Turns out it’s hard to turn back once the afterburners fire up.
Strapped into the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet under the clear blue sky, I had about a second to rethink the mission I’d agreed to when I felt a rumble and heard, “Are you ready?”
Seconds later — four, to be exact — we had reached a speed of 115 mph jetting down the Kelly Field Annex taxiway.
That’s as far as I went Friday morning, when the 149th Fighter Wing, a unit of the Texas Air National Guard stationed in San Antonio, offered spouses of its active duty and guard service members the opportunity to experience a fighter aircraft by suiting up and climbing into the cockpit for a high-speed taxi down the runway.
“Y’all do a great job holding the fort down, so this is our way of saying thanks,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Louis Soriano, as he prepared us for the first Gunfighter Spouse Taxi event hosted for about 75 spouses over six days.
The unit is where trainees are made into elite combat Air Force pilots and where an entire mission support team, including my husband and others, are assigned.
The event began with a briefing at 0715 sharp. In the operations building, the flight lead, who goes by call sign Cooter, explained how the pilots prepare for a mission, which in real life can start the day prior to a planned flight and go for hours.
Cooter then laid out the day’s special mission for me and three other participants that morning: a chance to experience some part of what our spouses do while on duty. After walking us through the morning’s schedule, he described what to expect, and went over some rules for our time in the aircraft.
“Don’t touch any of the controls,” he said, especially anything that’s red or yellow — like the ejection handle. And no cameras allowed in the cockpit.
What we could do, Cooter told us, was adjust the volume knob on the intercom and flip a switch that turned on the instrument panel. With that liberty, then came egress training — what you need to know to get out of a jet in the case of an emergency — the military’s version of flight attendant’s instructions.
“It’s kind of a long way down, and there is no ladder or inflatable slide,” said a pilot who goes by the call sign Tron.
We were fitted with helmets and flight suits, complete with our own patches and call signs. Because my husband’s call sign is Smoke (for his love of barbecuing), he gave me Fire. With the required training on oxygen masks done, we made our way to “step,” when the pilots gather before walking to the jets.
“We’re flying my jet today,” said the pilot Swash, looking at a board with our names listed. But don’t tell the crew chief that, he warned me half-jokingly. “When we’re not around him, I talk a pretty big game. But it’s his jet. He’s a maintainer.”
When the jets were ready, we did a nose-to-tail inspection walk before climbing a ladder into the fighter aircraft.
Growing up on Air Force bases around the world, I remember nearly every drive to school or shopping trip took us past a hangar or flight line, and at least once a year, we gathered around the grassy edges of the tarmac for a daring and patriotic air show.
But I had never climbed into the cockpit of an F-16 — until now.
First, they make it look easy in the movies — the cockpit is a space so tight and filled with gauges, it makes economy class seem luxurious. Second, when that bubble canopy is lowered and the all-clear comes from the control tower, the anticipation of what’s to come is better than any movie.
As he taxied the jet, Swash pointed out the Air Force’s gray whale-like C-5s undergoing maintenance and Boeing’s branded commercial aircraft at Port San Antonio. We saluted the air traffic controllers with the Gunfighter salute — a tradition that, if skipped, will cost you a six-pack.
Then came the full stop on the runway — just enough time to second-guess my reasons for signing up — followed by 5 seconds of acceleration beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.
And as fast as it began, the flight to nowhere was over and we had parked again under the sunshades. I’m fairly certain the amount of time it took me to unbuckle and unhinge myself from the cockpit took about 100 times longer than the taxi ride.
Then, like one final salute of appreciation for military spouses, as I drove my SUV toward Acme Road and away from the base, a fighter jet roared overhead.