I recently had the chance to fly in an F-16
fighter jet with the Air Force’s elite demonstration team,
the Thunderbirds. And while I’m truly grateful I had the chance
to take to the skies with them, let me tell you, it did not go well for me. I threw up in the plane towards the end of
the flight, I threw up after we got back on the ground, and then—for good measure—I
threw up again. But, even worse, the most significant and
unpleasant sensations I felt in the plane came from something called G-forces, or
as the pilots call them, simply “Gs.” So in the weeks since I landed, I’ve wondered,
why did the flight kick my a** so hard, while professional pilots seem to have no problems
at all enduring all the forces of the jet? We took off from MacArthur Airport
on Long Island. My pilot, whose call sign is Flack, accelerated the jet to around 400 miles per hour
in a matter of seconds. He brought the nose up to about 60 degrees, and
during our very steep, very rapid climb to 10,000 feet, 5.4 Gs pushed me back
into my seat. So what is a G, exactly? Well, G stands for gravity, and everyone on Earth feels
one G pulling them down all the time. When a high-performance jet executes maneuvers
like turning quickly or speeding up super fast, that change in acceleration physically
pushes you back or even down in your seat. NASA astronauts generally experience about
3 to 4 Gs as their rockets blast off, although it can be more if something goes wrong. The F-16 jet I flew in is designed to hit
the pilot with as many as 9 Gs. It’s absolutely crucial for pilots flying
fighter planes to manage the Gs they feel. Under high G-forces, blood flows away from
their eyes and brains, and their hearts start pumping harder and faster. If they don’t properly cope, they could
experience G-loc, which stands for G-induced
loss of consciousness. The results can be disastrous. In addition to the experience and athleticism
qualified fighter pilots already have, a major piece of equipment that
these aviators use is a g-suit, which connects to the jet. When the aircraft senses its maneuvers are
hitting you with Gs, the suit automatically inflates with air to squeeze your legs and
abdomen. By doing so, it’s designed to keep blood
from pooling in your legs and feet. But the second tool is a technique that really
separates Flack and other fighter pilots from the rest of us. It’s an exercise called the anti-G straining
manuever, or AGSM. Here’s how it works: First, you tense up your leg muscles and butt, and then you stick out your belly and you hold your breath while exchanging air in small bursts
through your glottis. It’s complicated but it’s kind of like
this… [Rob demonstrates AGSM technique] [Rob performs AGSM in fighter jet] By combining the AGSM with the squeeze of
the G suit, you can keep blood where it really needs to be:
in your core and in your brain. I had just one morning of training to learn
the anti-G straining manuever. Flack has years of experience doing it in
fighter jets. The strain is second-nature to him, and he’s
used to feeling all the forces the plane throws at him. Pilots train in human centrifuges, where they
can perfect their AGSM technique and feel the difference between doing it right,
and doing it wrong. During our flight, the maneuver that really
owned me was a hard 180-degree turn over New Jersey. We experiences 6.2 Gs, and I really, really
did not like how it made me feel. Then Flack pulled the plane hard again to
stay in our prescribed airspace. Right then, I ripped off my mask because I
thought was going to puke. Don’t worry, I didn’t hurl then, but—as you know—
I definitely did later. As for the airsickness, that was caused by
all the new sensations I experienced in the jet– the hard turns, and, you know, things
like flying upside down. On a more technical level, motion sickness
is typically triggered by your inner ears sensing the motion of your vehicle, while
your eyes see something different. Even though I could see landmarks like blue
sky and the ground through the canopy window, I couldn’t see straight out the front of
the jet. The fact that Flack was in control of the
aircraft, and could thus anticipate its motions, puts me and any other backseater at a disadvantage. By the time we did a nice slow barrel roll, my brain and
body felt like they’d been turned into scrambled eggs… scrambled eggs
that had been vomited three times, to be precise. All told, it took me around a week to feel
unscrambled. Flack, I’m sure, felt just fine.