As I dangled upside down in the cockpit of an F/A-18 Hornet, the blood rushing to my head, the view of the Patuxent River arrived in a 700-mph flash.
Through the cockpit window, dozens of waterfront houses appeared as flecks of white in the corner of my eye. Struggling to maintain my composure in a seat harness, resisting the urge to grab the control stick, I realized the futility of trying to keep my bearings. Nothing about flying with the Blue Angels was going to match my preconceived notions about airplanes or even gravity.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's Today section misstated the speed of sound. The speed of sound is 763 miles per hour at sea level.
The Sun regrets the error.
This was the ride of a lifetime.
When I arrived just after dawn at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station on a recent weekday, I was handed a jumpsuit and led to an airplane hangar for "training." About that large yellow and black-striped handle to left of my seat?
"Don't touch that under any circumstance," the instructor told me.
All-righty then. (That handle, I learned later, was the quickest way out of the jet in an emergency, ejection straight through the canopy.)
Next came the anything-but-comforting monologue about how to steer a parachute if you are ejected from the plane.
The pilot will take care of the ejection part, the instructor explained, unless of course he is unconscious. I decided against a follow-up question.
A few more tips and I headed for the Hornet. Once strapped into its narrow seat, a series of harnesses wrapped around my arms, legs and feet, I studied the control panel - a blinding array of highly sophisticated electronics and buttons. The light green diagrams on the dark green computer screens resembled an Apple II monitor from the 1980s more than a console on the Starship Enterprise.
In the first few moments as the plane began to take off from the runway, the ride felt like any other airplane flight. But then Lt. Dan Martin, Blue Angels pilot No. 7, engaged the jets and the Hornet shot straight up into the sky like a space shuttle. The plane climbed 8,000 feet in a matter of seconds, reminding me of a hiking trip. It took almost nine hours to cover that same distance by foot.
At the top of that climb, the jet paused. "Floating" is how Martin described it, this feeling of weightlessness when the plane hovers almost upside down, the body no longer attached to the seat. Imagine how it used to feel on a swing set in that moment when the swing is pushed as far up in the sky as it can go before falling back to the ground.
The jet spun around in circles leaving a trail of smoke, flipped upside down occasionally, and climbed thousands of feet in the shape of the letter "C" before dropping back down toward the Earth.
In one of my favorite moves, Lieutenant Martin pressed the accelerator until we were flying just under the speed of sound - about 900 mph - and then, in a phrase, hit the brakes. I peered out the window as we were seemingly stopped in midair to see if we were falling to the earth.
The ground didn't seem to be getting any bigger.
By this point I had lost all sense of place and distance, up vs. down. One second you're right-side up, the next, you're not. There's no thinking, Oh, now we're going to go upside down. You just suddenly are.
We pulled "6.5 Gs" which is a technical way of describing the force of gravity on your body as you pull away from the earth at high speeds during take off and stunts. Your body weighs more than six times its normal weight, preventing you from lifting your hands or head away from the seat. The blood rushes from your head and your field of vision slowly narrows until you are looking at small bit of blue sky surrounded by blackness - a sign that unconsciousness is closing in.
To prevent a black out, you begin the "hooking" maneuver, a move that requires you to tense your leg, stomach and arm muscles to prevent the blood from flowing downward. It was surprising to find out it actually seems to work.
I was hooking with all my might during one move, fighting off the blackness, when I glanced at Lt. Martin and saw him looking relaxed as ever, chatting away about the nice houses below.
The cockpit's air conditioning cooled my sweat-covered body. Gripping your seat and tensing your muscles is some kind of work out.
That pilots like Martin manage to fly these planes, let alone engage in battle, amazed me. Though the Blue Angels are the Navy's demonstration team and its "goodwill ambassadors," the planes can be combat-ready in less than 72 hours.
As the hourlong flight drew to a close, I knew I should have taken the Dramamine. The flight crew, apparently used to this sort of thing for visitors, stuffs the sides of the cockpit with little plastic "party bags" should you lose your lunch - in my case breakfast. Following the instructions, I ate half a piece of bread before arriving that morning.
Let's just say I was glad the party bag was handy.