by Nate "Buster" Jaros
Originally published on Fightersweep, October 2016, By Nate Jaros
You are basically put into a small coffin. It swings a little as you enter, reminiscent of how a gondola swings on its wire, or how a Ferris wheel car wobbles as you climb aboard at the local carnival.
Except this is no carnival ride. If it were, it would be the worst carnival ride known to man.
You are about to feel pain like never before…in the USAF centrifuge.
The centrifuge seat is unlike an ejection seat and feels a bit odd. Immediately there is a sense of claustrophobia in this tight pod-like device. There are no windows in this ride but there is a faint smell of vomit, and sweat…or is that just fear? A worker comes to the hatch and makes sure you are strapped in, goes over a few reminders on safety, and gives a not-very-reassuring “have fun” before sealing you in the dark pod.
Alone and Unafraid Before The Ride
The door clangs shut with a loud and metallic clank. It’s immediately dark and warm. You notice a pocket on the side wall with a strategically placed and unused barf bag in it.
The inside of this coffin is metal. There is a side stick like in the F-16 and a TV screen in front of you. After a few minutes, you notice a row of small lights, positioned horizontally above the screen, as well as the camera staring back at you. The one dim light in the pod reveals a lot of Squadron stickers and “zaps” inside the pod from previous carnival riders who have had the experience. There is also a large LED readout panel. It currently reads “1.0” as this is your current G level.
Soon a voice is heard from the controller calmly asking if you are ready. You respond yes, but you’re also not quite sure about that. Since there are no windows, you cannot discern motion or movement outside your “death bobsled.” This is when the fun begins.
There is a faint hum, and suddenly you feel really dizzy. Your eyes ping left and right, in rapid-fire movement. It is apparent that you are now spinning in this pod, but without visual cues from the outside world, it just feels weird.
The dizziness is an uncontrollable reaction to your inner ear, telling your body that you are spinning when your visual world is not. After a few minutes, the dizziness goes away as vision and movement stabilize at this pre-determined RPM. Unbeknownst to you, the centrifuge is actually hurtling around a room at 45 MPH, with the pod attached to the end of a long mechanical arm. The gauge up front reads “1.1” (G’s).
The thought crosses your mind: to fly fighters, you have to pass this test.
The voice asks again if you are ready. This first run is one of five needed to complete the training. Thankfully, this first run is a warm-up. You will only be pulling about seven Gs and must hold that for 30 seconds. Not a problem, right?
A computerized F-14 Tomcat appears on the screen and it looks like a video game. In this simulation, you are chasing the F-14 and the goal is to follow him. The harder he turns, the more you are supposed to pull on the stick. Pulling on the stick instantly increases the speed of your spinning pod to nearly 90 MPH but also increases the Gs. This means you are in direct control of the speed of the centrifuge AND the pain.
Double checking your G suit, you remember the G straining maneuver. This involves clenching every muscle in your body…from your toes to your chest. The goal is to physically hold blood in your brain and keep from passing out, or G-LOCing. G-LOC (G induced Loss of Consciousness) in the centrifuge is under a safe and controlled environment, but in a fighter it can be deadly. Passing out is not an option today if you want to fly fighters.
The Pain Train Begins
Your answer to the voice is a determined “Ready!”
Breath, clench, ready….Fights on, fights on!
The Tomcat takes off and you pull the stick as far as it will go to keep him on the computer screen. Immediately it feels like a hammer on your chest. The pod accelerates to the sensation of warp speeds. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning.
The speed stabilizes and the G meter reads 7.0. You continue the G strain, but your body is in pain. Not only does it feel like being smothered by really heavy weights, but every inch of your body feels as if it is under a vise. The pain is overbearing, but you have to hang on.
Your face begins to droop as if your cheeks are being stretched down to your shoulders. You’re just three to four seconds in now, but here is where the ride gets harder.
At this point, the body’s natural tolerance for G’s diminish. Your body wants to quit and pass out as all the blood is now draining from your head. It’s nearly impossible to breathe, but this is imperative to survive. Your pulse skyrockets as your heart attempts to keep blood pumping upstairs.
As your tolerance diminishes just three to four seconds into the pull, you distinctly notice that everything turns black and white. Color drains from the visual world and it is like watching a Black & White copy of Top Gun—except it’s not as funny. You continue to strain and push and breathe in short, succinct breaths in an effort to hold back the monster on your chest and in your head. What happens next is even scarier.
After everything goes black and white, the tunnel vision begins. A dark circle encroaches your vision, starting in the periphery, and slowly constricting what you can see. The lights on the end of the horizontal light bar above the screen entirely disappear. The circle begins to shrink further and further until everything is black, except for a little computerized F-14 on the now black and white screen in front of you.
The fight is even harder now. The black hole is beginning to swallow you…and you don’t want to fail. Getting all of your muscles to perform the G strain maneuver is your only hope. Exacting every bit of energy from every last muscle and timing your breathing in three second bursts is the only hope. The dark circle slowly begins to expand. It’s working! You continue to sustain the massive weight of G and most importantly continue to fight.
After what seems like minutes, the 30 second warmup run is complete and the centrifuge rapidly decelerates. The centrifuge slams you forward in the seat straps a little, and thankfully this round is over. There is a brief bit of dizziness with the velocity change in your sensory-robbed pod, but life, and color, and vision all return to normal. You are breathing like a prize fighter after round one but you made it.
The good news: there are only four more of these to go! And for those lucky enough to have been selected for an F-16, you will be rewarded with at least one 9 G profile today! A-10 selectees do a few more 7 and 7.5 G profiles, and Eagle pilot wannabees get an 8.5 G run or two.
After the last run, you are exhausted. So exhausted that when this nasty carnival ride stops, the staff un-bolts the door and assists you out of the seat. They gingerly walk you to a chair to sit in because walking on your own is nearly impossible. You might as well be a baby deer, or elk taking its first steps. No joke.
Some guys and gals lay flat on the ground, some sit in the chair for 20 to 30 minutes. Some vomit. There are well placed garbage cans everywhere. Everyone drinks water. But everyone is glad it’s done.
Another fun side effect is something we call “G-easles.” Like Measles, but with a letter G. They look like a case of Measles, but only appear on the underside parts of your body, where all the blood vessels and capillaries have burst under the massive strain.
You relax and sip water. Every so often the centrifuge whirrs up to speed and then spins back down again. This happens repeatedly as more classmates are going through this difficult crucible. Sometimes it stops entirely, and they haul out the next victim. Other times it stops and no one gets out immediately…another G-LOC occurred.
Unfortunately, that trainee gets to do it all over again tomorrow…or go home. No fighter jet for you.
I don’t know what would be worse, losing an opportunity to fly a fighter, or facing another five rounds against that ugly beast…the centrifuge.
Top Photo Credit: Youtube Peter Ehrnstrom
You Tube video: Alexandre Fernandes de Silva channel
Originally published on Fightersweep.com, August 2016, by Nate Jaros
It was a cold winter night over Iraq. It was 2003 and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) was in full swing and US fighter aircraft were getting used to their regular un-impeded patrols over the country. Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch had recently ended and “Shock-and-Awe” was completed earlier that March as well.
All of Iraq was our playground.
At the time, just two fighters, and a tanker were the only things airborne, 24/7 over the war-stricken country. And maybe a few UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) too. Air operations were slow actually, and modern airpower was more of a presence than an active participant…
We were with the 510th Fighter Squadron, out of Aviano, Italy. The Balkan Buzzards as we were sometimes called, but more commonly known in the Viper community as just “The Buzzards.”
Our whole squadron and 20+ jets were deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and was supporting OIF as well as OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) with daily and nightly two-ship sorties. A squadron of F-15E Strike Eagles was also with us, and we each alternated VUL (vulnerability) times over Iraq to maintain this 24/7 coverage.
Every four or five hours, a two-ship of Vipers or Mud Hens would launch from “The Deid,” head north along the Persian Gulf. The flight (two-ship) would get gas entering Iraq and proceed to their assigned tasking, while also relieving the other squadron that was finishing their business over the country after a five hour long sortie.
We typically had missiles (both long and short range) on board as well as an assortment of 500 pound LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and GPS guided JDAMs (Joint Directed Attack Munition). We were a Block 40 F-16 squadron and also carried our primary “tool” the LANTIRN Targeting Pod. The Targeting Pod was an Infra-Red telescope basically that was cockpit controllable, and had a laser designator for LGBs.
On this night, I was the flight lead with my young but combat-proven wingman “Chaos” on the wing. Chaos and I were paired by the squadron leadership, and enjoyed flying together every other night or so.
Leadership kept most flight leads and wingman paired over the course of the four month deployment to help build solid and reliable two-ship teams. Keeping guys paired together really helped reduce errors and develop a sense of camaraderie as well as professional in-flight synergy. Chaos knew what to expect out of me, and I knew what to expect out of him.
On a typical mission we would have three or four taskings across Iraq. We would maybe have an hour with a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) providing high cover for ground forces doing building searches. We would then move on to oil and gas pipeline patrols, or maybe an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) road scanning tasking, or even Army convoy support. We typically had lots to do in one mission.
The Threat of IED’s
During this timeframe the IED’s were getting so bad across Iraq that they were an expected daily threat. Finding “bad guys” digging along road sides was quite common. “In August and September 2003, IEDs were responsible for more U.S. combat fatalities than the combined totals for direct fire weapons (small arms and rocket-propelled grenades [RPGs]) and indirect fire, the methods that had, historically, caused the majority of battle casualties” (Smith, 2011).
Chaos and I had come off the tanker and were proceeding to North-Central Iraq. It was just a 15 to 20 minute transition as the tanker was orbiting nearby. Below us was a heavy cloud deck and seeing anything on the ground with our eyes, NVGs, or the “pod” was impossible. As we passed over various cities this dark night, glowing amber-yellow city lights lit up the low clouds below us and cast an odd eerie feel to the solid cloud deck.
We were assigned to convoy support for a line of Army vehicles near Bayji and Tikrit traveling south toward Samarra along the major North-South road that went from Mosul in Northern Iraq to Baghdad.
Army Convoy in Trouble
I recall checking in with the convoy commander on time, on the designated freq as they began their slow and nervous drive south. We reported that we couldn’t see them for the weather, but would support in any way possible from high above. We had their coordinates and with updates we could track their position and be ready to assist if needed.
We circled above their position, like buzzards, in the dark and cold night with nothing to look at but softly-lit orange clouds below.
I don’t remember any hostilities initially, but the convoy commander soon became loud and concerned about something. His voice changed a few octaves and we heard him halt the convoy. We heard him coordinating a lot of actions and activity as well. Something was happening below us.
It was typical for IEDs to be rigged for timed detonation, while others would detonate actively when a ‘bad guy’ typically hidden somewhere pressed his detonator switch at the appropriate time. Some IEDs could detonate automatically when they sensed a vehicle or a large movement, or noise…but those were rarer as they required more technology. In 2003 the enemy was just looking for ways to easily disrupt or kill our ground forces, and they were good at it.
The convoy commander indicated over the radio that they had some suspicious activity and personnel ahead, as well as intelligence reports that IED planters and enemy were all along this route near them, placing their deadly weapons and waiting. He informed Chaos and I that they had reason to believe there were IEDs a few miles ahead, due to the skeptical roadside activity they were witnessing.
Calling us in for immediate weapons effects was not typical.
With no way to truly know if the people in the fields and roadside ahead were friendly civilians, kids playing, or bad guys, and no way to tell if that box on the side of the road was a bomb or just junk—there wasn’t much we could do at times. We could spend weeks bombing along roadsides and just waste a lot of weapons. Use of force was atypical for this type of problem.
The Show-of-Force Tactic
The preferred tactic was called a Show-of-Force (SoF). The Show-of-Force was akin to a shot across the bow, as they say. Basically it was one step before the use of actual force, and it was appropriate near certain high collateral damage areas.
In any fighter, a SoF equalled “be as loud, visible, and aggressively postured as possible.” A low pass with the ear shattering afterburner engaged was the preferred method. Additionally, intelligence reports told us that most enemy combatants would drop their weapons, detonate their IEDs, and simply run in the presence of any US aircraft. We used that fact to our advantage.
The commander requested a SoF from our two-ship, north to south, a single pass each. Somehow Chaos and I got below the weather and I remember emerging from the soup at about two or three thousand feet above the dark desert, with a clear, serpentine, well-lit road carving through the desert visible to the East…and on it were the tiny dots of a convoy, holding its position.
Getting low in a combat situation has the effect of heightening the senses. Not only was it dark and the unforgiving desert a real threat (from hitting it), but they had people down there that liked to shoot back. Anything below about 5,000 feet above ground level really got you on edge. Above that, there were no threats. Speed (and lights off) was life down low. NVGs kept you sane because at least you could see.
With clearance from the commander, we reported five miles to the north for the SoF. I went in first with Chaos offset and about two miles in trail. I lowered the nose toward the road as I aligned, and offset a bit to the right, on the west side. I would take the road down my left side, as fast as I could.
Accelerating through 300 knots, now lower, then 400 knots… I came overtop the convoy and plugged in the afterburner. The jet lurched forward as if kicked in the ass and I watched the fuel flow climb through 40,000 pph (pounds per hour) while the airspeed slipped past 500 knots. The road and earth was not far below me and screaming past at an incredible rate.
Then I saw the flashes.
Were they shooting? No those flashes were too big and bright. Did Chaos get hit I thought? No I could see his burner plume back there, following me and repeating my flightpath on the other side of the road.
Those were IEDs going off! One flash, two flash, then another!
Huge explosions flashed in the night, lighting up the atmosphere and casting strange flashbulb effects on the low clouds above us. Yet we could hear nothing. It was quiet in the cockpit, nothing to hear but the sound of cooling air flowing and the visual spectacle of the serpentine lit road passing extremely fast below. But down below, it must have looked like the 4th of July to the troops in the convoy.
We terminated afterburner approaching the Mach and became instantly invisible again. Over the inter-flight radio freq I told Chaos I was climbing back into the weather and headed for clear air. He followed and we quickly rejoined up above the weather, slowing our fire-breathing machines in the relative safety of altitude.
Our time was up and by now gas was getting low as well. “That ought to do it” the convoy Commander’s voice crackled on the radio, clear happiness and relief audible in his voice.
We were set for one more tanker and then the long drive home down the Gulf back to Al Udeid. We checked out with the convoy commander and he had a few words of praise and thanks. It seemed that our SoF scared off enough bad guys and caused a few others to hit their detonators and run back into the deserts and towns nearby. Those Army boys would be safe tonight on their long slow drive. Pretty cool.
We reflected on the sortie as the pink sun rose over the dusty gulf on our way back home. I still can’t imagine the courage it would take to drive a vehicle in a war zone, knowing that any second it could just explode.
We were glad to have helped, if even just a little… and with all our weapons still on board.
Originally published on Fightersweep.com, December 2016, by Nate Jaros
It was August of 2008 and my Squadron, the 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams” were deployed to Balad Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The heat was unbearable that summer, and regular temperatures over 120 degrees F were not uncommon. Temperatures on the ramp were even hotter, as shimmering heat reflected off the hard concrete, metal “start carts” and maintenance stuff, as well as our heavily loaded Vipers. Metal things literally burn you if you touch them at 120 degrees F in the sun.
For some amount of time during this six month deployment, I was on “mids.” Mids was after “day shift” but before “night shift” and typically we arrived at work around 1 or 2 PM, launched for a combat sortie in the late afternoon or early evening, and recovered six hours later just in time for midnight chow. Mids was a good time to do combat ops as you typically had some amount of daytime flying, and could also do some night stuff too when things cooled off and the “bad guys” started getting a little “wiley.”
But man was it hot. Just walking to the squadron from the crew car was miserable. The sun was relentless and the heat and humidity zapped the energy and fluids from you in minutes. I have never before felt that kind of heat.
When we “stepped” to go fly, remember that we had on many layers of clothing. Normal shirts and flight suits of course, but on top of that we had a thick G-suit, a survival vest loaded with goodies and a handgun, gloves, and a helmet bag full of smart packs, papers, digital transfer cartridges, flashlights, NVGs, food, water…oh, and a helmet too. It wasn’t uncommon to have ten to fifteen pounds of gear on, plus another small suitcase of stuff to carry to the jet.
We also went everywhere with bottles of water. A one-liter bottle was common and most guys and gals took at least one with them for a five to six hour sortie.
When it was time to go, you were already sweating like a stuck pig by the time you stepped out of the squadron and into the moderately cool van that would take you to your aircraft.
When you arrived at your jet, it was like stepping out of a warm room and into an inferno. We’d greet our crew chief (who was already on his fourth or fifth one liter bottle of water as he’d been out at the jet prepping it for two hours, in the baking sun). A typical quick handshake ensued, followed by checking the forms on the jet, and then performing a standard five minute walk around of the aircraft checking tires, fluid levels, weapons configurations and so forth. Needless to say, by the time you were ready to climb in, you were already soaked through in sweat and maybe down halfway on your one liter bottle of water. The heavy gear and G-suit didn’t help much for cooling either.
On this particular day I remember climbing in, strapping in, and starting the engine. I was already feeling pretty exhausted and dehydrated and I consumed another few gulps of my water taking my bottle to about half full. I was soaked to the bone, there wasn’t anything dry on my body and the sweat poured from my brows under the heavy and hot helmet.
During the start sequence we had a problem. Something was wrong in the hydraulic system and the crew chief alerted me to the issue. After a minute or so, we determined that the aircraft was a no-go due to the hydraulics and I would need to go to the spare aircraft.
We’ve all had to go to the spare before… but on this day… in this heat… those were the words I just didn’t want to hear.
After shutting down the engine, it was time to collect my nest of carefully placed documents, bags, bottles, papers, smartpacks, NVGs and batteries and all the stuff required to do a combat sortie in a single seat fighter. I was also a literal hot mess by this point and even more sweat-soaked, and really feeling the effects of the heat with all the gear on. I cannot adequately describe how the heat feels, with all that gear layered on you.
I remember stepping to the spare aircraft, feeling like a lost survivor roaming the deserts of the Sahara, I eventually arrived, red-faced, soaked, and miserable at the spare Viper.
I greeted my new crew chief, re-nested and stowed my gear, and did my second walkaround of the day. I finished my now luke-warm one liter bottle of water and strapped in. By this time I had been in the 120 degree heat for nearly 34 minutes and was about tapped. The heat and excess clothing, gear, and weight had about done me in. I looked and felt like Rocky Balboa after ten rounds with The Champ.
We were always instructed and permitted to call “knock-it-off” for safety at any time. If the situation dictated due to human limits, or some other safety related incident, we could “make the call” and stop everything. I distinctly remember strapping into the spare jet, ten pounds lighter than when I left the squadron building telling myself “if this jet doesn’t start, and I have to go to another spare, I am done for the day.” I was completely overheated, and weary.
About 45 minutes after departing the squadron building, less one big bottle of water and gallons of sweat, the new jet started up nicely and I closed the canopy totally excited about the cool air now filling the cramped space around me. It was heaven and I knew that I’d be okay for continuing the combat sortie. Had it not worked, I to this day, feel that I would have had some kind of heat stroke or other heat-related injury.
It was that hot.
I remember tapping into my reserve water supply, my “if you have to eject water” as we taxied out and eventually launched to go fight the fight that day, but certainly, for me…that was the hottest I’ve ever been, and closest to a heat related failure that I’ve ever known.
I’m proud that I was able to continue on that day and fly the mission, but I won’t lie about being seconds from “calling uncle” and going back into the building, head hung in shame for the heat if that second jet had failed me.
About four hours later in that sortie, as nightfall arrived for my two-ship over Iraq, I oddly remember finally feeling dry and comfortable. Just another day over Iraq.
Nate "Buster" Jaros
What is Engine Out? Relevant aviation topics, key safety techniques, war stories, and pilot tips from Fightersweep writer and the author of Engine Out Survival Tactics, Fighter Pilot Tactics for GA Engine Loss Emergencies.
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