Aviation

Thunderbirds ready to fly today

Thunderbirds pilot Capt. Kristin Hubbard hurtled the F-16 Fighting Falcon straight up into the Kansas sky, eased back the speed, then put the plane into a vertical roll, corkscrewing through the air.

It's Hubbard's favorite aerobatics maneuver — the only one that made me queasy in the backseat of the compact fighter jet during an hourlong media flight Saturday morning.

Hubbard, whose call sign is "Mother," displayed the maneuvers the Thunderbirds military aerial demonstration team will use in its breathtaking performance today — a graceful barrel loop, a cloverleaf and an eight-point roll, a slow roll with eight quick stops.

At times, our speed reached 530 knots — a little over 600 mph.

We flew upside down and on our side, like a knife slicing the air.

Hubbard added half of a Cuban 8 for good measure — a flight that begins straight and level before pulling up and over into inverted flight, then rolling 180 degrees back.

The aircraft's clear canopy gave the best view of the Kansas skies — and land below — that one could have without stepping outside the aircraft.

It was the ride and thrill of a lifetime.

Whenever the Thunderbirds come to town for a show, they give a local reporter a chance to experience what a maneuverable and amazing machine the F-16 is.

The Thunderbirds will fly this afternoon during McConnell Air Force Base's open house and air show.

A 60-member team arrived Wednesday. The team criss-crosses the country, giving more than 75 shows a year.

My anticipation of the flight was a combination of nervousness and excitement, but Hubbard's calm and confidence were catching.

After a series of briefings to discuss the ride and go over procedures, Tech. Sgt. Amber Alumpe fitted me with a G-suit and oxygen mask.

After a short preflight physical, flight surgeon Thom Bowden showed how to withstand G-forces by breathing and tensing muscles.

A G-force is a unit of force exerted by gravity. (We live in a one-G world.) F-16s are capable of pulling nine G's, which make the body nine times its normal weight.

Hubbard and I pulled five G's a few times Saturday, but regrettably, I chickened out of a maneuver that would pull nine G's — one Thunderbirds pilots do in every show.

Hubbard, 30, is the only female pilot on the team. She's flown F-16s for six years and taught Air Force and Navy pilots how to fly them.

Hubbard serves as the Thunderbirds' advance pilot, giving flights with the media and Hometown Heroes. Her plane, No. 8, is equipped with two seats, while the six aircraft flown in the show have single seats.

During the show, four jets will fly in a diamond shape, often only 18 inches off each other's wingtips. Two jets fly solo, flying at each other at high speeds, then flipping on their sides as they pass.

Maneuvers in the show are similar to those fighter pilots would do to escape and evade an attack in combat.

F-16s can fly up to 1,500 mph (or Mach 2), and fly at altitudes above 50,000 feet.

The Thunderbirds team, based in Las Vegas, represents the United States and the 700,000 men and women who serve in the U.S. Air Force, said Master Sgt. Pam Anderson.

"We're speaking for those who don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves," Anderson said.

Every Monday, for example, a tanker takes off from McConnell Air Force Base carrying personnel deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

At any given time, 20 percent of McConnell's personnel are deployed.

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