21 March, 2010

Fuzzy Flight, Full AAR

[Pics are up!]

Quote of the day, after I climbed into the plane for the second time and sat down with one leg doubled under me and had to awkwardly readjust in that cramped space as Lex waited to strap me in (uttered in bemusement): "Sometimes I think you're 11 years old."

My puzzled response: "Because of the silliness, or the lack of grace [grace having been an earlier topic of discussion]?"

Lex: Because of the enthusiasm.

Yup. That would be it.

In short, I’m now firmly in the camp that believes flying is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I think the first 5-7 seconds of any dogfight are magic. The rest? Well… you’ll see.

Lex is right, I was literally shaking as we waited for the pre-flight briefing.

I got there early and was watching the planes from the safety of the “lounge” when someone behind me said, “Hey, barnstormer!” and I turned around to see Lex.

“How ya doin’?”

“Pretty good,” I lied, extending a shaking hand. “I’m at the ‘now why in the world did I think this was something I wanted to do?’ stage.”

He reassured me it would be fun and I agreed, but something in my primal ancestry was obviously of a different opinion. So, having the engine problems before takeoff was a blessing because it gave time for the nerves to die down. By the second taxi out to the runway, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

Once we were airborne, it got even better. I kept looking over my left shoulder to see our “adversary” Carlo and then grinning. I laughed aloud to see that little plane seeming to hover so close to us as we headed for the coast. Pure joy. Waves were exchanged, and pics of pic-taking were taken. Lex and I agreed that he would handle my video camera during one of the fights, so as to fulfill the demands genteel and polite requests of certain Lex fans.

Arriving over the ocean, it was time to learn. As Lex positioned us for some space to do a bit of familiarization, the plane rolled for a solid turn… seemingly falling off a cliff. I involuntarily let out a long whoop of surprise and joy, caught off guard by the strength of the sensations. It was fantastic! I could hear the smile in Lex’s voice when he said, “Forget video. We need a sound recording of this!”

A short bit of instruction and soon it was my turn. Lex told me to get ready to take the stick as I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.

“You have the plane,” he said.

“I have the plane,” I responded, as I’d been taught in pre-flight.

Lex’s hands went up, “You have the plane.”

Okay, what do I do with it, now?

But Lex was a fantastic coach. I didn’t want to be ham-handed about things and so was a bit hesitant. He encouraged me, adjusting in stages. “Good bank… Pull harder… harder… push over to bring down the nose…” (in pilot talk, we did: 10 degree climb, then descend; level turns of increasing bank angles; sustained nose low turns; power off stalls; a nose high, 2 g turn followed by a nose low recovery).

Somewhat to my surprise, I began to feel like I could fly the plane without crashing it, leaving my fears behind to enjoy the pull of the G’s and the float on recovery. There were a few moments where my head felt odd, but I chalked it up to overload from all the sensory input and new information, plus the slight disorientation of the Marine Layer below us that almost matched the sky above. I had a fleeting thought as I tried to process all the sensations I’d just experienced: I can see why this would be addictive.

As the plane leveled, out a little voice in my head said, “Don’t you feel a tiny bit funny?”

No, of course not. I’m fine.

I turned to plane back over to Lex. We set up for a demo fight with an imaginary opponent and “fight’s on” came over the internal com. I focused on Lex’s left hand as it pointed to the imaginary opponent, while the plane continued to turn. It was a brief fight (we won, of course).

Another demo, this time against real people with us as the victim to give our opponents a taste of battle, and then we reversed roles. “You’ll take the stick for this,” Lex said when he announced the final demo. My brain had two thoughts on the subject: “Don’t you feel a little bit funny?” And, “I don’t remember anything about BFM I learned with the plane-sicles in the pre-flight briefing! Something about a yo-yo, wasn’t it…?”

But Lex seemed so sure I was ready to go.

We lined up for the merge, my brain screaming, “You have no idea what you’re doing!!” We hit the merge and I made the rookie mistake of not keeping my eyes on the other plane. I honestly don’t remember what happened, but I think I banked pretty hard. Things got a bit fuzzy and I might have even closed my eyes. My brain couldn’t keep up with the input, nor shut down the part that shrieked, “What the hell are you doing flying a plane?!!” I followed Lex’s directions and somehow ended up with Carlo in my gunsights. Don’t ask me how.

Lex took back the plane after the kill and I tried to tell myself I was just a little dizzy and overwhelmed. A couple deep breaths and flying straight, and I’d be fine…

First real hack. Line up… merge… hard bank to the left… turning… turning… turning… my world went topsy-turvy and inside-out. Funny feelings of dissociation started bubbling up from my legs. The Feed Return Bag called like a siren from the seat pocket in front of me and my gaze settled there. No!!!

I looked back up to the left and everything spun, went gray.

“Uhoh. I don’t think I can do this…” I pushed the words out through the strain of the turn and the sensations I was fighting, feeling upside down even though I knew I wasn’t.

“Do you want to knock it off?”

I shook my head, trying to clear it. Nope. “Knock it off,” I heard myself say distantly, through a haze of confusion and overload.

Lex took the plane back immediately and I grabbed for the FRB, knocking the microphone away from my face on the way. Lex quickly leveled the wings and settled the plane. You would think that would’ve given me instant equilibrium, but you’d be wrong. I felt like someone had liquified my insides and they rolled around from head to toe. I think a return to the airport was even suggested, but I refused to give in and pulled things back together.

With Lex’s direction, we figured out what might’ve been contributing to the air-sickness (i.e. not keeping my eyes 100% on the other plane as we turned). With his encouragement that “sometimes people get sick at first and then they’re fine,” I settled in for the second hack with vigor.

“Fight’s on!” I banked hard again, and Lex’s verbal adjustments soon put me in a pretty good position high on Carlo’s tail, chasing him ever downward as he attempted in vain to gain enough speed to change the dynamics of the fight. I chased him right through the hard deck at 2,000 feet (score one for FbL!), and with a bit of straight-and-level time to collect myself with FRB at the ready, I could believe I was going to be fine.

Third hack was tough, though. Carlo wasn’t going down without a fight. I got in behind him, but we kept going round and round and round (and round) without a good sight picture. I was pulling hard and despite maintaining my focus on the other plane, losing my bearings again. Hazy sky, blue-gray sea and cloud-bathed land whirled past without discernible pattern as Carlo danced in and out of my sights. I finally made a major error and our situation flipped; it was a relief when he took the kill. At least then the world would stop spinning (I thought).

I leveled the wings to no avail and I practically threw the stick at Lex, “Take the plane, take the plane!” I dove for the bag. I must’ve been quiet enough that Lex thought I was okay. A suggestion for a fourth hack was made and I accepted, saying I needed time to recover, first.

But it was not to be. It buillt rather than subsided. “Just stop the plane,” I wanted to say. “Where’s my parachute?” By that time, tears were streaming down my cheeks and I’m sure my eyes were rolling back in my head. Convinced my stomach was empty, I braced my hands on my thighs and tried to talk myself into feeling better. “We didn’t take video,” I managed to croak as I put my head down and begged my insides to find their proper places again.

Lex looked over his shoulder and suggested with enthusiasm, “We could video this!

I think I might’ve managed a strangled laugh, but I raised my head just long enough to give him the most withering look I could muster, which considering the depths of my agony, I’m sure was something to see. “I Am. Thinking words. That. I don’t. Say aloud,” I gasped between waves of nausea.

I heard a chuckle on the radio as Lex cheerfully offered, “Would a simple hand gesture express those words?”

“Yes.” Gasp. “Ex-actly.”

Lex burst out laughing.


Lucky for him, my hands were desperately needed to brace my torso against my legs and keep it from falling onto my feet. I was so ticked at myself. I’d been having so much fun and then my body had gone and betrayed me! The spirit was very willing, but apparently the flesh was far too weak.

I sat with my eyes closed as we began the return to the airport, for it took me several minutes to feel better. But as we hit the landing pattern, I was enjoying the sights again and even managed to believe I would enjoy a few more of those steep turns. The break from formation was very cool, as we were wingman and got to watch the underside of flight lead as he broke away. I loved that sense of falling away.

Soon we were safely on land. Lex popped the canopy the moment it was possible and said I could unbuckle. I sagged into the seat and tipped my head back as we taxied to Air Operations, the fantastic feeling of the cool breeze finally making me believe I was completely human again. Lex parked the plane and casually tossed out, “I’ve got some paperwork to do. You can hop on out…” He looked over his shoulder for the first time since we’d headed back to the airport. “…or not.”

It felt so good just to lay there with my eyes closed and the evening breeze drying me out. I really wanted to focus on the fun parts of the flight, but I kept getting distracted by a world that was still slightly tilted. I willed it to straighten up, my logical brain sharply reprimanding my wayward inner ear. Mind over matter? Hah! Every corner of my mouth was so dry that I literally struggled to talk. Mostly I just wanted someone to carry me to the nearest couch, but was too proud to say so.

Once I got myself upright, Lex was kind enough to pull out his iPhone and offer to photograph me for the blog, pointing out that I was a lovely match for the pale yellow walls behind me at the drinking fountain. But we settled for some nice pictures back outside with the plane.

Navy. It's the only way to fly.
[More pictures here!]

Carlo was a wonderful gentleman, and offered to email me pictures he’d taken from his position in the opposing plane.

I didn’t feel completely normal again until this morning. And yet, I think if offered the chance, I would do it again in a heartbeat. There is nothing like that first turn into a fight, nothing like the pull of the stick into your body as the Gs settle low, the quick flip from wings level to “fight’s on,” the gentle nudge over the top and the accompanying float as you swoop down from the skies… just awesome.

I am eternally grateful to my anonymous benefactor who made it all possible. It's worth every penny you can scrape together to make it happen for yourself.

Post Script:

I told my mother about the exchange that opens this post. She smiled and laughed and said, "That's what it is!" Then she paused for a moment before adding, "It's genetic. That's what your father was like." She later said, "I think that [enthusiasm] is something your father blessed you with."

I’m not sure that 11-year-old has made a lot of appearances recently, but there's a wonderful kind of freedom in doing something extravagant "just for fun..."

Post Post Script: Apparently low blood pressure and the remnants of a cold are both contributors to airsickness. Would've been nice if someone had told me that before yesterday, huh? ;)