Defying gravity: Going to the top of the world in a $31m war machine
WE’RE 15,000ft up and a burst of jet-powered acceleration pins my head back, oxygen floods into my legs and I’m fighting to stay conscious.
Seconds later, my field of vision has been squeezed to a narrow tunnel and the streaming sunshine that had been piercing my eyes is draining away to black.
Throughout, another jet armed with a lethal arsenal of heat-seeking missiles, laser-guided bombs and 6,000 round-a-minute Gatling guns is in pursuit and trying to shoot us down.
It’s not your ordinary day at the office.
I’d been given a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly in an F15E fighter jet – the US Air Force’s (USAF) air-to-ground specialist since 1989.
Built to take on missions deep in hostile territory without support, the F15E has to be able to fight its way in, take out its target, and fight its way out.
That all means that the $31,000,000 jet is controlled by two air crew – one to fly and one to drop the bombs.
My hosts were the men and women of the 494th Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, a group that has seen action in combat arenas including Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The previous day, I’d been taken through the safety procedures that would keep me alive if the unthinkable – and unprecedented – happened.
After a routine medical, it began with being fitted up for my flight suit, with the help of Senior Airman William Novak.
He kitted me out with an array of gadgets – including flares, a radio and life jacket.
An essential component was my life-saving g-suit.
The ‘suit’ looks a little like a pair of cowboy’s chaps, fitting over the top of a flying suit and is designed to give aircrew greater resistance to g-force.
It works by pushing air into inflatable bladders surrounding the legs when the plane pulls increased g-forces, keeping oxygen in the top half of the body and preventing potentially lethal g-LOC (loss of consciousness).
Next up was egress training. Or more simply – learning how to use an ejector seat.
Seated in a replica cockpit, I was talked through a bewildering array of knobs, dials and levers by Captain Titus Amundson – call sign ‘Axel’.
Capt Amundson is a Weapon Systems Officer, otherwise known as a WSO (pronounced wizzo) and it was in his seat that I would be taking my flight.
But rather than ‘painting’ enemy targets or navigating, I was under strict instructions to keep my hands to myself.
After being told what would happen if I accidentally pushed or pulled anything marked up in yellow and black, that wasn’t likely to be an issue.
If the plane did come into difficulties, I would hear the phrase ‘bail out, bail out, bail out’ before the pilot pulled the ejector handles for both of us.
I couldn’t help but shift uncomfortably in the cockpit at the thought of that scenario, but I was put at ease by Capt Amundson’s reassurance he had never had to eject and knew only one person who had.
But did he ever worry about it happening to him?
“There’s risk inherent with what we do but we mitigate all that through proper training and risk management.
“Anyway, it’s more dangerous driving to work and back than it is to fly in an F15.”
It wasn’t the first time during my visit to the base that I had been shown how professional and dedicated the aircrew are.
While clearly a glamorous job – the pilots themselves admit as much – ‘reckless’ is just not in USAF vocabulary.
I was to witness how thoroughly things were done in the next morning’s briefing.
I was on base early having followed doctor’s orders to eat a decent breakfast. I had my fingers crossed it was the last time I would be seeing it.
Back in the 494th’s HQ I was introduced to Major Chris ‘Rasta’ Jackson, the pilot who was going to show me what the F15 could do.
An experienced pilot with 12 years’ active duty, Maj Jackson joined USAF in 1996 and I was confident I was in safe hands.
Joining us on the flight were WSO Captain Dale ‘Drift’ Wood and 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Wright, a 26-year-old pilot yet to receive a call sign from his squadron.
Flying in pairs is standard procedure for USAF training, and meant I would get a chance to see how the F15 operates in relation to the enemy.
Our 30-minute briefing flew by in a blur of acronyms and technical language that had my head spinning before we’d even got in the air.
Although most of it passed me by, I was impressed by the attention to detail.
What I did grasp was that our flight would take us up over Norwich and as far north as the Vale of York before dropping down to Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds.
This would take an hour and 20 minutes, with take-off at 10.10am.
With the briefing adjourned it was back into my flight suit and out to the runway.
It was hard to stifle a grin on my first sight of the F-15.
Schoolboy fantasy moment over, my first reaction was to its size. Having only ever seen one from afar on a runway or in its natural habitat 12,000ft up, my image was of something not much bigger than a Cessna.
But the F15 is 20 metres long, with a 13 metre wingspan, dwarfing any light aircraft.
Having climbing aboard and getting strapped in, there was a 15 minute safety check.
It was at this point that I went over my two main objectives for the flight: don’t be sick and don’t pass out. After that, I would try and enjoy it.
Disappointingly, our unrestricted take-off – where the pilot is free to pull up vertically with full afterburners – had been scrapped due to the drizzly June weather.
As it turned out, the clouds only served to make the flight more dramatic.
It seemed we were on the runway for a split-second before the F15 climbed effortlessly.
We spent a surreal couple of minutes shrouded in white as the plane ascended, before a break in the clouds.
Something I had been told about before flying was the incredible view afforded by the vast canopy and I wasn’t disappointed.
A virtual 360° panorama of thick carpeted cloud opened up around us and for the next half an hour it was just us and our wingman.
Maj Jackson wasted no time in showing me the F15’s capabilities.
Battle exercises were run through. I was shown how the plane would manoeuvre into attack position, with our wingman as the target, before switching roles.
1st Lt Wright’s plane danced in front of us as it turned at near right-angles, with almost no warning.
It was incredible to watch.
Before long, I was told to brace myself for some Gs.
We pulled a sharp turn with added thrust and suddenly my head felt like it weighed 50 stone. Barely able to move and concentrating on my breathing, I was amazed to see Maj Jackson ahead of me, his head on a swivel looking for the enemy, still working the controls.
The realisation hit me that he was doing everything I was doing to stay conscious – while flying to stay alive.
A few aerobatics later and we were on our way home.
Flying over Cambridge and Bury was a spectacular bonus, the familiar patchwork countryside of East Anglia rolling beneath us.
A key piece of equipment did get some use as we cruised back to base – the sick bag.
But I consoled myself with the fact that Jeremy Clarkson used two during his F15 experience.
A silky smooth landing later, we were back on terra firma.
Back on the runway my nausea disappeared while the adrenalin remained.
For the men who took me up there, and take the F15 into war halfway across the world, it was just another day at the office.
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Weather for Bury St Edmunds
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west