Box Time

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EXPERT1 heading out to runway 32R. All images copyright Alan Kenny – Turn ‘n’ Burn 2016.

I recently visited NAS Lemoore in Central California to find out more on the US Navy Tac Demo (Interview with the team coming soon). While there, I was escorted and given a tour by one of the team’s Weapon Systems Officers (WSO), Justin ‘Skinny Jeans’ Wedel. We were booked into the ‘box’ (simulator) for an hour at the end of the day. He wanted me to have a go at flying the Rhino and for him to fly the Tac Demo with me in the back. To give me a sense of what it’s like. The simulators aren’t full motion, but the realism is excellent. The box has either a pilot’s cockpit layout or a WSO’s. The environment you sit in is identical to the real Super Hornet. If it wasn’t for sitting in a room, one could be in the jet. There is a strict rule when entering. No recording media.

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Flying Eagles F/A-18E Super Hornet blasting skywards.

It was my first time in a simulator. I had played FSX (Flight Simulator 10) at home a few times around 12 years ago. But never seriously and mostly to just loop the loop or fool around. This was like FSX, but if it was on steroids.

For my flight, the engineer programmed in for me to start at NAS Lemoore. Skinny entered in the flight critical data while I acquainted myself with the controls. I powered up and moved to the centreline, after way over-compensating on the rudders at first. I pushed the throttle to full military power, then further past the gate into afterburner. We lifted into the sky, (Skinny was sitting on the canopy rail), and I got used to the controls.

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Knife-edge pass around the first corner.

I thought it’d be cool to head to the R-2508 (Sidewinder Low Level System) and to the Jedi Transition. Skinny entered the coordinates into the flight computer and I made my way at Mach 1.03. It was very weird. Travelling faster than the speed of sound at 10,000ft and the ground below didn’t look like it was whizzing past, as I imagined it would. It just looked like we were flying slower like an airliner at altitude.

As I got to the mountain range, I throttled back. I was instructed to go low and take her between the valleys. Bitching Betty was saying in my ear ‘ALTITUDE ALTITUDE’, so she was quickly silenced. When I arrived at Owens Dry Lake, I took the jet down to 200ft. Then I could tell the speed.

As a photographer at the Jedi transition, you’d love to know how low the pilots fly before getting to your location. But you get to the canyon as soon as dawn breaks because jets have been known to fly through at 0730. Skinny informed me that 200ft across the lakebed was pretty standard. It’d be awesome to see that but the routing to the canyon varies, so it’s hit and miss.

I followed the 190 highway until I popped up over the mountain and spotted the entrance to the canyon. I dipped down, jinked left slightly, then right and lower. I entered the cut in the landscape, heading west to east, and could easily see the ridge ahead where the photographers and passers-by stand. Lower I went again, knife edge left, roll straight, canyon wall, PULL UP! I popped up and directly over where people stand. Thankfully it was a simulation. I did a 180º turn and headed back east to west. This time I managed to do the full pass without any evasive manoeuvres. It’s a serious yank and bank to get the jet right, left, right, pull up. My feet were really pressing on the pedals and my calves were throbbing. Even without being thrown around for real, it was a workout for me!

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The previous image and this one just go to show how much of a physical workout the Jedi Transition is.

To end the session, we aimed for Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which is nearby. I hugged the valley floor and kept it low over the mountains to the base. Getting there was the easy bit. The landing, however, not so easy. I flew down Runway 21 and breaked left over the midpoint to join a left hand circuit. I tried bleeding off the speed, but it just wasn’t coming off. The gear was lowered, but still had no effect. So the inevitable happened. I bounced HARD. Twice. Three times. Luckily crashes were switched to ‘off’. I looked at the HUD and it’d maxed out the G limiter to 9.9G. Whoops.

I made two more attempts to land. For the second one, I was too fast again and too high but I didn’t attempt to bounce again. So I went around. This time I didn’t have enough speed to make my intended runway, so had to make do with Runway 26 for my third. To say my landing wasn’t graceful is an understatement, but I was down and stopped. Albeit sideways. I guess I’ll stick to serving tea and coffee in my day job of being a flight attendant, instead of being up the front flying.

Following my first simulator experience, Skinny took over the front seat and I went into the adjacent box to sit in the WSO seat. Being in the back seat during the actual demo, and part of the team, Skinny knew the routine well. It was a thrill sitting in there and being able to take it all in. Each turn, movement, speed and climb was relayed to me over the headset I was wearing. During the climbs and rolls, I made sure I looked all around, outside and in the mirrors, to take in this unique environment. My body may have been stationary, but it felt like we were moving. Unfortunately as my pilot was lining up to land, my screens went blank in the box, so I don’t know if we landed safely. I was assured we did. Not many civilians get to go up in the air during the tactical demonstration. I felt very fortunate to have got this close.

A feature on the real demo will be published soon. Keep an eye out on here and Turn ‘n’ Burn.

Huge thanks go to my VFA-122 guide and escort, Justin ‘Skinny Jeans’ Wedel and Marcelo ‘Marc’ Calero NAS Lemoore Public Affairs Officer.

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Another successful landing back at NAS Lemoore.

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