Steve's Newsroom Blog: Thunderbirds causing flashbacks for this old reporter

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS  (WLOX) - I had flashbacks this week of G-forces and vomit bags, thanks to the Thunderbirds visit.

The famous flying Thunderbirds squadron made a visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first time in 15 years. Around mid-week, our assignment editor was looking for someone who'd like to ride with the T-birds.  You see, they generally take a media representative for a "ride" to help promote the show.

I turned down the offer after considering it for about two seconds.  I'm too old and my arthritic body would not appreciate any added pain and discomfort.

Besides, I've been there, done that.

Not with the Thunderbirds however.  The ride of my lifetime was with their naval counterparts: The Blue Angels.

It was Jacksonville, Florida in the mid 1980s.  I was an ambitious (much younger) radio reporter in a city with a tremendous Navy presence. I also was friends with the public affairs director at the base that just happened to be hosting the Blue Angels.

When I got that phone call offering a flight, it took me less than two seconds to jump on the opportunity. I had to persuade my wife, who happened to be several months pregnant with our now college age daughter.  I think she had visions of becoming a widow at age 30 when crazy hubby crashed and burned in an F-18.  But, bless her heart, she consented.

It was me the radio guy, a TV anchorman and a newspaper reporter who made the flight. We went through a rather lengthy pre-flight safety briefing and were required to basically sign our lives away by putting our signatures on the legal papers "holding the Navy harmless" should the unthinkable occur. I think my wife's attorney would have sued anyway if we went down, perhaps arguing that I signed by name "under duress."

I wasn't much concerned about legalities though.  I was excited by the prospect of breaking the sound barrier in an F-18 Hornet, pulling massive G-forces and trying not to lose my lunch.

I'm convinced that the Blue Angel (and probably Thunderbird) pilots consider it a certain "challenge" to make their media visitors use the vomit bag.  We were told about it in our briefing, but I wasn't especially concerned.

Turns out, I should have been.  Did I throw up?  Well, yes and no is the answer.  My flight with the Blue Angels was mid-morning.  I had made the mistake of thinking it would be best to skip breakfast entirely. So, I had nothing at all to eat.  Which meant of course, I had nothing at all to throw-up either.

My stomach didn't revolt until we were doing barrel rolls and other aerobatics somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.  When I finally grabbed the bag, my stomach was convulsing with nothing at all to come up. Some of you may know; that's more uncomfortable than actually vomiting. I do think my pilot got a chuckle, probably marking another one up on his "barf challenge" board in the cockpit.

Vomit bags aside, the flight itself was amazing.  I'll never forget the takeoff. It was smooth when we took off. But just at the moment I was thinking, 'This isn't so bad', my pilot said he was turning on the after burners.

When those ignited, the F-18 suddenly became more rocket than plane. We burst upward at a speed that I could not before comprehend. It was an incredible rush of adrenaline and blue sky.

Breaking the sound barrier was another highlight.  I was watching the dials and equipment to see the moment we hit "mach one," which is the speed of sound. Which, for the record, is pretty doggone fast.

All I remember is the moment we broke the sound barrier, the whole plane seemed to shudder for an instant, then the ride became smooth as silk.

My pilot was awesome and looked like he'd just walked off the set of "Top Gun."  I was a few pounds lighter and in a little better shape then, but definitely not Navy pilot material.  My hope was to merely survive the ride. I was anxious and excited climbing into the F-18 Hornet; and a little blue faced and sweaty when climbing out about 40 minutes later.

I lost my big autographed picture of the Blue Angels, courtesy of Katrina's water. My house was only slightly damaged, but my shed (where the photo was stored in a box) was flooded.

Thanks to the Thunderbirds visit, I've been replaying the memories from that "ride of a lifetime" in my head.

Jeff Shepherd now knows all about it after pulling 9-Gs with the T-Birds.

Welcome to the club Shep. (I'm proud you didn't need your barf bag!)

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