Ask the Pilot

I take the "flight of a lifetime" on an F-4 Phantom fighter jet and am scared witless. But I'd do it again just to experience six G's.


Patrick Smith
June 29, 2007 3:15PM (UTC)

"Out of control at or below 10,000 feet: Eject."

Of all the warnings, cautions and instructions in the training packet, that was the bullet point I kept coming back to. To this civilian-trained pilot, such terrifying scenarios aren't part of our checklists and procedures. Out of control? What do you mean, out of control? What exactly was I in for?

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At the very least, I was in for a ride -- a 30-minute "flight of a lifetime" aboard a restored McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter jet, owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, a well-known curator of historic military aircraft.

Founded in 1979, Collings is best known for its vintage World War II craft, including a B-17, and the only flyable example of a B-24 Liberator, both frequent stars of the air-show circuit. Though headquartered in Stow, Mass., the foundation bases its supersonic Phantom out of Ellington Field, a joint civil-military airport just south of Houston. Here at Collings West, guests can partake in an "Unprecedented Civilian Flight Training Experience." Unprecedented because, to the best of anybody's knowledge, there are no other privately held F-4s anywhere in the world. The daylong course culminates with a hands-on demonstration flight tailored to the customer's experience and, well, stomach strength.

If you're into that sort of thing. As an adolescent aerobuff, and later an airline pilot, I have always been fascinated and compelled by civil aviation -- the airlines, their jetliners and the places they fly. If you'll permit me a moment of aviator blasphemy, there's a rather long list of things I'd rather be doing than vomiting in the skies over Texas in a 40-year-old war machine. The appeal just isn't there. To be perfectly frank, the whole idea has had me trembling with fear for the past two weeks.

So why have I come to Texas to participate in this nutty endeavor? One easy reason: I'm getting paid for it. I'm here on commission for Robb Report magazine, in whose fat, glossy pages -- "For the Luxury Lifestyle" -- a version of this account originally appeared.

Not that I didn't construct my share of Revell and Monogram fighter kits as a youngster. (Do kids still build plastic models?) And truth be told, if I have a soft spot for any single military plane, it's the Phantom, arguably the sexiest-looking fighter ever conceived. In the late '70s you would have seen an F-4 -- the U.S. Navy version, with arrester hook deployed -- strung with nylon fishing line from the ceiling of my bedroom. In spite of its mass (more than 50,000 pounds fully loaded) and power (18,000 pounds of thrust per engine, with afterburners), the Phantom cuts an unmistakably svelte profile. I wouldn't call it elegant, exactly; it's too menacing for that. It's a plane that looks, in a word, vicious, from the bullet tip of the radome to the sharp Gothic lines of the empennage (note the spooky downward cant of the stabilators).

Developed in the 1950s, the F-4 cut its teeth in Vietnam, often dogfighting over Southeast Asia with another Cold War icon, the Soviet-built MiG-21. (Collings has one of those too, and for an added price offers the extremely rare thrill of simulated air-to-air combat duels using both aircraft.) Phantoms later served with both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds demonstration teams, and the type holds 25 speed and altitude records. More than 5,000 were constructed. The last American armed forces example was withdrawn from service in 1996; a few foreign nations continue to fly upgraded variants.

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Collings' Phantom was built in 1966. Plucked from an Air Force boneyard, it was put through extensive overhaul. "Altogether, it took us four years to acquire and ready the plane," says Bill Bowers, a former Marine F-4 pilot and one of Collings' senior aircrew staff. I meet with Bowers over breakfast, and he fills me in on the jet's history. He downs a plate of French toast while I sit there nervously, politely declining to eat. My ride is set for 4 p.m.

From Bowers I learn that Collings never purchased the plane, technically. It was deeded to the foundation by the U.S. government. "That's something that literally takes an act of Congress," he explains. "We're highly fortunate to have this plane and be able to offer this extraordinary experience to the public."

I nod. Silently, I'm sketching out my last will and testament.

Bowers tells the story of the jet's painstaking overhaul, which included a refit with low-time General Electric engines. "We were lucky to find those motors," he says. Where they came from he doesn't say. A major score on Craigslist, maybe. He digs out some photos that show the plane in various stages of rebuilding. Like the jagged peak of an ice-swept mountain, the Phantom is a beautiful thing to admire, but if you ask me, only a brave (or foolish) few would get too close.

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Today, I'm getting too close.

At 9 a.m. I'm at Ellington for a classroom briefing, followed by cockpit familiarization and ejection training. Collings' on-site facilities include a disabled ejection seat and a cockpit orientation trainer. Participants are issued a take-home, custom-fit Nomex flight suit (a keepsake that will become my all-purpose around-the-house-chore suit -- an ideal adaptation considering its 15 zippered pockets, including pockets in the knees and calf, the sanctioned uses of which nobody ever explained to me).

My flight instructor is Harry Daye, an Air Force veteran with more than 2,500 hours of F-4 experience, including 1,000 as an instructor. Harry will be in the forward cockpit seat, in command of our flight. Like everyone else at Collings, he volunteers his time. In his other life, Harry lives in Arizona and flies 737s for Southwest Airlines. Calm, confident, with just a tinge of raffish cocksure, Harry strikes me as the type of flier who embraces a certain kind of fate -- able to put equal trust in both his machine and himself. One gets a sense that Harry knows exactly what he's doing. And I like that, since secretly I'm scared witless.

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Also enrolled in the day's program is Bill Disser, a retired aerospace engineer from California. He is scheduled to fly first, and that's fine with me, since it increases the chances of the plane breaking down and my own sortie getting canceled. Disser says he is 78, but he could easily pass for 30 years younger. He's something of an aviation swashbuckler (and, literally, a rocket scientist), and when I ask why he has paid close to $10,000 for this obscene thrill, he spouts the adrenaline junkie mantra -- which, I can't help admitting, sounds a bit odd coming from a septuagenarian retiree. "Faster planes, younger women and colder beer," he explains. "I'm into speed, that's my thing."

Me, I'm not into speed. I look at Disser and try to figure him out. Is he in fact a ridiculous person who spent a ridiculous amount of money to do ridiculous things in a ridiculous airplane? Or is the problem with me? Possibly I'm missing a chromosome -- the one with the gene that makes the majority of pilots savor the sensation of thundering through the air, upside down, at 500 knots. For me, it's not fun. Or maybe it could be fun -- just not in an antique plane scavenged from a desert surplus heap that you fear is about to crack into pieces. The Collings Phantom was built in 1966. I was built in 1966. The plane's mean-eyed sleekness and remarkable capabilities aside, I'd rather be lumbering to Hong Kong in a 747.

Which isn't to say I can't appreciate an extraordinary thrill. In Africa a few years ago, after finding myself submerged under a capsized raft amid the Grade 5 swirl of the Zambezi River, the experience came down to two simple words: never again. But was it worth it? Definitely. Or, I think so.

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Strapping into an F-4, then, is consigning my dues -- payback for all my treasonous affections for the softer side of flying. Harry Daye is going to kick my romantic ass from cloud to cloud, and I'd better like it.

In the classroom, Harry presents a primer of the Phantom's onboard systems. Notable is a system that pumps high-velocity, superheated air over the wings to ward off laminar separation (stall) during high angles of attack and a stability augmentation system that fine-tunes the forces of roll, pitch and yaw. "Fighters are naturally unstable," Harry explains. "That allows them to be so maneuverable. The ideal fighter should be as unstable as possible, while still controllable."

"Sounds like my wife," cackles Disser.

Out on the sunny tarmac, I watch as Disser is helmeted and strapped into the rear cockpit by Bowers. The ground crew, a volunteer force of a half-dozen, swarms beneath the belly. They're checking hatches, attaching external power supplies and watching keenly for anything damaged, leaking or otherwise out of place. The Collings Phantom is painted in olive and brown camouflage -- an exact replica of the plane flown by Steve Richie, the only U.S. Air Force pilot ace of the Vietnam War. Richie's five shoot-downs appear as stenciled red stars on the left-side engine intake.

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Harry, in the forward seat, fires up the engines -- those two G.E. noisemakers from the days before modern turbofans. The racket they emit is unlike anything else. It's a roar, rumble and hiss all at once -- a rattling and layered cacophony strong enough to crack your thighbones. Finally the chocks are pulled, and as the jet taxis away, the sudden quiet is startling.

Awaiting their takeoff, I talk with Tommy Garcia, director of the Collings West operation. He's twitchy and distracted like an expectant father -- a bit more nervous, maybe, than excited. I ask Garcia about the plane's upkeep. "It's been good to us, knock on wood," he says, with a cross between a laugh and a sigh. "Certain systems are maintenance intensive." Later I learn from Harry that a near-total hydraulic failure occurred during one early flight -- a malfunction traced to a faulty repair -- that came close to necessitating the bailout of both occupants. After safely returning, Harry convened a staff powwow to ensure no similar mistake would be made again. "It's been a steep learning curve," admits Garcia, "but at this point we're confident." The Collings Phantom falls under the Federal Aviation Administration's "experimental" jurisdiction. In the agency's eyes, each flight is a sort of instructional sortie, operated under supplemental guidelines to ensure safety.

At last Harry and Disser come screaming down the pavement in front of us, afterburners at full bore. The plane lifts off, rides level for a moment, then noses upward into a straight vertical climb. From our perspective, it seems to be a full 90-degree ascent. "Right there," says Garcia, shaking his head. "That's the point where your kidneys are going through the back of your seat!" There's a faint popping noise, which is either the sound of Harry cutting out the afterburners or something gone plunk in the pit of my stomach. Within seconds, the Phantom has shrunk to a tiny speck in the azure Texas sky. I'm secretly hoping they disappear somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico so I don't have to go.

Twenty minutes later, they're back. Garcia and the ground crew hear them first, lifting their heads en masse, like dogs picking up the sound of some distant prey. As the plane drops into the traffic pattern, a lively burst of chatter erupts -- the sort of anthropomorphic fetishizing that airplane nuts are so adept at. "Here she comes," says one of them as the Phantom scorches by. "Man," he adds huskily, Just listen to her!" In the air, the F-4 makes a distinctive and vaguely evil sound -- an apocalyptic whine quite unlike that of like any other plane.

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As he steps down the ladder, Disser is soaked with sweat and his face is the color of a rotten cantaloupe. But he's beaming with an almost inhuman grin.

Then it's my turn.

The whole seating process takes a good 10 minutes. There are harnesses to latch, straps to tighten, oxygen masks to attach -- a Rube Goldberg affair of lanyards, hoses and clips. As Bowers belts me in, I keep thinking of Robert Duvall, his F-4 going down in flames at the end of "The Great Santini," a favorite movie when I was a kid.

The lines pulled taut, you feel at one with this monster. Like it or not, you're part of the aircraft and the aircraft is part of you. A component no less integral than a wing spar or an aileron, you're capable of absorbing whatever madness Harry is capable of dishing out. Or so you hope. (Not that the rider isn't instantly and explosively expellable, if need be. Don't forget, I'm sitting atop a rocket-propelled ejection seat -- the dos and don'ts of which I've pretty much forgotten.) As we taxi out, running through a series of checklists, I feel as though I'm perched atop a giant, coiled spring, the plane wanting to bolt from beneath me, pulling like a bulldog against its leash. The beast wants to do one thing only: move.

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And move it does, afterburners alight, down the runway to 150 knots, at which point Harry yanks us into the air. He immediately levels off, picking up yet more speed. Watching the ground rush by, it strikes me that I've never been this low and fast at the same time. Accelerating over the airport perimeter at 300 knots, Harry pulls the stick back to his crotch and up we go. And I do mean up. With a greater than 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio at sea level, the Phantom can elevate. The zoom climb to 15,000 feet takes all of about nine seconds. At the top of the climb, after switching off the afterburners, Harry rolls the Phantom upside down, then comes smoothly back over.

"How many G's was that?"

"About four."

The normal force of gravity, quadrupled. Maybe you've read other people's accounts of what multiple G's feel like in a high-performance aircraft. The analogies always vary, but in my case, an enormous sack of potatoes had been hurled onto my lap, and each of my limbs became chained to an anvil. During the ascent I could barely move, because for all intents and purposes I suddenly weighed almost 800 pounds. If you ever do this, don't have your head down or your shoulders turned when that zoom climb commences, lest you be frozen in that position the whole ride up.

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And if you like four G's, hang in there for five, six and almost seven, as you're put through an aerobatic ringer of combat-spec turns, climbs and descents. I'm showed a couple of max-performance aileron rolls with a rotation of nearly 720 degrees per second.

Harry asks if I "wanna take it," and I tell him sure. Mind you, I haven't touched the controls of any airplane since my layoff from the airlines more than four years earlier, and I've never done aerobatics. I give it a whirl, literally, and the results aren't pretty. Though in fairness to myself, forward visibility from the rear seat is all but nonexistent, with only a token set of old-fashioned instruments. The only view, albeit a panoramic one, is through either side of the canopy. Technically, the aft cockpit is the weapons officer's station. The plane can be flown from here, but it's engineered and instrumented for the crewman up front.

Harry tells me to try a couple of aileron rolls. Not that I've ever done one, but I go ahead and whirl the Phantom 360 degrees. At least that's the plan; unfortunately, because the roll rate is so damn fast, I keep overshooting the horizon. Rolling out at what I think is level, I'm actually in a 120-degree bank. After three or four rotations, spinning the plane around and around like a sideways tornado, I give up.

"Where the hell is up?"

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"I've got it," says Harry, unscrewing me from the sky. I'm embarrassed, and I'm dizzy.

But at least I haven't thrown up. Prior to the flight, having consulted with colleagues who'd flown fighters, my odds of vomiting were placed at anywhere from 50 to 99 percent, depending how ornery a mood Harry was in and what I had for breakfast (water). Happily I don't feel ill. But what do I feel?

Coming up exclusively through civilian ranks, I instructed in light four-seaters before captaining turboprops that rarely exceeded 250 knots. Later I flew cargo planes and 737s. Suffice it to say this ride is nothing like any other experience I've had. There are vestigial similarities between cockpits, but the sensations -- those intense centrifugal pressures interspersed with moments of weightlessness -- are wholly unique. The forces of acceleration and degrees of climb and bank, particularly in their rapidity, have me alternating between surges of exhilaration, physical pain and mortal fear.

But that, I suppose, is whole idea.

"Are fighter pilots put through vomit training?" I ask Harry. "Does the Air Force screen for queasiness?"

"What?" Harry crackles back though the intercom.

"Nothing," I reply, just as he digs the left wing into a 90-degree snap roll.

Next up is supposed to be a mega-G, 180-degree turn. But just as we start to accelerate, there's a noise -- a rhythmic series of muffled bangs from the right engine. They sound like compressor stalls.

"That's weird," says Harry. He fumbles with the power, and "bang, bang, bang" it goes again. "Let me see something." He slows the plane to about 300 knots, straight and level. Then he slowly advances the right thrust lever. "Bang, bang, bang, bang." The plane quivers and yaws.

Compressor stalls are an interruption of the airflow around the interior compressor blades of jet engines -- caused by anything from sudden, severe crosswinds to internal engine damage. They can be loud and will occasionally manifest themselves through colorful tongues of flame, but rarely are they hazardous. I know that. I've always known that. But this time, all things considered, the racket is a death knell. I'm saying to myself, "See, I told you we were going to die."

"Arright, arright," I call to Harry from the back seat, in a voice perhaps a tad more urgent than is deserved. "Don't fuck with it anymore."

Harry stops fucking with it. He apologizes, he reduces the errant engine to idle, and we return to the airport for a single-engine approach. "No need to declare an emergency," he says. "But we ought to head back and ask for a straight-in vector."

Which we do. I'm good with that. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best thing that could have happened. The engine might be gasping and banging, but short of having to bail out, I'm spared the full syllabus of painful maneuvers. (Later, the compressor stalls would be traced to the ingestion of an unknown foreign object -- a rock or other stray debris -- during taxi or takeoff. Several intake blades were badly bent, necessitating a complete engine change.)

Harry lets me fly the initial approach while he works the good engine. We're doing 250 knots as I finesse a couple of oatmeal descents and a succession of lethargic turns. Not exactly high-performance maneuvering. I sense that Harry is annoyed, or at least perplexed. A Phantom isn't meant to be flown like a 737. I mean, what's the point?

He takes it for the final turn, and a few minutes later we're down, the drag chute popping from the tail cone as we roll along Ellington's runway 17R.

"How was it?" asks Tommy Garcia as I climb from the cockpit. He's wearing one of those I-told-you-so grins.

Well, if you really must know, it was awful. It was wrenching and frightening in every possible way -- and maybe a bit dangerous. And just the same, of course, it was thrilling and unforgettable. Such a weird, combustible dichotomy won't make sense to many people, but it's familiar to many pilots -- if not entirely to me, though I'm beginning to understand it more clearly.

The next morning, I wake up in a fog of regret and embarrassment, wishing the flight had gone as planned. I wanted to feel six G's.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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