I was enjoying the experience right up to the point where I blacked out and began having minor convulsions.
This was the ultimate joy ride – the backseat of a US Navy FA-18 fighter jet, and not just any jet, but one of the jets flown by the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels represent the best of the best. Only the top Navy and Marine pilots are chosen to become Blue Angels; the stunt flying team that performs in 35 cities each year at local air shows.
The guy in the front seat, Todd Abrahamson ’92, and I became best friends during our undergraduate days at UCLA. Todd started a year behind me. He was an only child raised in Santa Monica with dreams of being a tennis star at UCLA while the Navy paid for his education. I was a bit of a slacker from Orange County enjoying the college experience on my parents’ dime. When Todd joined our fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, I volunteered to be his big brother to show him how to ease up and take part in more than just wearing the uniform of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corp (NROTC) and hitting that green fuzzy ball. Little did I know that Todd’s discipline would help me, and a few of the other guys in our fraternity, pass organic chemistry and ultimately graduate. This became situation normal: Todd keeps his focus on his goals while most people around him just stumble through life. That is why today Todd is the best of the best.
Todd and I graduated together in 1992. Todd wanted to be a naval aviator, and more specifically, a hotshot jet pilot. His aspiration to fly started when he was still a young teenager living near Santa Monica airport and listening to the stories of his older cousin, who at the time was himself a Navy pilot. Todd achieved his goal and the Navy shipped him off to Florida, and later Texas and Mississippi, to teach him how to fly. In those ancient days before e-mail was widespread, I caught up with Todd every month or so via telephone and hear about his training, his accomplishments, the planes, and the joys of playing lots of golf on the military bases. I was convinced that Todd’s life was all fun and games; meanwhile I tried to figure out the corporate world and how I could get my employer to pay for my M.B.A.
Several years passed. Todd did his time on aircraft carriers and enforcing the “no fly zone” in Iraq. He has mastered the FA-18 jet, especially the difficult tail hook landings on the back of the aircraft carrier. He got so good, in fact, that the Navy asked him to teach at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. This proved to be to my benefit because Todd took me out for cheap golf at the base course and even got me 45 minutes in the FA-18 simulator. This experience solidified my feeling that Todd was living the ultimate video-game life.
Eighteen months ago, Todd – along with 160 other pilots – applied for a spot on the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels choose only three new pilots each year to serve a two-year stint on the six-member team. The team’s primary mission is public relations and recruitment for the Navy, which they accomplish by flying really fast and really close together at air shows all around the country. Todd was chosen and is now in his second and final year with the team.
I watched Todd fly at a show last fall and it is impressive. These guys fly right at each other at unbelievable speeds. Then they do it again upside down and in formation. The jets move with tremendous precision and grace, like a ballet performance in the sky; the dancers in this ballet, however, are awesome machines with very cool Bruin-esque paint jobs that scream by at 400 miles per hour.
I saw Todd and his team fly again in Pensacola the morning of Todd’s wedding. His bride, Chris, is not a Bruin, but she has learned to despise USC, a healthy attitude for any marriage. This was when I noticed a backseat in one of the Blue Angel’s planes. After thoroughly interrogating anyone I could grab, I learned that journalists, celebrities and other assorted VIPs may be invited as passengers when the team flies. While Todd made his wedding vows that day, I made my own vow: to get into that backseat. After a few weeks of dogged determination, I persuaded the Navy that I was indeed the finest writer from any university alumni publication and therefore deserved my place in the VIP seat.
They bought it.
This brings us back to where my story began – the whole blacking out incident. I met up with the team this past February down in El Centro, Calif., where they practice for 10 weeks each winter before the air show season starts. I spent the night before my flight with Todd reeling out my own Top Gun fantasy, telling him how I was going to be the ultimate Goose to his Maverick and that he can count on me to help take over in case things got rough up there. He said if I even touched the stick he would eject me from the plane and claim malfunction. I guess he has little faith in a guy who spends most of his time flying a desk in the suit-and-tie corporate world.
The next morning there was an orientation about how to combat the G forces I would experience and what to do in the event I felt the need to toss my cookies – or in my case, the large steak Todd encouraged me to eat at dinner the previous evening. I paid little attention. I wondered how tough can it be dressing up in a fancy jumpsuit, hop in a souped-up plane, and waving to the crowds of people lined up to watch you live the life of a jet-flying rock star. With all the confidence in the world I crammed myself into the smallest airline seat ever designed and strapped up for takeoff.
Todd retracted the landing gear and kept us flying at about 15 feet off the runway until we reached the bitter end of the runway, at which point he said something like “hold on” and yanked back on the stick. All I could see was the bright blue sky as we gained 8,000 feet of altitude in less time that I could let out my first words during the flight, “Holy crap!”
We leveled off, and Todd told me we experienced five times the force of gravity – 5 Gs. He asked me if I was doing the exercises they taught me that morning to combat the tendency for the blood to drain from my head, which happens when pulling Gs. I was suddenly propelled back to that organic chemistry class, when I quickly realized Todd had all the answers and I wasn’t even sure what was on the syllabus. What exercises? What lessons? This was the final exam and I hadn’t even bought a blue book.
I was scared out of my ever-loving mind. This was not a video game, nor was it easy. This was grueling, hard work. My body was experiencing aches and pains, and we had only just begun our 40-minute journey. I tried with all my might to flex every muscle in my feet, legs, abdomen, and chest to try and keep the blood in my head as we continued to pull tremendous G forces. Todd flew upside down, rolls, loops, and in one of my not-so-favorite maneuvers, he flew sideways in an ever-tightening circle at about 1,000 feet off the ground. I imagine at one point Todd was flying such a small radius and so low that we could have flown inside the Rose Bowl, and I’m not talking in the nose bleed sections but down where the rich folks sit.
This was payback for my telling Todd that he had it made all these years and that his life was so glorious and free from the real grinds of a working man’s life. Todd’s message came across loud and clear. He is a professional: a highly skilled, well trained, dedicated, proficient expert at his craft. All those years of hard study at UCLA, at flight school and flying missions in hostile territory combined to make him the best at what he does. Respect is not a strong enough word to describe how I felt toward Todd and his colleagues at that moment.
A simulated bombing run cut short my moment of reflection. Todd decided to fly straight down to the earth from 12,000 feet, pull back at about 3,000 feet and sustain seven and a half Gs for several seconds (or, as I like to call it, an eternity) while we climbed back up to higher altitudes. Suddenly I began to regret not having done a sit-up in about 12 years. My not-so-buffed body could not keep an ounce of blood in my head and the whole world became gray, then kind of pixilated, then a mere soda straw view surrounded by black, and then … and then I heard Todd singing “good night sweetheart, it’s time to go” in my helmet. This was after I had come out of my unconscious state and the plane was back flying at a relatively stable position. I had no clue how long I was out, where we were, why I felt the urgent need to hug my wife and kids, nor why anyone would ever want to do this on a regular basis.
We landed safely, and the ground crew scooped my body out of the cockpit. I had been given the option to cut the flight short at anytime, so I mustered some pride from having stuck it out without losing my lunch. Much like that chemistry class, Todd talked me through the tough parts and allowed me to walk away with some smidgen of self-respect. He once again gets the top grade, while I squeak by with a barely passing mark.
Todd is truly the man, and I am one proud and impressed friend, fraternity brother and fellow UCLA alumnus.
You can see Todd and his Blue Angels team perform at air shows next fall. Learn more about the Blue Angels.
Update October 2005: After finishing his two-year stint as a Blue Angel, Todd Abrahamson returned to the fleet, stationed for two years aboard the USS Kittyhawk, based out of Japan. Upon completion of that assignment, he returned the United States in fall 2005 to enroll in the master’s program at the United States Navy War College in Newport, RI. — Additional reporting by Nina Basu