Talking about it afterwards in the BOQ bar, I won't say the test pilots treated me like an equal, but I got more respect than when I tried talking about a bumpy ride in the Eastern Shuttle.
I had survived the spin demonstration in the T-2 jet trainer -- the first exercise at Test Pilot School. Cmdr. John Watkins, the instructor who took me up, had the tact not to mention the fatal crash of a T-2 during a spin demonstration earlier this year. Watkins compared a jet plane in a spin to a maple leaf falling out of a tree, spiraling out of control. Put bluntly, a jet plane in a spin isn't flying -- it's falling.
So, anyway, there I was at 20,000 feet over Chesapeake Bay, strapped to an ejection seat, clad in parachute, life vest and oxygen mask. I quickly realized that a military jet is no place for anyone with latent suicidal tendencies. Virtually any movement could trigger a disaster. Take that innocent-looking yellow lever on my left. Grab that one for security and the canopy flies off.
Watkins slowed the plane down until a stall developed over the left wing. As the plane pitched to the left, it went into its pre-planned spin. The next 10 seconds are etched in my mind forever. I first tried closing my eyes, but that didn't work. I opened them to discover the plane pointed nose down with the Chesapeake revolving clockwise beneath me.
Who had time to worry how his obituary would read? I was too busy avoiding the embarassment of throwing up, especially because I was unsure whether I could get my oxygen mask off in time. I found myself worrying about falling out of the plane even though I was strapped to the seat with more harnesses, toggles and buckles than I could count.
When the plane finally leveled off, I had a flash of elation. The worst was over. My stomach belatedly realized what it had been through. As Watkins offered me the controls, all I could mutter was, "Give me a minute, I'm trying not to throw up."
Once on the ground, I had only one insight. Now I understand why test pilots drink.