5 Reasons Flying a Fighter Jet Is Way Crazier Than 'Top Gun'
Top Gun came out in 1986, and (for reasons that I should probably question them about) my parents thought it was a perfectly acceptable movie to show a 4-year-old. While I failed to grasp much of the plot and the homoerotic overtones, I did know that flying a thundering war bird powered by fire was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Before I was even able to tie my shoes, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up.
That's how I wound up spending most of the last decade training and flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
And while I never expected things to be exactly like Top Gun (hostile MiGs are decidedly scarce these days), there are quite a few things that Tom Cruise never told me, like ...
Ejecting Is One of the Worst Things That Can Happen to You
I know what you're thinking:
"What? Ejecting is what killed Goose! Of course Top Gun warned you about the violence of a failed ejection! How dare you disparage a cinema classic, sir -- I choose you."
"See here, what's all this, then?"
Keep those cinephile pistols in your belt, because we're not talking about failed ejections here: Even when it goes perfectly, ejections are like getting curb-stomped by a wind god.
When you pull the ejection handle, a number of things happen in quick succession. The first is that explosive bolts and/or detonating cord activate to blow the windscreen (or canopy) apart. At the same time, straps around your legs pull your feet to the seat so that your legs aren't torn off at the knees. Next, a rocket under your seat (not a euphemism here -- an honest-to-God rocket) lights off and shoots you up to 200 feet in the air, subjecting you to, in extreme cases, upward of 20 Gs. For reference, at 20 Gs, an average guy now weighs as much as a full-size sedan. This entire process takes about 0.1 seconds. Once you're clear of the jet, your seat separates from you and automatically opens your parachute, a handy feature considering that there's a good chance you'll be knocked unconscious from the shock of ejecting.
They went through a lot of kittens before they figured that one out.
Just by pulling the ejection handle, there's a 1-in-10 chance you won't survive. And even when the sequence goes perfectly, you'll most likely suffer some pretty major injuries. Since you're typically flying when you eject, that means as soon as you clear the cockpit, you're greeted by several-hundred-mile-per-hour winds that can send your arms and legs flapping gaily in the breeze like one of those wacky inflatable dancing dudes -- only you're made of meat, and your bones break in the process. It's not unusual for a pilot to suffer career-ending injuries from ejection: Roughly one-third of pilots who eject suffer compression fractures to their spine. It's typical for a pilot to be an inch or two shorter after ejecting. That's right: There's a "make me shorter" handle in your jet. Maybe that adorable little Maverick just ejected a few too many times?
D'awwwww, look at him dressing like a big boy!
Kara Hultgreen, the first female fighter pilot in the Navy, died from an ejection mishap. She was coming in to land and lost an engine on her F-14, which started rolling to the side uncontrollably. She pulled the ejection handle, but the F-14 is a two-seater, so the back seat ejected first and the pilot followed a split second later. The guy in back ejected sideways and survived, but by the time Hultgreen's seat fired, the Tomcat had rolled upside down and she ejected straight into the water, killing her instantly. From the outside, ejecting might look like a rocket-powered carnival ride, but I hope to God I never have to take it.
Taking Off and Landing on a Carrier Are Way Cooler and Way Scarier Than You Can Imagine
Aircraft carriers use a steam or electrically powered catapult ("cat" for short) to fling aircraft from 0 to 165 mph in under two seconds, which is about three times the acceleration of a Bugatti Veyron.
Of course, as cool as it is, it wouldn't really be worth mentioning if there wasn't some chance of it killing you. When planes are launched from a carrier, your weight has to be precisely entered to make sure that the cat has enough force to get you up to speed. If your weight is misreported, somebody fat-fingers entering the data, or the catapult suffers a malfunction, you can end up with a "cold cat shot."
It is nowhere near as adorable as it sounds: A cold cat shot is when you get to the end of the deck and you are still below your stall speed, which means your wings can't generate enough lift to keep you in the air. If you're only a few knots below stall, your engines might have enough power to get you going before you hit the water. Any slower than that and your only choice is to eject. And even if things go perfectly, you can still suffer freak occurrences like this guy, who got launched directly into a huge wave crashing over the bow (and, amazingly, managed to keep it in the air).
And since what goes up must come down, the fine engineers at Acme had to figure out a way to take a plane that normally needs a mile-long runway to land and stop it in just 700 feet. Their answer was to put a giant hook on the back and stretch some wires across the deck.
Millions of dollars and the finest minds America had to offer.
Now, the Navy wouldn't be a very effective fighting force if they let little things like rain or nightfall or zero visibility stop them. As big as carriers are, the ocean is still bigger, so the boat moves with the waves. Because the carrier deck is angled, your miniscule target is not only moving away from you, but also sliding slowly to the right as you're coming in to land. Now try to hit a target that's pitching up and down 30 feet every few seconds. For extra fun, try to land on a pitching deck at night. Or maybe land in a sandstorm where the carrier comes looming out of the haze a split second before you touch down and your life is in the hands of a bored Boeing programmer who's never flown a day in his or her life.
One pilot described landing on a carrier as "jumping out of a 10th story window and trying to hit a postage stamp with your tongue." It is by far the toughest thing a naval aviator has to do; even the U.S. Air Force is too scared to try it (of course, they were never meant to do it, but that doesn't mean we can't give them shit about it).
But they did get Iron Eagle, so it evens out in the end.
Flying Requires a Lot of Fuel. One Problem: You Don't Carry a Lot of Fuel
Gas is always a concern. Fighter jets are voracious gas-sucking firebeasts, and it's your job to keep the hog fed. Although the jet has internal fuel tanks in the fuselage and wings, you'll usually be carrying external fuel tanks, often outweighing what you're carrying in weapons.
Naval aviation: turning dinosaurs into noise since 1911.
Since it's not very practical to have to land every few hours just to gas up, fighters have the ability to perform midair refueling. It's the second most difficult thing we do and can best be described as causing a midair collision as slowly as possible.
And you'll be doing it a lot.
"Goddammit, will you just put more than 10 bucks in the tank?!"
Everything hinges on where the tanker is. The average OEF mission involved three trips to a tanker, getting gas about every hour. Longer missions require more trips, so after six hours of flying, you still have to muster the concentration needed to tank and then safely trap (that's the carrier-based plane limbo we just talked about) at night. Large tankers have to refuel dozens of aircraft, so it's not as simple as just filling up every time you pass one. It's also not uncommon to receive less than you were scheduled for. When this happens, you have to either chase down other tankers to make up for it or adjust your mission. Tankers can also fail to launch or break during flight, leaving you high and dry, so you always have to know where the closest airfield is and the minimum amount of fuel you need to get there.
Around the boat, if a pilot fails to catch the wire on landing multiple times in a row, he's sent to the tanker to get enough gas to give him a couple more passes. If this doesn't work and no airfields are nearby (being in the middle of the ocean and all), then more tankers have to be launched to meet the need. If that can't be done, then you just try to find a polite place to crash.
Here, there. Anywhere, really.
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Dogfighting Is Mostly About Trying to Stay Conscious
Today, fighters are designed to be as effective at blowing stuff up on the ground as they are in the sky (that's what the F/A-18 designation means: Fighter-Attack). On my deployments, a standard combat load had several thousand pounds of bombs, but only one short-range missile. The simple fact is that nobody gets in dogfights anymore; the U.S. has scored fewer than 20 air-to-air kills since the end of Vietnam.
Ten, if you don't count After Burner kills.
Nonetheless, you never know when another country will need to work out some excess aggression, so all pilots are still taught basic fighter maneuvers (BFM). Whereas bombing is very mechanical in nature, BFM is more of an art form, like painting, if painters frequently passed out and then died from painting too hard.
During dogfights, pilots have to watch out for G-LOC, which stands for "G-induced loss of consciousness." Whenever you make a tight turn, you subject yourself to G-force, which essentially makes you much heavier than normal. If you undergo enough Gs, your heart isn't strong enough to pump blood to your brain, and you eventually black out. An untrained person can withstand about 3.5 Gs before blacking out. During BFM, pilots have to endure 5 to 7 Gs (F-16 pilots can pull up to 9 Gs) for short periods, and 3 to 4 Gs for up to a few minutes. Since passing out is a tactical disadvantage, pilots have to learn how to combat G-LOC.
One of the ways to up your G tolerance is to wear a G-suit. A G-suit has bladders around your legs and torso and inflates to help squeeze the blood back into your head during high-G maneuvers. Pilots are also taught to clench their butt cheeks and flex their legs and abs to try and keep blood in the brain. The weird hiccuping that some of the pilots are doing in that video is how you have to breathe under high Gs; you weigh so much at that point that if you exhaled completely, your body wouldn't be strong enough to inhale again. BFM is also where short fat guys and women shine; higher blood pressure means they can take more Gs. That's right: Porkins was the deadly one.
Enemy Fire Is the Least Dangerous Part of Flying
Early in flight school, I was flying a T-34 trainer with my instructor, learning how to not suck at this whole "flitting about in the air in defiance of God and nature" business. I was cruising along at 200 mph when nature decided she didn't like being defied and punched me in the face with a turkey buzzard. It crashed through the windscreen, ricocheted off my head, and left a nice exit wound through the side of the canopy. The force of the impact knocked me senseless, and the disintegrated bird entrails made the cockpit look like I'd just shot Marvin in the face.
"Did you notice a sign out in front of my hangar that says 'dead buzzard storage?!'"
Thankfully, my instructor was mostly unharmed, so he took over the controls and managed the emergency landing while I occupied myself with bleeding profusely. In the end, I walked away with a few stitches, a bunch of free beers, and my first kill.
Raise your hand if you can say you've head-butted something to death.
These are the sorts of occupational hazards every pilot has to deal with -- even the poor schmoes without missiles -- but flying jets in particular remains a risky proposition. In the absence of MiGs or the odd kamikaze raptor, what makes it so dangerous? Well, I can tell you it isn't the enemy. Terrorists can't really hurt anything in the air apart from helicopters and feelings, and most hostile Middle Eastern countries with proper militaries are using decades-old hardware and whatever training the U.S. or Russia was nice enough to give. In the entire second Iraq War, the U.S. shot down more coalition jets than the Iraqis did.
Part of the problem is that fighters are expensive and notoriously high-maintenance aircraft. The Super Hornet requires roughly six hours of maintenance for every hour it flies, and the F-22 requires up to 18 hours per flight hour. Couple the general propensity of shit to break at the worst possible time with a shortage of spare parts and budget cuts, and something is bound to go wrong. During a mission over Afghanistan, I lost an engine due to a broken fan blade, forcing me to limp to an airfield in Kandahar, where I sat for two weeks until a replacement engine could be shipped out. That's your repair time: a goddamn fortnight. Had I been flying a single-engine fighter like the F-16 or the new F-35, things could have been a lot worse.
"What do you need two for? That only doubles the chance of engine failure."
You can see why flying involves a lot of trust. You're entirely reliant on many, many other people to keep you safe. You rely on your wing man not to fly into you; you rely on the ground troops to let you know what areas are safe to fly over; you rely on air traffic controllers to keep everyone properly separated. A poorly coordinated traffic pattern can wind up with you trying to land one jet on top of another. I've been lucky enough to escape my few harrowing moments mostly unscathed, but if you do this job long enough, you'll know someone who has died flying.
But in spite of the ever-present specter of death, be it from rocket-powered seats, Looney Tunes catapults, pitching decks, flying gas stations, passing out in the middle of a fight, suicidal birds, busted aircraft, or just the old proverbial "sudden stop at the end," I absolutely love this job and wouldn't trade it for anything.
I have not lost that lovin' feelin'.
Mostly because of the shirtless volleyball.
When Chris isn't in the Danger Zone, he writes for his website and tweets. He also hosts a podcast that his mom described as "neat."
Related Reading: Cracked's made a bit of a habit of talking to people with...unique jobs, like our friend the Dominatrix. And if you're more of a military-minded sort, why not learn the semen-encrusted realities of life inside a submarine. We've also talked to a cop and a prostitute, so take your pick of revelations.