Thunderbird Ride - A Blast From The Past (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

Did you lose your lunch? That's what everyone wants to know. Then they want to know what it's like to ride with the Thunderbirds. Here's my answer.


Did you puke in the plane?  So many people ask me that when they want to know about a ride with the Thunderbirds.  As soon as I reassure them that I didn't lose my lunch or anything else, we move on to "what was it like?"  Click on the screen to teh left to watch the video.  The "Hero Shot" below as the T-Birds call it, kind of sums it feel pretty good about doing something very few get to do. 

 That's Major Mike Major who was the pilot.  He was probably promoted in the years since, so he was no longer Major Major.

So what's it like?  The answer(s) ....thrilling, a little frightening at times, physically demanding at times, surreal, and above all, memorable.  I remember it like it was a  few months ago. In reality my ride-of a-lifetime came 16 years ago this week.  I was selected as the media rider for that year, 1994.  Below: climbing aboard, May 31st, 1994.

You get a lot of briefings before you go up.  Perhaps the most important to use the airsick bag.  It's tucked away in a top outside pocket of the flight suit. You have to learn to rip off your flight mask, pull out the bag, and put it in place within just a few seconds before they'll let you fly.  They don't want anyone to throw up...but they could make anyone do it..if they chose to.  They also help you with a G-suit or pressure suit, and teach you what's called a straining maneuver.  The suit tightens around your body to help control blood flow.  (If all the blood rushes into your extremities you black out) The straining maneuver is a hard, rapid breathing technique, with pauses, plus a tensing of the muscles in the arms and legs, also to keep the blood pressure up for the brain.

Below, some final pre-flight advice from the pilot.

OK, takeoff.  You don't realize until that moment, just how powerful an aircraft the F-16 is.  As we left the ground I briefly wondered, "Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into here?"  We're all used to passenger planes that slowly lumber into the air, if an object can lumber in air.  The thrill is on!  The F-16 feels like it shoots itself off the ground.  Once it's up it can accelerate in a way that feels smooth and effortless.  After a few minutes the apprehension is gone, you get used to the feeling of flying in this thing.  It's hard to explain but it physically feels different than flight in anything else I've flown in, small planes, big cargo planes,'s just different.

From that point on the flight is about the pilot showing the guy in the backseat what his plane can do. He starts with a few simple maneuvers, a roll, a loop.  He does each one first so you get the feel for it.  The feel of being upside down the first time is amazing. As the Major said, "light in the seat."   You know that feeling when you go over the top on a roller-coaster, that stomach flutter? There's a lot of that on this ride.

After each demonstration, the pilot says. "your jet."  That's when the passenger (me) ready or not (almost ready) takes the stick and makes the move. You'll see in the video that there is some hesitation. You don't wan to overdo it with the stick..but you have to work it hard enough to complete the maneuver..every time you pull the stick back or push it right or left, you feel the power as the aircraft reacts instantly. 

A few of those and it's time for the tough part of the mission. So far we've pulled 3 to 4 G's..not bad, but there's more..much more.  The mission for anyone who takes the back seat is to try and hit 9 g's.  One trial run up to 6 didn't go so well.  I started losing my peripheral vision, like a black curtain closing in front of me.  I don't know how often that happens to a privileged passenger...they usually don't show that part on TV.  It is included in the video linked to this blog. 

Major Major gave me an in-flight refresher course on the straining maneuver and breathing, we hit about 5 g's with no loss of vision.  The it was time to try for 9!   This part really did make me a little nervous.  There is some discomfort as the pressure builds and the g's pile up.  I wondered if I could take it...I certainly thought I could, but you never know.  I also didn't want to put all that sickbag training to use in this nice man's clean airplane.

The pressure practice worked.  We went into a sharp, g-force producing turn.  The pressure built, I huffed and puffed, and strained and hoped and eventually, we hit 9!   It was very brief.  You can see in the video that even the back seat camera focused on me starts to shake.  It's under a lot of pressure too!

Then it was time to turn back and head down.  The flight was about 50 minutes, it seemed like it was about five.  Getting out afterwards it feels strange standing on solid ground.  The ground almost felt like it was moving under my feet after the flight. That strange sensation lasted for a few hours. The memory of my Thunderbird thrill will last a lifetime!

Click on the link to watch the video and get a better idea of what it's like to fly high in an F-16.

We'll talk again soon.

Don Ward



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