Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s our man in an F-16!

Rahul Singh was in his fighter pilot gear and fire-resistant overalls at the 2009 Aero India show in Bangalore. Two rides and an experience later, he tells his barf-free story. Six international rivals jostling for India’s air space

india Updated: Feb 14, 2009 22:14 IST
Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times

Most fighter pilots I know have a terrific sense of humour. Paul ‘Bear’ Randall was no different. Minutes before we tumbled and plunged through the skies in the F-16IN Super Viper topping out at near supersonic speeds of over 1,050 km per hour (0.98 Mach), my pilot revealed the secret behind his call sign.

Bear, his dog, was to blame. “When I was in the US Navy, someone called me by my dog’s name. I just couldn’t rid the tag. It could have been worse if I my dog was called Fluffy or something,” said the easygoing 6 ft 1 in Randall.

A fighter ride can toss the human frame to the limits of its endurance. I guess Bear showed me his funny side to make me feel relaxed before going on the second combat sortie of my life. I had careened around the skies at .93 Mach in the US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet just two days before I jumped into the Super Viper’s cockpit.

This time round, I was not pacing about the tarmac like an expectant father sporting a g-suit, fighter pilot boots and fire-resistant overalls — with a barf bag tucked inside one of the pockets.

Ricky, a safety instructor, bolted me down with a jumble of seat belts in the rear cockpit. I was then told how to disengage my parachute harness if Bear gave the ominous command — bailout, bailout bailout. If I were to yank the yellow ejection handle in fright, the bubble canopy would blow away and Bear would be flying a convertible.

Stealing a quick glance at his Breitling, Bear told me it was time to kick the tyres and light the fires. I put on the oxygen mask as the Super Viper’s powerful GE132 engine revved and Rocket 1, the call sign of our plane, began taxiing over to the runway.

The take off at 300 kmph was breathtaking, but the real stuff was yet to come.

Lieutenant Daniel ‘Blue’ Hannum, who flew me in the Super Hornet assigned to a squadron at US naval air station Lemoore in California, had done a super job at acclimatising me to gut-wrenching g-forces that fighter pilots experience during extreme maneouvres. Each time I carried out a maneouvre, the 31-year-old naval aviator would raise his arms in the front cockpit in acknowledgment.

Blue had cautioned me that I might notice a bit of grey creeping into my field of vision and ultimately feel as if I were peeping through soda straws before a blackout during high g turns. I gave him my informed consent. Thankfully, the worst never came.

After 18,000 feet or so, Blue pushed the throttle through the stops and made a tight left turn that gave me a 7.5g body slam. The g-suit inflated hard to keep blood from pooling in the lower extremities of the body. I did my bit by tightening every muscle in my body, especially the ones in the abdomen, to regulate blood flow. If I were on scales, I would have weighed 7.5 times my normal weight at that instant. The g-limiter on the Super Hornet was set to 7.5. So there was no way I could have tested my tolerance limits any further.

That, however, changed in the Super Viper. Bear went into full throttle with the fuel-sucking, flame-spitting afterburners blazing and then suddenly made a spine-tingling left turn. He had told me over the cockpit intercom that we were setting up for a maximum g-turn. The g-meter in the heads-up display showed that our bodies had racked 9g. I weighed around 810 kg for a few seconds.

But there were no greyouts, blackouts or loss of consciousness. The barf bags remained unused. Bleeding airspeed, we pulled out of the turn and my heart was able to get the blood to my oxygen-starved brain.

The terrain-hugging flight came next. Forty five minutes into the sortie, Bear went vertical at 600 kmph. Just when I was expecting him to level out, he abandoned the controls and asked me to push a button marked PAR. The aircraft did a couple of rolls and returned to normal position within seconds. The ‘Pilot Activated Recovery’ system guided the Super Viper to figure out the fastest way to pull down to the horizon.

The barf bags remained unused at the end of both Super Hornet and Super Viper flights. And thank heavens for that. Blue had warned me that if I threw up, my call sign would be Puke.

My barf bag remained a virgin.

First Published: Feb 14, 2009 22:06 IST