From the Publisher

Was I “Readeeee?” I Only Thought So

Remember the old saying about being careful what you wish for? Now I keenly understand what that old saw really means.

Each Thursday morning, 1st Lt. Amanda Ferrell sends me the Tyndall Eye, the weekly Web newspaper of Tyndall Air Force Base. One issue announced the Blue Angels March 24 Air Show and offered “experience flights” to three media representatives.

My finger never hit the Reply button faster: “Please, please can I go?”

It took four weeks – getting applications completed, a national security check and a note from my doctor – until the flight surgeon for the Blue Angels finally gave me the green light. 

The day came and I joined Panama City newscaster Sabrina Zimring from Channel 7 News, and Charles Shapiro, owner of Panama City’s easy-listening radio station, B95. We got the briefing, signed the waivers and zipped into our Blue Angels flight suits.

Getting strapped into the seat of the F-18 Hornet was a 30-minute process, accompanied by instructions including what to do in an emergency, in which case I would instantly be blown out of the plane by an underseat explosive device. I realized things were about to get very serious, very soon.

After all was completed, Maj. Nathan “Corky” Miller strode confidently out of the flight center. He stood 6 feet tall, with crystal blue eyes and a chiseled physique. Tom Cruise might have made the movie, but I realized I was looking at the real deal – a Top Gun. He gave me an eye-bulging handshake and explained how he would talk me through the hour-long flight.

Corky explained we would be doing a carrier liftoff – which meant we had about 100 yards to get to 175 mph and airborne. The engines revved as he held the brake tight. We thrust forward and we were in the air within the next second. I was given the code word – “Readeeee” – that meant I was to tighten every muscle in my body and begin some difficult breathing exercises which, in essence, had me self-inducing CPR. At that moment he accelerated to 450 mph and did a straight vertical climb to 5,000 feet and then did a 360-degree barrel roll as we headed into the blue sky. “Sensory overload, sensory overload!” my entire body screamed.

Racing over the pines of restricted military land, we slowed to 125 mph nose up to demonstrate a carrier landing … just before stalling. He barked the soon-to-be-dreaded code word again and hit the “afterburner.” In 30 seconds, we accelerated to 695 mph – just short of breaking the sound barrier. My cheeks were somewhere behind my ears as 6 g-forces pressed me flat into my seat.

Corky then said, “Let’s have some fun and do some air combat maneuvers … each of which is named for a Top Gun of yesteryear who perfected it.” He banked left and did a very tight, 360-degree turn that now pulled 7.5 g-forces. Somewhere mid-turn, everything went gray. I saw that white light people speak of when they return from death, and I opened my eyes with my chin bobbing freely on my chest and Corky asking if I was OK.

“Just resting my eyes,” I said as my fingers tingled and every pore of my body was excreting sweat.

For the next 30 minutes, we did more maneuvers, including one that had us flying upside down at 500 mph for a few miles.

At this point, I did ask if we could just fly straight for a minute while I tried to swallow down those demons trying to escape from my stomach – which had dropped to somewhere around my ankles. Corky said we had two more to go. “Great,” I thought. “Only two … can we make it one?”

Then Corky gave me the controls. For the next minute, I was flying an F-18.

“Pull back,” he said, “and bank hard left.” I completed a 360-degree turn at 550 mph and my first smile appeared, briefly.

For the finale, we streaked over the Tyndall runway with smoke trails on, and one last time I heard that dreaded word “Readeeee” again for our final U-turn at 5 gs. Again, all went gray. Moments later … on the ground. Corky shook my clammy hand, said “good job” and was gone. I couldn’t move … I was part of the plane. Finally I got out only to wander, dazed and confused, to the sofa inside to sip Gatorade until the room stopped spinning so I could drive home at a mere 60 mph.

It’s a memory I will never forget (only because they gave me the videotape from the camera inside the plane that was fixed on my face the entire time).

I shared the video with several close friends who were on the floor laughing uncontrollably at the sight of my ever-changing face. 

Would I do it again? Of course … If asked, I will serve.

-Brian Rowland, Publisher