Since moving to southern Oregon I’ve been taunted by the constant roar of fighter jets buzzing the skies. One of my main motivations for moving to K-falls was the appeal of being able to be a National Guard flight surgeon at Kingsley Field. Kingsley houses the only full time F-15C Eagle training program for the entire Air Force. Which means that anyone guard or active duty that is slated to be an Eagle pilot has to come through here for six months in a demanding course before they can boast the pick up line of being a full up fighter pilot.
When I was previously on active duty as a flight surgeon I never had the opportunity to fly in anything that was really high performance (no offense to my C-130 pilot friends). The cool-aid of flight medicine was always preached as normal physiology in abnormal environments as opposed to the rest of medicine done at ground level being abnormal physiology in normal environments. Although by virtue of moving injured patients in the back of stabilized aircrafts and practicing general medicine in Africa I think I got more of the abnormal physiology in abnormal environments experience.
There was a time half way through my active duty commitment when I was offered a transfer to Kadena Japan. Due to some policy shifts this transfer got turned off and I was forced to live out another two years at Cannon AFB in dusty Clovis, NM. To sooth my wounds my flight commander at the time said he would let me go to the “Top Knife” course (Top Gun pun intended) which is a week long course for flight docs at Kingsley field to fly as much as possible in the F-15, learn about high speed physiology, and get the world’s greatest selfie. I say all that just to show how highly the Air Force culture holds fighters. If your assignment change got turned off no one is going to offer you an afternoon nap in the back of a C-5 to calm your aching heart.
In order to be fully credentialed to fly in the back seat of the Eagle I was supposed to spend a grueling day in the renowned “centrifuge”. The centrifuge located in Texas is just what it sounds like. Imagine a giant circular room, there is a giant arm that connects the center of the room to a small pod on the periphery. The inside of this pod is similar to the inside of a cockpit and the whole apparatus spins around and around inducing the pod victim to up to 9-Gs. The point of this training is to learn a certain technique that involves a coordination of muscle contraction and breathing in order to not pass out from all the blood flowing away from your brain. I’m sure its great training, but due to a lack of end of the year funds I didn’t get to go before my first flight, which meant I was going to have to figure out G’s on the fly so to speak. Technically, it also meant I couldn’t log any real hours and they would all fall under the guise of “familiarization”.
The mighty F-15 eagle is truly an impressive machine. I remember growing up and my dad constantly being impressed with the idea that we humans could pilot a plane that could push our very biological limits. From the pages of Wikipedia:
“The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter aircraft designed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) to gain and maintain air supremacy in aerial combat.”
According to one of the placards at the front of our base it has a top speed of around 1,800 MPH, can climb 50,000 feet per minute and can sustain 9Gs. Being a ground dwelling being most of my life, it’s nearly impossible to absorb those facts.
Before my flight I had to get orientation about how to properly egress the aircraft and go over cockpit orientation. I’ve done this on a variety of airframes before and it’s honestly never something to write about, imagine your standard safety brief on commercial airlines, just more utilitarian. The F-15 brief however was not the same. There was a back room set up with a mock cockpit where I learned all the intricacies of my half of the cockpit. I could after all fly the airplane from the back seat, so most of the same controls are both up front and in the back. Probably the most intimidating aspect of the training was the ejection seat. Instead of your normal brace for a crash orientation this was an orientation about how to pull a couple of levers that would ignite rockets under your seat propelling the passenger at a thrust of nearly 24 G’s straight out into the sky. Then hopefully a variety of parachutes would go off while somehow around the same time some other version of a minor explosion would separate me from my rocket propelled seat. All this while my arms hopefully aren’t ripped off from being thrown out of an aircraft at supersonic speeds or my spine being crushed from the G-force of the thrust. What could go wrong?
Probably the most cool guy moment of my life (cue the Top Gun music) was walking out to the aircraft side by side with the pilot. Flight and G-suit equipped, holding my helmet in my hand. I was only missing some aviator sunglasses and some sweat swooping 80’s hair. Once buckled in I plugged in my G-suit and oxygen mask to the plane. I guess it’s worth mentioning what the G-suit does. It basically sort of looks like a pair of chaps that go over a flight suit. Inside it has a bunch of bladders that are connected to a hose that connects to the plane. When the plane makes a tight turn inducing G-forces in the passengers the G-suit automatically starts filling up squeezing the wearer really tight to try and force blood into the upper body and towards the brain. So after we were all situated the canopy came down and we started taxing down the runway. I remember this IMAX movie I once saw called “Red Flag” it was all about a massive fighter training exercise in Nevada. There are several scenes were the camera is in the cockpit with a fisheye lens. When I was in the cockpit, I remember thinking how much it felt like the IMAX movie. I guess that says a lot about IMAX, if you do the real thing and think “gee, this feels like IMAX”.
After we took off the jet made a move almost flying straight up and I felt the first of many angry lurches in my stomach. We flew straight and level for a little bit until we got to the area where we were going to train. I was with one of the instructor pilots. There was another plane with a student pilot. They were going to go over basic dog fighting maneuvers. We were going to be attacking and the student was going to try and defend. During the short 5 minute flight toward the dog fighting area the pilot handed me the controls and let me fly. My job was to keep it straight and level, but hey, I still flew an F-15!. So yup, basically a fighter pilot.
Once we were in the training area the two planes lined up and began their fight. On the first turn the plane rolled about 90 degrees and pulled a roughly 4G turn. My legs were squeezed, I did my G maneuver, but ultimately it didn’t seem that bad as I was still conscious. On the next turn I was warned it would be “a lot of G’s”. The plane turned again, a little more past 90 degrees this time and started pulling into a near 9 G turn. Plastered to the back of my seat I squeezed as hard as I could in my butt and abs while forcefully performing a valsalva maneuver only to take a quick breath about every three seconds. I could feel my arms start to hurt as capillaries started bursting and blood was pooling in the back of my arms. After it was over I was again relieved at my current state of still being conscious. I remember watching videos of people passing out or “G-locking” during heavy G’s. When they came back to they didn’t really remember passing out, which of course made me wonder if maybe I had G-locked and don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.
The next 10 minutes were spent dog fighting which for me was mix of trying to keep my stomach at bay while fighting off G’s. Turns out the G-strain maneuver is pretty exhausting. By just a few minutes in I was pouring in sweat. One thing I thought interesting was my nausea would subside once we rolled into a hard turn. The theory is that when you’re flying and just kind of floating along the crystals in your inner ear are free to misbehave and induce some motion sickness. When you start pulling G’s the crystals are all locked back into one place and their play time is over. Although it might make your stomach feel better I still found the phenomenon to be a little disorientating. If the G’s are coming straight at you it’s hard to know where your position is in space, like if the plane’s flying upside down or perpendicular to the earth, it all kind of feels the same. Probably the highlight was at once point we were above the student pilot moving to attack and flew straight down with the nose right towards the earth. The view in front of me was the ground, no sky, with a F-15 a few thousand feet away and we were heading right towards it. There was no real sensation of flying straight down. It’s an image now burned in my mind that seems completely impossible looking back at.
Heading home my stomach was giving me some real complaints. We did a couple of approaches to the runway, acting like we were going to land and peeling off at the last second. Each time my stomach became more and more disgruntled. On one of these approaches we pulled a quick banking turn I wasn’t ready for and didn’t do a straining maneuver. Instantly the lights started to go out and my peripheral vision started to close in. I realized quick enough whatwas going, squeezed my butt and was able to get some blood flow back up the brain just in time, but I understood how easy it would be to G-lock if I wasn’t paying attention or trying.
Back on the ground I was careful climbing out of the cockpit as my limbs seemed to not be responding properly. Out of the plane I stood there for a second bent over with my hands on my knees. I wasn’t really sick, it felt more like I had just ran a marathon or was in a losing fight. The next couple of hours was a mix of grogginess, nausea, and weakness. It felt like more than just physical exhaustion, it was like someone rebooted my body and the system was slow to come back online. I’ve been post-call before after working a 30 hour shift and it kind of felt like that. My brain simply wasn’t working right. When I got home that night I realized that my entire back and right arm was full of petechiae and my low back was actually bruised, all from blood pooling due to the G-forces.
Talking with one of the flight surgeons at work the next day I was given the hope that if I fly multiple times per week my body will simply get used to it. Either way, it gave me an incredible amount of respect for the guys that fly these jets everyday for a job and somehow not crash. I’m just happy I didn’t hurl in my mask, and I can’t wait to do it again!