If you could choose between flying on Air Canada or a Canadian Forces CF-18, which would you pick? George Burden checks out the competition so you can choose wisely.
A few years ago I had my first ride on a supersonic fighter jet, a Canadian Forces CF-18 “Hornet” to be exact, at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville in Quebec. This flight was arranged to allow me to research an aviation medicine article. Since the 1960’s I have also traveled extensively on Air Canada throughout Europe, the Caribbean and North America. I therefore feel eminently qualified to make a comparison of the two carriers and their service.
From the booking perspective the Canadian Air Force is rather slow. It took almost one year to arrange my CF-18 flight, while Air Canada manages to promptly confirm my reservations the same day. In both cases, however, efficient bilingual staff were able to handle my queries in a courteous manner.
I was a bit disappointed to find that the Canadian Forces (CF) do not have a frequent flyer program to speed me on to my next flight. This is probably of no consequence since, being unable to book a flight in under a year, the points would no doubt take forever to mount up to a usable number. Perhaps the Canadian Air Force could arrange to join the Star Alliance and pool their resources. Reservations would no doubt proceed more expeditiously as well.
Air Canada’s passenger screening criteria proved to be a little less rigid than the CF. At no time did the airline indicate that I would require a thorough history and physical exam by a flight surgeon including a cardiogram. Not so the CF who exhibited a disconcerting amount of concern for my pre-flight health.
Prior to take-off on Air Canada, a personable crew member clearly and efficiently explains features of the aircraft such as seats, seat belts and various safety equipment. The CF on the other hand made me take a two hour course which included being strapped into a harness and suspended from the ceiling, a process which exerts an inordinate amount of pressure on certain portions of the male anatomy.
I also got fitted with a “G suit” (no relation to a G string). This snazzy pair of inflatable trousers prevents passengers (and more importantly the pilot) from losing consciousness during rapid turns and acceleration.
While the seats on Air Canada tend to remain in place the ones in a CF-18 have the capability of blasting 350 feet into the air from a standing stop on the tarmac. For this reason I was instructed never ever to pull certain little striped levers until I was told to do so (unless the pilot bailed out first without telling me, in which case I could go ahead and do what I liked).
While I could unfasten my belt in seconds on Air Canada, the maze of belts, tubes etc. on the “Hornet” looked as if I’d need an engineering degree to free myself. I had to prove to the kind gentleman checking me out that I could do this little feat in under fifteen seconds before I could take to the air. Unlike Air Canada the Canadian Forces also made me sign a waiver stating that if anything bad happened it was my own fault for choosing to fly with them. Oh, by the way, did I tell you my pilot’s call sign was “Psycho”?
Comparing aircraft, the price of a CF-18 (model B) and an A-360 Air Bus are similar, about twenty million or so. The CF-18 however, holds only two people, the pilot and one passenger. This makes for an enviable crew to passenger ratio of one to one. The CF-18, powered by two General Electric F-404 Turbofan engines, has a maximum high altitude dash speed of Mach 1.8. In other words it can make the Concorde eat dust.
On the down side you can’t take any luggage, there is no food or beverage service and the only in flight movies they show are re-runs of “Top Gun”. Quarters are a quite cramped with little leg room aboard the “Hornet”, almost as bad as a budget charter I once took to London. “Psycho” ominously handed me a motion sickness bag before the canopy was closed (it’s facetiously known as a “boarding pass” to members of the industry).
As we taxied up the runway “Psycho” told me our flying time would be approximately one hour at an altitude of between 100 feet and 25,000 feet. We would be cruising at between zero (full stall) and 1200 miles per hour as we attempted to intercept three simulated MiG 29’s which had invaded Canadian air space. Fortunately the CF-18 has it all over the A-360 when it came to armament, including Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and a Vulcan M-61 20mm cannon.
I watched six other “Hornets” take to the air for our exercise, then was crushed back into my seat as “Psycho” hit full thrust and we screamed air borne, propelled by thirty thousand pounds of thrust. Unlike A-360’s, CF-18’s can climb straight up.
For in-flight comfort, Air Canada gets top marks over the Canadian Forces. My CF-18 “Hornet” flew in an inverted position about 25 percent of the time and when not flying upside down was generally pulling “G-forces” of up to seven times normal, effectively making me weigh three quarters of a ton (no snarky comments please; I normally weigh 185 pounds).
Turbulence? I felt sorry for any turbulence that got in our way. My nifty “G-suit” kept inflating, preventing me from blacking out as well as reminding my bladder that there were no handy in flight toilet facilities on a CF-18. For I some reason I began to feel a little queasy. Now where was that “boarding pass”…?
When we got back on terra firma, I thanked my pilot profusely for having the foresight to give me my “boarding pass”. He congratulated me on the fact that unlike many novice CF-18 passengers I did not have to be carried off the plane. With difficulty I refrained from kissing the ground.
“So what do you plan to do you when you retire ‘Psycho’?” I asked naively.
“Oh, I don’t know. I hear Air Canada is looking for new pilots”.
“Dr. George Burden left and his Canadian air force CF-18 pilot, ‘Psycho’ (right)” © John Haynes
Canadian Forces CF-18 Wikimedia, Public Domain
“Air Canada” Surclaro.com
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