive journo barf, but she generously abstained from making the worst of the reverse-g manuevers that predictably clean out the stomachs of aerial acrobatic rookies like myself.
I must also thank the good lieutenant for generously allowing me to play a little with the controls of the Super Hornet, or “Rhino” as its pilots call it.
I can now claim to have personally flown a loop in a fighter jet, which is as easy as kicking in the afterburner and pulling back on the stick until your feet are between you and what can be loosely described as the direction “up”. Also, I can say that I know what 6gs feel like. Felini also praised my ability to sustain a 5g banking turn at 500 knots for several seconds, although the truth was I simply was clueless about how to right the aircraft and get out of that awful little turn.
By far the greatest thrills were the serious of pirouette manuevers flown by Felini. The pirouette is the fastest way for a fighter to make a U-turn, and involves slamming on the rudder and the stick to flip the jet around at the inverted point of a loop. If that doesn’t make any sense as you read it, you’ll understand my own sense of situational bewilderment inside the cockpit. All I knew then was that it hurt, but was also really, really fun.
Nor does the pirouette force you to vomit, which is another plus. It wasn’t until we had finished the fun part and started transiting back to the airfield at Le Bourget to land that I seriously believed I was going to lose my stomach. I calmed myself by starting up a conversation with Felini about all the things I knew about the high explosive incindiary rounds in the Rhino’s M61 cannon. I’m sure from her perspective this sounded a little like a hospital patient talking about the latest advances in neuroscience with his neurologist, but I don’t care. The distraction worked and we soon landed at Le Bourget. Interestingly, Felini pulled to a stop right beside John Travolta’s personal 707 done up in 1960s-era Qantas livery. That was cool too.
What did I learn about the Rhino that I can apply to my job? Well, the ground-mapping feature of the APG-73 radar, which is being replaced with the APG-79, works better than I had expected. The jet never lacked power during any of the series of manuevers we attempted, even despite carrying a full load of eight air to air missiles (two AIM-9Ms and six AIM-120C-5s, if you’re wondering). Of course, I strongly doubt we were using the jet to its full potential.
Wearing the flight suit made me feel as awkward-looking as that image of President Goerge W. Bush on the deck of the Lincoln aircraft carrier in May 2003. My little joy ride was by far the most fun I’ve ever had in an aircraft and I managed to keep my digestion in order. So I’ll borrow a nice phrase from the President and proudly say: mission accomplished.