Never assume that you and fighter pilots have the same definition of "fun."
Here's what I want you to do: Open your mouth wide. Now take your index finger and stick it WAAAYYYY down your throat and hold it there until your digestive system is in Violent Reverse Thrust Mode. Congratulations! You've just experienced what it feels like to fly in a fighter jet. I know this because I recently went up in a high-performance Air Force F-16 fighter equipped with an extremely powerful engine, sophisticated electronics, spectacular aerobatic capabilities, and - thank God - a barf bag.
There was no beverage-cart service.
The way I got into this was, I spoke at a banquet for personnel at the Homestead (Fla.) Air Reserve Base, which is slowly recovering after having had large sectors of it blown into another dimension by Hurricane Andrew. A banquet organizer had suggested that I might want to go up in an F-16, and some friendly fighter pilots from the 93rd Fighter Squadron convinced me (there WAS beverage service at this banquet) that this would be a lot of fun.
Valuable Tip: Never assume that you and fighter pilots have the same definition of "fun." Your fighter pilot is not a normal individual. Your fighter pilot is an individual who, as a child, liked to ride his bicycle "no-hands." You may also have done this, but your future fighter pilot was doing it on the roof of his house. The fact that these pilots have grown up and received a lot of training and been entrusted by the government with multimillion-dollar aircraft does not change the fact that they are also - and I say this with respect - completely out of their minds.
But I was feeling brave when I arrived at Homestead Air Reserve Base, ready for my preflight training. Friendly Air Force personnel got me a flight suit; while I was putting it on in the locker room, I noticed that there was a little gold plaque over each urinal, each saying something like "MAJ. GEN. (Name) RELIEVED HIMSELF HERE SEPTEMBER 9, 1989." Then I noticed similar gold plaques over the sinks. Then I saw a plaque on the washing machine, reading: "THE ENTIRE 906TH TACTICAL FIGHTER GROUP RELIEVED THEMSELVES HERE MARCH 8, 1991."
Fighter-pilot humor. And I was trusting these guys. Next I underwent an hour of Egress Training, which is when you learn how you get out of the airplane if something goes wrong ("although probably nothing will," they keep telling you). How you get out is: very, very fast. In fact, your seat is actually a small but powerful rocket that will blast you 900 feet straight up if you yank on the yellow handle between your legs, but you're supposed to do this only if the pilot yells BAIL OUT BAIL OUT BAIL OUT - he has to say it three times - and you definitely want to have your head back when you yank it unless you want your kneecaps to pass completely through your eye sockets, which would be bad because you need to check to make sure your parachute has deployed, because if it hasn't you should yank on this other yellow lever over here, and if you're coming down over water you need to inflate your life preserver by pulling on these two red knobs, but first you have to get rid of your oxygen mask by pressing outward on these two metal tabs and yanking the mask forward and . . .
. . . and so on for an hour. Correctly egressing a fighter jet requires WAY more knowledge than medical school. After Egress Training, the pilot, Maj. Derek Rydholm, gave me a Preflight Briefing in which he demonstrated, using a blackboard eraser, some of the aerial maneuvers we'd be doing. "We'll be simulating an attack situation like this," he'd say, moving the eraser around in rapid little arcs. "We'll be feeling some g-forces."
I now realize that, right after we left the briefing room, the eraser threw up.
Actually, my F-16 ride went pretty well at first. Sitting behind Derek in the two-person cockpit, I felt nervous, but my physical discomfort was fairly minor.
Then we took off.
We took off with afterburners. It was like in Star Trek, when they go to Warp Speed. Then we made an unbelievably sudden, violent right turn that made me feel like a clove in a giant garlic press and separated my stomach from the rest of my body by at least two football fields.
And that was just taking off. After that we did attack maneuvers. We did rolls. We broke the sound barrier and then flew straight up for three miles. Then we flew upside down. My stomach never caught up with us. It's still airborne over the Florida Keys, awaiting landing instructions. Here's the conversation Derek and I had over the intercom:
DEREK: That's called an aileron roll.
DEREK: You OK back there?
I'm not saying it wasn't thrilling. It was. I am deeply indebted to Derek Rydholm and the 93rd Fighter Squadron and the entire U.S. Air Force for enabling me to be among the very few people who can boast that they have successfully lost their lunch upside down at five times the Earth's gravitational pull. And despite my discomfort, and the reservations I've expressed in this column, I can honestly say that, if I ever get a chance to go up again, I'll let you go instead. Although you probably won't get to ride in the plane I used. I think they had to burn it.