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Friday, April 20, 2012

My flight with the Blue Angels

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 8:57 PM

"You're going to puke," my friends said when I told them I'd been offered a flight with the Blue Angels during Navy Week.
"Bring a barf bag," advised my editor, Kevin Allman.

I didn't take them seriously. I don't get seasick on cruises, and I really like roller coasters, so I figured I'd be fine. BUT. As it turns out, a four-engine turboprop military aircraft executing the tactics used to escape hostile wartime situations is nothing like a Carnival cruise. It is nothing like a day at Six Flags. And nothing could have prepared me for the reality of being inside the C-130 — the constant, thrumming mechanical din; the heat; the g-force that steamrolls you to the seat and the negative g's that subsequently lift you from it; cameras and notebooks coming loose and floating in the sudden weightlessness only to shatter when gravity comes pounding back; seat mates retching into white plastic bags and securing them so the vomit won't escape when we go weightless again; the tiny porthole of a window with its vertiginously shifting view: lake, sky, lake, sky, horizon, sky again.

And it keeps going, and going, and going, and I begin to understand what the flight engineer meant when he said the 20-minute flight "would seem much longer," and replay the series of choices that brought me to this moment and the overwhelming question: Why did I agree to do this?

It started last month, when Kevin informed the editorial team that we'd been offered a seat with the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels' raison d'être is to serve as "a recruiting tool for the Navy, to show their aviation capability," first class logistics specialist Henrique Ho would tell me. There are a limited number of seats available to the media and to people deemed by the Navy to be "Key Influencers." Key Influencers are "people who help shape the attitudes and opinion of youth in the community." In short, the Navy wants to squeeze as much good P.R. out of each air show as it can. Seats with the Blue Angels can't be bought. But now, I could have one. So it was hubris, curiosity and awe for the capabilities these pilots have that motivated me to email Kevin back: "That sounds really fun. Please send me the paperwork."

The Blue Angels insignia
  • The Blue Angels insignia

The Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base is on the West Bank, so I left early, knowing I'd get lost. (I did.) I met a group of journalists; we caravanned to a hangar, where we were briefed on safety: "Don't bring too much stuff on board. Don't wander around. Cell phone use is prohibited." So much for in-flight tweeting.
First class logistics specialist Henrique Ho briefs us on safety.
  • First class logistics specialist Henrique Ho briefs us on safety.

Next, we were asked to fill out release forms and media cards.


I asked if I could get a closer shot of the Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornets, which were reposing nearby, but the request was declined, as it fell under the "don't wander off" category. So this was the closest I got to the beauties:


Next, a van shuttled us to the plane itself. "Right now, Fat Albert is doing maintenance, so we have a sub," Ho said. "But it's still going to be a memorable flight." The sub, Ernie, is apparently identical to the Fat Albert; it lacks only the signature blue and gold paint. Ernie appeared totally incapable of the aerial acrobatics executed by the Hornets. I imagined the ride would be sedate, maybe a little jostle here and there, surely nothing to write home about. Because look at how chubby and staid old Ernie is:


We got another briefing by Staff Sergeant Kevin Sanchez ("Please don't touch any switches, knobs or buttons"), and then there was a photo op as the captain briefed his team. And may I say the crew was as lean and aerodynamic and frankly superhuman as the F/A-18 aircraft itself; with their soaring V-shape builds, precise haircuts and almost pigmentlessly blue eyes, it was hard to imagine them doing anything other than flying combat-ready planes in fantastic aerial displays.

Captain John Hecker briefs his crew before takeoff.
  • Captains John Hecker and Benjamin Blanton brief the crew before takeoff.

"We're going to do a short field takeoff," Captain John Hecker said. "We'll fly to the show area, do the maneuvers over there and then come back. A 45-degree nosedive climb — you'll feel a couple g's come on, then we'll get some negative g's. You'll feel like you'll come out of your seat. We'll come back and set up for the flat pass — 100 feet off the ground, 400 miles per hour — a radius turn, sharp turn all the way around, do another head-on climb... And it's not going to be a normal, smooth landing. It's a real steep approach. You'll float in your seat for a couple seconds. It's a dynamic demo, and it should be a good time."

We boarded the C-130. "Stay buckled in. Make sure you hold onto any loose items," said a flight engineer. "Because we're going to be floating." He gave us barf bags and said we could sit anywhere we wanted. "There are no bad seats in Fat Albert Airlines."

The belly of the beast.
  • The belly of the beast.

This is true, but the flip side is, there are no good seats, either. The windows are tiny and scarce and it was almost impossible to see what was going on outside. We buckled ourselves in, media on one side, military on the other. The captain's voice came on a speaker — his tone was somewhere between an indecipherable growl and a monster trucker rally announcer as he went through the checklist for starting the engines. He'd later explain that he likes to "spice up" the checklist with that inflection. Then we were off. The g-force hit us first — two g's, I struggled against them to raise my calves; it felt like I was on a quad machine at the gym. Then my legs were floating and there was an outburst of delighted cries in response to our sudden weightlessness. Two uniformed flight engineers went airborne, their feet flying up toward the ceiling. It was fun and mildly euphoric until the nausea began to set in.

No shame in using the barf bag. Thats what its there for.
  • No shame in using the barf bag. That's what it's there for.

After being pummeled by the g-force for a while, it loses its novelty. Imagine being in an enclosed centrifuge ride that also happens to be hurtling through space at 400 miles per hour, that's loud, hot, and tinged with the scent of vomit, and you'll have some idea what it's like. Through the tiny windows, I caught glimpses of the Mississippi River, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Lake Pontchartrain and large swaths of Metairie, but for the most part, I had no idea where we were or what would happen next. Time ground to a standstill. My fellow passengers looked pained. One woman sat motionless, feet together, eyes closed, for the majority of the ride. Many faces dripped with sweat, mostly from the intense heat, partly from the stress. Three passengers made good use of their barf bags. The nausea, and the sense of being not in control of what was happening to my body, was not unlike being really drunk and/or having a seizure. You're not in control; you've relinquished control to something much bigger than you, something that has its own agenda, and your well-being is not at all a factor in that agenda. The only thing in your control, in fact, is how you cope with your own powerlessness. I'm just glad I didn't throw up.

Finally, in one last display of the C-130's capabilities, we dropped to the ground in a short landing. Everyone was still, quiet, stunned. "It's not usually this hot," said a flight engineer. There was some good-natured ribbing as we disembarked. "Who's got prizes?" Blanton asked, alluding to the swelling barf bags. "We call those the murky goldfish. You know, like when you go to the fair and buy a goldfish in a baggie."

Hot concrete and motionlessness have never been a more welcome combination. "I didn't know if it was going to end, for a while," said one of the sailors. I felt the same way and was glad I wasn't alone. Even now, as I write this, I'm still not sure I would call the experience fun. Was it what I expected? No. Am I glad I did it? Emphatically, yes. I asked Sanchez why he flies with a squadron that counts the deaths of 26 pilots in its 66 year history, and his answer was that he knows it is inherently dangerous, but that's where the training comes in. "I love flying," he said. "I love the precision and the camaraderie."

Staff Sergeant Kevin Sanchez says he wanted to fly with the Blue Angels since he was 5 years old.
  • Staff Sergeant Kevin Sanchez says he's wanted to fly with the Blue Angels since he was 5 years old.

Which, I guess, isn't too terribly far from my reasons for getting on the plane today. I'm a journalist, and one of the best things about being a journalist is that it gives you a front-row seat to life. When writing affords me the opportunity to do something I wouldn't otherwise get to do — like ride with the Blue Angels — how can I say no? Even though the experience was kind of an unpleasant ordeal, I'm grateful I got to have it. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. And I'm really glad I didn't puke.
Yours truly, flanked by officers apre flight.
  • Yours truly, flanked by officers apre flight.

In conjunction with Navy Week, the Blue Angels will perform air shows at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 21 and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22 over Lake Pontchartrain. Parking is available at the University of New Orleans and at Southern University. Attendees are encouraged to take public transportation or bike to the event. No swimming, cooking or pets are allowed.

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