July 6, 1999
HOUSTON (CNN) -- I used to think the pilots who become members of the Thunderbirds were the best stick and rudder guys in the Air Force. But after spending some time with them -- in their eat-off-the-floor hangar and in the back seat of one of their impeccably maintained F-16s -- I realized that isn't what sets the team apart from the "gray" Air Force.
It is their highly polished, carefully cultivated talent as salesmen for their branch of the armed services.
"We are not the best pilots in the Air Force," says squadron commander and team leader Lt. Col. Brian Bishop. "I can train an average pilot to fly the demonstration, but I cannot train an outstanding pilot to go out and tell the Air Force story. A lot of that comes as a natural sense of personality."
It doesn't take long to see this squadron is brimming with people skills. Often times, I am embarrassed on assignments when interview subjects all but ignore the fine professionals who are an integral part of my team. But once introduced, it seemed every member of the Thunderbirds team remembered the names of photographer Neal Broffman and sound technician Michael Wilhelm. I was impressed. And so was producer Linda Saether.
The flying member of the team with whom we spent the most time is Maj. Constantine Tzavaras (Je-var'-iss). Call him "Costa" or "Chachi." The son of immigrants who settled and established a successful restaurant in Vermont, he proudly points out that he is only the second Greek-American to become a T-bird. He along with media specialist Staff Sgt. Bob Purtiman drove us an hour north of Nellis AFB to the Thunderbirds training site at Indian Springs, Nevada.
Tzavaras is the operations officer for the team, which means, among other things, that he grades their performance -- during practices and air shows. I had seen the team fly a few times in the past, but watching them practice these precision maneuvers while listening to their radio calls (and Costa's running critique) gave me newfound appreciation for their pride and professionalism.
After Chachi watched one of the solo pilots pass, he offered this explanation: "I am looking to make sure he does a 180 degree turn -- not a 182 not 185 -- but a 180 degree flip turn and that there is no vertical movement. If there is any vertical movement at all I would say 'TT vertical movement,' and that is 'Teeny Tiny.'"
Each performance is graded, and every "TT" error represents a point deduction (fortunately these performers have never had to worry about the East German judge). Costa does all of this by eye. No fancy electronics needed in this racket. Matter of fact, all anyone needs -- beyond the basic avionics -- is a stopwatch.
As my understanding grew, so too did my excitement about my flight sitting behind Costa. I only wish they would let members of the media fly in formation with the team. That would be such a thrill. But that's not to minimize the experience I had in the F-16D.
I had to jump through a few hoops before I could stroll out to the flight line in a green flight-suit -- at least looking the part (the "Write Stuff"?). Flight surgeon Maj. Dave Adams gave me a quick once-over ("Does your heart always beat this fast?" he asked). And life support specialist Staff Sgt. Miguel Tafoya gave me a crash course in G-suits, parachutes, oxygen and communication lines and a primer on ejecting ("Of course you are freaking out -- you just ejected -- but look up at your canopy," warned Miguel).
'Here we go ...'
When I got to the plane, my name was stenciled on the side -- and on my red, white and blue helmet. Consider me officially won-over at this point.
Nellis Tower cleared us for a "max climb" departure. Chachi lit the afterburner and we lifted off at about 160 knots and then flew the runway heading about 20 feet over the deck. When the airspeed indicator hit the 350 hash mark, Chachi gave me fair warning: "Coming into the pull here -- and here we go."
There we went to about 15,000 feet in about 15 seconds. I strained and grunted as bladders in the G-suit inflated around my legs and lower abdomen (The idea is to retard the flow of blood away from the vital organs. Miguel told me the suit buys you another 2G's worth of tolerance).We pulled about 5G's as the F-16 stood on end. To put that in perspective, shuttle crewmembers feel no more than 3G's when they launch into orbit.
We flew over to Death Valley (they must do this to mess with your head). Chachi gave me the stick and talked me through a loop and a few aileron rolls. The F-16 is so responsive and, in many ways, easier to fly than the Piper Archers and Cessna 172s where I spend most of my time at the controls. That's the idea. Pilots busy with flying tasks have less time to focus on putting bombs down chimneys.
Then came the real test of an armchair fighter pilot: a 9G turn -- the edge of the design envelope for the F-16. "Start sitting up straight -- take some good pre breaths," said Chachi. I did as I was told.
Now that hurts
Then it happened: A 90-degree turn at about 500 knots. My body felt as if it weighed more than 1,600 pounds. How much would that make my head weigh? Including helmet and O2 mask? I guess well in excess of 100 pounds. I don't know, I have never weighed my head, although I have been told I have a big one.
Anyway, the full weight of my brain bucket snapped down as the G-meter pegged. I couldn't raise it to save my life. Yikes. That hurts.
"Oh my God -- how did you keep your head up?" I asked with incredulity.
"Just by doing it," came the unfazed, casual reply. "Just a 90 degree turn. Let's do some sight seeing now."
These guys are good. We kissed the runway at Nellis 45 minutes after we rocketed skyward. I was presented with a tie tack that signifies membership in the F-16 9G club and a certificate "nearly suitable for framing." But most important to me, Maj. Tzavaras penned an entry in my pilot's logbook for .8 hours of F-16 time.
The crew joked that it was really a ruse to get an autograph. I plead the fifth.
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears weekly.
Civil Air Patrol Thunderbird Composite Squadron
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