The chance to fly in a high performance fighter is a rare opportunity. On August 9th, 2007, the Canadian Forces invited me to fly in the fastest aircraft in Canada, the CF-18 Hornet.
The CF-101 Voodoo was the plane that got me hooked on aviation. When I was six years old, I remember my dad taking me to my first airshow. I cannot remember much of that day but I do remember the Voodoo. The biggest, loudest and fastest thing at the airshow that day! Any kid would love to fly in that jet. In 1982, when the Voodoo was being phased out of service, the new kid on the block was hitting the airshow circuit - the CF-18 Hornet. This new jet had big shoes to fill as it was now replacing my airshow favorite. My first time seeing the CF-18 was at the Abbotsford Airshow, I remember while watching the Hornet fly for the first time that it was so manouverable and was NOT the Voodoo. The turn radius during the level 360, the High Alpha pass and the Square Loop were all manouevers I had never seen the Voodoo (or any other jet at that time) accomplish at an airshow. I had a new favorite after that demo! Little did I know on that day 25 years later, I would be flying in a Hornet at the Abbotsford Airshow.
To fly in a CF-18 is not as easy as jumping into the cockpit and hitting the wild blue yonder. I was notified in June, that I was chosen to fly in the CF-18 Hornet during the Media Day at the Abbotsford Airshow on August 9th. Prior to my flight, I had many tasks to accomplish before the big day. On most media flights with the Canadian Forces, there is usually a one or two page waiver that must be signed prior to each flight. The CF-18 flight involved several pages of waivers to be completed as well as RCMP criminal checks, measurements for my flight gear and a physical from the Flight Surgeon at 19 Wing Comox. Although I was within the required weight range for the ejection seat, I talked to a few Hornet drivers and they all mentioned that if I worked out during my 8 weeks before my flight, I should be able to combat the g forces better. After spending 90 minutes in the gym 5-6 times a week, I dropped 20 pounds and lowered my blood pressure to a much healthier range. Once all the paper work had been signed, the criminal check completed and the visit to the Flight Surgeon, I was signed off with a "Fit with No Restrictions" flight. With only two weeks before my flight, I felt like a six year old on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.
I arrived in Abbotsford the day before the flight. My flight was flown by the 2007 CF-18 demo pilot, Captain Yanick "CRANK" Gregoire of 410 “Cougars” Tactical (Training) Fighter Squadron. He arrived from his home base of 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta late in the afternoon. The day would be spent covering the ejection seat and safety briefings, this would give us greater flexibilty on the day of the flight in case something came up - bad weather or other unforeseen events. The ejection seat training involved many repetitions of egress simulations and a series of drills on how to eject from the cockpit if we had to "leave" the jet. Also covered many times were the safety pins and handles for the Martin Baker SJU-9 seat. A seat that would eject me with a force of 25 g's from the cockpit, it was a briefing that deserved much respect and attention. Once that seat is armed, you are literally on a "hot seat".
The CF-18 that I would be flying in, had a glitch back at Cold Lake and arrived a few hours after CRANK. My mount was Hornet 913 and was flown down by Captain Craig "Ekky" Ekstrom with Cpl Derek Giroux in the backseat. Cpl Giroux is an Aircraft Life Support Equipment Technician, he would be in charge of fitting me into my G suit, vest and helmet. He would make sure I looked and felt like a fighter pilot. CRANK and I met 913 on the ramp as they taxied to their parking spot. After quick introductions, it was brought to our attention that EKKY had just flown over 2000 hours in the Hornet on his flight to Abbotsford. With camera in hand, I photographed the occasion as CRANK handed EKKY the 2000 hrs patch that was quickly velcroed to EKKY's shoulder. Cpl Giroux then mentioned that he had some items he had to give me. He presented me with a 410 Cougars hat and T shirt and three patches for my flight suit. One was the 410 Cougar logo that all their pilots wear, the other was the 25 years of Hornet patch that CRANK and the demo team wear on their uniforms and the last left me speechless, it was a Hornet pilot's name tag patch with my name embroidered, DEREK HEYES.After all the briefings were completed and both jets were put to bed for the night, we were hungry. CRANK invited me to join him and the rest of the Demo Team for a late dinner. During the dinner we discussed the flight and some of the things that I would experience. Even while we were discussing my flight, I still could not believe that I would be flying in a Hornet in the morning. At first, I was calm during the conversation with CRANK but as he discussed the flight more in depth, I started to get more excited and the adrenline was starting to flow. What would it feel like to pull g's, would I be able to stay conscious, what does the afterburner feel like when lit, would I feel sick? These were all questions that were to be answered in a few short hours. After dinner and some more light conversation, CRANK told me, "Stay calm and enjoy the ride." I took his advice and headed back to my hotel, it was hard to fall asleep that night!
I slept for around 3 1/2 hours that night, actually better than I thought. After a quick shower, and a light breakfast, it was off to the airport for my G suit fitting and briefing. I was in good hands with Cpl Giroux as he made sure everything fit me like a glove. With a background of playing competitve hockey and lacrosse, I had a lot of experience wearing bulky equipment but to my surprise, wearing the gear of a fighter jock was not as cumbersome as I thought. It was lighter than expected and allowed much movement and was not too hot. Now it was time to wait for the "go time."
After a few hello's to my parents and brother that made the trip over to watch the flight, it was time to strap in. My butterflies started to flutter a little more rapidly in my stomach as the flight drew closer, with a thumbs up from Cpl Giroux, it was time to climb into the cockpit and live the dream.
As I got comfortable in my ejection seat, I felt like I was being operated on. As Cpl Giroux, Crew Chief Sgt Dan Campbell and CRANK were all watching over and helping me strap in to the Hornet. Once I was tight in the straps, CRANK asked me again the egress sequence, "safe the seat, pull mask, pull cord for vest, pull down T bar for the 5 point harness, pull the manual overide handle for leg straps, wiggle out of the straps and follow him down the lex and slide down the flap." With a thumbs up from CRANK, it was time for him to strap in the front seat.
Being a veteren pilot with over 800 hours in the Hornet, it did not take CRANK long to get into his seat and start his preflight checks. Once the APU was on, I started turning on the three Digital Display Indicators (DDI's), these are small video screens that are located on the panel directly infront of me, as well as the 2 Comm's (radio's). Next came any adjusting to the screen's contrast and brightness. While I was getting my panel on line, CRANK was talking me through his checklist. It was at this time that I remember, take some photo's. With the adrenaline rushing through my veins, I started to hear the engine start up. The first engine started with that unique whine, then to a roar. It was magical to feel the Hornet come alive. As the call came over that both engines were "good", the canopy was lowered. As CRANK told me to release the pins from the seat and canopy jettison handle, it was time to taxi. As the brakes released, we turned and saluted the ground crew on cue in typical military fashion. It was at this moment that I saw all the other aviation photographers were lined up along the edge of the flightline. I felt as if all these eyes and camera's were on us and that every person there, wished they were in my spot. I thought to myself, "I'm the luckiest boy in Canada today!
We taxied to the End Of the Runway (EOR) and the final call was made from CRANK, "Arm your seat." I replied, "The seat is armed". His next question was if I was ready? My reply was a quick, "Yes." As we lined up at the EOR, we started out with a steady acceleration for a few seconds at Military Power, then he hit the afterburner (AB), "WOW!" The 32,000 lbs of thrust felt like a kick in the ass, with the gear now retracted and only feet above the runway, we pulled 4 g's into the vertical at the end of the runway. The 4 g's only lasted a couple of seconds and did not feel that bad. With our CF-18 configured with no external pods or pylons, we were clean and light with no extra drag. We climbed effortlessly to 4000 feet then transited to our operating area.
During our quick transit, the sky was overcast with a 10,000feet ceiling. Not the best weather for photography. My first surprise was how smooth the Hornet flew, it was like any other plane I had flown on, or so I thought. Now in our area located northeast of Abbotsford, somewhere over the Fraser River, CRANK demonstated a few aileron rolls. That is when I realized that this was NOT like any plane I had flown on - this was a fighter jet! The feeling was like a corkscrew on a real fast roller coaster at 3500ft. That was not as much fun as it looks on the ground, my brain thought. My next demonstration was a G warm up manuoever fighter pilot's do this before Air Combat Manouever sorties, also known as dogfighting. We pulled 4 g's for around 10 seconds to the left then pull 5 g's to the right for a few more seconds. As CRANK counted down 3-2-1, I started doing my Hook exercises to help combat the g's on my body. The Hook exercise involved flexing the muscles in my legs and stomach during the turns and grunting the word “hook” during each breath. Pulling G's felt like someone stretching downward on your face while laying 800 pounds on my lap! During the turns, I did not experience any greying or blackout with my vision and my sick bags were still empty. Then we did a loop. Starting at around 3000 feet and reaching the top of the loop at around 8000 feet, it was such a great view out of the canopy, to be able to look 360 degree's during the entire loop, the office in the Hornet is superb!
By this time, I was starting to sweat. The adrenaline was full on and my body was doing fine. As the weather was not the best, I had an idea for a shot. I thought of taking a self portrait while flying inverted. CRANK turned the Hornet upside down and I preceeded to take the photo. I have had many people ask me if it was hard to photograph while being inverted, but I have to say that it was not. I got so focused on what I was doing, that I forgot about the other distractions. The shot turned out not bad, I thought. Now it was time to show me the speed of this jet. Captain Gregoire selected AB and within seconds we were flying at MACH.9, just under supersonic. I was amazed at the acceleration of the Hornet, what a ride. Before we headed back to Abbotsford, CRANK mentioned that I had done well with the g's so far and asked if I wanted to do the full pull? - 7.5 g's. I said, "I probably will never have this chance again so lets go for it! ." With a 3-2-1 countdown from CRANK, he started the hard turn, I started my Hook and he called out the g's. 7.5 was achieved and I felt fine with still with no greying with my vision. What a rush! During this pull, the sweat poured down my face, almost like being in the rain, I was starting to get tired. Fighter pilot's are well conditioned athlete's. As we pulled g's and rolled and looped our way around the Fraser Valley, I thought to myself that these guys do this day in and day out and have to worry about threats in the air and on the ground. The pilot's say your body gets accustomed to this type of flight but it is truly an aggressive and at some times, violent ride.
CRANK now had us lined up with the Abbotsford runway, at 1500ft we performed an overhead break into the circuit with a 5 g pull into the downwind. As we had briefed earlier, I mentioned that I had some photographer friends along the fence taking picutures of this flight. CRANK asked if I was up for a few low approaches, "You bet!" As we cleared the numbers on the runway, CRANK retracted the gear and hit the AB. We were fast and low over the runway and I could see all the people along the road parallel to the runway, there to watch the arrival day for the airshow. Then I realized, "We're gonna pull some g's!", up we went with vapour all around the top of our jet. We did the same thing two more times, CRANK gave the photographers a great show! After the last low approach, I felt like I had just played three periods of hockey and I was tired and sweaty. CRANK gently landed 913 on the numbers and we started to taxi to our parking spot. With the commands of "Safe your seat and install the pins," my seat was now safe and I could start taking off my mask and unbuckling my leg straps.
The ground crew directed us to our parking spot and the canopy was raised. The crew was curious to how my flight was and I showed them my two empty sick bags, they all gave me a thumbs up. Mission accomplished. After a quick post flight photo with CRANK, it was time to come down from 913. With hand shakes from my parents and friends, I finally realized that I did something that not many people get a chance to do. Live a dream.
The CF-18 Hornet is an amazing jet. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly in one of the best fighters in the world. To fly a high performance jet is a demanding job on the body and mind, while adding the task of having another jet trying to shoot you down or avoiding ground threats like AAA (Anit Artillery Arms) and SAM's (Surface to Air Missile). I am humbled by the experience and I am left with a greater appreciation and respect for our Hornet drivers. The 2007 Demo Team, of 410 T(T)FS Cougar Squadron, went above and beyond to make me feel as part of their team. Their professionalism and teamwork was noticeable in all aspects of their duties and assured me that I was in good hands. At airshow's, they represent the fine men and women of Canada's Air Force and they do a terrific job at doing so. They are an important asset to our Forces and country, it was an honour to fly with them.
I have many people that I have to thank. Firstly, Captain Yanick CRANK Gregoire and the entire 2007 demo team (Crew Chief Sgt Dan Campbell, Cpl Samuel Thiessen, Cpl Alex Vizino, Cpl Marie Eve Doucet and Cpl Derek Giroux) From the personal phone call days before the flight from CRANK to Cpl Giroux spending the extra time on my gear to make sure it fit perfectly. Captain Cheryl Condly, Sgt Eileen Redding - Comox PAO and Captain Jen Jones - Cold Lake PAO. To all my friends that photographed my flight on that day. To my parents for buying me my first SLR camera all those years ago and taking me to my first airshow. Lastly, my wife who has supported me over our last 10 years together as I chased grey planes from airshow to airshow and base to base, and to my three beautiful daughters that tag along with dad on his trips to Comox to photograph planes. Thanks for all your love and support.