I reached the Yelahanka Air Force Base at 9 am in the morning, and I was absolutely clueless on what to expect. I was undoubtedly very excited, but also a bit scared to be on my first supersonic flight. I had already done an extensive web search on precautions to be taken before such a flight, but there were no satisfactory answers, except for this oft repeated advice on carrying an air sickness bag.
The sickness bag I did carry, and to my relief I did not have to use it. Then I called up my good friend Group Captain Rameshwar Singh Talhan, who happens to be a fighter pilot, to get some advice. "Just enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity," he told me, and then I took off.
The suit up and brief
I was kind of blank at the Boeing flight operations centre. I was at peace, and totally ready for the flight (pictures may say otherwise). Boeing's Reggie Nathis suited me up. Formerly with the US Air Force, he was a picture of calm, the perfect person to G-suit anyone up. He had loads of patience and his words relaxed me. He told me I would not have any problem because I actually looked like a fighter pilot. And then he handed me the air sickness bag (off camera).
Scott, a pilot with the US navy, was my pilot for the day. He briefed me on what to do, expect etc on my flight. There were levers and instruments coloured in black and yellow, the ones I was not supposed to touch under any given circumstances. And then the part about ejection procedure scared me quite a bit. Rest was fine and fun, as he took me through the manoeuvres we were to do, and the G loads to expect when he warms me up for the flight. We were to be in the flight for at least 45 minutes. The part that excited me the most was that I would be allowed to take over controls and actually FLY a fighter jet.
I told Scott about my tiny experience with flight simulators and RC aircraft. And he told me I could try a couple of my own manoeuvres if I wanted.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet flies fully loaded at the air show, which means it carries the entire arsenal. And what an impressive array with an internal 20 mm gun, air-to-air missiles, together with air-to-surface weapons!
Getting into the cockpit was a breeze. Walking down the tarmac fully geared up gets you so much attention that you forget any discomfort that may have been there because of the G-suit. You feel sexy: rewind to top gun.
Once inside the cockpit, there are a number of belts to strap you in - also important because you don't want to fall off when you are inverted. The only thing that was going through my mind was that I would never get these off in time in case of an emergency. All was well other than this.
I fiddled around with my helmet and my oxygen mask to be sure that I could remove it in case I felt like throwing up. All checks done, we were ready to take off. I opted for a gentler take off than the one they do for air shows.
The taxi down to the end of the runway felt like forever, and I really wanted to fly now. Once at the end, we finally lined up for takeoff. The engine thrust was tremendous, and I could still hear the roar of the aircraft even as it was shielded by the canopy. The nose gear bobbed up a few times before we took off with all the power, a sharp left and we were away towards the zone "we were to play in".
Once off the ground, it felt like never before. This was like being in air on a super bike. Scott told me that I could have the controls once we were in our flying area. But before that he would take me through the dreaded G force 'warming up'. During my G manoeuvre, I must have felt about 4 G's pulling on my body. I thought I was going to black out for a few seconds. This feeling again has to be felt and cannot be put in words. I made Scott stop at 4G, as I thought I could not take it anymore.
Then at 10,000 feet, I was handed the controls. And all I had to say was, "I have the controls." So I did have the controls on me.
After a couple of 180 degree turns it felt as if I was ready for a roll. I called out, Scott gave a go ahead, and I rolled left. And my my, it was something!! By this time I was kind of feeling a little heady, so I gave the controls back.
Scott now wanted to show me F/A-18's slow speed characteristics, and the aircraft just slowed down. The manoeuvre is called the High Alpha High Alpha, when the aircraft is at a very slow speed with a high angle of attack. Scott was still able to control the aircraft even as it swayed from left to right. It was quite something!
"You have controls!" I took over as we still had some time (simulator training really helps). Scott asked me if I was ready for another roll, I did want to but was not feeling up to it. But then I thought I would perhaps never get a chance to do this again. So I pulled myself up and rolled to the right, and felt the high!!
Time for speed test, wing levels and a full throttle burst, a full afterburner, and the beast roared forward - I could totally feel the kick.
We slowed down and turned after a satisfying 45 minutes on the Super Hornet.
Thank you god!