The first thing that starts to go is your vision. When the G-forces hit, your periphery turns gray and then red, until you’re straining to focus on the vague outline of some point directly in front of you through an opaque, orange field.
Then you regain full consciousness to the sound of a relaxed, square-jawed Marine pilot who has pulled 7.5 G’s about 10 times that day and acts like he’s pouring a cup of coffee.
“You with me? How you doing, Adam?” Maj. Nathan Miller, whose call sign is “Corky,” is talking to me as my eyes reopen to see that I had not drifted off on the couch, but rather at 3,000 feet above the Pacific, careering forward at 350 mph in a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet piloted by one of the top aces in the world.
“I think I bit my tongue,” is all I can manage.
That was toward the end of a trip that, for the most part, kept me grinning so widely my cheeks ached on touchdown. From the Immelman turn — a maneuver that combines the ascent of a loop with a roll at the top to hide from or sneak up on an enemy — to a series of banks and loops that removed all descriptive power from the word dizzy, a flight with a Blue Angels pilot is one hell of a trip to heaven.
Out in the demonstration area off the San Mateo coast, Miller put the F/A-18 through its paces with a dignified professionalism that contrasted with the heart-pounding, ear-popping, body-slamming power of the engines nestled inches behind us.
He climbed high, almost vertically, let the nose fall off sideways, dropped down and went into a bank, then slammed on the afterburner to kiss the sound barrier goodbye.
It was when I took the stick that real nervousness kicked in.
After a couple of mild banks and climbs just to get used to the sensation, Miller flew level and executed a perfect aileron roll, rotating the plane 360 degrees on its fuselage. I squealed with delight, trying to disguise it as an enthusiastic holler.
“You want to try it?” he said.
Of course. But then again, I’ve crashed more video game jets than I’ve brought home safely. What if that happened here?
I hesitated, pulled my hand away, looked up and caught Miller’s eye. This was definitely going to happen. I grabbed the stick, spread my knees and jammed it over to the left. Immediately the horizon began twisting.
“Hold it, keep it over,” Miller said.
And as quickly as it had stood on end, the skyline became flat again. I had completed an aileron roll in a Blue Angels jet.
“That was for you, Grandpa,” I yelled into the tape recorder on the way back across the Peninsula.
My grandfather, Charles Martin, an electrician’s mate on the aircraft carrier USS Essex, served in the Pacific during World War II.
“I’d like to thank your grandfather,” Miller said, “for helping create the foundation for what we do now.”
And for a moment, the thrill of a lifetime became an intimate, reflective experience.
As we approached SFO for the final flyover, Miller asked, “You ready for some more vitamin G?”
And everything became orange.