By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 6, 2009 2:00 AM
photo courtesy of John Dibbs
Three 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagles break away from a tight formation and fire flares over Hyde County as part of a photo shoot for publications across the world.
Two 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagles break away simultaneously as the third stays straight and level.
From the cockpit of a 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagle, News-Argus reporter Kenneth Fine, left, gives the thumbs up before a two-hour incentive flight with 334th Fighter Squadron Maj. James Gresis.
We are seemingly hovering -- in actuality, going hundreds of miles an hour -- 12,000 feet above Hyde County when my fear of heights takes hold.
Yeah, I know, some Air Force reporter, right?
Don't get me wrong, being in the cockpit of an F-15E is an honor.
But when you're a civilian looking out the canopy of a Strike Eagle and see two other fighter jets closing in on your wing, only one thing races through your mind.
And trust me, it isn't even close to publishable.
The 4th Fighter Wing recently invited me to see another side of its mission -- just what its dual-role fighter is capable of.
What I didn't know until shortly into the pre-flight briefing that morning was that part of the experience would showcase the 4th air crews' precision.
I have to be honest: The thought of flying -- in anything -- is enough to keep me up for nights on end.
Now throw in formation flying complete with 90-degree turns ... and flares.
But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- flying with some of the men who have taken air power to the enemy and protected American troops in war theaters across the world.
That's what I kept telling myself as the knot in my stomach grew ever bigger in the hours leading up to takeoff.
The walk to the flight line was surprisingly comforting.
I had a chance to talk with my pilot, Maj. James "Monkey" Gresis, a man who started telling people at age 9 he was going to fly one day.
He seemed confident I was going to have fun, an unforgettable experience.
And he had me convinced that I wouldn't get sick, that I could handle the whole G-force deal.
Once we got to the aircraft, I remember mumbling something to myself like, "No turning back now."
I had accepted the reality of the situation.
This was going to happen -- fear of heights and all. My body hadn't failed to meet the requirements; a freak thunderstorm or maintenance issue hadn't grounded the flight.
So before I climbed the steps leading to the cockpit, I took a few deep breaths, reminding myself that what I was about to go through was nothing compared to what these guys do every day, that when they take flight from a place like Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, there is no room for second-guessing.
But part of me was truly freaking out.
Watching the maintainers work on the jet before takeoff helped.
I mean, these guys are professional in every sense of the word -- enduring long hours in the elements to make sure each Strike Eagle they launch is mission-ready.
And as the canopy lowered and we fired the engines, the smiles on their faces as they saluted Maj. Gresis said a lot about just how much pride they take in sending a crew off in one of the aircraft they make fly.
At that moment, I stopped worrying about my safety.
I knew I was in good hands.
Now if I could just get over the heights thing, right?
Waiting for our turn to take off at the end of the runway was slightly nauseating.
The suspense was killing me.
But when it happened, the rush of it all overwhelmed everything else going through my mind.
Our mission was two-fold.
The first objective was to fly with three other Strike Eagles to the airspace over Hyde and Dare counties. In the cockpit of one of them, photographer John Dibbs, looking to capture high-quality shots of F-15Es in different formations.
I don't know why, but it took me until we were already in the air to realize what exactly the detailed pre-flight briefing had revealed about our aircraft's role in these photos.
So as we were nearing the backdrop for these shots, I began to fixate on the fact that as we were flying at ridiculous speeds, another jet was going to be mere feet from our wing.
Then we were going to do these quick turns and fire flares.
But there was a bright side to this revelation.
Fear overrides nausea.
After less than 30 minutes of flying toward the North Carolina coast, I started hearing chatter from the lead jet.
We were just moments away from the first formation.
So I was sitting there, muttering into my mask about the intensity unfolding outside the canopy -- another jet stacking itself on top of ours; my pilot jerking the aircraft 90 degrees moments later.
And when we finally -- after maybe 45 minutes -- finished this wild photo session, I couldn't believe just how many muscles I had used to keep the banana I had eaten for breakfast in my stomach.
Maj. Gresis must have known that this was the right time to ask me if I wanted to go upside down.
I imagine he could sense that after those 90-degree turns, I needed to get the rest of the insanity over with.
Keeping your eyes open in a rolling Strike Eagle is surreal.
Your senses are so overloaded that, if you're not used to it, you might -- did I say might, I mean definitely -- feel like you're going to pass out.
And your eyes feel like they are firing so quickly to capture it all that your mind can't quite catch up.
Now throw in the sensation of a G-suit inflating around your lower extremities. Its job: To keep the blood from rushing out of your brain which, in turn, keeps you from losing vision and consciousness.
It's a relief when they explain that to you.
Unless, like me, you are a hypochondriac.
Still, I must confess, that moment was one unlike any I have ever experienced.
With that said, when the major asked me if I wanted to go straight and level for a while, I didn't fight it.
I was ready for the final part of the mission -- a ride back to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base along the North Carolina coast.
As a boy, I used to vacation in places like Nags Head and Ocracoke Island.
Back then, I would have called you crazy if you suggested one day I would be flying 2,000 feet over those same beaches in a multi-million dollar fighter jet at hundreds of miles an hour.
So when we passed over the Wright Brothers monument and talked about the history of aviation, I got chills.
And it happened again as we approached the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and, moments later, Ocracoke Island.
It was awesome -- a perspective I had dreamed about seeing one day, but never actually thought I would.
Less than 30 minutes later, our wheels hit the runway.
And during the taxi back toward our parking spot, I decided to come clean with Monkey.
"Is now a bad time to mention that I'm afraid of heights?" I said.
The major had a laugh and told me I handled things well.
At least I hadn't gotten sick, he said.
I hadn't passed out.
I hadn't lost my mind.
But I will never forget that he and his comrades are the impressive ones.
After all, when in flight, they have to set aside the beauty and intensity of it all and focus on one objective: Protecting lives on the ground.
Me ... I was just along for the ride -- albeit an incredible one.