The MIG 29 was on our tail as we hurtled through the sky. My pilot tried evasive maneuvers, violently maneuvering back and forth — pulling G forces that pushed us into our seats with half a ton of force. But it was all to no avail. The enemy fighter’s radar locked onto our airframe announcing that a heat seeking short range missile would shortly slam into the fuselage of our CF-18. Images of WWII movies flashed through my mind — I could picture my wife receiving a telegraph informing her that her husband, Flight Surgeon George Burden was Killed In Action. It was a sobering thought. I now better appreciated the job that these men did.
Fortunately, this was only an exercise in air-to-air interception at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, home to two of Canada’s four CF-18 fighter squadrons. The MIG 29 was actually another CF-18 taking on the flight characteristics of the MIGs in a deadly serious game of aerial combat training that our pilots participate in regularly to keep their skills finely honed. Not that we’ve had any shortage of real life practice between the Persian Gulf War and more recent actions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Canadian CF-18s and their pilots played very real roles in these conflicts.
So what was I doing in the back seat of a CF-18B on this fine Quebec afternoon? Frankly, there is no better way to get a first-hand perspective on the problems flight surgeons have to deal with. These include motion sickness, G-LOC (loss of consciousness induced by the high centrifugal forces of sharp turns), greyout, blackout and redout. Other difficulties occur due to gas collections in the body including the sinuses, ears, gut and teeth. In emergency air evacuations penetrating injuries in the eye and skull may require sea level pressurization in an aircraft cabin, as gas collections will tend to expand otherwise and compound already serious trauma.
Bagotville Public Affairs Officer Capt. Luc Gaudet kindly arranged my flight with the 433 Squadron and the required ejector seat training and pre-flight medical. I passed these and was told that my flight was to be with a pilot whose call sign was “Psycho”. The call sign is a nickname all pilots receive and use for radio communications, etc.
Despite the rather ominous moniker, Capt. Al Clarke was a pleasant soft-spoken Halifax native who obtained a physics degree at Dalhousie University before taking his pilot’s training. He had flown missions in Kosovo and had been based in Bagotville for the last two years. Al checked me out thoroughly before takeoff to ensure I was appropriately suited up. The canopy closed with a reassuring “thunk” and we taxied onto the runway.
Take off in a powerful CF-18 is like blasting off in a rocket, and as the engines screamed I felt myself pushed deeply into the padding of my Martin Baker ejector seat. We were soon air-borne, blasting through the sky in one of the most powerful vehicles ever designed and assembled by man. I was overwhelmed.
As part of two flight wings of four CF-18s, our mission was to intercept three MIG 29’s that had encroached on our air space. This was somewhat akin to a child’s game of tag, played with deadly serious intent. Each contestant tries to lock onto an opponent using every psychological and aeronautical trick in the book. And I was along for the ride!
The sky was sun lit with several layers of clouds providing a backdrop as we search for our foe. Suddenly a MiG was in sight! Powerful thrusters again pushed me back into my seat as we maneuvered to gain altitude, aiming to keep the sun at our backs as we approached our victim. The beep of the radar lock indicated we had a kill.
In real combat, a Sidewinder heat seeking missile would soon be slamming into our victim’s fuselage. Lucky for him this was only an exercise. To top it off, this was the pilot who said half an hour earlier, “I’ve got a missile with your name on it, Psycho”.
“Stick that up your afterburner,” I thought to myself.
Minutes later it was our turn to be the prey of one of these mechanical raptors. “Damn it”, said Psycho as he jigged violently back and forth to avoid the MiG on his tail. “Where did that *&#@$% come from?” Suddenly I was glad we weren’t playing for real — not that the Gs we pulled weren’t real enough, nor the ground which I appeared to be looking upwards at from our inverted position.
It didn’t take me long to make acquaintance with motion sickness during my flight. While the pilots rarely get this because of repeated exposure, selection and the fact that they are at the controls and can anticipate movements, this is not true of passengers. I spent a good part of the trip with my camera in one hand and the facetiously named “boarding pass” (air sickness bag) in the other.
Pulling up to 7 Gs, my G-suit prevented me from feeling most of the effects related to this. A pair of trousers lined with balloons, these compress the stomach and legs, forcing extra blood to the brain during high-speed maneuvers. Too much G force can cause tunnel vision (greyout), complete loss of vision (blackout) and the dreaded G-LOC with loss of consciousness and confusion on wakening. While I didn’t have any problems with my ears, sinuses or teeth, the gut proved to be another story. Fortunately it is equipped with a handy self-venting system which quickly relieved my distress. Pilots never fly with colds, due to the risk of trapped air in the sinuses and middle ear with risk of pain and disorientation.
Other medical problems can include visual/vestibular illusions, which can result in serious disorientation. In poor visibility, the “false climb illusion”, where acceleration is interpreted by the vestibular apparatus as a nose up position, can cause a high speed crash straight into the ground or water. Sudden head movements can trigger the “Coriolis illusion” with severe and unpredictable dizziness. Experienced pilots learn to depend on their instruments in situations where sensory input is ambiguous.
After flying over the Saguenay region of Quebec for more than an hour we were running low on fuel and received orders to head back to base. Flying in formation, each aircraft in turn hit the afterburner and peeled off. It had been just another day’s training for 433’s pilots, but the experience of a lifetime for me.
F18-cockpit Author, George Burden, gives the thumbs up before blasting into the sky for a Top Gun aerial combat exercise © John Haynes
F18-2flight Four F-18’s wait on the ground, ready to scramble in the event of an enemy incursion in our air space. © George Burden
F18-3 To F-18’s fly in formation to intercept intruding MIG’s © George Burden
F18-4 F-18 cruising back home to CFB Bagotiville © George Burden
“Five Miles High” appeared in the Sept. 26, 2000 Medical Post under the title “Up, Up and Away”.