Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Flying the F-16

By Ghazala Wahab

When the call from the doctor didn’t come it was clear that clinically I have been declared fit to fly Lockheed Martin’s flagship fighter F-16. The only thing left to do now was adequate psyching up to take the pressure off. So, when a colleague expressed envy at ‘my chance of the lifetime’ to fly the fighter during Aero India 2011, I shrugged. After all, despite the choice of words, I wouldn’t really be flying, I reasoned. I would be a mere passenger. “All you know,” I joked frequently over the next few days, “I would doze off in the backseat.” This was a good strategy. It settled my nerves and gave me an air of nonchalance.

On the third day of Aero India, at three in the afternoon, I sauntered inside the Lockheed Martin stand with the feeling of semi-detachment. My flight was scheduled to take-off at five in the evening and touch down at 6.18pm. There was much bonhomie at the Lockheed stand, a bit of locker-room spirit, cheers and some back-slapping. Without much fuss, I was ushered into the small room with the flight simulator for preliminary familiarisation.

Jeff Paulk, tasked for the job, was the person I had met a year ago in Delhi. With him at the helm, I had done simulator flying for fun at that time. However, now there was purposefulness in his manner. “We have done this before,” he said in a business-like voice. “I hope you remember some of this,” he continued helping me clamber onto the simulator. My smile, which I am told by many is reasonably winsome, didn’t help as Jeff expected an answer. Sure, the simulator looked extremely familiar, but what’s with remembering commands after a year!

Anyhow, he gave me a quick rundown of the layout of the cockpit: stick on my right, throttle on my left, multi-function displays in the front. “You better pay attention,” he said. “You would be doing some amount of flying.” He can’t be serious. A few minutes of cockpit familiarisation and I would be trusted with a fighter? He thought it was a lame joke and continued explaining various aspects of the flight, target acquisition, dropping bombs, dog-fight, ground-mapping and so on. “There will be a lot of commands that will be with you,” he warned, even as he urged me to push forward the throttle. Talk of pressure. With much trepidation, I clutched the throttle and pushed. Full after-burners and the fighter took-off. I regained some of my composure. After all, what is the worst that can happen inside a simulator? But Jeff had other ideas. No sooner had I started to enjoy simulated cruising, he drew my attention to an unfriendly aircraft close by. I also had to take care of some targets on the ground.

I blinked at the series of buttons in front of me and looked at Jeff nervously. He rapidly issued instructions, most of which I pretended to understand. It didn’t help that my photographer was busy taking pictures reinforcing the idea that I was on a picnic. Since I could not shoot the enemy aircraft, I shot at my photographer instead. Subdued, he retired to one corner as I awaited further annihilation. Finally, it was over and Jeff smiled. “You did not do so badly,” he pronounced pushing me out of the room. “You will be fine,” he said as we walked towards the golf cart that was to take us to the flight line. “Everyone comes back from the flight smiling,” he said. I felt better.

My relief, however, was short-lived. The crew room at the flight line was a friendly place. There were several Lockheed Martin executives and former USAF pilots lounging around. Jeff quickly introduced me to the pilot in whose hands my life was going to be entrusted: Jim ‘Benson’ Hedges. Nothing to do with cigarettes, he assured me. With a surname like ‘Hedges’, it was only natural that he would end up with ‘Benson’ as his call sign. Jim Hedges quit the USAF a few years ago and now works with Lockheed as chief of F-16 Block 60 Pilot Training Development based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He basically instructs the Arab pilots on F-16 Block 60. Since the F-16IN Super Viper, which the Lockheed is offering to the Indian Air Force is based on the Block 60, Jim hopes to shift base to India if F-16 is selected.

Jim was warm and particular about putting me at ease. “You can call me either Jim or Benson,” he said with an engaging smile. “Let me tell you, I am not just a pilot, I am a photographer too and I will be taking my camera with me on the flight,” he said glancing at the FORCE photographers who had by now got into a competitive mood as to who will take how many photos. But nothing dissuaded determined photographers and they stood their ground; which was more than what I was doing. Despite the general bonhomie and efforts at making me feel comfortable, I could sense pressure mounting. And it was not in my mind alone.

After a brief banter, Jim handed me over to Ricky, who was to help with fighter pilot’s gear, overalls, boots, ‘G’-suit, helmet, oxygen mask and the works. Ricky was almost paternal in his demeanour and he set about his job in a very concerned manner. Once I was kitted in and ready to go, Ricky gestured me towards the closest chair. Very patiently, he started to explain things that can go wrong during the flight and various rescue routines. “There could be a problem with the aircraft on the runway itself,” he said sombrely, “the engine could be on fire and you would have to abort the flight. If this happens, you will hear Jim’s voice in your headphones, saying egress, egress, egress. On the third call, remember the 2-1-2 routine,” he said matter-of-factly. The routine basically involved unhooking two shoulder plugs, one seat belt and two side hooks, all of which collectively pin you down to your seat.

Jim, who was passing through, piped in with his advice. “I’ll probably be able to unhook myself faster so I will be able to help you,” he said, adding, “Nevertheless, you will have to leap onto the fuel tank and jump off the aircraft.” Jump? Without the ladder? “Of course,” he said. “There will be no time for the ladder. And you will have to get off the runway as fast as you can. More pilots have been hurt by the rushing fire-tankers than jumping off the aircraft.” Having made his point, Jim carried on as Ricky gave me a sympathetic look.

Patting my knee, he continued. “There can be an emergency during the flight where you will be required to eject. You will hear Jim’s voice saying eject, eject, eject. On the third call, the canopy will fly open and before you can even blink, you will be in the air, merrily cruising towards the ground with your parachute.” Jim returned. “However, your worse nightmare would be a bird-hit that knocks me off,” Jim said. “You’ll know it because you will see feathers all over the cockpit.” Sure, I wouldn’t have noticed that we were going to crash. “In such a situation, you will have to eject us both. Once you are in the aircraft you will notice the ejection cord between your legs.”

Ricky patted both my knees. “Whatever happens, you must remember the most important thing,” he said gently. “You must have fun.” Yeah, between emergencies on the ground and emergencies in the air, I will certainly have fun. Time for the ‘G’ suit, Ricky announced and produced a contraption that looked more like a manacle. It fitted snugly around my waist, thighs and calves with a loop at the back to provide seat in case I return to earth on a parachute. Walking with the ‘G’ suit was odd, forget about the added weight. By now I had internalised all the emergencies routines and was actually looking forward to the flight. Or maybe I wanted to get it over with fast.

Walking towards the aircraft, I asked Jim, “Is it necessary to fly for an hour and 18 minutes?” “We can do less if you want,” he said quickly. As I weighed my answer, he added, “I have kept an hour and 18 minutes for you. Let me know how you feel during the flight and we will decide then.” Ricky accompanied us to the aircraft, primarily to ensure that I was fitted in snugly. I was given tiny ear muffs to ward off the noise over which I pushed down the helmet which plastered my hair to my scalp. Then came the oxygen mask which pressed so hard against my cheek bones that I had to constantly hold it down. Watching me do this, Ricky got anxious. “Are you claustrophobic, he enquired. “Not at all,” I said firmly putting the mask back, cheekbones be damned.

“Though you won’t be flying at altitudes where you will require oxygen,” Ricky explained, “you need to wear the mask to speak with Jim during the flight because the mouth-piece is fitted in inside.” By this time Jim had settled down in the front seat and we quickly went over all the commands and instructions once again.

As we waited for the ATC clearance, Jim ran me through the stuff we were going to do in the air. There would be some basic manoeuvres, like rolls and loops, target acquisition and so on. Jim also assured me that he will create a few emergencies for me to respond to. For instance, at some stage during the flight he will pretend to be a rookie pilot who has got disoriented after a couple of loops. He will allow the aircraft to free fall and call out to me for help. All I’ll have to do is remove my hand from the stick and push a button called PARS on the right-hand side panel. PARS stands for Pilot Activated Recovery System, and according to Jim is unique to F-16 Block 60.

However, the most important aspect of this flight was going to be the AESA radar. Jim said, “The F-16 Block 60 is the only fighter in the MMRCA competition that has operational AESA radar. This is the reason we have brought the leased the aircraft from the UAE Air Force with the AESA radar. No other aircraft at Aero India is flying with AESA radar.” Hence, a good portion of the flight would focus on demonstrating the capabilities of Northrop Grumman’s APG-80 AESA radar.

Finally, we got the green signal, the canopy closed and we started to taxi. As Jim kept up the chatter it took him a few minutes to realise that he could not hear me. Take-off was aborted, canopy was raised and Ricky came running with a new mask. This one worked and we resumed taxiing. However, having lost a few minutes, we missed our take-off window and had to wait for a couple of landings and a take-off before we could take off. While we were waiting, Jim got IAF’s An-32 on the radar screen much before we could see it in the sky against the setting sun. We kept tracking the aircraft on the MFD till it landed. Jim said that we could lock on to the aircraft much before it became aware of our presence.

After a wait of nearly 20 minutes we were cleared to fly. As the fighter accelerated on the runway and I was pinned against by back-rest, Jim asked me to arm my seat which basically means making it ejection-ready by hooking it onto the parachute. No sooner had I pushed the lever, F-16 left the ground in one smooth swoop. Whoops! I nearly screamed looking down the glass cockpit. Sweeping at an angle, the aircraft continued to rise with the sun behind us. Jim first rolled to the right and without giving me a chance to recover rolled to the left. It was exhilarating. When I told Jim that it was fun, he urged me to wield the stick and do the barrel roll on my own. “And keep your eyes on the central display,” he said. “That is where you track the ‘G’s”. The stick operates almost on suggestions. A gentle tug to the right and the aircraft started to roll. “Faster, faster,” yelled Jim. “Now pull the stick,” he said and the aircraft went nose up in air. On the central display, the figures went from 2G to 3G. I felt my g-suit inflate a bit pushing against my stomach and thighs, blood draining from my hands momentarily, but it was over quickly.

“How do you feel?” asked Jim. I was alright. Encouraged, Jim said that I seemed ready for 5G. I didn’t want to commit myself to 5G, so I let Jim interpret my silence. He interpreted it as an affirmative. And once again we went nose up. The G-suit inflated, pushing the air out of my lungs. I remembered what Ricky told me about breathing. I clenched my thighs and abdomen and started to suck in and push the air out fiercely. Goggle-eyed I stared at the MFD: 2G... 3G... 4G... 5G... “We have done five,” I screamed in the mouthpiece. ...6G “Are we doing more than five?” I screamed again. My hands barely had any sensation. Equally suddenly the fighter nose-dived straight towards the ground.

We had completed the loop. Before I could savour the sensation of having done over 5G, Jim’s voice crackled, “I am disoriented, you will have to set the aircraft right. You know what to do, don’t you.” Oh yes, I smiled to myself as I caught sight of the PARS button. But my hand refused to go there. My body cannot give up on me just when my spirit was soaring. Using my left hand to give the right one a shove, I pushed the PARS button just in time. In one swing movement, the fighter rose again till it was flying parallel to the ground.

We were now flying directly towards the sun; though the sun-visor on the helmet protected the eyes, the visibility was pretty hazy. Jim turned the radar on. Among various other things, APG-80 AESA radar can perform three functions simultaneously: it can search and acquire air to air targets, it can acquire air to ground targets and it can map the terrain at the same time. Jim tracked one aircraft and zoomed in for my benefit. At the same time, on the other screen I could see a cluster of buildings in which Jim searched for the purported target. The third screen was mapping the terrain, comprising a hillock and what looked like mines.

I had practised target acquisition and bomb-dropping in the simulator but doing this while in the air gave a completely different meaning to fighter flying. It was a good thing we were flying without weapons. After a few more twists and turns we dived again to land. Just as quickly as we had taken off we landed. Despite the speed, there was no thud. It was the gentlest ever touch-down. Putting the seat back in the safe mode, I finally took off the oxygen mask and the helmet. The canopy opened and I was happy to feel the cool evening breeze on my face. The sun had set, leaving a red stain in the sky.

In the fading lights of the day, Jim and I walked towards the crew room. “I believe,” he said, “the F-16 that we are offering to India is the best for its needs.” I wanted to sit down for a moment, maybe rest awhile. Jim nodded. “You must be feeling tired,” he said gently. “It happens when you fly for the first time. I smiled at him. He was ready for another flight.

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