Photography by Terry Mayer
The summer between high school and college, I took a cross-country road trip on a Greyhound bus and almost wound up joining the military. Somewhere on Interstate 90 between Minnesota and Montana, my best friend and I met a funny and convincing woman who happened to be in the Air Force, and she had us sold. “They take care of you,” she told us. “You should do it!” A few months later I was in college, where I remained for four uninterrupted years, though I fielded a number of calls from recruiters during my first semester.
Though ultimately the military was not the route I took, I’ve always wondered if I could’ve hacked it. I know I probably made the right decision. Many people who know me now probably would find the thought of me in uniform hilarious, but man, their commercials are convincing and their personnel impressive. Having had several jobs that require uniforms, I also understand and appreciate a career in which you don’t have to fight the what-should-I-wear battle every morning. Also, who wouldn’t want to be able to do, oh, I don’t know, more than one real push-up?
This past weekend, I had the chance to satisfy a bit of my military curiosity and test my mettle when I and 15 other lucky souls took a hair-raising ride in the Blue Angels’ Fat Albert C-130, essentially becoming a part of the AirFEST 2009 performance roster.
Despite my coworkers’ best efforts to freak me out about my ride on Fat Albert — they insisted on showing me the 45-degree-angle take-off on YouTube — I really wasn’t nervous about it until I met with my fellow riders on Saturday morning at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport terminal. That’s where we received the first of three preride briefings. The passengers included several reporters, four local teachers from Rock Valley Charter School and Beloit Memorial High School, a Marine recruiter from Illinois, five naval petty officers in their bright whites and neckerchiefs and a vice admiral and his entourage, among others.
During the first briefing, we signed a card waiving the U.S. government, etc., of any responsibility for loss of personal possessions or … death, signed by a witness. My enthusiasm revived after the briefing when, while waiting in line for the bathroom, I overheard a Blue Angels pilot explaining that events like these are great for recruitment. “If it boosts recruitment, it’s got to be at least somewhat enjoyable,” I thought to myself. “Otherwise, no one would sign up for this gig.”
A member of the Blue Angels team drove us to the big blue and yellow beast; everyone on the Blue Angels team called it “Bert” — Fat Albert. We received our second briefing planeside, jets buzzing low overhead, and again were informed about the availability of air-sickness bags. Several potential passengers were worried about the strength of their stomachs.
“That’s our goal today,” joked Gunnery Sgt. Ben Chapman, leading the briefing. “To make you vomit.”
After a flurry of pictures and even a trip to the cockpit, Fat Albert’s pilots arrived, looking sharp in their blue flight suits. Maj. Drew Hess and Capt. Edward Jorge introduced themselves and briefed their crew. And I thought I talked fast. The most I comprehended of the briefing was when Hess said something about reversing the yolk. My stomach growled. Flashing us another grin, he repeated the brief in layman’s terms, for us civilians, said, “It’s a beautiful day for an air show!” and sent us aboard.
Feeling cocky and self-satisfied, I buckled myself into my seat, enjoying the joshing among the crew. As the engines roared to life, they whooped and hollered and I, ever loud and easily excitable, felt right at home. “I could do this, I could be in the military. I could fly.” I thought. “I like this.”
Seconds later, the invisible hand of positive G-force slammed us into our seats, making us feel as though we weighed three times our normal weight. Just as suddenly, we were all shrieking and airborne, straining against our seat belts, momentarily suspended in midair. The flight tech in front of me, holding on to a step-ladder in the middle of the plane, was completely horizontal to the floor in a Superman pose. My camera, still attached to my neck, landed in the lap of the passenger to my left and I might have accidentally smacked the guy to my right. After we’d all composed ourselves, I asked him how fast we were going.
“Oh, about 330,” he said. “But we’ll probably hit about 375.” Across the plane, I noticed someone making use of his air-sickness bag, and simultaneously started to feel the heat in the plane. More than a few of us were turning gray and dripping with sweat, and as I saw the freshly planted fields of Rock County fly buy at wackily askew angles, I was glad I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. It must have shown on my face. “Are you doing all right?” asked one of the flight techs, looking down at me. It was all I could do to meekly nod before the positive G’s kicked in again.
When we landed, it was not a moment too soon for me. I wobbled out of Fat Albert and fought the urge to lie down on the grass, sufficiently thrilled, respect for military types renewed. Ever gracious, the pilots and crew posed for pictures before sending us on our merry way.
Making my way through the crowds — this was my third year at AirFEST, and Saturday was the most packed I’d ever seen it — I stopped and watched a Navy recruiter doing pull-ups, waiting for my legs to stop shaking.
Driving home to Beloit on U.S. Highway 51, I saw the Blue Angels swooping overhead, in perfect formation, as always. I smiled and waved, thankful that there are brave souls out there who do what they do — so I, apparently ill-suited as I am to intense aviation, don’t have to.