Up, Up and Away! Flying with the Blue Angels

Liz gives a wave from the cockpit.
Liz gives a wave from the cockpit.
"The nose of our jet is pitched 45 degrees in the air, but it feels like we're climbing straight up."
"The nose of our jet is pitched 45 degrees in the air, but it feels like we're climbing straight up."
"The clear canopy gives you an unobstructed view of everything around you on the ground and in the air."
"The clear canopy gives you an unobstructed view of everything around you on the ground and in the air."

If you love planes...especially high-performance jets...Beaufort County is the place to be this weekend. Some of the most skilled pilots in the world are taking to the skies for the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's Air Show 2007, including the Navy's own Blue Angels. You'll see them in action this weekend. I had the exciting chance to experience what it's really like to fly with them this afternoon.

Our ride is an F/A-18 Bravo Model Hornet. Once you climb up a narrow ladder to reach the cockpit, Sgt. Deo Harrypersaud helps you strap in. You'll loop your arms through straps similar to a backpack. Then, your legs will be secured with four safety belts: one around each of your calves and thighs. More belts will be strapped across your chest and around your waist. These need to be very snug. Sgt. Harrypersaud asks me to stand up. I try, but can't. This means the safety belts are tight enough. I've already been briefed about safety procedures: how to "arm" the seat to secure it for take-off and what to do if we need to eject (although that shouldn't be an issue). He also reminds me not to touch anything with a yellow and black handle. Those controls are for the pilot, only.

Our pilot is Maj. Nathan Miller, a pleasant, fun person to fly with, who also really knows his job. He joined the Blue Angels in September, 2006. Maj. Miller is a highly decorated pilot with more than 1,600 flight hours and 294 carrier arrested landings. He's even been awarded the "Top Hook" award for aircraft carrier landing performance. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a degree in biology and was even the salutatorian of his high school class. It's good to fly with a smart person. For more on Maj. Miller, click here:

In no time at all, we're ready to go and get right to the good stuff. We start by taxiing down the tarmac. Quickly, but we're hovering over the runway. That's fun all by itself, but we're just getting started.

"Ready, hit it!" I hear him say in my helmet speaker. Instantly, we're rocketing skyward, more than 5Gs (five times the gravitational pull of the earth), pushes you back in your seat. The nose of our jet is pitched 45 degrees in the air, but it feels like we're climbing straight up. The Marine Corps Air Station and the marshes of beautiful Beaufort County quickly drop below us. The view is amazing. We make a few sweeping turns for our friends on the ground, then it's off to see what this jet can do over the water.

Maj. Miller will give you a heads-up before any sudden move.

"How do you feel?" he asks me.

"Great!" I reply, and mean it. We run through a few loops and rolls.

"We're upside down!" I exclaim, laughing. I haven't stopped laughing and grinning since we left the ground.

"Look over your left shoulder and you can see the smoke trail," Maj. Miller tells me. The smoke is streaming fast behind us. I've only seen it watching the air show from the ground. It looks very different trailing from our jet.

We'll push the jet's limits and ours. Can we break the sound barrier? Absolutely, he says. You can feel the jet's power as we fly faster and faster. The instrument panel on my left tells me we're flying more than 700 miles an hour. Congratulations! We've broken the sound barrier! Mach 1.01.

High above the clouds, the sun is shining in through the jet's canopy. The clear canopy gives you an unobstructed view of everything around you on the ground and in the air. It can also get quite hot. I barely notice.

We execute what's called "the diamond roll" and several loops with perfect precision. You can really feel the G forces with some moves, like one that had us spiraling straight up. I remember the "hook maneuver" that Sgt. Harrypersaud taught me. I press my heels down to the floor and tense my leg and abdominal muscles as hard as I can while relaxing my upper body and taking deep breaths in and out. Sgt. Harrypersaud told me to try saying, "hook!" I've never given birth, but this seems more like Lamaze. It must be working, though. Things get a little "gray" at one point, but I keep my focus and refuse to pass out. I will also not be sick. I must make my father, a retired Coast Guard Officer and amateur pilot, proud.

"This is great," I shout, for what must be the 500th time. I'm sure Maj. Miller is tired of hearing it, instead he says, "Congratulations, you just pulled 7.2Gs!"

We got all the way up to 7.4Gs before the flight was over. After a while, he guides me through a complete loop and let's me take the controls to give it a try. First, we spin all the way to the left, then right. Too much fun.

By flying around the country, the Blue Angels help recruit and keep Marines and Sailors and give the rest of us a taste of the things they do every day, not to mention a healthy dose of respect for the skills, talents, bravery and sacrifice our servicemen and -women put into their work.

"We showcase everything the Navy and Marine Corps does day to day," says Maj. Miller, "only with blue jets and blue flight suits."

"So how did I do?" I ask, after we land all too soon.

"You did great," Maj. Miller replies. "You did great. The first few maneuvers were warm-ups to show you what it's like. You pulled 7.4Gs, did the vertical rolls, got to fly a bit. You did great."

Whether you fly with them in the air or just watch from the ground, it's an experience of a lifetime.

Reported by: Liz Flynn, lflynn@wtoc.com

Learn more about the MCAS Beaufort Air Show, http://www.beaufortairshow.com/index.asp

Learn more about the Navy's Blue Angels, http://www.blueangels.navy.mil/