What is it like to be a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird?
“How’s this for your average Friday?” jokes Maj. Branden Felker, as we taxi in a F-16D out to the runway for takeoff.
“Better than my average Friday,” I reply through my oxygen mask and comm system.
In reality, though, this was about to go down as the best afternoon I ever had.
Maj. Branden Felker is known as "Thunderbird 8." He is the advance pilot and narrator for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, more commonly referred to as the Thunderbirds.
Before joining the squadron, Maj. Felker flew F-16s with the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. He has accumulated more than 2,000 hours of military flight time, making him a seasoned veteran at flying.
As we walk out on the tarmac to jet No. 8, Maj. Felker tells me that it is his first year with the Thunderbirds and that his son was excited when he told him that he would be Thunderbird 8, “because eight is his favorite number.”
I get the sense that Maj. Felker is trying to gauge my nerves with some small talk as we taxi. After all, our first maneuver is a maximum climb takeoff, which looks something like Superman shooting straight up into the air. This also means that I’m about to experience my first G's within a matter of seconds.
But to be honest, I don’t feel nervous. The Thunderbirds crew has made me feel calm throughout my preflight briefing.
Besides, it was too late to turn back now. I was in Maj. Felker’s “office” the second I was strapped into my seat and was now partaking in one big trust exercise — I trusted that he would get me through this flight successfully with all his expertise, and he trusted that I would follow his instruction.
“Three hundred ... four hundred ... five hundred ... OK ... here ... come ... the ... G's!” Maj. Felker excitedly says as our plane lifts off the runway and shoots vertically into the sky. I tense my muscles in my legs and abdomen as instructed while the G suit squeezes my muscles like a blood pressure cuff. It creates an unusual sensation — a feeling so unusual that I forget to take a deep breath, which in turn botches my first "hook breathing" attempt.
Hook breathing is a technique that fighter pilots use to help them endure G-force. It begins with a deep breath, followed by a “k” sound, and a short, quick breath every three seconds — until the pilot is done withstanding the G-force. Understandably, this technique is crucial for fighter pilots to help push the blood back toward the brain to prevent blacking out.
Though pilots wear a G suit to help relieve G-force, it is not enough on its own.
“How was that?” asks Maj. Felker.
“I think I need to work on my breathing,” I laugh. “Otherwise, that was awesome!”
The F-16 rolls until Maj. Felker has us flying inverted. Above my head I can see the runway from where we just took off and the vast landscape of a rural Idaho, while the puffy white clouds pass above my feet.
Maj. Felker rolls the agile aircraft back to our starting position and then performs a series of maneuvers that the Thunderbirds perform: 4-point roll, 8-point roll, aileron rolls, knife edge, Cuban 8 and so forth.
With each maneuver I learn about the extraordinary capability of Thunderbird 8 and the F-16D, the two-seater version of the F-16 that Air Force pilots fly in combat. About halfway through, Maj. Felker even gives me "control" of the aircraft to perform rolls using the joystick found to the side of my right thigh.
Maj. Felker then continues demonstrating maneuvers. It is now that I also begin to see for the first time the plethora of unpleasant, shall we say, side effects that F-16 pilots can experience. With each G-force-induced turn, acceleration and roll, my view of the horizon is disrupted, my ears and eyes can’t seem to communicate with my brain, and breathing becomes more laborious.
Each time we accelerate into a turn, the G-force almost paralyzes my body. I am no longer able to move because it is as if someone has placed Andre the Giant, a blue whale and a flat of cylinder blocks on top of my body.
But I concentrate on what they told me in preflight briefing: “feet flat on the ground,” “clench your leg and abdominal muscles,” “use your hook breathing to help you through the turn.” I could hear the Thunderbirds’ words playing over and over in my head each time we took an accelerated turn, and each time, I overcame the effects of G-force.
“All right, are you ready for a 9-G turn?” I hear Maj. Felker say through the comm system in my flight helmet.
He sounds confident that I could handle this. So somehow, I hear myself say, “Sure, I’m ready” — even though my mind was clearly thinking, “Are you really sure you’re ready for this?”
As we accelerate into the turn, I try to concentrate on his hook breathing through the comm system. “K ... one ... two ... three. K ... one ... two ... three."
My peripheral begins to slowly fade away, and my only thought is, “What if this were a real dogfight? How would I see where my enemy was if G-force has my head pushed back against the seat and my peripheral vision is now gone?”
Before I know it, Maj. Felker has us out of the turn.
“That was 9.2 Gs! You just endured nine times your body weight!” Maj. Felker says in an almost congratulatory fashion. I give out a yell of excitement as I realize this accomplishment, which came courtesy of the excellent training the Thunderbirds supplied me and Maj. Felker’s support during the flight.
From there, we zip over the barren hills, making our way back to Mountain Home Air Force Base.
We approach the runway, and Thunderbird 8 gracefully lands this awesome jet without a bump. As we taxi back to the Thunderbird lineup of F-16s, I can see our flight crew at the ready.
The Thunderbirds are a well-oiled machine: Their uniforms are pristine, their work ethic is top-notch and their enthusiasm for their line of work is unparalleled.
As I step down the ladder, all I can think is, “When do I get to do that again?”
It ended too quickly, but I am thankful for the flight of a lifetime.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are showing off their air maneuvers at the Mountain Home Air Force Base on Saturday, June 2, and Sunday, June 3, for the Gunfighter Skies 2018 air show. Gates open at 8:30 a.m. and the air show begins at 10:30 a.m. each day. Admission is free, with ticketed seating starting at $25.
Note: A special thank you to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and their kindness to train and prep this rookie pilot for an F-16 ride. Also, another special thank you to Maj. Branden Felker, Thunderbird 8. I will never experience anything more marvelous than that flight.