View Full Version : OT: Top Gun for a Day

04-18-2006, 09:40 AM
Found this in Sunday's New Jersey Star Ledger and thought you would all enjoy:

Top Gun (for a day)
Saturday, April 15, 2006
ABOARD AN F-16 AT 5,000 FEET OVER NEW JERSEY -- "Okay, Wayne, you've got the aircraft."
Lt. Col. Matt Wengler spoke those words matter-of-factly, and so began a stretch of two minutes and 50 seconds packed with enough stress to last the rest of my life.
The veteran New Jersey Air National Guard pilot had just turned the controls of a $22 million fighter jet over to a reporter whose prior aviation experience consisted of childhood afternoons building model airplanes and an hour in an F-16 flight simulator earlier that same day.
Wengler had a simple request: Turn the plane slightly to the left and descend to 3,000 feet. Gradually.
As soon as my trembling right hand touched the joystick that steers the plane and adjusts the altitude, the plane's left wing dipped sharply. My heart nearly stopped.
"Oh, oh, that's sensitive," I stammered, breathing in painful gulps.
"It is," Wengler replied.
Then the pilot who has flown combat sorties in Iraq's no-fly zone and scrambled countless times over the Korean Peninsula calmly talked me through the turn and the altitude decrease. From his seat directly in front of me in the narrow two-man cockpit, Wengler could have taken over at any time, but he let me finish.
When he offered to take the controls back, the cockpit voice recorder preserved a torrent of words that couldn't be mistaken for anything other than my grateful acquiescence: "All right. Go ahead. Yes. Please. Thank you."
So now I know I don't have the nerves to fly combat aircraft. Or the technical smarts. That's okay. The Air Guard didn't want to train me as a pilot anyway.
What the Air Guard wanted to do was give a guy who writes about the military a chance to experience what its pilots do every day, whether they're flying homeland security alert missions along the Eastern Seaboard, practicing dogfights over the Atlantic Ocean, or hunting people who are planting roadside bombs in Iraq. The pilots of New Jersey's 177th Fighter Wing are doing all of those things.
They freely admit they are stretched thin by all these missions. Three of their 15 planes have been on full-time alert status since the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, two more are currently flying missions from Balad, Iraq, and the remainder need constant attention from a legion of more than 200 mechanics just to stay in the air.
All of the F-16s the unit flies from its base near Atlantic City are among the oldest in the Air Force inventory.
Col. Randall King, the 177th's commander, says the jets -- most built in the late 1980s -- are also beyond the 4,000 flying hours they were initially designed to handle. Constant upgrades and elbow grease keep them going.
For how long?
"We're entering no-man's land," King said recently. "Nobody really knows."
What King does know is that his unit, like the rest of the Air Guard, is a bargain for the taxpayer. The Air Guard accounts for about 7 percent of the Air Force budget but more than a third of its combat power. And while the active Air Force makes the transition to the new $180 million F-22 fighter jet, the Air Guard will fly the older F-15s and F-16s for the foreseeable future. Maintenance on King's planes runs about $7,000 per flight hour -- a fraction of what it costs to make the new stuff fly.
More than 200 members of the 177th are currently serving a three-month rotation in Iraq, although only a handful of the deployed airmen are pilots. The rest are aircraft mechanics, firefighters, explosives technicians and members of the security force, which guards installations and protects convoys.
But the unit's pilots and two F-16s are playing an important role in Iraq. Besides being called upon to drop bombs occasionally, they spend a lot of time flying battlefield reconnaissance missions, King said.
Both planes have been outfitted with infrared sensors that can "see" suspected insurgents, even if they are hiding inside a building. The planes also have new cockpit cameras that can beam real-time footage to commanders on the ground.
The Air Guard's pilots tend to be older and more experienced than their active-duty counterparts. Most give up a lot for this "part-time" job.
Take Wengler, the pilot I flew with. He leaves his wife and two daughters and his job as a flight navigator for FedEX behind in Memphis to come to Atlantic City to fly F-16s five or six days each month, the minimum he needs to stay current. He spent 20 years on active duty and his last assignment before "retiring" in 2002 as an adviser to the 177th. He came out of retirement two years later to rejoin the unit part time, even though his service in the Guard actually reduces his military retirement package.
"I lose money doing this," he said. "I thought I'd miss the flying when I left. I missed the people even more."
Before we took off the other day, he showed me cockpit videotapes of some of his recent training dogfights. At 47, Wengler often beats up on pilots who were in kindergarten when he was in flight school.
"The young lieutenants have faster reflexes than I do," Wengler said. "But I'm smarter. I've been doing this for a lot longer."
As we prepared to board the F-16, he sized me up.
"You were built for G's," he told me. That's a fighter jock's polite way of saying I'm short and stocky. Tall people are especially at risk for passing out during combat jet maneuvers, because the steep turns and rapid acceleration creates forces of five or even 10 G's (one G equals the force of gravity; the biggest roller coasters in the world exert no more than three). All those G's force blood into the legs and away from the brain.
To keep the blood out of their legs, pilots wear G-suits, essentially an olive-drab set of chaps with an air bladder inside. The suit hooks up to a hose that pumps air into the suit when the plane senses G-forces over about 2. The more G's, the more air.
Wengler and another veteran pilot, Maj. Vinnie Cooper, told me about another fine side effect of the forces of gravity -- broken blood vessels. The pilots have bruises all over their bodies. They call them "G-easels."
"You know, rhymes with measles," Cooper said cheerfully.
I'd already been told what to do if Wengler yells: Bailout, bailout, bailout."
Throw my head back, tuck my arms to the side, and wait for my seat to eject. A parachute would carry me to safety, I was told.
Wengler told me I could end up pulling the ejection handle. Although extremely unlikely, a large bird hitting the canopy could create a shock wave strong enough to knock him out.
"So if you see blood and guts running on the outside of the canopy, talk to me," Wengler said. "If I don't answer, steer the plane away from the water, away from anything that looks populated, slow us to 200 knots, and bail us out. You might get the chance to save my life."
So glad I didn't get the chance.
I got the ride of my life instead.
As Wengler and I left for the flight line, Cooper promised as much.
"All the federal taxes you have paid in your entire life will be repaid today," he said.
As the F-16 raced off the runway and into the sky with 29,000 pounds of thrust behind it, I agreed. Things got even better after my short stint at the controls, when the professional took the helm.
Wengler flew us over the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Ocean County. It's a 9,400-acre area used by Air Force and Air Guard units in the Eastern United States for target practice. It's the only unrestricted air space available in New Jersey for combat maneuvers.
It was there Wengler introduced me to the Immelman. The maneuver, named for a German World War I ace, involves flying the first half of a loop, ending up inverted at the top. The pilot turns the plane back over and flies off in the other direction.
Above the range is where I also learned what it feels like to weigh a ton. Literally.
At one point, Wengler hit the afterburner to ramp up the speed and then banked sharply. Ninety-degrees sharply. I tried to adjust my air mask in the middle of the turn. I couldn't even wiggle my fingers, let alone raise my hand. I actually wondered if my eye balls were going to pop out of my head.
As we pulled out of the turn, Wengler proudly told me we had just flirted with the sound barrier -- Mach .98 -- about 745 mph at our altitude of 1,000 feet.
I'll let the voice recorder tell the rest.
Wengler: "Wayne, that was 9.4 G's. How do you feel?"
Me: "That was sweet. I feel great."

04-18-2006, 10:10 AM
Wow thats an amazing read, thank you so much for posting it! http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/11.gif

04-18-2006, 10:12 AM
Very nice story - unfortunately we don't have an Air Guard in Germany - that would be my kind of flying. http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/winky.gif

04-18-2006, 05:57 PM
Originally posted by sgilewicz:
I'd already been told what to do if Wengler yells: Bailout, bailout, bailout."
Throw my head back, tuck my arms to the side, and wait for my seat to eject. A parachute would carry me to safety,

When I went up doing Aeros in an RAF Jag,
part of the preflight brief I was told that he would call "EJECT EJECT EJECT" and that if I heard the third one it would be an echo as I would be on my own by then http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif

04-18-2006, 07:53 PM
you know guys. as much as i always wanted to be a fighter piolet ect when i was a kid i have yet in my 28 years left the ground under powerd flight....unless you count the time i took rollercoaster road in my mom's oldsmobile 94 heheheh i know i cleard 4 FT high . it would take a very large strong well trained ranger and two sticks of C-4 to get me in one im sure lol. sad a guy so into aveation gets "jittery" about hights.

04-18-2006, 09:41 PM
Sweet! Thx for sharing.... http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-happy.gif

04-18-2006, 11:13 PM
That's me home state! Good on ya!

04-18-2006, 11:17 PM
When I delivered in that area, I used to go by the airfield and see them parked on the flight line. Used to watch them in the landing pattern, also. (my favorite jet)

04-19-2006, 01:26 AM
Great article... Thank's for posting.

04-19-2006, 02:09 AM
fordfan mate, you're not the only one. I'm sh!tscared of height! Doesn't mean you can't be a pilot though http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_wink.gif

Nice read sgilewicz, 9.4G's! http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_eek.gif Surprised the man didn't blackout!

04-19-2006, 07:38 AM
Glad you guys liked it. The part that struck me was "As soon as my trembling right hand touched the joystick that steers the plane and adjusts the altitude, the plane's left wing dipped sharply. My heart nearly stopped.
"Oh, oh, that's sensitive," I stammered, breathing in painful gulps.
"It is," Wengler replied."

Resembles some of our joystick responses in game doesn't it http://forums.ubi.com/images/smilies/16x16_smiley-very-happy.gif PBNA, Wayno, yeah I'm a Jersey guy; mobsters, dumps, refineries and traffic. What a place! But at least, it seems, we have some cool jets!

04-19-2006, 08:40 AM
I'm no F-16 driver, but AFAIK the stick actually only moves a sixth of an inch and is very pressure-sensitive.
That means if you put the slightest force on this stick, it'll make an input to the control-surfaces out of it.
Early F-16's (don't ask me which Block) sidesticks weren't movable at all http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_cool.gif