First Hornet Flight and the Great Southwest

This past weekend I climbed into an F/A-18D Hornet for the first time. From Friday to Sunday I completed five flights. The loss of my weekend was well worth the opportunity to “go on the road,” as the say here, because I got to explore a part of the country I had hitherto only read about.

Friday morning my instructor and I manned up the jet to fly out to Scottsdale, AZ and the to Albuquerque, NM. We had five flights to do, so we started by flying north to Fresno, and then southeast to spend that night in Scottsdale. The first flight is mostly an introduction, so we took time to explore the aircraft capabilities offshore. Part of that is demonstrating turn rates, acceleration, and climb capabilities (all of which are important to know and use when fighting). There, for the first time in my life, I broke the sound barrier. It was actually much smoother than I expected–no more than a slight bump passing Mach 1.0, and then again decelerating. Since it has been six and a half months since I’ve aircrewed a jet, I experienced a little nausea during the maneuvers and some difficulty counteracting the G forces. I was also a bit nervous. But all went according to plan and I didn’t actually get airsick, so all was well. We flew directly over Los Angeles and got to see the entire city from the west hills to Irvine and Burbank, then passed over the inland desert. My attention for most of the rest of that flight was held by the Sierra Nevada in the distance, floating and snowcapped.

We spent about two hours on deck in Fresno, refueling with pizza and Gatorade, and then got on the way to Scottsdale. Our original intention was to fly over the Grand Canyon, but since the sun was westering and we wanted to make it to Scottsdale while it was still light, we decided to scrap that plan and turn to our destination. Having seen it twice from the air (once in a commercial jet), I still have a hard time comprehending just how barren the Southwest is. Our visibility from the jet was unlimited, and nowhere did I see anything but brown, bare, rugged desert. Occasionally a dry lakebed would emphasize the essential lifelessness of the place. It was beautiful, though. It was a place of immense and magnificent solitude. As an interesting bit of trivia is that the Space Shuttle uses one of the dry lakebeds as a place to land – it essentially extends from the end of the normal runway for another three or four miles.

The land becomes more mountainous in the Phoenix area. Small ranges or single mountains grow at random from an otherwise flat desert. Phoenix airspace has become very busy, and my instructor demonstrated the Air-to-Air radar for me by locking up “shooting” other aircraft. We got Scottsdale airfield in sight just as the sun set, and performed a 7.5 G break over the field – far more Gs than I had previously pulled in any jet. That is, incidentally, the maximum for the F/A-18. It was a very exciting, high-performance maneuver and it was a suitable end to an exciting (almost overwhelming day).

The next morning we took departed the Phoenix area to the north. This time we had plenty of daylight, beautiful weather, and were going to see the Grand Canyon if we could. On our way there we passed both Sedona, with its incredibly red gorges and rocks, and Flagstaff mountain, which stands as a solitary snow-capped beacon over the desert. With the canyon in sight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) asked us if we wanted the “canyon tour,” then (unusually) cleared us to deviate right or left as necessary to see the whole thing. Probably only those reading this who have actually visited the Grand Canyon can understand how awesome an experience it is. The terrain around it is 6,600 feet above sea level (and incidentally, was lightly dusted with snow). The Canyon walls themselves plunged alarmingly into a seemingly infinite set of alternate gorges and peaks. It was very colorful, but the most distinct element was simply how vertical the rock formations were. Spires and ridges of stone reared thousands of feet nearly straight up in the air. At the bottom of the canyon was no valley; the Colorado river wound through what was purely a trough of stone. The whole edifice covered hundreds of miles of desert. There are literally no words to adequately describe it, but it was good to fly lazily mere thousands of feet over the canyon and drink in its majesty.

Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed, we called ATC and told them we were heading to Albuquerque. We had a lot of fuel left, so we cruised pretty quickly over there. The Albuquerque airport sits at 5,355 feet above sea level (higher than Denver), and the air is thin enough that the jet takes a lot longer to slow down before landing and a lot longer to stop once touched down, which was interesting and just a bit hairy. We met my instructor’s mother at the terminal, and decided to see the sights of the city. Albuquerque sits on the high desert, with mountains (Sandia peak) towering to the east. There is a famous tram that runs to the top (really more a gondola), which claims to be the longest in the world. We decided to go up, check out the view, and have lunch. It was an amazing ride – the west slopes of the mountain are bare and vertical, with stunted little firs growing trained by the constant wind. Toward the top, three and four feet of ice were plastered horizontally on the boughs. At the top itself, the temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I never knew the southwest could get so cold! Furthermore, the altitude up there is 10,300 feet above sea level. To give you some perspective on how high that really is, in naval aircraft we are required to be wearing oxygen masks above 10,000 feet in order to prevent hypoxia, or dangerous oxygen depletion. The three of us sat up there in the restaurant and drank down tea and coffee to stay warm, and admired the 100-mile views out to other mountain ranges. Around us sat skiers and snowboarders who ride the tram up and ski down the east slopes of the mountain, which is serviced by three lifts and has long, beautiful, powdery runs–which is something else I didn’t know was in the southwest. The desert sunset from the top of the that mountain was an incredible spectacle. When our ticket finally got called to ride down, we froze in the now four degree air and forty mile-an-hour wind blast until the tram arrived, wondering if we’d ever been colder in our collective lives. I certainly hadn’t.

That night we flew back to North Island Naval Air Station, which is on the island of Coronado in San Diego. Technically still on cross country, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again. Flying at night is peaceful, because the radios are quiet and the spread lights look very peaceful from above. After our ordeal on the mountain top and our tour of the Grand Canyon, we welcomed the relatively stress-free flight back home. The next morning (Sunday morning), we drove back to the jet and took off for the extremely short trip back to Miramar. Fortunately, we had fuel and time so we went back out over the water to maneuver the jet again, and I got to fly up to 48,000 feet and see the curvature of the earth along the horizon, then unloaded (put the jet into 0-G flight) and pushed the airspeed up to 1.38 Mach. My instructor practiced some Air Combat maneuvering at high Gs (which has left my legs quite sore), and we returned to the field in time to debrief and get home for the Super Bowl.

Now, back on the ground, I am tired. My body needs to get used to flying again – the pressure changes, the G forces, the mental strain of operating systems and talking on the radio. But it was definitely fun–I still revel in the fact I am flying in a plane that can accidentally break the speed of sound if the pilot isn’t paying attention, and I welcome the opportunity to see new places. It is good to be here again.

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