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Commentary: Experiencing an Incentive Flight

2nd Lt. Matthew Wunderlin recives training on cockpit and ejection procedures in preparation for his incentive flight on September 11, 2011, at Truax Field, Madison Wis.  Wunderlin was selected to receive an incentive flight back in 2007 while working as a command post controller and is tied for the unofficial record of most canceled incentive flights. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Stephen Montgomery)

2nd Lt. Matthew Wunderlin receives training on cockpit and ejection procedures in preparation for his incentive flight on September 11, 2011, at Truax Field, Madison Wis. Wunderlin was selected to receive an incentive flight in 2007 while working as a command post controller. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Stephen Montgomery/released)

2nd Lt. Matthew Wunderlin receives an incentive flight on September 11, 2011, at Truax Field, Madison Wis.  Wunderlin was selected for an incentive flight back in 2007 after being recognized as the ANG Command Post Controller of the year. He is tied for the unofficial record of most canceled incentive flights. (U.S Air Force photo by Paul Gorman)

2nd Lt. Matthew Wunderlin receives training on cockpit and ejection procedures in preparation for his incentive flight on September 11, 2011, at Truax Field, Madison Wis. Wunderlin was selected to receive an incentive flight in 2007 while working as a command post controller. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Stephen Montgomery/released)

MADISON, Wis. -- "Eat bananas for breakfast. I hear they taste the same going up as coming down," is the last piece of advice I get during egress-hanging-harness training. I discover the next day this is not true.

Ever since I was 7 years old and received a toy F-16 as a gift, I dreamed of flying in the jet. Life had gotten in the way of my becoming a pilot; however, in 2007 I received national recognition that added my name to the list of those privileged enough to receive an incentive flight.

Because the F-16 is a single-seat aircraft, few get the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of flying in one. The 115th Fighter Wing is one of a handful of units that has a two-seat version of the aircraft used for training, familiarization and incentive flights.

Since flying in the F-16 is uncommon, I want to share my experience. It is the experience of a 7-year-old boy attempting to escape from the body of a nearly 36-year-old man in a way that only breakfast bananas can.

There are four steps prior to the flight. The first step is notification of the flight date.

"Yippee skippy," my 7-year-old self exclaims as youthful antsiness fills my body.

My older self wonders whether we will even fly that day. I know from experience that there are numerous factors that could prevent the flight. "It is best not to get too excited," my mature side reasons.

The second step is a medical evaluation. There is a screening questionnaire, blood pressure check, measurements to ensure I will fit into the cockpit, and advice as to how to handle multiple g's during the flight. It is also the first time I hear about bananas as an optimal breakfast choice. Finally, I am informed many people get sick so I should be ready to use air-sickness bags, or if necessary, to pull open my shirt and do my business in a way that will not damage the expensive electronics.

"Don't worry, I'll be good," my younger self chimes while fidgeting with a pen.

The part of me that had recently argued the merits of owning a minivan begins to make a checklist of extra clothes to pack for the following day's flight. "Pick up some bananas tonight," I also note.

The third step is an extended visit to the aircrew flight equipment shop. The folks there do a great job of entertaining while explaining about 600 procedures and pieces of equipment designed to ensure that when I go up, I will come back down. After drinking from that fire hose, I am suspended from a device to practice parachuting procedures in a worst-case scenario.

"What's this do? What's that do? This is fun," I exclaim. The less decrepit version of me clearly has ADD.

The component of me that normally chooses that which is easier over that which is more fun tries to absorb the many details. "To undo the straps in order to get out of the aircraft in a ground emergency remember 'two, one, two, one' and everything else will disconnect on its own," I practice - repeatedly.

That night I have a difficult time going to sleep because my 7-year-old self will not stop talking and bouncing around.

The morning of the flight, the portion of me that has learned to enjoy fiber heaves out of bed and downs a few bananas - annoyed at having to skip coffee.

Two hours before liftoff brings the fourth step in the preflight process, a briefing with the pilot. He reviews the weather, procedures and where we will be going. Then he asks what I hope to do during the flight. He offers several aerobatic suggestions.

"Yes! I want to do that. And that! And that! And that," my younger self staccatos. "This is going to be awesome!"

The edition of me that wakes up most nights to use the bathroom apparently missed this meeting because there was no counterargument.

Shortly after the briefing my family arrives to watch the flight.

"Hey, look at me. Look at me! Look at my helmet. It has a mask and a visor and everything! Isn't my suit amazing," rattles my younger, less reserved and more ambitious self.

"I'd better put the barf bags in a spot for easy access," my accustomed-to-checking-for-elongated-nose-and-ear-hair personality concludes.

We walk out to the jet. While the pilot makes small talk about the book I recently published, my child self wants to skip and my adult self wants to go wait in the minivan. The flight line smells of exhaust and heated asphalt.

I climb the ladder into the cockpit and get strapped in. It is a tight fit, but somewhat comfortable given the small space, though I cannot imagine enduring a cramped transoceanic flight. There is a fan between my knees that I adjust to blow cool air on my neck. My green flight gloves make this more difficult than anticipated. In my helmet I hear the radio, the not-so-distant noise of other aircraft on the runway, and my own breathing, slightly more labored than usual in the rubber mask.

I feel the vibration of the engine through my body. The canopy closes with a "humpf." The noise of other aircraft around me disappears. The fan accelerates and the air on my neck is colder. I adjust my seat height so my helmet is a fist away from the clear canopy. My tongue is dry. I look around as the pilot finishes his checks. I have a hard time observing what is outside the jet because my gear partially blocks my view and the tight straps restrict my movement. I have "precompetition jitters."

Then we start to move. As we taxi, I have the impression I must be someone else. I fumble to pull down my visor to keep the sun out of my eyes. I hear that we have been approved for an unrestricted takeoff to 15,000 feet. I watch a commercial airliner land. I wonder if the passengers inside see us. I look towards the airport and wonder if there is a 7-year-old boy inside looking out the window in hopes he can see a fighter jet.

In an instant we are moving. At first, it does not feel much different than a commercial airliner although I notice we are off the ground a lot sooner. I hear the pilot talking to me and mentioning we are at 100 feet. I turn to look for my family as I hear our engine roar.

Immediately my head is glued sideways to my seat, and my body experiences the power of a jet accelerating as it travels vertically to 15,000 feet in a couple of seconds. I feel the g-suit compress around my legs and stomach, but mostly I just notice my eyelids seem to be stuck half shut.

We level off and an overwhelming rush of adrenaline fills my body. I shake with excitement as I am offered control of the aircraft to fly to the Military Operating Area. The stick hardly moves, but it senses pressure. I am surprised, as someone not a pilot, at how quickly the controls seem to become an extension of my body.

We get to the MOA and the real fun begins. First, we do some g-force testing. Then we do some aerobatics. My favorite is a loop. Massive g-forces strain my body while the jet surges straight up, and then as the jet crests past vertical it feels like floating. It is a strange sense of calmness before rushing back towards the ground. Soon I get control of the aircraft for some aerobatics while the pilot talks me through them. Next, we explore the MOA. It is beautiful. A canopy provides much better view than a postage-stamp-sized commercial airline window, and the maneuverability of the jet more than makes up for the restricted bodies inside.

Halfway into the flight we do an aerobatic maneuver that makes me a little nauseous. However, as quickly as the nausea comes, it goes. A few minutes later as we do more sightseeing, it happens. I barely have time to get my air-sickness bag open. In my head I apologize to the pilot because I do not have time to shut my radio off.

Bananas do not taste the same going up as coming down.

Immediately after, I am back to feeling normal. We do a little more exploration. Then the pilot gives me control of the aircraft and tells me I can do whatever I want. Like most human beings, I have no idea what to do with complete freedom, so I fly straight and level for awhile. Eventually I do more sharp turns and another loop.

The pilot takes control again and "yadda, yadda, yadda" I put more banana into another bag.

Oddly enough, at this point aerobatics feel better than flying straight.

I hear the pilot say we have to return home. It feels like only a couple of minutes have passed, but in reality we are nearly an hour into the flight. I try to soak up the remainder of the experience with all my senses. Finally, all too soon, we fly over the base, turn hard left and land.

I barely remember taxiing, exiting the jet and returning my gear. I cannot believe it is over. I cannot believe I just got to do that.

All too quickly, I am back to my routine. However, as I drive my minivan home that night I take the time to think about how "a 7-year-old boy's dream came true today."
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