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The ride of a lifetime

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --

I have the best career in the Air Force. I never would have thought I would be sitting in the backseat of an F-16 within 10 months of graduating basic military training. After all, I’m a photojournalist – not a pilot.

 

On Dec. 5, I was asked if I would like to have the opportunity to fly in an F-16 Fighting Falcon with the 16th Weapons Squadron. I absolutely jumped at the chance to go on the ride of my life.

As a photojournalist, the flight provided a firsthand look at how pilots put their bodies to the test to prove that the U.S. Air Force is the greatest Air Force in the world.

 

On this particular flight, I witnessed firsthand how units from all over the U.S. come together to participate in the capstone for the U.S. Air Force Weapons School Integration exercise. It was amazing to see cargo aircraft, refuelers, fighter jets, bombers, unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters and even a U-2 come together in one mission.

 

On the morning of the flight, I headed to the pilots’ locker room to garner my flight suit, G-suit and harness. The helmet and oxygen mask made the outfit complete. For a split second, it made me feel as if I was a pilot. Then, reality set in, and I remembered I had no experience flying at all!

 

My first glance into the cockpit was astounding; a multitude of buttons, switches and gauges arranged in a variety of different colors. Looking over all of it was disorienting. Luckily, in the pre-flight check, all I had to manage was the switch to turn on/off communications with the pilot and the lever to activate the ejection seat.

 

The thought of having to eject kept reeling in my head once I had the egress briefing. The final words to be yelled in the circumstance we had no other choice but to eject would be “Bail! Bail! Bail!” My anxiety became more apparent as we got closer to take off and further from the choice to back out. 

 

The take-off was one of the coolest parts of the whole flight. When we finally made the left turn down the runway, it looked like an endless stretch of concrete. Slowly, I felt the jet roll forward and then all of a sudden, the engine ignited, gluing me to the seat.

 

The F-16 banked hard to the left, and as I looked over my left shoulder, I watched the ground move further away. Gravity seemed like it had increased immensely, as if I was being pulled into my seat. While the G-forces were uncomfortable, I found negative G-forces more unsettling. As the jet steadily climbed in altitude then leveled out, the movements left my body feeling as if I was going to float out of the cockpit.

 

In a moment of generosity, the pilot handed me the stick for few seconds. It’s mind-blowing having control of such an agile aircraft. The stick only moves a minute amount, so the slightest twitch can have the jet barrel rolling, descending or ascending rapidly.

 

Eventually, we reached the area over the Nevada Test and Training Range, where we would began our mission. The aggressive maneuvers the F-16 could perform were incredible. It only took about 10 minutes for my body to start sweating profusely. In fact, it felt like the G-force pulled my sweat off my head and threw it to the floor of the cockpit.

 

Once the G-suit began to squeeze to blood in the top half of my body, it was almost impossible to breathe – like a massive weight was being dropped on my body. To counter the effects of mid-flight G-forces, the pre-flight medic taught me to release a little air every three seconds, as if I was pinching off a leaking balloon.

 

After 45 minutes of dogfighting the Aggressor Forces, a massive KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft appeared outside the cockpit glass to top off our fuel. Four other F-16s hovered parallel to us, illustrating the camaraderie between the pilots.

 

Camaraderie in the air, translated to camaraderie on the mics. From what I could understand from the radio chatter was that we had launched multiple simulated missiles at the Aggressors, eventually taking out an MQ-9 Reaper, an HH-60 Pave Hawk and possibly another fighter jet. In all honesty, the complex, constant communication between the pilots baffled me.

 

Before I knew it, the pilot was preparing for landing.

 

“Hey, we’re about to descend real fast, hold on,” he said.

 

Once the mission concluded and we landed, getting out of the aircraft was bittersweet. It was liberating after being in a confined space for so long, and fluctuating between 14,000 and 28,000 feet in the air. On the other hand, the flight was like nothing I had experienced.

After all, there's nothing like putting my body through the rigorous strain of flying in one of the world’s most formidable fighter jets.

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