"Are you ready?" they asked.
"Oh, yeah!" I said, quasi-confidently as I tried to keep my voice from crackling while the crew outfitted me with a parachute and strapped me into the seat.
"Don't touch this lever, that button or that strap," they said. "Unless the pilot tells you to bail -- then pull this, that and that."
Whatever. I'm all-in now, whether I like it or not.
I had already signed and initialed the forms releasing any liability from the crew. The pilots of the Air National Guard's Aerobatic Team were about to take me on the ride of my life.
We had a few "birds" in the air. Lt. Col. John Klatt would lead the three stunt planes in our formations. I rode with Jeff Boerboon, captain of the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team. 2011 U.S. National Aerobatic Champion Rob Holland would fall in as well.
All three are set to perform in The Great Tennessee Air Show this weekend at the Smyrna Airport, where gates will open on Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m.
T-G reporter and photographer Brian Mosely climbed in the chase plane to get some unbelievable views of the planes flying in formation. Even the chase plane looked scary with its side door flung open.
Boerboon told me that his earlier passenger threw up, so he gave me a receptacle. I hoped like crazy that I wouldn't need it.
First, we flew in a tight formation. At any given moment, the wings and/or vertical stabilizers (or rear fins) were five or so feet apart. I don't like someone to be within five feet of me on the interstate, but somehow this felt alright.
With smoke bellowing from below the planes, we were an awesome sight. I'm simply at a disadvantage with just words to illustrate.
Then the real fun began. Boerboon and I broke off from the group so he could show me exactly what these planes and pilots are capable of.
Webster defines vertigo as follows: a sensation of motion in which the individual's surroundings seem to whirl dizzily. It's not an abstract definition to me anymore.
No disrespect meant to the Blue Angels -- who will also perform at The Great Tennessee Air Show -- but these aerobatic planes are where it's at. The maneuverability and gracefulness of these machines with a good pilot behind the yoke is absolutely mind-boggling.
We started off simple with a barrel roll. I'm guessing this was my pilot's way of giving me a gut-check ... literally.
My lunch stayed put, so we went for a little more rare air. We went inverted (upside down), did loops, snap rolls, tail slides, flat spins, hammerheads and avalanches -- just to name a few.
I swear if it hadn't been for the river of adrenaline that was flowing through my veins, my new nickname would be "Ralph." My trick was to always be aware of where the horizon was. Easier said than done, I'll tell you.
But, get this. He only showed me about one-third of the repertoire they plan to show off at the show this weekend. I'm guessing my novice stunt status and extra 175 pounds didn't help much.
Boerboon even let me grab the stick and do a few barrel rolls and a loop. Don't ask me why, but I wasn't complaining.
For a little added entertainment value, Klatt will race Neal Darnell's jet-powered truck in the Max Adrenaline Wall of Fire routine.
"The jet truck will get up to about 350 miles per hour," Klatt said. "The truck and I have a little bit of a history. It's going to be a close one."
Klatt earned his wings in the Air Guard more than 20 years ago, and although he loves coming into communities to give a good quality show, the main reason he's scheduled to do 18 air shows this summer is to promote the Air National Guard.
Klatt flew the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" for the Air Guard, but got into aerobatic flying on his own years ago when he bought his own plane. Around 18 months ago, he went to flying for the Air Guard Aerobatic Team full-time and loves his new role.
"We love flying air shows, but really our mission is to promote the Air National Guard," said Klatt. "There are about 107,000 men and women serving around the world in the Air Guard. The best thing about it is that you can live in your hometown while still serving in the military. It's a hometown Air Force, if you will."
Learn how to fly and get your college paid for. Not too shabby.
If you'd like to scratch your aviation itch and see from the ground what I went through, check out The Great Tennessee Air Show this weekend. I promise it'll be a wild ride.
Source: Mitchell Petty http://www.t-g.com/story/1847406.html