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Published August 10 2011

Nowatzki: Blue Angels flight nothing to sleep through

From the first 7-G turn, I knew I might be in trouble.

“Where were your hands for that maneuver?” asked Lt. Dave Tickle, my pilot in the Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet.

“On my knees,” I said, pretty sure that was right.

“OK, be careful. I think when we were doing that, I think your left hand may have slid sort of to the outside of your knee, and I think you hit the radio transmit button, so I think we were actually transmitting your ‘hic’ over the radio,” he said.

If you say so, sir. I really don’t remember.

As it turns out, staying conscious during a 7.4-G turn, when my 185-pound body feels like it weighs 1,369 pounds and gravity is pulling the blood out of my brain, isn’t that easy. Highly trained Blue Angels pilots pull a maximum of 7.5 G’s in their routine, Tickle said.

But the really scary part? Tickle was talking me through these maneuvers, as if unaffected by the G-forces pummeling the skinny-legged civilian behind him.

Such is the skill of a Blue Angels pilot.

Like many people, I’ve always thought it would be exciting to fly with the Blue Angels. My oldest brother, a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, took me up in an aerobatics airplane in June to help me prepare for Tuesday’s flight, which was arranged by Fargo AirSho officials.

Video: Mike takes to the skies with the Blue Angels

The practice helped, a little. The nausea I was so concerned about never surfaced – which is good, because the two VIPs who flew before me used up all of the sick bags. The Blue Angels crew chief restocked the bags, but I could tell Tickle didn’t want to make another passenger jettison his breakfast.

In fact, staying awake proved the most challenging part of the flight.

During a minimum-radius turn – the tightest turn the Hornet can make – the G-forces overwhelmed me, a cloud of darkness (or was it light?) enveloping my field of vision. The next thing I remember is waking up looking at the floor.

Tickle said some people describe having vivid dreams during such blackouts. One person claimed he dreamed he was having lunch with his grandmother. In my case, I thought I heard music playing on a radio, but I’m not going to read too much into that.

I was just thankful my blackout lasted only a few seconds, because the other 44 minutes, 57 seconds were exhilarating.

Just off the runway, the Hornet bolted skyward in a high-performance climb, going from ground level to 6,000 feet in seconds.

Tickle, a fresh-faced 30-year-old who joined the Blue Angels last September, also demonstrated the Hornet’s slow-flying ability, maneuvering the 30,000-pound aircraft at a mere 97 knots. Then, he punched the afterburners, and the jet screamed to 560 knots in about half a minute.

Blue Angels pilots grow accustomed to the G-forces, Tickle said. Their workouts focus heavily on building leg and core muscles, which they flex during high-G maneuvers to keep blood pressure to the brain. What they don’t do is a lot of cardiovascular exercise such as running.

“The more cardio you do, it lowers you blood pressure, which is actually worse for pulling G’s,” Tickle explained.

The pilots also get used to the intense changes in air pressure as the jet quickly climbs and dives, he said. (Thanks to former Gov. George Sinner for advising me to frequently use the Valsalva maneuver – plugging your nose and mouth and blowing hard – to relieve the pressure on my ears. It worked.)

As we burned through some of the 800 gallons of jet fuel we used, Tickle, who’s been flying for the Navy since 2002, said many people don’t realize that the Blue Angels’ Hornets are the same kind of jets taking off from aircraft carriers and military bases overseas, only with a different paint job.

This week is Navy Week in Fargo, one of 21 cities chosen to celebrate the centennial of naval aviation. As Tickle noted, with no coastal areas nearby, people here usually don’t get to see the Navy and Marines in action.

“That’s a great opportunity for us as the Blue Angels, is to drop into the backyards of America and showcase the pride and professionalism of the Navy, let the folks see exactly what their sailors and Marines are doing on a daily basis,” he said.

Trust me. It’s worth staying awake to see.

Click here to read more on the Fargo AirSho

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528