Randolph Air Force Base, Texas — THE sleek supersonic jet bursts through clouds into clear air. In front of me, the pilot puts his hands on top of his helmet. His voice crackles over the intercom: ``You take it.'' I give up trying to find my stomach, which was lost in a recent aileron roll. I grip the stick fiercely, bent on feeling like a fighter jock. Instead I feel as if I am riding a giant dinner knife through space.
I lean the stick to the left. The plane rolls into a shallow turn. I lean a little harder. Why is the altimeter doing that?
``Uh, pull the nose back in a turn - like we discussed,'' says my pilot, Capt. Greg Bauer. There is a hint of concern in his drawl as we descend.
So this is what it feels like to fly a fighter. Semi-fighter, anyway. The T-38 in which we are streaking over Texas is an advanced trainer, the plane Air Force pilots fly before final polish in front-line jets like the F-15.
The T-38s here at Randolph Air Force Base are used to train instructors. Captain Bauer and his cohorts of the 560th Training Squadron are thus professors at a teacher's college - experienced guides into the fraternity of hot-jet jockdom.
And military pilots are a true fraternity, with behavior and status codes as complex as those of Masons. Flight-suit collars should be worn just so; accents reflect the same mythical West Virginia hamlet. Games of minor denigration are played: T-38 pilots refer sotto voce to F-16s as ``Utah lawn darts'' because of their resemblance to a finned children's toy.
Millions of normal American men watched Navy pilots in the movie ``Top Gun'' and felt, if only for a moment, locked in pale and useless lives. What would it be like to join the jet club, however briefly? Would I feel adventurous? Would I learn to swagger? Would I be able to keep breakfast down?
Upon arrival at the 560th, the first thing I noticed was the Chin Gap. No getting around it, these guys had chiseled ones. All of them - even the women. Made me feel like a Pekingese.
Then the preflight briefings started, and the job of fighter pilot quickly began to lose some of its Hollywood appeal. A goodly portion of time was spent in an ejection-seat trainer. Cheery stories were told about what happens to arms if elbows aren't tucked in on the way out. There was an unsettling discussion of the chances of crashing the plane after hitting flying objects. A nearby cave that is home to 10 million bats is apparently one of the major local hazards.
Then more layers of flight clothing were applied. The G-suit, a combination cummerbund-chaps, is attached to a pneumatic hose in the airplane, and inflates under extreme centrifugal force in an attempt to keep you from blacking out. (Air Force battles G-forces, Page 5). Parachutes are large and heavy. Care must be taken when putting a parachute on. If you do it wrong, you can accidentally pop it while walking to your airplane. This is a major fighter pilot faux pas.
It's expensive, too. Repacking a chute costs $175.
The flight line resembled an enormous rental car lot, with T-38s parked in rows, waiting.
The cockpit was large but the paint was worn and instruments were not digital-modern. (Perhaps video games lead us to expect too much.) We taxied to takeoff with canopies open - keeping cool is a problem in these planes in the hot Texas sun.
Then the canopies were closed and the plane was shuddering with anticipation. Halfway down the rubber-streaked runway the afterburners kicked in, kicking us airborne. Suddenly we were at 21,000 feet. There seemed to have been no intervening climb.
Now I have taken control and am flying the plane, though ``flying'' is too strong a word: At this speed, and with this sort of plane, ``pointing'' might be more correct. No rudder or other extraneous controls are needed. You take the stick, point the plane, and it goes there. The tiny wings are barely visible on the side, adding to the illusion of riding a projectile kept aloft by sheer thrust. I steer gingerly, sure that I am on the edge of throwing us into a flailing downward spiral. In fact, I am hardly turning us at all.
No video game can prepare you for the spatial disorientation. Heeled over into a sweeping turn, we fly into a cloud - and after a few seconds I feel we have leveled off. We burst out in the clear again, and we are still turning. My senses have fooled me.
``We call that `the leans,''' Bauer says.
There is too much cloud for real acrobatics - loops and such. As far as my stomach is concerned this state of affairs is just fine. It was never wild about this fighter pilot-impersonation business and has not enjoyed being used as a volleyball by G-forces. I apologize to Bauer for making him sit through my timid attempts at level flight and shallow turns, which must surely be boring to him.
He takes the landing, of course. Rolling hills suggest waves, and we surf toward the runway, the plane teetering back and forth with minute adjustments. When we are down, the light plane with enormous engines slows quickly.
No swagger. I can still walk though - a real accomplishment. I have been up only an hour; pilots here for the three-month instructor-training course spend 60 hours in the T-38, along with classroom and flight-simulator time.
Peeling off layers of clothing takes some minutes. Pilots, still in their flight suits, are lounging all about the operations building, debriefing one another. This involves much reconstruction of flight with swooping hand gestures and comments cryptic to a layman. For some reason I notice that everyone but me seems to be wearing a very large watch.
Outside, two T-38s in formation drift in for landing. They come in tail down, quietly. They don't look like warplanes. They look like ducks landing on a pond.