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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blue Angels Back Seat Ride--The Ride of a Lifetime!

On Tuesday October 20th 2012 I had the ride of a lifetime in a U.S. Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet. 
I was nominated to fly with the Blue Angels in late 2010, and my original flight was cancelled in the spring of 2011 after a safety-stand-down was announced for the Blue Angels team.  I had thought my flight was permanently cancelled until I received a call this past September from NAS Corpus Christi, Texas,  asking if I “still wanted to go on a flight. “ Of course the answer was a YES!
The Blue Angels have a program called Key Influencer, by which members of the community can nominate a community “public figure” to fly with the Blues as a mechanism for local community outreach and for US Navy recruitment purposes.  I was nominated because of my position as a school board member, as well as my involvement with the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee locally from 2006 to the present time. 
After initial nomination, the local Command at NASP whittles the list down, and then the names are sent to CNATRA headquarters in Corpus Christi where the list is further refined.  Finally, the Blue Angels locally take physically qualified and vetted nominees and finalize the scheduling for the ride.  In my case it was a two year evolution---but worth every minute!

The interesting aspects of the experience were numerous, but the standout in my mind is just the professionalism of the entire team, from the support staff, to the briefing personnel, to the PAO, to the ground crew, to the Pilots.  I was amazed at the entire operation, as were the other guests.   The two other gentlemen who joined me on the flight were WEAR Channel 3 weather man Jim Carmack, and Santa Rosa County Teacher of the Year Jeff Baugus from Woodlawn Beach Middle School.  All three of us were treated like VIP dignitaries, which was very much appreciated (but also quite unnecessary in my case!)  They made us feel like visiting Royalty, which is something I have NEVER experienced before (and may never again).  We were photographed with the entire Blue Angels Team, Given a flight briefing, jump suits, safety instructions, and finally each of us was given a ride in the back seat of the F/A-18 Hornet.
For our rides, the #7 Pilot, who also doubles as the team’s narrator, was tapped for the job.  Lt Mark Tedrow, a 2004 Naval Academy Graduate, was extremely gracious and accommodating.  In addition to his gregarious demeanor, this pilot was physically impressive; He was easily 6’3”, and when I shook his hand before and after the flight, I felt like I was shaking hands with a bronze statue—this guy was a rock—kind of what one would expect as a Naval Aviator from the movies.  I also learned that none of the pilots wear “G Suits” during their flights—they have to control the G-Forces' effects on their bodies via a muscle flexing and breathing regimen called the HICK maneuver.  As we taxied down the runway we talked a bit, and he told me he was a football player, wide receiver.  “On a team that didn’t like to pass the ball” he quipped.   An interesting thing I learned from Lt Tedrow was that as a part of the rotation process coming on to the Blue Angels, many of the pilots spend their first year serving as Narrator, before they rotate up to the actual demonstration team.  While serving as Narrator, these pilots still train and fly, and these are the pilots tapped for giving VIP rides.  Another thing I learned was just how lucky I was to get a ride; the ground-crew member who assisted with buckling me into the 14 point restraint system in the cockpit told me it took him 8 years to earn his first backseat ride—8 years serving with the Blue Angels before he got a ride! That puts it into perspective for me—I was SO LUCKY to get this chance!
My ride lasted 30 minutes, and started with a bang as Lt. Tedrow began our flight by executing a high-speed, high performance takeoff that pulled 6 G’s of force.  After we flew down the runway at 300 Knots, Lt. Tedrow put the nose of the jet straight up, vertical, and hit the afterburners.  The jolt of the sudden change in direction pushed my whole body forward as we quickly ascended into the sky.  Once we hit our cruising altitude of 16000 feet, we  flew  about 30 Miles off the coast, descended toward the ocean,  and performed a  series of  low and high speed maneuvers that resulted in various levels of G Forces on our bodies-between 3-5G’s sustained- during some of the turns. 
The highlight for me, aside from the ridiculously insane takeoff (FOX 10 News did a story on my flight, and captured video of the flight, takeoff, landing, and my reactions in the cockpit) was when Lt. Tedrow lit the afterburners and we broke the sound barrier and went supersonic.  I have never felt anything like that in my life, it was incredible!  ….And how many civilians will ever get the chance to break the sound barrier??
Flying upside down was also an amazing sensation—and the views out of the canopy when one is flying upside down simply defy description.  Awesome.

Aside from the majestic beauty of the day which allowed for views of over 20 miles up and down the coast, the final highlight was coming in to NAS Pensacola for a landing amidst the beauty of our local beaches and emerald water.   After the flight, the Blue Angels presented me a signed commemorative photograph, as well as the complete cockpit video of the entire flight (Something my wife and kids now affectionately refer to, as their “endless source of entertainment” due to my facial expressions up there during the flight…) And to answer the one lingering question everyone has asked, NO, I did not black out during the flight-even while pulling G’s.  I did grunt and strain but never blacked out!

The 30 or so minutes I spent up there that morning are 30 minutes I will remember as long as I live.  I still can’t quite believe I was so fortunate to be selected for this honor, so much so that a part of me is still up there in the sky—on cloud nine!

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