Flying with the Black Knights: My first-person experience

SINGAPORE - Standing on the ramp of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft going 120 knots (222 kmh) at 10,000ft, the wind was both deafening and cold.

It whipped through my hair and plucked at my spectacles, but tethered to the deck by a harness, I knew I wouldn't be able to lean out too far and fall into the sea far below.

Camera in hand, I watched as the six F-16Cs of the Republic of Singapore Air Force Black Knights grew from a speck in the distance until they filled my viewfinder, performing rolls, climbs and dives at extraordinarily close range.

 

Not expecting them to come within arm's reach, I brought along a hefty 800mm lens, which gave me nothing more than the benefit of the exercise.

At intervals, the Black Knights would peel away to top up their fuel at a tanker circling nearby, before returning for more action.

The next day, I flew on board the KC-135R Stratotanker itself, getting a close-up view of the delicate inflight refueling process from the boom operator's pod, shooting the aerial ballet through the glass panel.

Back on the ground, I was impressed by how the flight line crew were constantly busy with some kind of job, from the massive, such as an engine replacement, to the minor, such as touching up some paint work.

I watched as they hoisted the multi-million dollar machines on hydraulic jacks to get at the bits under the belly, and how they crawled into tiny spaces to inspect and clean every inch of the shiny warbirds.

They would arrive hours before the pilots - long before the sun rose - and were the last to leave after the final flight of the day.

In a bid to understand what military aviators go through in order to fly, I volunteered to attempt all the tests the aeromedical centre had to offer.

My week began with an aviation physiology training course alongside other aircrew.

After four days of lectures in a freezing room (cardigans of all colours made their appearance after the first day), my last-minute mugging paid off when I thankfully passed the exam and was awarded a certificate.

In order to recognise the symptoms of oxygen deprivation when flying at high altitudes, pilots, aircrew and high-altitude parachutists sit in a hypobaric chamber. The hatches are locked and air is slowly pumped out until a partial vacuum remains.

At the simulated altitude of 25,000ft, I felt both dull and slow-witted.

I was also overcome by an overwhelming urge to use the bathroom as the temperature rapidly dropped.

I valiantly scribbled my answers on the test sheets we were given, and my writing became bigger while my answers took longer and longer to come up with.

Back at sea level, I was the first out of the chamber and headed directly for the bathroom.

At the Ejection Seat Trainer, I was strapped in and fired upward at 4G, an experience that taught me to keep my body as rigid as possible if I ever had to pull the ejection handle in mid-flight, (a highly unlikely event).

Ejection seats are life-savers should a pilot need to abandon his aircraft during an emergency. However, due to the violence of the motion, a pilot may suffer permanent disabilities or even die as the rockets fire him out of the cockpit.

Because I did not press my head firmly back into my seat during the simulation, I suffered a mild neck ache.

This, however, was nothing compared to the "tortures" that were about to follow.

The Somatogyral Turntable is a rotating black box designed to make one lose all sense of spatial orientation when seated within.

I watched as other aircrew entered and exited the chamber without any fuss, having performed their tests inside with nonchalant ease.

As I climbed into the box, however, an ominous sense of unease began to develop, which increased in direct proportion to the calmness of the operator's voice over the intercom as we began to spin.

With only black walls to look at, I could not perceive any sort of motion from inside.

A slight tilt of my head to the right, however, nearly caused me to fall out of the chair as my world turned upside down.

I was suffering from a vestibular illusion, where my eyes were telling my brain that I was not moving, even though I was merrily spinning at 12 rounds a minute. Tilting my head had activated the sensory organs in my ear canals that told my brain a different story and confused it.

My next tasks were to tilt my head to the left, then up at the ceiling and down at the floor.

In an instant, I was out of the box and lying on a bed, my insides churning and my head spinning.

The disorientation proved too much for me to bear, and it was several days before I could walk without veering off the pavement.

My biggest challenge, however, was riding the Human Training Centrifuge, a spaceship-like gondola whirled at high speed to simulate a continuous gravitational force.

Pilots and Weapon Systems Officers who fly modern fighter jets often experience significant G-forces as they climb, dive and turn aggressively in combat.

To help them to cope with the physiological strain, these officers must endure regular sessions in the centrifuge, wearing a tight-fitting anti-G suit with air bladders that automatically inflate during moments of high acceleration.

These bladders squeeze their lower limbs like a corset, preventing blood from pooling there.

They also practise the anti-G straining manoeuvre (AGSM) - tensing all the muscles in their lower body and keeping their chest fully expanded while taking short breaths.

Both of these increase the overall blood pressure and maintain circulation to the brain, preventing the G-induced loss of consciousness that could lead to accidents during an actual flight.

After strapping on my anti-G suit and practising the AGSM (10 minutes' worth), I nervously climbed into the gondola and was firmly strapped into the seat.

As the machine spun up to its idling rate of 1.4G, the now-familiar feeling of motion sickness began to manifest itself.

I was later informed that many pilots have little problem withstanding the G-forces created by the centrifuge, but are instead put off by the nauseating sensation caused by the spinning.

To start the exercise, I pulled on a control stick and was immediately pressed into the seat as the gondola accelerated.

On the digital screen in front of me, a false horizon began to tilt, simulating an aircraft banking into a turn. In the background, I could hear an instructor calmly counting off the numbers.

At 4 G, I began the AGSM as my cheeks sagged and the horizon tilted further.

I vaguely recalled wondering when my vision would start to gray out, although it never did.

By 5 G, my entire consciousness was focused on tensing my muscles and trying to take a breath every three seconds with my chest already expanded.

It was hard work, and I later marveled at how pilots were able to do this and still pay attention to the myriad things they had to do in the cockpit, such as flying the plane.

At 6.5 Gs, I released the controls and was immediately overwhelmed by the feeling of tumbling forward as the machine decelerated, another of those vestibular illusions that even pilots dread.

Thinking that I was going to fall out of my seat, I valiantly pressed myself backwards without realising that I was not actually falling anywhere.

Soaked with sweat, I had to be eased out of the gondola by two technicians, and it was three air sickness bags later that my insides felt settled enough for lunch, even though I ate uncharacteristically little.

Clearly, I did not have the stomach for flying, but the experience certainly left me with a healthy dose of respect for those who do.

It also answered one of life's great mysteries - I now know what those hot-shot fighter pilots look like behind their visors and masks when they are pulling a 9 G turn.