Grizzlies announcer Pranica flies with Thunderbirds
On the basketball court, the Grizzlies’ middle pick and roll with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley is the epitome of power, speed and precision. Gasol sets the solid screen, Conley darts around it and ends up with two high-percentage offensive options: his deadly floater in the lane or a slick dish to Gasol for a layup.
In another milieu, far removed from hoops and backboards, the US Air Force has its own version of power, speed and precision in their demonstration flight team, the fabled Thunderbirds.
I had the rare opportunity to mount up with one of the Thunderbirds earlier this month and carve the sky above Tennessee and Mississippi. Because everyone asks, no I didn’t black out, nor did I experience airsickness. What I did experience, however, was one of the greatest team efforts going.
The Thunderbirds were formed in 1953, just six short years after the birth of the Air Force as a separate armed service. Originally designated as the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit and based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the group adopted the name Thunderbirds as an acknowledgement of the strong Native American cultural influence in the region.
Starting with the F-84G Thunderjet, the Thunderbirds have maintained — with the notable exception of the T-38 training jet as a concession to the 1970s oil crisis — a commitment to fly the Air Force’s top of the line aircraft.
In 1982, the Thunderbirds transitioned out of the relatively tame T-38 into the F-16 produced by General Dynamics (today Lockheed-Martin). With stubby delta wings, a rakishly swept vertical stabilizer, somewhat flattened needle nose and distinctive bubble canopy, the F-16 oozes a Ferrari-like appeal. But this beautiful aircraft is also one of the most capable airborne strike platforms in the world.
And on a sunny Thursday afternoon in September, I’m staring at a 1/48 scale model of an F-16 decked out in red, white and blue on a desk in a spare office of the CTI building on the fringe of the Millington Regional Jetport.
Since I was a boy, I have loved aviation and spaceflight. I would badger my mother into taking me to the House of Hobbies in Green Bay to buy aircraft models that I assembled at the makeshift workbench my father had made for me.
One of those models was an F-16.
I’m going to fly in one of them. For real.
The Thunderbirds, also known as the Air Force’s "Ambassadors in Blue" perform in close to 70 air shows each year. Their goal is to identify the airmen (and women) of the future and to retain those already in uniform while also demonstrating the precision, pride and professionalism of the best the Air Force has to offer.
Those words are not just marketing copy. Staff Sergeant Madeline Conley who would later explain to me the finer points of egressing an F-16 via ejection ("Don’t worry," she says to me. "We’ve never had a media flier eject and you won’t be the first.") was inspired to join the Air Force following a Thunderbirds performance.
For a media member to fly with the Thunderbirds, you have to be vetted by the Air Force, be measured to be sure that you can fit into the cramped confines of an F-16 cockpit and be ready, willing and able to tell your audience about the whole experience. And please have your personal physician vouch for your fitness to fly in a high-performance aircraft — flying upside down and/or pulling G-forces that will flatten you in your seat.
First off, there are briefings. I meet first with Captain Sara Harper, a Georgia native and Auburn alumna who is the current Public Affairs Officer for the Thunderbirds. She professionally and methodically walks me through the Thunderbirds history as well as the unit’s facts and figures. There are six show pilots (Thunderbirds 1 through 6) plus an operations officer (Thunderbird 7) and an advance pilot/show narrator (Thunderbird 8). The flight surgeon, executive officer and maintenance office are Thunderbirds 9, 10 and 11. Captain Harper is Thunderbird 12. Beyond the officer compliment, there are some 120 enlisted airmen who support the Thunderbirds with everything from maintenance support to photos of performances. This is a team effort of the highest order.
I’ve already met advance pilot and show narrator Major Scott Petz (Thunderbird 8), who greeted me with a wry smile and the words, "The key to air power is flexibility." This was an Air Force euphemism that the rest of the Thunderbirds had been held up by issues with a refueling tanker and so our planned Thursday afternoon hop is going to be postponed until Saturday morning.
Thunderbird 8 retires to a different office, leaving Thunderbird 12 to figure out a contingency plan since I’m already there. In short order, it is decided that I will meet with Flight Surgeon Christopher Scheibler to get a grasp on the physiological demands of the flight and with Staff Sergeant Conley to be briefed on safety equipment aboard the F-16.
When it comes to flying high-performance aircraft, there are two big issues that get everyone’s attention: motion sickness and high G-forces. Motion sickness, I am told, is hard to predict. Some people who have never been airsick before will have their stomach doing pirouettes during a Thunderbirds flight while others will have no problem retaining that morning’s nourishment. I’ve flown back seat in a Navy trainer while corkscrewing all over the sky without issue, so I’m hopeful all will be well.
The best way, I am told, to mitigate the possibility of motion sickness is to hydrate thoroughly before the flight — as in days before the flight — and to have some food (hold the grease and/or spice) in the stomach. So I mentally make note of the Thunderbird 9’s suggestion of bagel, banana and peanut butter. "You need to have food on board up there," he stresses. "You will burn calories up there because it’s a workout."
It’s a workout because dealing with all the sharp directional changes at high speeds creates significant G-forces. As you read this, you’re at 1 G, or the normal force of gravity. Go into a steeply banked turn at more than 500 miles per hour and you’re going to feel the weight of the world (or so it seems) on you.
While you can’t predict how your body will react to all the twisting, turning, climbing, rolling and diving, you can at least do something about the G-forces. The human body, Thunderbird 9 informs me, "can deal with a force of about 4 G for short periods of time." But since the Thunderbirds often pull more than that load, "we use a G-suit which offers about another 1.5 G-force of resistance to those high G-forces. So you’re good to almost 6 Gs."
That’s good news, except the maximum G load that an F-16 can sustain is 9 G, well beyond the body’s normal ability to tolerate, even in a G-suit. And of course, the Thunderbirds have a 9 G maneuver in their playbook. Without added measures, those 9 Gs will pull the blood from your brain and send it to your feet on the express train, leaving you with tunnel vision, black and white vision or just plain blacked out.
Thunderbird 9 explains the proper breathing technique when embarking on a high-G maneuver. Take the deepest breath you can and every three seconds thereafter, do what’s called an "air exchange" in which you make a guttural "kh" sound, opening your epiglottis in the back of your throat and then pulling in more breath. And while you’re doing that, make sure you’re squeezing your thigh, core and butt muscles to assist the G-suit in ensuring blood doesn’t go somewhere you don’t want it to.
If you don’t, the GoPro Hero camera mounted in the cockpit will document you blacking out, and that’s a bad look.
Then, it’s over to Staff Sergeant Conley for an explanation of how to stay alive in the event that you have to pull that yellow and black ejection handle. Everything is covered in meticulous detail. Your mind is racing on parallel tracks: no media flier has ever had to eject, so do you really need to know all this? Of course, there’s a first time for everything and I do pride myself on preparation. It’s a lot to take in, even for someone like me who is versed in aviation matters. Staff Sergeant Conley coolly reassures me that even though the possibility of an ejection is slight, "your parachute will open because I packed it."
Since the equipment has been delayed, I can’t get fitted for my helmet, flight suit and G-suit. And so I go home armed with knowledge of how to deal with high-performance flight and a promise of a 10 am flight in two days.
When Saturday morning dawns, there’s a low overcast and rain spatters the windshield as my wife and I drive toward Millington. I don’t know what weather parameters are for the Thunderbirds, but even if I did know them, worrying about whether or not the flight will go wouldn’t be helpful.
I’m well-hydrated and have enough food in my stomach to stand me in good stead (I hope) for the planned one-hour flight. A curious mix of apprehension and excitement brews as we approach the air field. Flying like this is something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s certainly nothing like flying a Cessna 172. The unknown is out there for me and I resolve myself to being open to the moment and enjoying the experience fully.
Once back in the CTI offices, I check in with Staff Sergeant Conley who now has all my gear — olive green flight coverall, boots, a shiny red Thunderbirds helmet with air mask and G-suit. There are zippers and snaps everywhere. The G-suit is an air bladder that runs from your diaphragm area down to your calves. The suit is connected to the airplane and the suit senses the onset of G-forces and will inflate bladders on the calves, thighs and abdomen to assist you in keeping blood in its God-given location, thus keeping you conscious.
I practice latching and unlatching the various straps and harnesses, but unfamiliarity with the equipment, the early morning hour and lack of caffeine (its dehydrating effects aren’t what I need this morning) makes the snaps and clasps seem heavy and clumsy in my hands. After finally getting my game together, I walk to the office next door to meet my pilot for this hop, Thunderbird 8, Major Scott Petz — the same team member who informed me of Thursday’s snafu.
As it turns out, Major Petz knows former Grizz Mike Miller and so we make small talk about Mitchell, South Dakota and the Corn Palace. Major Petz’s call sign is "Cheetah" and he asks me what I want to be called on the radio. Rather than trying to be clever, we settle on the obvious call sign.
"Grizz" it is.
Thunderbird 8 spreads out a chart of the nearby air space and sets up an iPad with a series of cockpit photos to familiarize me with various switches and handles. The most important of which is the handle that arms the ejection system. On the ground it is in "safe" mode, but once we spool up the engine, we need to arm the ejection system. Thunderbird 8 will be sitting maybe six feet in front of me, so he can’t reach back to my cockpit area to help me. I’m not going to let him down, so my attention is rapt.
Once we go through the cockpit checks, Thunderbird 8 explains the flight profile. If you’ve seen photos of the Thunderbirds, you know that there are four jets that typically fly in formation (Thunderbirds 1-4) plus two solo pilots (Thunderbirds 5 and 6) that often merge their flight profiles to work in tandem. It’s those two solo pilots that pull off the extra-credit maneuvers like knife-edge passes in which the plane is flying with its wings perpendicular to the ground, or rolls and loops trailing smoke to enhance the visual.
The plan for this hop is to fly the Thunderbirds 5 / 6 profile. "We’re going to do this as a building block process," Thunderbird 8 explains. We will start with the high-performance takeoff, which is what you call going vertical (or "ballistic" ala Top Gun) after lifting off the runway. After that, it will be a series of maneuvers increasing in intensity. The point is that if I’m not enjoying being tossed around at high speeds or spinning 15,000 feet in the air, Thunderbird 8 will go into what he calls "Southwest mode" — straight and level flight. As Thunderbird 8 details the flight profile, he pulls the F-16 model from its stand and mimics the anticipated maneuvers.
He asks me if I have questions and frankly, I’m out of questions. I just want to go fly.
Behind every Thunderbirds plane and pilot stand a ground crew to take care of all the minute details. They are all dressed in crisp blues, impeccably groomed and wearing hearing protection as Thunderbird 8 and I pull up next to the coolest airplane I will likely ever fly in.
The pilots get a lot of the credit and all the love from the fans. They’re the ones making school and hospital visits, they’re the ones signing autographs, but if not for the dedicated ground crew and support staff, these F-16s aren’t going anywhere.
The Air Force goes out of its way to make the media fliers feel welcomed, even to the point of stenciling my name on the cockpit canopy. Rather than me being a nuisance and just another task the crew has to complete as part of the busy air show schedule, the men and women in blue seem to be genuinely eager and happy to see me planeside. They line up and each and every one looks me in the eyes and shakes my hand, wishing me a good flight.
I ascend the ladder to the back seat of the F-16. The photographer, Senior Airman Rachel Maxwell tells me where to place my hands and feet for the "hero shot" that mimics the Top Gun promotional photo of Tom Cruise. Once that bit of ceremony is completed it’s time to strap into the cockpit. Once I am all buttoned up, I have the distinct sense that I’m not a passenger in this plane, but that I am wearing it — the quarters are that tight.
Thunderbird 8 leans in from the backseat ladder and makes sure I’m comfortable and familiar with what I need to know. "All right Grizz," he calls out in a loud voice so as to be heard over the noise on the ramp, "are you ready for this?"
"Yes, sir" I say. And with that, Thunderbird 8 climbs down the backseat ladder and prepares to enter the front seat. Meanwhile, I’m alone in my thoughts. I focus on breathing properly. I note that I have a water bottle in my right leg pocket. Two bright white air sickness bags, held in place by elastic bands across the tops of my thighs stare up at me. I rehearse how to flip my air mask off in case I need to get sick or get a drink of water.
Thunderbird 8’s call of "Hey, Grizz" breaks my train of thought. "Keep clear of the canopy and the sill. Canopy coming down." "All right, Cheetah," I say. "I’m clear back here."
With that, we are shut off from the rest of the world. It’s time to go fly.
There is a low cloud deck over Millington and regulations require that Thunderbird maneuvers with civilians aboard be conducted at altitudes above 5,000 feet, so the plan is to head south to the Oxford, Mississippi area and do our program where the skies are a bit clearer, both of clouds and of air traffic.
As we begin our takeoff roll, the "this is really cool" factor kicks in. I’m flying in one of the hottest airplanes on the planet. We hit 170 miles per hour and lift off the runway. Once we clear the end, Thunderbird 8 pulls into a vertical climb. My eyes are open, but gravity is trying to shut them as we punch a hole in the clouds. I’m being pushed back into my seat and I can feel the bladders of the G-suit start to fill with air. Not bad. Not bad at all.
We get to 15,000 feet in no time flat and it’s time to head to clear skies and do what Thunderbirds do.
Once we get to our designated area, we step through the entire Thunderbird solo program. We roll around the horizontal axis of the plane in four quick segments, then eight. We loop around, trailing smoke. We fly the knife-edge pass with Thunderbird 8 stomping on the right rudder pedal to keep the nose flying along with horizon line, wings perpendicular to the ground.
Inverted flight is interesting. I thought my straps were all fastened nice and tight, almost to the point of cutting off circulation. Then we go inverted and I discover to my mild surprise that the straps could have been just a bit tighter.
After each maneuver, Thunderbird 8 calls out: "Hey Grizz, how ya doing back there? You OK, buddy?"
I am fine. It’s a ride that is giving my body a workout, but there’s no way I’m tapping out of this experience. I’m breathing heavily, just trying to make sure oxygenated blood is everywhere it should be.
"You’re doin’ great, Grizz," Thunderbird 8 chirps. "I can’t break you." I don’t know how other media fliers do, whether they can fly the entire profile or not before they ask for "Southwest mode." I don’t care. I’m doing just fine and I’m going to fly the whole profile and not get sick. Mind over matter.
But the big piece is coming up. The 9-G turn which is the max load the F-16 can sustain. I ask Thunderbird 8 for a moment to regroup and get myself ready for the moment.
"Hey Cheetah, I’m good now. Let’s do this."
"OK, Grizz. Here. Come. The Gs!"
That’s my cue to pull in as much of the 100 percent oxygen I’m breathing and to squeeze everything I can. Thunderbird 8 goes to max power and whips us around. It feels like a house has fallen on top of me. I am in a good position with my head up and spine straight. I do my breath exchanges and after a few seconds, we ease of out the maneuver.
Wow. I did it.
"Grizz, look at the display man. Nine point-one Gs! Awesome man. You’re crushing this!"
I look at the green display in front of me and sure enough, there’s "9.1" on the screen. Mission accomplished.
We spend the rest of the flight back to Millington talking about dog fighting tactics and Thunderbird 8 shows me how to engage a Russian MIG. The Thunderbirds are not simply show pilots who can fly fancy. Most of them, Thunderbird 8 included, have a hundred or more hours of combat experience in an F-16. In fact, Thunderbird 8 used to fly as an aggressor pilot to help train Air Force pilots in Russian MIG tactics.
After some dancing around courtesy of air traffic control, we line up for final approach. "The F-16 is an easy plane to land," Thunderbird 8 quips. "It’s just not easy to land it well, which I want to do in front of all these people."
We settle onto the runway, the air brakes deploy and we slow to taxi speed. My stomach is a bit sour, but nowhere near the sickness point. "I did it," I say to Thunderbird 8. "I did the whole profile, pulled 9 Gs and didn’t get sick."
"Don’t shortchange yourself Grizz," he replies. "It was 9.1 Gs."
Once we pull into our parking spot, I struggle a bit to lift my leg over the sill. Eventually I do and Thunderbird 8 and I share a handshake and congratulations. He calls the ground crew around us and introduces me as the voice of the Memphis Grizzlies and tells them how well I did up there. He presents me with a photograph of the team in flight and it is signed by all the officers. I am genuinely moved by this and I speak to the group.
"I just wanted you to know that, being involved in a team sport, I know teamwork when I see it and you are an awesome team. Thank you for your dedication and your patriotism. It is not unrecognized. God bless you all."