Behind the scenes and behind the controls: reporting from a fighter jet
I’m going to be totally honest: I considered chickening out on this assignment right up to the moment they were strapping me into the seat of an F-18 Super Hornet fighter jet. I was sweating buckets, ridiculously excited, and also trying not to think about how terrible it would be to vomit in my oxygen mask during a flight being filmed for a TV news story.
My assignment was simple: check out one of the two top contenders for a multi-billion dollar contract to replace the aging CF-18 fleet currently serving the Canadian Armed Forces.
Two of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters were on display at the Abbotsford Air Show, but the pilots were neither performing in the three-day event nor taking any civilians up for demonstrations. Instead, Lt. Col. George Watkins and Lt. Col. Curtis Pitts were there on behalf of the United States Air Force to talk about the benefits of the sleek-looking, stealth aircraft.
“It’s not about how fast and how high you can go anymore,” said Pitts. “It’s about being able to strike first and not have the enemy see you.”
While Lockheed Martin talked up the benefits of their aircraft, Boeing took the chance to show off its answer to the F-35 with several demonstrations of the F-18 Super Hornet -- plus opportunities for journalists to ride along.
The aircraft are on lease to Boeing from the U.S. Navy, with naval officials vetting potential ride-alongs months in advance. Unbeknownst to me, I was on the list from CTV Vancouver but didn’t get confirmation until just a couple days before my flight.
When I agreed, I thought I was signing up for a trip in an older aircraft, like the venerable Snowbirds. I didn’t realize I’d be in for hours of orientation and safety training and an insanely intense physical experience in one of the most advanced aircraft in the world.
When photojournalist Pete Cline and I arrived at the Abbotsford Air Show a Boeing rep greeted us and ushered us into a massive trailer where throngs of people were crowded around a flight simulator, complete with the kind of touch panel controls and elaborate visual displays that are actually inside the aircraft. It was great to get a preview and footage of that simulator because the U.S. Navy wouldn’t let us take video inside the Super Hornet for two reasons: they didn’t want classified or proprietary info of the setup or other details in the cockpit published, and because the G-force the aircraft undertakes make it risky for GoPros or other cameras that could break off and then rattle inside the cabin during the many manouevres they perform during the flight.
My pilot, John “Toonces” Tougas, gave me the rundown on what he’d be seeing in the driver’s seat and how I could follow along in the back, able to view many of the displays he has access to. Toonces (I’m going to refer to him that way, because he won’t answer to anything else) has been flying military aircraft for 25 years and is now a test pilot for Boeing’s newest and fanciest aircraft, so I felt pretty confident in him – until he told me I’d be piloting the Super Hornet myself.
“Boeing spent a lot of time and effort to get it to this condition where with three minutes of flight time I can have anyone flying it," he said.
With great skepticism, I followed his instructions on the simulator, which actually made me feel like I was spinning sideways because of the three massive monitors wrapped around the controls. It felt like I was immersed in the ultimate video game: multiple screens, a hyper-realistic display and controls that felt like the real deal.
It turns out, that was a big part of Boeing letting me on board: to show the intelligent design of the piloting system that makes flying intuitive so that the pilot can focus on other things, like watching the display from a high definition camera or monitoring for hostile aircraft.
"It's a strike fighter and the main focus is being able to use your weapons and sensors and be able to deploy them in combat,” said Tougas, “so you have to make the task of piloting simple and almost unconscious."
The next step was getting geared up. Boeing travels with a huge amount of gear not only for the pilots, but the VIPs they take for demonstrations in the aircraft. It turns out very few of them are women, because the boots were all too big and the flight suits are clearly designed for male physiques and proportions. The one-piece jumpsuits are fire retardant and full of pockets and easy to zip in and out of – except if you’re a female reporter in need of a bathroom break and wearing tiny yoga shorts in anticipation of sweating up a storm in the gear. Let’s just say preserving my modesty while using the toilet was almost as challenging as the flight.
Toonces clearly does this all the time, because he has an hour-long PowerPoint presentation explaining exactly what the demo flight will entail, safety protocols, details of the displays I’ll be able to use, all titled with our names -- including my newly-appointed call sign, Henny. I hate it, which means it’s going to stick. That’s just how it works.
Thoroughly intimidated by what was to come, Boeing gear boss Nate Hanson outfitted me with the g-suit that would keep me conscious during manouevres that would put incredible pressure on my body and blood supply. It basically zips up over the flight suite like a set of chaps, with sturdy Velcro panels to hold it it snug from ankle to thigh and another section around the lower torso. I then shimmied into a five-point harness that fit snugly over my shoulders, complete with an inflatable life jacket and all the hookups for my oxygen mask. He perfectly estimated the helmet size I would need and then we took some time to adjust the oxygen mask. I felt I couldn’t get enough air but they said it’d be fine once the diluted oxygen supply began.
Hanson also showed me how to discreetly tuck a couple of air sickness bags in the pockets in case I needed them and then before I knew it we were in a golf cart and out to the aircraft.
The Super Hornet is big, with an intimidating ramp staircase to get to the top, past a full weapons array. Butterflies racing through my stomach, Cline busy filming as Boeing’s official photographer snapped away, Hanson helped me get into the back seat and started clipping me in at the ankles, thighs and shoulders. It is a bizarre feeling having two dozen people watching from the ground while getting one’s bearings two stories up in a multi-million dollar piece of machinery.
Toonces had made it very clear that if I wanted to call off the whole thing or needed some “comfort time” I just had to say the word and it’d be ok. But my curiosity and sense of adventure overruled my nervousness and fear of puking all over myself and we were off.
Checklist in progress, the dome came down and we started taxying toward the runway, ejection seat engaged and oxygen mask cranked. In my stressful state I wasn’t getting enough air so I had to loosen the seal around my makeup-free face so I wouldn’t feel like I was suffocating.
True to the agenda, Toonces punched the afterburner for takeoff and we were up before I knew it. It felt like an aggressive takeoff in an airliner, or about the g-force I’m used to when we zip off in Chopper 9. So far, so good.
Toonces is a smart guy and instantly started chit-chatting through our headsets about the surrounding farmland, asking me to name a local mountain and otherwise keeping my eyes moving along the horizon and thinking about something other than my fear of puking in my oxygen mask. I don’t know whether I’ve got a good constitution for flying or if his tactic worked, but I was feeling great!
Every airport in the Lower Mainland wanted a look at the Super Hornet, so we headed straight to the Langley Airport, which only took about two minutes. We flew down low over their runway, calling a “missed approach” to their tower, and then promptly hit the throttle and we zoomed right up to the clear blue sky. I couldn’t help but laugh like a little kid, because it was just so thrilling and fun.
Next stop was Vancouver International Airport, where one of our CTV News photojournalists was waiting with a couple friends and his to film our flyby from the Chopper 9 hangar near the South Terminal. When I said I saw them, Toonces tilted us sideways so they could see I was in the jet and then gave a fancy side-to-side manouevre before blasting past the tower toward UBC, with a loop around downtown Vancouver and the Harbour Tower. Needless to say, we confused the living daylights out of a lot of people wondering what a US fighter jet was doing over the city.
Then it was time to get down to business. We flew eastward, pushing to 11,500 feet with me now at the controls. I couldn’t believe how similar it was to the simulator. When I turned left and pulled on the stick, the navigation system adjusted and corrected itself so it kept us in a safe and steady trajectory. I punched the throttle, taking us to 500 knots, then back to minimum speed and it slowed us right down, but didn’t stall the aircraft. Toonces had his hands in the air at this point to prove to me me I was in control, which was pretty wild.
I insisted he take over for the manoueverability demo, which had us flowing from a slow flight in an Angle of attack position ranging from 15 to 35 degrees (imagine a bear rearing up on its hind legs), followed by a full aft stick stall (straight up, like a rocket), followed by a turbo nose-down (face pointed at the earth with that gut-wrenching feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster), a pirouette (a tight turn) and a square loop (imagine a backwards summersault) that I will never forget, with Mount Baker upside down in my field of view.
I should mention that several of these moves caused my g-suit to inflate, powerfully squeezing my legs and torso to push the blood to my head. At the same time I was clenching the necessary muscle groups, “calves, thighs, butt and gut” as Toonces said, to keep the blood in my brain so I wouldn’t pass out. It’s intense but you feel like a superhero when you’re able to keep your eyes open and absorbing everything that’s going on around you – namely, twirling around a snow-capped mountain like some crazed dragonfly. I’m told being short and a woman makes it easier to withstand g-force, and even going up to 5 Gs was tough, but doable.
Then came the moment of truth. Toonces had told me in the briefing that at the end I could “land, or have a story to tell.” That’s because I had the option to experience a 7-G turn before we came in for a landing. I’d originally said “hell no” to the idea, but I was feeling so good throughout everything else I said “let’s do it!”
I heard “That’s my girl – here we go!” and we were suddenly in a turn so violent and forceful I could barely keep my eyes open. Leg muscles and core fully engaged, g-suit squeezing the hell out of my lower half, I still had the edges of my vision going black and tunneling from the pressure, but it was suddenly over and I was still conscious. Woah.
Seven Gs is rough – we’re talking seven times your body weight. Formula One drivers regularly handle 3 to 5 Gs, with most roller coasters in that range. It’s just shy of what Apollo 16 astronauts experienced on re-entry into the atmosphere, when they hit 7.19 Gs.
I didn’t find out till later I’m only the second person to say yes to Toonces’ offer of the 7 G turn. While I’m glad I got to experience it, I probably wouldn’t want to do it again.
But I would take another flight in a Super Hornet – in a heartbeat.
The federal government now has a choice to make: the F-18 Super Hornet, or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Both have communications systems compatible with NATO requirements and sophisticated avionics equipment that makes them virtually incomparable to older model fighter jets. The F-35 is a stealth aircraft, with more physical capabilities then the F-18 and the previous Conservative government had settled on the F-35, but cost overruns and delays scuttled the deal and the Liberals are now running a new procurement process.
The biggest advantage Boeing may have over Lockheed Martin is the existing fleet. The aging CF-18 Hornets currently flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force are the previous generation model of the Super Hornet. Toonces compared it to a personal computer situation: going from the CF-18 to the F-18 is like upgrading from Windows 97 to Windows 10, he said. It’s newer and better but still familiar. He says for our CF-18 pilots, training for the F-35 would be akin to learning a Mac operating system. The idea is, the smoother the learning curve to fly the aircraft, the more the pilots can focus on learning the sophisticated avionics under the hood, as it were.
While the Liberals campaigned with the promise they wouldn’t sign off on the F-35, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was cagey at a July 16 press conference in Ottawa, saying "no decision has been made on procurement" and that he wants to “make sure we have all the necessary information, all the right data" before signing off on the multi-billion dollar contract.