With a quick dip, the jet, the pilot and I are diving the equivalent of 75 football fields in 15 seconds. My back is pushed against the back of the seat. The skin on my face is stretched back toward my ears. Sweat is rolling down my back.
I'm no longer certain what is earth and what is sky, except I see a rush of blue, then a rush of brown, then something white goes by. I start counting to myself, reach number 45, and then, breathing fast, wonder if that white thing was a cloud or a visit with God.
The jet moves upward and I look downward. I see a jumble of green trees and no recognizable landmarks. I turn to the flight instrument panel and watch needles move in directions that have no meaning to me. I look overhead through the plexiglass bubble over the cockpit to see a shifting expanse of blue and silver.
Aloft in a sleek A4F Skyhawk, a two-seater version of the Navy attack aircraft that the Blue Angels usually fly, I'm beginning to feel like a wet rag thrown into a crazed commercial dryer. I try to find something in the ever-moving landscape to focus on, when the airplane suddenly straightens its course. Lt. Wayne Molnar, the pilot, switches on the microphone: "How'd you like that?"
I flash what he thinks is a smile.
To fly with the Blue Angels, the Navy's top flying team that will be demonstrating its aerobatic skills at 2 p.m. today during an all-day open house at Andrews Air Force Base, was the kind of assignment I couldn't resist. What could be more of a challenge? What could be more of a test on my limits, my daring and -- I realized when the jet began taking another descent in the blue sky over the Patuxent River -- my sanity? "Keep in the back of your mind: You're going to have fun," Marine Maj. Bill Campbell said, sitting in the press center on the day of the flight. "The public thinks this is very dangerous and it isn't. We're just going to take you up so you can see how things are done. We'll only do what you want to do.
"Before we go flying, we do rote repetitions and everything is later scrutinized . . . . It's all built to be safe. Occasionally we lose somebody, but our accident rate is no worse and is better than the rest of the fleet."
The Blue Angels will be 40 years old on June 15. It is a flying team of men (federal law prohibits women from being assigned to combat aircraft or ships) that prides itself on bolstering the Navy's recruiting rate by showing off its exciting side. Some, like Campbell, say it's a way for taxpayers to learn something about their military.
"The best thing we do is we go into a community that might never come close to the military and give them a chance to associate a face with what we do," Campbell said. What the Blue Angels do is maneuvers, taught to any pilot, that are adapted to the constraints of air combat, Campbell said. "Then we just take all the maneuvers, combine them and put six airplanes together and show off what we can do."
I ask him if there is any sport with which the ride might be comparable. He shrugs: "Done any skydiving?"
To qualify for flight in a high-performance jet, I had to undergo a training seminar. With Air Force personnel watching, I pulled on a flight helmet and oxygen mask, learned how to click on the microphone to talk and hook up an emergency oxygen tank.
Nothing to it, I thought that day, after returning to the office. All you need to do is sit and watch the world pass you by -- at 400 miles an hour.
During the next seven days, I developed two basic fears. One I called the fear of the V Force, the indelicate matter that fellow reporters call losing lunch. The other was dying. I wasn't sure which would be worse.
I figured the newspaper library was the place to research how much I should worry. What I found was this: "Navy Stunt Pilot Ejects Safely," September 1969. "Three Blue Angels Die," July 1973. "Pilot Killed in Crash of Blue Angels Plane," November 1978. "Navy Stunt Pilot Killed in Crash During Practice," February 1982.
I decided I could eliminate one of the worries. There were no documented cases of the V Force.
Standing beside the sleek blue-and-gold aircraft is Molnar, one of the newest of the Blues, a team of 16 pilots chosen for two-year tours of duty. Tall, square-jawed and tan, he looks and sounds like the Dudley Doright of the air.
He joined the Navy in the hope of making the Blues. He's accumulated 1,800 flying hours, 300 more than the 1,500 one needs to be selected for the team. And he knows just how to describe what we're going to do today.
"We'll just go down 60 miles south of here and flop around for a while," he says, with a toothy grin.
I pull a green flight suit on over my clothes and climb the ladder to the cockpit. In seconds, I settle into my seat and am harnessed into a parachute pack. I have no idea how to use it, but the effect is quite heady.
I feel good, I say to Molnar. I feel good, I tell myself. I feel so good that I reach for the little plastic baggie in the side pocket and clutch it tightly.
Molnar climbs into the cockpit and starts the engines. Within seconds, we're speeding down the runway. We leave the ground and soar into the blue at a 50-degree angle.
I look down to see Andrews Air Force Base become a toy town with matchbook planes. The Chesapeake Bay, a saucer of white and gray ripples, comes up quickly on the left. I try to figure out what Eastern Shore communities are slipping past and realize I've lost my sense of the lay of the land. There are no road signs to follow up here. Rambling farms are tied together by the ribbons of two-lane highways and the Patuxent.
Within minutes we are over Patuxent Naval Air Test Center in St. Mary's County. Now Molnar promises to show me just what the A4 can do.
"Here's what we call the split S," he says, driving the jet from 12,000 to 4,500 feet with a twist and twirl.
"Here's what we call a wingover," he says, pulling the plane from side to side.
"And here's what we call the barrel roll."
And here's where we documented the thrust of the V Force.
In the preflight seminar, military instructors describe the typical fighter pilot as someone who is self-sufficient, seeks responsibility, has great energy and is a high achiever. But I now know the most important requirement.
A Blue can't turn green.