January 25, 2015

In which my life remains reassuringly surreal

On Friday I flew a military jet, which is not something I expected to say, well, ever, really.

Uh. Caveats. First, "military"; it was an L-39 Albatros, widely used as a trainer jet, although "it has also flown combat missions in a light-attack role," so. Second, "flew"; I only took the stick for a few aileron rolls and sharp (~4G) turns. The actual pilot, "Sticky," a former Thunderbird and current precision-jet-team air-show pilot on the Patriots Jet Team, controlled throttle and rudder the whole time.

But still. I was six thousand feet up in the sky, moving at circa 500 km/h, in control of a small and highly maneuverable jet plane. It was exhilirating. It was adrenalinizing. It was also hard on my gut, in a cumulative way, and I very nearly vomited as we finally banked to land; but even if I had, it would have been so worth it.

(Doing so is apparently not uncommon. After the formal briefing from Sticky, "Fidel" -- the actual owner of the jet -- approached me to advise me on the vomit protocol. Which is: first, use the "lunch bag" tucked into one of the flight suit's pockets; if that isn't viable, pull out the collar of the shirt beneath the suit and puke down your own chest. That way you don't get a mess all over the canopy and the instruments.)

How did this happen? Well. Some time ago, in Montreal, I befriended Simon Law. Because of him, some years ago I wound up writing an article for Reader's Digest about his boss, former Zero-Knowledge CEO Austin Hill. Because of that, I wound up writing a few pieces for TechCrunch about Hill's new Bitcoin startup. One in particular caught the eye of "Fidel," a software guy and Bitcoin evangelist who recently sold a startup to Intuit, used the proceeds to buy an L-39 and brand it as the Bitcoin Jet, and invited me to come out and fly in it. And, I mean, how could I say no?

I didn't realize until after I drove out to Byron that I would not just fly in it but actually fly it myself, sort of, briefly.

Byron is only an hour's drive from San Francisco but feels almost like a different nation; it's rural America, horses and rusting farm machinery, albeit with ridgetops lined by wind towers as far as the eye can see, and the odd little wealthy community of Discovery Bay just to the northeast, "the Venice of the East Bay," basically a huge square subdivision shot through with canals that connect to the Sacramento Delta, so that nearly every house has a dock and boat which, in theory, can head straight out to the Pacific without pausing for permission.

I didn't go to Discovery Bay, though. I just flew over it.

discovery-bay

First we briefed. Sticky takes flying very seriously, and strongly believes in "plan the flight, fly the plan." I rehearsed the bail-out protocol while on the demo seat in the hangar. This L-39 doesn't have ejection seats, so that protocol was: pull the lever to disconnect my harness from the seat, pull the lever to unlock the canopy, then Sticky inverts the plane, then I force myself out while it's inverted, and then I pull the D-ring for the parachute attached to the harness. Easy as pie, right?

Then out to the plane itself:

bitcoin-crew
Yours truly with Fidel and Sticky.

I boarded and got strapped in by the crew chief. We tested the helmet radios (mine was slightly wonky, but if it was actually touching my lip it worked fine.)

top-gun-ii

top-gun

Then Sticky fired up the starter engine, which fired up the main engine. (Most US military jets require massive starter carts to get going; the self-sufficient nature of the L-39 is a pretty significant advantage for casual/personal use.) We taxiied down the runway, got a visual/radio check on other airplanes in the area -- there's no control tower at Byron, pilots just talk to each other to avoid collisions -- lined up, and zooooom, away we were, lifting off smooth as silk...

...for about fifteen seconds, after which we broke right, i.e. turned edge-on to the ground and banked hard, on a dime. Like going sideways on a roller coaster. Indeed much of the aerobatics to follow felt a bit like a roller coaster, albeit with movements that were simultaneously much sharper and much smoother, and a thrillingly disconcerting sense of ad-lib freedom.

Here's a shot of the instrument panel. Note the occasional Cyrillic. (This was an active-service Ukrainian Air Force jet until 1982.)

instrument-panelled

So. We flew out to so-called Bacon Island, empty territory near Discovery Bay. Below us a crop-dusting biplane seemed to be crawling along no faster than a car. (L-39s move so much faster than most other airplanes that fly out of Byron that they have to be quite careful.) We did a couple of hard turns on either direction; then Sticky passed the aircraft to me (this is done with maximum communication-- "Put your hand on the stick." "My hand is on the stick." "You have the aircraft." "I have the aircraft." -- for obvious reasons.) and whee, I did the same. Pulling 4Gs you can actually feel your lips wobble, just like the movies, and although I was holding my breath and tensing my body to increase my blood pressure, I got, I think, just the beginning of the sense of what it is like to gray out.

Then we did aileron rolls, same procedure -- him first, then me, then a double. Which was the end of my flying, alas. Then we did a couple of loop-the-loops, floating inverted at the top of each with the horizon coming at us from above. Then we simply rolled over and flew inverted for about 20 seconds, hanging in the straps with the sky below us. Then we did a barrel roll around Mount Diablo, which looms over Discovery Bay --

diablo-wing

--which, double alas, was about the point at which my belly ceased to think that this was fun.

So I was kind of tightly gripping my knees and breathing deeply as we returned to Byron, waited for the runway to clear, kept an eye on the hawk that one of the other pilots reported to us, did a touch-and-go landing, banked around again, and landed. Apparently after N flights your body grows accustomed to things and the motion sickness ceases to be a problem, where N is highly variable depending on the person.

Regardless. It was a surreal, awesome, and incredibly fun experience. Not least because Sticky, Fidel, and their crew chief ("Ponch?") were great, super-friendly and super-professional. And the next time I have ten thousand spare dollars and six spare months, I intend to begin to acquire a pilot's license.