My blue heaven. Flight with an Angel

THE first thing I saw was the nose. Jutting out from behind a brick building. Maybe two football fields away. Blue, sleek, pointed. Then, we came around in our car on the runway, and I saw the whole plane. Like some kind of galvanized mosquito. All power and precision and swept-back beauty. Something about your first look at a light-attack aircraft like the F-18 Hornet makes you want to get inside. Know the soul of a swift machine. And, this breezy afternoon, I was to make close acquaintance with the state-of-the-art Navy jet, compliments of the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision-flying squadron that recently started flying seven of the bullet-fast, ballet-dancer-maneuverable planes.

An untroubled sun glinted off the hard blue surface of the plane. The canopy was open at a 45-degree angle, like an alligator's mouth; I sat inside. Omar was strapping me into the second seat of the plane.

``You see everything in yellow and black here?'' Omar asked as he cinched straps around my ankles, my thighs, my groin, my stomach, my chest. ``You don't want to touch any of it. If anything happens, he will save you.''

``He'' is Lt. Cliff Skelton, pilot for the Blues' seventh plane, which is modified with a second seat to accommodate curious passengers. The six other planes fly the razor's-edge formation patterns that streak through air shows around the country. Lieutenant Skelton shows media people and others what it is like to sit on top of 32,000 pounds of thrust while barrel-rolling or looping up at 550 miles an hour, pulling as much as 5 G's - or 5 times the force of gravity.

``When you start graying out and losing your vision,'' Omar advises, shoving a helmet down on my head, ``just tighten up your stomach and leg muscles.''

The sounds of jets and props were blowing in frequent gusts back and forth across the tarmac, as Skelton approached the plane. He carries his body-by-Navy physique lightly and well. When he talks, he is quiet and respectful - one of those guys who seems to keep a serene corner of the sky in their blue eyes. His name is written in gold letters on the plane.

``I'm planning to start with a high performance climb up to 8,000 feet on takeoff,'' Skelton said, once he had strapped his helmet on. ``That OK?''

Our voices were carried by intercom into each other's helmets. The canopy was down now, and you could hear the chatter of the tower above the dull, woooshing roar of our own jets. The high-tech screens in front of me winked greenly; and a computerized female voice called off the various stages of flight preparation.

``Flight control. Flight control,'' it kept repeating, making a noise like the sound you get when you dial an out-of-order telephone number. Something was wrong. I could hear Skelton muttering to himself. ``I don't know if we are going to fly today,'' he said at one point. And we spent 15 tension-filled minutes while he monkeyed with the controls. Finally, though, he taxied out to the runway. The plane danced impatiently on the tarmac. I felt the tug of the engine yanking us into position for takeoff.

``Ready to fly?''

Well, how ready do we mean here? My ears were pinned back. My eyes wide open. My heart pounding. I felt the urgency of thrust behind me. Then, rush, pull, earth-lost, force, speed, move up, FLY!!! The little, light thing was suddenly up, and Skelton was in a high-performance climb and everything blurred into new intensity. Four G's pulled me back into my seat, like a turtle slammed against its shell. And everything in this sweeping blur - Earth, mind, body, sky - was moving straight up.

We leveled off at 8,000 feet.

We were the fastest, lightest thing in the air, soaring above the green mosaic of farmland and roads. The Susquehanna River looked hard and brown below us. The cooling towers of Three Mile Island stood off in the near distance. My body was recovering from the depth-charge sensation of pulling all those G's. My mind raced along with the speed of the plane.

``How you doing back there, Chris?'' Skelton asked.

Fine, said the fly to the spider.

``Good. Let's climb up to 10,000 feet, where we can go faster. Then, I'll show you a few more maneuvers.'' BLUE ANGELS pilots routinely perform maneuvers like the ones I was about to experience, only at much lower altitudes and in tighter configurations. They do so while flying 36 inches apart, sometimes coming straight at each other, making almost microscopic adjustments with their sticks. When you see them execute razor-sharp maneuvers at speeds of up to 600 miles an hour, as I did during the Harrisburg International Air Show the following afternoon, you get no sense of the sheer brute force that engages them while they fly.

Their show - equal parts fireworks display, ballet, and stock-car race - reaches points in which flight becomes intelligence, an extension of the imagination, daVinci's winged man with computerized instruments and General Electric F-404 engines. But these are human bodies and well-drilled minds piloting heavy machinery in close encounters that some congressmen and editorial writers consider foolhardy.

The Blues have lost 21 pilots in 41 years, the last in a midair collision at Niagara Falls, N.Y., on July 13, 1985, in which one pilot was killed. (Another parachuted to safety.) Comdr. Gil Rud says their record compares favorably with the fleet's in general, tossing off the issue by saying: ``If this were dangerous, my mother wouldn't let me do it.''

Still, it's no a stroll in the park. When they come screaming out of the sky in perfect configuration, like one tight fist, then burst apart in a smoke-trailing fleur-de-lis pattern, all they leave behind is a long gasp of amazement. The sun catches the six planes at once and they become lights dancing against the clouds. But up there, in the cockpit, it's all counting, terse signals, and intense flying.

That's what this demonstration flight was all about: to show me a little bit of what it means to do this thing the Blues do all the time. ``I'm going to do a few aileron rolls, first,'' Skelton says.

Upside down in my harness, I spoke to my stomach small reassurances about the quiet life we would retire to - a life of Nash Ramblers and Cream of Wheat -to replace the breakfast I lost somewhere between aileron rolls No 3 and 4.

We were interrupted by Skelton.

``How did you like 4 G's?''

Just dandy.

``Would you like to try 5 G's? I want to show you a Half Cuban Eight. I'll be accelerating from 300 to 550 miles an hour. Want to do that?''

Yes, actually, I would. 5. Then 6. Then 12. Tomorrow the world. I felt up to it. I felt exhilarated. I felt sure I could handle it.

I passed out.

Sad but true. The plane swept abruptly upward. He began to pour on the torque. I felt more and more of that undefinable pull from every direction that G-force creates. And suddenly I was nowhere, no direction home, no destination. Nobody. For 30 seconds I was out, until I heard a voice from the base of my skull saying, ``Are you with me, Chris?''

I certainly hope so.

He leveled off for a while, so I could collect myself. Cold sweat dripped down the front of my visor; I felt completely limp and wrung out. It was a brutal, punishing experience.

``Here, you take the plane,'' he said. GENTLY, I took the stick and ever so gingerly cantered the aircraft to the right, heading us upriver. Then, I pulled back and felt a swift uptick in our attitude. Leveling out, I flew for a while, following the brown line of the river up into the green country and blue sky, letting the Earth slip away beneath me. Looking out to my left and watching the horizon, I could see how much terrain you gobble up in short order flying this fast.

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