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Training over, time to fly: CNN reporter goes supersonic

By Anna Coren, CNN
updated 1:47 AM EDT, Tue April 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Anna Coren flies in the South Korean Air Force's latest fighter jet
  • She completed the mandatory training course that tested her body to the limit
  • The air force pilots have to be exceptionally fit to endure the gravitational stress
  • The T-50 flight lasts an hour, with the jet performing mind-bending maneuvers

Editor's note: Anna Coren undertook training for this flight, and the flight itself, under the close scrutiny of experienced South Korean Air Force trainers, air crews and medics.

Above Gwangju, South Korea (CNN) -- "I feel the need ... the need for speed!" Those infamous words spoken by Maverick and Goose in the movie "Top Gun" enter my head as I walk across the tarmac to the fighter jet that I will soon fly in.

With my helmet in hand and dressed in a pilot's jumpsuit, I look the part as I prepare for my maiden flight in South Korea's latest fighter jet -- the T-50 jet trainer.

But I'm feeling anxious and slightly nauseous, and for good reason.

The week before, the South Korean Air Force had put me through a rigorous training course at the Aerospace Medical Training Center in North Chungcheong Province. But it wasn't simply a case of a medical check-up and a few tests to make sure I was fit, healthy and good to fly.

READ: Training with South Korea's Top Guns

Training for supersonic speed

I was strapped into a simulator and forced to endure extreme gravitational forces for up to 20 seconds -- hardcore training that all fighter pilots must pass. I didn't just black out once but twice, so my fear was it would happen again but this time at 24,000 feet in the air.

Major Young-Ho Cheon had heard about my training ordeal. The 35 year old has been a fighter pilot for the past 11 years -- fulfilling his childhood dream. "There's nothing to be worried about Coren. Just relax -- I will look after you."

I'm not worried about my pilot, I'm worried about whether I can handle my nerves and nail the near impossible breathing technique that will stop the blood rushing from my head and causing me to lose consciousness once more.

The pilots at the Gwangju airbase are all exceptionally fit. Their cardiovascular levels and core muscles are that of an elite athlete. They train in the gym every day, push weights and run countless kilometers, conditioning their bodies to endure the paralyzing G-forces; a force that for us mere mortals feels like a house collapsing on top of you as you gasp for air.

I get into the back seat of the fighter jet and the ground crew strap me in. They point out the ejection seat lever that I will have to pull if something goes wrong. "Other than that lever, don't touch any other buttons," warns one ground crewman.

We thrust higher into the heavens and the jet feels likes it vertical -- because it is -- and within seconds we're at 24,000 feet.

By this stage my mask is pumping oxygen and the pilot tells me to slow down my breathing. On the ground, in the cockpit I'm struggling for air -- I know I'm nervous. We soon taxi into position, the engines deafening. "You OK Coren? We're ready to take off," Major Cheon informs me. Suddenly the roar becomes even louder and we're speeding along the runway, and within seconds we're in the air.

We climb steadily above Gwangju, the sixth largest city in South Korea. It gets smaller and smaller until we make our way to 13,000 feet above the clouds. There are two other fighter jets traveling with us. One is carrying a film crew from the South Korean Air Force, the other is traveling as a buddy -- these jets always fly in tandem. After 15 minutes, Major Cheon pipes up, "OK enough sight seeing, it's time to have some fun."

This "fun" includes performing an eye-popping list of textbook maneuvers -- B-roll, Loop, Cuban 8, Immelman-Turn, Split-S, Clover Leaf, Vertical Demo and Horn Recovery -- that will test this state-of-the-art aircraft and its nervous passenger to the limit.

The maneuvers begin and suddenly the pressure hits me. It's so intense as we climb higher and higher, but unlike the training where I wasn't wearing an anti-G suit to protect me from the dynamic forces, this amazing device suddenly kicks to constrict my legs and keep the blood in the top half of my body. Every time there is a strong G-force this suit blows up and quite literally saves me.

I'm seeing stars but I don't black out. I'm breathing deeply, clenching my body, trying desperately not to let the pain and pressure get on top of me.

Suddenly we're upside down, with a punishing 6Gs -- six times that of the normal force of gravity -- against me and all I can see is the Earth beneath me. We come out of the turn and the pilot's voice comes through on my headset. "Ready for 7Gs Coren? I think you can do it." With his reassurance and my renewed confidence I scream through the microphone, "Whoaaaaaaa ... let's do it!"

We thrust higher into the heavens and the jet feels likes it's vertical -- because it is -- and within seconds we're at 24,000 feet. "Here we go," Major Cheon suddenly warns. And with that the jet twists and turns in ways I never thought were possible. I'm groaning in the backseat, the G-forces at this stage are so painful they feel like they're crushing my body. And then suddenly they release me and the pain is over.

We're in the air for an hour -- an hour of my life filled with pain and ecstasy. An hour of life I will never forget.

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