When Olympic thrill-seekers Stacey Cook and Kelly Clark were presented with the opportunity to fly aboard an F/A-18 Super Hornet, the U.S. Navy didn’t have to ask twice.
The stunt was organized by the Navy as a way for the athletes to share their Olympic experiences with the sailors and families based at Fallon Naval Air Station near Mammoth Mountain, which is home to both Cook and Clark.
The athletes were up by 3:30 a.m. the day before the flight to take a “crash” course in aviation physiology and survival training.
“Most of our training was learning what not to do,” Cook said with a laugh. “We learned about the plane, the power of it and what can go wrong — how to adjust to situations that aren’t ideal. We covered all the negative stuff, the stuff you don’t want to happen.”
Cook wasn’t actually allowed to discuss the inner workings of the cockpit in great detail; however, she did say the instructions included not pulling the ejection cord and not touching anything of a certain color.
“The Navy has such a different lifestyle, but we’ve got adrenaline in common,” Clark said. “The buildup to flying in a fighter jet is similar to a contest, and the adrenaline is like you’ve landed your best run ever at the biggest contest out there.”
After a full day of preparation, there was nothing left to do but strap in and hold on, as they reached 180 mph in less than 15 seconds.
“It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced,” Cook said. “The power of the aircraft is unreal. I knew it was going to be powerful, but the G-forces were totally unexpected, like nothing I ever experienced in my life — and it’s not comfortable.”
The pilots were able to show off the most impressive capabilities of the aircraft, starting with “formation stuff,” during which two F-16 wingmen flew within 10 feet of Cook’s F/A-18.
“It was like looking at a movie screen, because this plane is so close to you,” she said.
Then came the aerobatics portion of the ride, which was like a game of cat and mouse, with the F/A-18 chasing down the F-16.
“We had to try to keep up with his maneuvers, and that was incredible, doing those rolls,” Cook said. “I have so much respect for the awareness these pilots have because I had the hardest time keeping up my awareness of the horizon and where the other jet was. And being an athlete, I thought I had pretty good body awareness.”
The experience also consisted of a “valley run,” during which the jet cruised to within 500 feet of the ground, as well as a high-altitude, sound barrier-breaking “mach run,” where the athletes topped out at a speed 8 percent faster than sound.
“That was sweet. I’ve never gone that fast, but you don’t get the boom. The boom is behind you,” Cook said. “So that wasn’t the most impressive part. It’s more impressive when the pilots can display their skills.”
During the flight, the athletes struck forces of more than 6 Gz, which is an easygoing joyride for the pilots. The 90-minute tour brought Cook over Mammoth Mountain and up the Sierras, north of Tahoe, over the valley where her parents live.
“I was definitely a shade paler when I landed, but I was also really sad because it was such a unique experience,” Cook said. “It was a sensation I will never relive.”
Asked which is a bigger thrill, going for a ride in an F/A-18 or dropping into a World Cup downhill, Cook said, “It was such a thrill, even beyond what I get to do — and I never thought that was possible. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that’s comparable or even more of a thrill than ski racing.” – Geoff Mintz
Image: US Navy photo by MC2 (SW) Olivia Giger