“We live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded… you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use them as the backbone of a life trying to defend something.” — Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men”
ABOARD NEW JERSEY AIR NATIONAL GUARD FLIGHT DEVIL 92- Two physicals, hours of life support training, and multiple waivers later, I am ready.
We are at the end of the Atlantic City Airport runway. Sitting in front of me, Lt. Col. Kevin Kelly, call sign “Grace”, is piloting our F-16D fighter, waiting for clearance from the tower. After the final check by the New Jersey Air National Guard (ANG) ground crew, he is given the green light to commence our flight.
As he pushes the throttle forward, the afterburner kicks in, initiating an acceleration which simply cannot be described, because, quite literally, there is nothing else on Earth with which to compare it. The takeoff speed would make a Porsche 911 Turbo look as if it was standing still. Once airborne, the plane flies relatively level for several seconds before Grace lights the pipe and pulls for the vertical.
For the layman, that is 90 degrees, straight up, with the Fighting Falcon accelerating the whole time. 7G’s later, we level off, upside down, above 13,000 feet. Time from the deck to two-and-a-half miles: about 12 seconds. Do the math.
Tom Cruise has nothing on Grace.
Truth is, the plane could have kept going vertical, but it was a hot, humid day, and the two-seater was hauling two 2,000 pound fuel tanks, substantially increasing drag. Can’t burn too much fuel early, since we have an hour of combat maneuvers ahead of us, some of which will make our bodies weigh nine times more than normal.
The Jersey Devil Is No Myth
The Atlantic City Airshow was held this week, billed as the largest in the nation. While the 177th Fighter Wing aircraft are a major show attraction, the star performance is generally thought to be the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team, who perform high-speed in-flight maneuvers just feet from one another’s wingtips. Impressive as the Thunderbirds are, they, as a unit, don’t hold a candle to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey ANG, known as the Jersey Devils.
The 177th, based at the Atlantic City Airport, is home to 24 F-16’s, several of which are on full alert – armed and fully fueled – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its pilots arduously train for a variety of tactical and strategic missions, preparing them to accomplish a host of objectives. The Unit has seen action all across the globe, from war zones in Afghanistan and the Middle East, to operations in Europe and the Pacific. Mission roles include air sovereignty, combat air patrol, strategic air defense, defensive counter-air, close air support for ground troops, and air-to-ground attack.
The Jersey Devils were the first single squadron unit – including active duty, Guard, or Reserve – to fly 1,000 combat air patrol missions in support of Operation Noble Eagle, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) initiative to defend America’s airspace in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
But it is the 177th’s strategic location along the northeast corridor that makes it so invaluable. The Jersey Devils are responsible for protecting the airspace around New York City, Philadelphia, and parts of Washington, D.C. Its planes can be over Manhattan or the nation’s capital in minutes, and its pilots are trained to protect America and its citizens at all costs, especially from another airborne terrorist attack. They are the ultimate first responders who carry on their shoulders an immense pressure – the responsibility to ensure that a 9/11-type tragedy never happens again.
Due to the high volume of local air traffic, our speed slows dramatically until space opens up further south. When the engine is throttled back after the rocket-like takeoff, there is a momentarily sensation that the fighter is just floating in mid-air, with life somehow coming to a peaceful standstill. That perception is fleeting, however, as Grace starts to run the venerable war bird through its paces, performing a few initial rolls and turns that immediately trigger our G-suits to activate.
Being the back-seater offers me incredible views out both sides of the canopy, which, I was told, would protect us if we struck a five-pound bird at 500 knots. Comforting as that was, it seemed only natural to ponder what would happen if a fat six pound seagull slammed us at 500, or a four pounder at 600. I quickly dismissed such thoughts after recalling that I was sitting over – make that strapped to – a rocket-powered ejection seat. I, along with the Colonel, have the power to pull the ejection handle and float to earth. Never mind a force 23 times that of gravity hitting you on ejection, nor the fact that you could break – or lose – a hand or arm on the way out. Or nearly 100 other factors that could make for a melancholy day. Unlike being in an airliner, the knowledge that we had a fighting chance was an empowering feeling, although not one I was eager to experience. Keeping my hands away from the handle seemed like a good gameplan.
And since Grace was in command, I had nothing to worry about. He is a 20 year military pilot who spent much of that time as a naval aviator, a veteran of over 400 aircraft carrier landings who saw action in several theaters of war. Today’s flight is just about flying, pure and simple. No tactical mission briefings, no bombing runs, no dogfighting, and no twitching of the advanced fire control radar. The objective of the media flight is to give a first-hand accounting of the aircraft’s capabilities and how a Jersey Devil aviator handles his, or her, various missions, as there are both men and women comprising the unit.
Reaching our destination over the Chesapeake Bay, Grace demonstrates a number of dogfighting maneuvers designed to gain the immediate upper hand on an adversary. American fighter planes are generally accepted to be the best in the world in terms of performance, technology and weaponry. But trite as it sounds, planes are only as good as the pilots who fly them. That is where the Americans’ advantage is greatest. Their intense, and never-ending, training is second to none.
We repeatedly go vertical and fly inverted as Grace performs scissor maneuvers, precision rolls, the split-s, and perhaps most unnerving, flying straight down. It will be forever etched in my mind how quickly the ground appears when your aircraft is hurtling towards it at 500 knots. Pulling out of the dive gives one a glimpse into how strong, yet relatively light, the plane’s airframe is. The tolerances engineered into such a machine make me marvel at just how smart our engineers are, since the only protection afforded us from unimaginable stresses are a thin piece of titanium and a plastic canopy.
When an aircraft performs such maneuvers, the immense acceleration creates forces several times that of gravity. A top-of-the-line roller coaster may hit 3 g’s, and a dragster, 5. Grace repeatedly hit 7.5, and even exceeded 9, which would make a 170 person momentarily weigh 1,500 pounds.
The only way a human can withstand these forces without losing consciousness is by wearing a G-suit. The suit’s air bladders wrap around one’s legs, thighs and abdomen, and automatically inflate when pulling G’s, creating substantial pressure which forces blood back into the brain. Without a G-suit, blood would pool in the lower extremities, forcing a pilot to “black out.”
And blacking out at 15,000 feet can ruin a person’s day in a hurry.
Master Sgt. Jason Gioconda had the task of training me on how to handle potential but rare situations that could be encountered during the flight, from engine fire to bird strike. After being fitted for the flight suit, helmet, mask, and harness, he trained me in the simulator on the basics of flight, extraction from the seat (there are five separate belts and wires to which one is connected), ejection, parachuting, and survival at sea.
MSgt. Gioconda explained that one of the most impressive items among the 38 pounds of equipment the pilot wears ( 44 pounds in the winter) is the harness for the parachute. Since being attached to a parachute in water can quickly lead to drowning, the harness buckles are fitted with tiny explosives which automatically activate upon contact with salt water, thereby freeing the pilot from his chute. Amazed, I naturally asked why the system didn’t work for fresh water, since we would undoubtedly be flying over fresh water lakes. With a sly smile, he responded with a question of his own: With a buckle system that would separate you from your parachute upon encountering fresh water, what would happen if you ejected in a rainstorm?
Point taken. Again, thank God for smart people.
As we prepare to leave the Chesapeake, Grace allows me to enter an elite club. Of all people who have lived, how many have traveled faster than the speed of sound? To have the opportunity to do what Chuck Yeager did so bravely in 1947 was, for me, the most remarkable part of the flight. While there is no distinct sensation except for the slight acceleration, it nonetheless is an inspiring feeling. Up here, in this marvelous airplane that just went supersonic, you can’t help but think that man’s potential for greatness in unlimited.
Heading up the coast, we cross Delaware Bay, which despite its size, just doesn’t look that big from my vantage point. After passing the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and a fleet of tankers far below, we begin a rapid descent to 2,500 feet and slow our speed as we cruise just above the south Jersey beaches. We float by Wildwood, Avalon, Sea Isle — and Ocean City. Since we are well below the speed of sound, the F-16’s approach can be heard from quite a distance. Grace remembered that my three little children were on the Ocean City beach, and that I had told them to look up in the sky around 3:00. With a smile on his face that I just knew was there, he dipped his wings from side to side as we roared by, giving three little kids – and their dad – the thrill of a lifetime.
Coming in on final approach, with the beautiful south Jersey marshes below and the sun slowly beginning its descent, Grace made a picture perfect landing on what was a picture perfect, and unforgettable, day.
Upon exiting the base, I headed straight to the beach, as much to see my children and tell them about the flight as to look up and see exactly where I had just flown. Gazing skyward at what looked to be 2,500 feet, I felt privileged to have been a Jersey Devil, if for just an hour.
My son ran up to his new-found friends on the beach and told them that his Dad had been in the plane that had just streaked by. I found myself bombarded by questions by children and adults alike, as they looked at me in awe at what I had just done. Exhilarating as it was, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime, I humbly replied that I had the easy job. Doing something once that is dangerous and demanding, such as flying in an F-16, is not hard. Doing it every day, in peace and war, despite all the inherent risks and potentially unthinkable decisions a pilot must make, is real valor.
America, rest easy. The 177th Fighter Wing – true Knights of the Air – is on duty. I salute them with my motto: Audaces fortuna iuvat – Fortune Favors The Brave.
Chris Freind, author of “Freindly Fire,” is an independent newspaper columnist whose readers hail from six continents, thirty countries, and all fifty states. His home publication is The Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at [email protected]