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Training to go supersonic with South Korea's Top Guns

By Anna Coren, CNN
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Mon April 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Korean Air Force offers CNN rare access to its T-50 fighter jet
  • Training involves rigorous testing, including surviving G-force simulator
  • Anna Coren passes out twice trying to withstand 6Gs for 20 seconds
  • Simulator is designed to replicate extreme forces of gravity in a jet

North Chungcheong Province, South Korea (CNN) -- It's not everyday someone asks you if you'd be prepared to ride in a fighter jet but when my producer put the question to me several weeks ago I jumped at it.

Roaring engines, heat haze on the tarmac, fighter pilots in Aviator sunglasses: What's not to like?

The South Korean Air Force was offering CNN rare access to its T-50 -- a training fighter developed in South Korea in conjunction with U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin.

In 1997, just before the Asian financial crisis hit, the government in Seoul made a decision to develop its aerospace industry. The intention was to develop and produce military aircraft to protect the nation's national security and create a lucrative export industry.

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The T-50 is their first supersonic training fighter jet. Indonesia has already purchased 16 and at least half a dozen other countries, including the United States, are also interested.

Top Gun

But my Top Gun moment in this $25 million dollar jet would have to wait until I completed a tough preparatory course at the South Korean Aerospace Medical Training Center based in North Chungcheong Province. This is where the country's fighter pilots come to train.

A group of instructors greet us and take us into a briefing room where they run through the checklist for the next four hours. Then after a series of medical questions, my blood pressure is tested and I'm put into a contraption similar to the "Gravatron," an amusement park ride I went on as a kid that spins and sucks you to the wall, to test my body's aptitude for the pressures of flying at supersonic speeds.

"If you don't pass 6Gs in the simulator you won't be able to go up in the fighter jet," my instructor informs me matter-of-factly, referring to the simulator's force of acceleration -- six times that of the normal force of gravity.

Extreme forces

Dressed in my pilot's fatigues, I follow the instructor along the long corridor to a room housing an enormous contraption that looked like something belonging NASA. It was a capsule suspended on a long arm pinned to the floor in the middle of room. The basic idea was that it would spin really fast in one direction creating extreme forces of gravity I would have to endure while strapped in.

I'm feeling cold, struggling to breathe, feeling anxious and desperately fighting the panic that wants to invade my mind and body.

The instructor runs through the bizarre breathing exercises required to help endure the G-forces and stop me blacking out. "Do this ... say the word 'HICK' ... hold your breath for 3 seconds ... then quick breaths in and out. Now you practice," he orders. My attempt results in a choking sound that send me into a fit of giggles, provoking a concerned look from my instructor.

After reassuring him that I would keep practicing, I climb the stairs of the simulator and am strapped into the seat with my helmet on. Ahead of me on the screen, I'm presented with an enormous virtual runway, the horizon and a vast blue sky spanning 270 degrees. I was ready to fly. At least that's what I thought.

Take off

The commander in the control room speaks to me through my headset. He can see me in his monitor. "Now don't forget to clench your body and breathe," he says. The capsule starts moving as a computer-generated voice counts down to "take off." Suddenly I'm spinning and there's an enormous weight on my body. I'm trying to breathe but the pressure is overwhelming. Then the room goes black and my head jolts forward -- I've lost consciousness.

The simulator grinds to a halt, and I awaken to the concerned voice of my instructor. "Are you alright? Coren can you hear me?" I come to and ask him what happened. "You got to 6Gs but you only lasted two seconds before you blacked out," he informs me. "You need to last 20 seconds to pass the test."

As I climb out of the simulator feeling sick, the instructor smiles at me with a knowing look.

"Don't worry this is normal. Everyone blacks out the first time. You'll get it on the next go -- trust me."

Utter dread

Twenty minutes later I'm back in the simulator but this time there's no sense of excitement, just utter dread. I take deep breaths as the capsule picks up speed. "3,2,1 ... HICK ... breathe, Coren keep breathing!" my instructor's voice commands. I'm trying to breathe but it feels like a building has collapsed on my chest. I'm gritting my teeth, clenching my body, desperately trying to fight the G-forces and stop the blood rushing from my brain but I can't hold on. I black out again -- this time my eyes roll back in my head.

"Coren, Coren are you ok? That was better ... you got to 10 seconds," the voice in the control room says. Only 10 seconds? How the hell am I going to do this? As I climb down from the simulator with my legs shaking, the instructor suggests a break and some other tests.

My heart is racing -- I have no choice -- I have to do this.

I head for a pressure chamber where I have to sit for 40 minutes breathing through a mask to simulate a climb to 25,000 feet. But I'm feeling cold, struggling to breathe, feeling anxious and desperately fighting the panic that wants to invade my mind and body. Once we reach the desired altitude, the control room asks me to write my name continuously on a piece of paper. By the seventh attempt my writing looks like that of a five year old. I have no control over my hand and I feel like vomiting. But all I can think about is having to get back in the simulator and battle the G-forces.

The team decides that I should watch the video of myself during the G-force test to see what I'm doing wrong. I'm shocked as I watch the footage of me blacking out -- it's disturbing.

First test passed

Determined not to let this happen again I climb back in the simulator. "Are you ready Coren? Let's do 5Gs and see if you can make it," the voice from the control room suggests. One less G could make the difference. My heart is racing -- I have no choice -- I have to do this.

The capsule starts moving and the computer-generated voice is back again. "3,2,1..." The spinning becomes intense within seconds. "You're at 5G, let's go to 6G ... push back Coren ... hold it, breathe, push back!" The seconds pass so slowly, the capsule feels like it's spinning out of control and I'm seeing stars. Suddenly the instructor yells "Release! Coren you've made it. You held on for 23 seconds. Good job!"

I'm overwhelmed with relief. I finally passed the test and conquered my fear.

But the real test was still to come -- up in the heavens.

READ MORE: South Korea to pull out citizens from joint industrial zone

READ MORE: Threats of annihilation normal for South Koreans

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