Flight steals writer's heart — and stomach

March 08, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

Strapped tightly into the back seat of a Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornet, in the minutes before being launched into the wild blue yonder, all I could think was, "don't puke."

Barf bags flanked me to the right and left and the uneasy, queasy feeling in my stomach stuck with me throughout the nearly hour-long flight, but I held strong and ended up having an experience I won't soon forget.

On Wednesday, Navy Lt. Dan Martin, a first-year Blue, and his trusty jet, No. 7, took me into the skies over Imperial County to give a taste of the aerial acrobatics the Blues have honed to perfection, as well as to show the effects of speed and gravitational forces on the human body.

Martin and I taxied to the main runway of Naval Air Facility El Centro from Hanger 5, the Blues' training facility, around 1:30 p.m.


Lifting off the ground at speeds around 200 mph, we rocketed into the air at an angle approaching 90 degrees in what Martin called a "high performance take-off."

Within seconds we had shot some 8,000 feet above Imperial Valley, experiencing at least 5 Gs, or five times the weight of gravity, on our bodies.

Of course, the experience was old hat to Martin. But for me, well, let's just say I was certain my spleen was going to explode.

Having never even been on a roller coaster in my entire life — I've always been dreadfully fearful of heights — I enjoyed my flight in a Blue Angel jet through a haze of terror. But it was great, as I embraced my fear.

Cruising toward Glamis at Mach .92, just a shade less than the speed of sound, Martin took me through several maneuvers the team would be running during the NAF El Centro air show on Saturday.

One such trick was a 2.5 G-climb about 8,000 feet into the air, where Martin stopped the jet and turned its nose back over toward the horizon, again applying 2.5 Gs, bringing the Hornet a full 360 degrees.

At one point, Martin turned over the jet's stick to yours truly. While I'm under no delusion that I was ever in total control of the aircraft, it was awfully cool, especially when Martin coached me through the very same maneuver I described earlier.

My favorite trick, which sent me into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, saw Martin piloting the jet several hundred feet above the sand dunes upside down. Hanging by the shoulder harnesses in the jet, I must have spent nearly a minute staring at dunes, marveling at their beauty.

As the flight wound down, we headed back to NAF, but not before doing a high-G flyby of the Naval base.

As I emerged from the F/A-18, I was sweaty, exhausted and remained somewhat queasy for several hours. But, boy, was it an experience I'll never forget.

Dave Barham of El Centro felt the same way. An on-air personality and promotions director for KGBA 100.1 FM in El Centro, he was the second member of the media to fly on Wednesday.

"It was wild. It's an experience. That's about all I can say," Barham said, obviously still in awe of his flight.

The day's first flight was taken by Max Roth, a television reporter from KMIR Channel 6 in Palm Springs. Roth lost his breakfast mid-flight, emerging from No. 7 holding what Blue Angel Crew Chief Marine Sgt. Benny Gutierrez called his "party bag."

When asked how he thought I faired on my flight, pilot Martin responded, "You did a nice job; no puke bag."

As part of a promotions tool to recruit youth into either the Navy or Marine Corps, the Blues Angels flight demonstration team has been wowing air show audiences for 55 years.

On Saturday, that wow factor will be in full effect as the Blues and other aerial acrobats take to the skies over NAF. There will also be static displays and other amusements for the whole family. The show starts at 9 a.m. and is free to the public.

Being a member of the Blue Angels team is "fantastic," Martin said.

"The neat part about it is you're representing the Marine Corps and Naval aviation to the public," he said.

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