News Tribune reporter Doug Pacey, who normally covers prep sports, had a chance to go up in an L-39 jet with the Patriots Jet Team on Thursday in advance of the McChord Air Expo. The Patriots are the headliners at the show Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Here’s a first-person account of Pacey’s experience.
Before going up, we were put through safety training. Jeff Jess, master of jet operations, taught us how to do something we hoped we wouldn’t need to utilize – open the canopy, bail out of the jet and pull the ripcord on the parachute. The jets do have ejection seats, but I recall him saying that they were too advanced to learn in an afternoon.
After that the Patriots had us sign our lives away, put us in flight suits and strapped us into the cockpits.
I was paired with lead pilot, Dean “Wilbur” Wright. He’s an Air Force vet who previously flew with the Thunderbirds. Before we taxied to the runway, he informed me he’d logged as many landings as takeoffs. Those are figures I definitely want in a pilot.
The jets took off two at a time, side by side. Once all four were in the air, we moved into a diamond formation. Picture a baseball diamond and if the jets are bases, my jet was first base. TNT photographer Peter Haley was second base, the lead plane; Jaime Mendez of Univision was third base; and Seattle Seahawks safety Jamar Adams was home plate.
It was incredible how tightly packed the jets flew, just a feet from each other. I’ve seen more distance between cars on traffic-clogged I-5 during rush hour. There is no auto-pilot here; the pilots do it all by touch and sight.
The pilots practiced some maneuvers in the diamond before we broke off and played follow the leader. Here’s where the ride got exciting.
Before we took off, we were told that the flight was for our enjoyment. If we wanted a leisurely sight-seeing trip high above the South Sound, we could ask for that. I’m not sure what the other jets did, but I wanted the full experience: rolls, loops and as many Gs as possible. I wanted to push things as far as possible, while keeping all fluids inside my body.
Wright started with a few consecutive aileron rolls, commonly called a barrel roll. The closest thing I can compare this experience to is a corkscrew on a roller coaster. Except at an amusement park, you bounce up and down between the seat and shoulder harness and can experience a falling sensation. There was no wiggle room in the jet. I was strapped in so tightly that you couldn’t slip a penny between the seat and my butt. I felt attached to the plane, like we were a single entity.
Up next was a loop. I’m sure there’s a technical term that Wright used, but it escapes me. Near the apex of the loop, I felt a strange sensation deep inside and realized my peripheral vision was getting hazy. From what I’d learned at the safety orientation, I knew I was on my way to blacking out unless I tensed my upper-body to keep the blood near my brain. I flexed every muscle I could and avoided passing out. Wright said we pulled five Gs during the stunt, and I felt every pound of that pressure.
After that we rejoined in a diamond formation and made our way back to the Olympia airport. As we neared the runway, there was time for one last thrill. The jets peeled off one by one, flipping 90 degrees – our left wing pointed at the ground – and made what had to have been a near-90-degree left turn.
The entire flight lasted about 20 minutes. It felt like just a few. The experience was awesome, something I’ll never forget.