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Feeling the afterburn _ ‘You’re doing great!’

March 29, 1997

PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, Md. (AP) _ Wobbly of knee and grateful not to have been forced to use the ejection seat, the passenger returned to earth aboard an F-18 fighter Navy-style: with a jaw-rattling bang.

Navy Cmdr. Bob ``Birt″ Wirt had gone easy on his back-seater, an Associated Press reporter assigned to follow in a chase plane as Adm. Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, tried out the new F-18 F fighter.

Still, there were some riveting moments _ a roaring afterburner takeoff, steep banking turns and climbs, and the slam-dunk landing, simulating the way a Navy fighter returns to a carrier deck.

``How are you feeling?″ Wirt asked cheerfully, noting quite accurately that Friday’s flight profile was ``benign″ compared to the barrel-rolls and loops the admiral was executing up ahead.

``You’re doing great!″ Wirt added, somewhat inaccurately.

Since the whole point of the fly-along was for the Navy to show off its $48 million aircraft at a time when Pentagon officials are scrutinizing costly weapons, it simply wouldn’t do to have a reporter croak at 10,000 feet. A certain amount of careful preparation, therefore, was required.

It began two days earlier at 7 a.m. with a physical followed by briefings on such confidence-building topics as what to do when your parachute doesn’t open (shake the lines vigorously), what happens if you’re out of position when you eject (many broken bones or death), or how to survive in cold water (assume the fetal position).

There was more involved in riding in a high-performance plane than waiting for the yellow plastic oxygen mask to drop from the overhead luggage bin.

A swim test required the lucky backseater to paddle 25 yards wearing helmet, flight suit and boots. No need to worry about G-forces here. Progress is slow.

But after all the preparation, the only instruction that really mattered was which jump-suit pocket contained the airsickness bags.

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