Hitching a ride in a CF-18

by Lyle ‘Tilt’ Katchur



2 Flights in 2 Days: 

To experience ‘full-on’ fighter aviation is a very rare opportunity. The ability to fly in high performance jet aircraft is usually reserved for people that have spent many years pursuing this goal. Years of education, studying, training, and a bit of good luck. That’s why I always feel extremely privileged to take part in any activity with my friends at 4 Wing Cold Lake. With some hard work on my part, and some true dedication, I’ve secured a level of respect within the ‘close-knit’ fighter community at Cold Lake. It’s a respect that is very mutual. I’ve made some fantastic friends, enjoyed countless functions, and participated in some amazing flights.

On 28 and 29 July 2003, I took part in 2 CF-18 flights. On the 28th I flew with 441 (TFS) Checker Squadron. I was made an Associate Member of 441 several years ago. Building models for Squadron members was my beginning with these fine folks. After getting to know many of the members and participating in many of the Squadron functions, I was voted in. I had always dreamed of flying in a Checker Jet. My first Hornet flight (Jan 2002) was in a 410 (TFS) jet. I was to fly with 441 then, but due to the unavailable dual Hornet, I flew with my good friend (and former 441 pilot) ‘Rambo’ at 410.  

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Now, just so you’re aware, being friends with pilots does not qualify one for jet flights. First off, I’m a member of the Canadian Armed Forces as a C.I.C. (Cadet Instructors Cadre) Officer. Unless your famous or media, only military folks can have access. Plus there are a number of qualifications one needs to acquire. One of the biggest is to get Aeromedical Training. H.A.I. (high altitude indoctrination) Category ‘F’ training qualifies you as a passenger in high performance military aircraft. This is a one day course that teaches you all about the hazards inherent in this type of flying. Ejection seat familiarization is also a requirement. Being trained to get out of the aircraft in an emergency is a highly stressed segment of flying in fighters. Both ground egress, and ejection procedures are covered quite clearly in a ‘seat check’. One of the final items you need is a medical. This is performed by the Flight Surgeon. The doctor checks for any signs that you may have trouble during the flight. Past or current medical problems or illnesses may seriously affect you once in the air.  

Once you’ve obtained all these qualifications the only thing you need is luck. Being able to get ones name on the flying schedule is not an easy task. First, and foremost, these aircraft are not here for my entertainment. The pilots and ground crew have pretty specific jobs to do. With the tightening budgets, flights in CF-18 Hornets are mostly reserved for very important training. So the flights I’m involved with center around training. To be blunt, I’m simply going along for the ride.  

On the 28th, I was to take part in a BFM (Basic Fighter Manoeuvres) trip involving 2 jets. The mission called for our ‘2 ship’ to fly out to the range (CLAWR – Cold Lake Air Weapons Range) and engage in 1 v 1 ‘dog fights’. I met up with the pilot I would fly with to go over the upcoming mission. He briefed me on the mission tasks and emergency procedures (if required). Shortly after the briefing, I was off to the equipment room to suit up. I was looking forward to this trip for an extra reason. My first Hornet ride (January 2002) was during the coldest part of the winter. I ended up having to wear extra winter gear over top of everything else. Called the ‘bunny suit’, it’s a pair of snow pants that goes over top of the g-pants. The snow jacket had a big fur collar. Once the survival vest is on (over top the jacket) then adding the helmet, I felt like the ‘Michelin Man’. The weather was in fine form for this flight so extra gear was not required. Just the ‘Sting’ g-pants, survival vest, gloves, helmet and mask were required. This made for a warm combination considering the air temperature was around 28 degrees C. But I had great mobility even with the gear on.  

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Once the gear was in place I made my way out to the jet for strap in. We would fly in CF-188B #188925. I had assistance from an equipment specialist for this. Since the death of a CF-18 pilot not long ago, they’re very careful during strap in to minimize the risks. As I was finishing the procedure, the pilot had completed his ‘walk-around’ and was now beginning to strap in. Once in place, he began the start-up process. This includes several checks and tasks. It’s my job to get comfortable, don’t touch the stick, and stay quiet unless asked questions. During this time I set my radio volumes and turned on my DDI’s (digital display indicators). After a couple radio checks the pilot told me to remove my pins. One pin is for the seat ejection handle, the other is for the canopy jettison handle. After stowing these, the jet began to lurch forward. During the taxi out to the main runway the pilot then told me to go ahead and ‘arm’ my seat. Setting the switch, this arms the seat to be used in the event of an emergency. Once out to the main runway, we lined ourselves up and performed some last minute checks. Everything being good-to-go, the pilot throttled up and released the brakes. Pushing the throttles past ‘military setting’ and into afterburner, the jet pins you hard to the seat. With very little effort the jet takes to the skies. The pilot then ‘cleaned-up’ the jet, raising the flaps and landing gear. Within seconds Cold Lake Air Base was long gone behind us. Assuming a cruise speed of around 300 knots we went through a procedure the pilot liked to call a ‘G-warm’. It’s simply a set of manoeuvres designed to warm up the body to the punishing g-load upcoming. He put the jet into a series of side to side 5 g turns, then pulled us into the vertical. Seconds later we rolled inverted and stayed that way for a few moments. This was the first time I was stationary in the inverted position. What a thrill!!! Shortly after this, he rolled us through a couple other g turns. ‘G-warm’ complete, we contacted our adversary and set up for the first fight. We would start off a bit light. We did a manoeuvre called ‘guns weave’. This is where the jets weave back and forth (horizontally) and practice sighting each other in the HUD (head up display) target. Weaving back and forth at 3 to 4 g’s was pretty tame, but it provided a good view of the other jet lining us up. After this, we moved on to the same type of weave only we did it in a vertical direction. This put the g-load a bit higher. After that we moved on to some head to head engagements. We’d fly head to head, then pull into some vertical loopers to try and gain the advantage over the other guy. This was INTENSE!!! Most of these manoeuvres were performed at, somewhat, slow speeds. We would be flying at around 280 to 300 knots, and we’d be pulling continuous g’s for about 2 minutes at a time. The g’s would vary from around 4.5 up to 7 g’s. This was amazing!! Pulling continuous g’s like this was very demanding. I performed AGSM (Anti-G Straining Manoeuvre) the whole time. The ‘Sting’ g-pants performed very well in these situations. The combination of the g-pants and the AGSM really helped me maintain focus and keep my head out of the cockpit. I worked really hard to try and watch all the action. Seeing a fighter jet this close jinking to get on our ‘six’ was the most impressive thing ever. After each of these engagements I would struggle to catch my breath and get ready for the next set. The skies that day were filled with some big puffy CB’s (Cumulonimbus clouds). This made for some great viewing. One could really get a sense of the speed and movements against the clouds. After a few more engagements ‘Bitch’n Betty’ (on-board computer notification system) called ‘Bingo fuel’ (enough fuel to get back to Base and land). Our 2 ship rendezvoused for a ‘Battle Damage Check’. This procedure calls for one jet to stay as still as possible while the other orbits, looking for any possible damage or problems. BFM is very demanding on the jets, so steps are taken to ensure the jet is safe before proceeding home. BDC complete, we headed towards the Base. During the flight back, I was given control of the jet. I did a couple banks and cranks, a sweet barrel-roll, and finished up by rolling inverted and flying that way for about 25 seconds. What a great feeling of power this jet gives you. After handing the controls back to the pilot, he set us up for a nice formation of our 2 ship over the base. Going into the pattern, he decided we would not have enough fuel for any touch-and-goes. No biggy, we touched down and taxied towards the ramp. I ‘safed’ my seat and replaced my pins. We pulled into the parking spot and the canopy was opened. Mask and helmet off, we had made it!! Ride number 2 was in the history books for me. We posed for a quick shot outside the jet and then headed in for the de-brief. The de-brief was an excellent time to reflect on the entire trip. Watching the HUD footage and seeing some of the other recorded training media helped me understand the whole trip well.  

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To say that this was an honour and a privilege to fly with 441 would be saying it lightly!! The respect I have for these fine folks is even stronger now that I’ve flown with them. One would think the story ends there…WRONG!!  

Knowing more than a few pilots and personnel at 4 Wing, and having all my flight qualification (H.A.I. – seat check - etc…), I was able to get onto the flight schedule at 410 with a real good friend of mine. 410 (TFS) Operational Training Unit is where all future Hornet pilots learn their trade. 410 also operates the majority of the dual seat Hornets in the Canadian inventory. Because of this, every once in a while a dual Hornet goes out with an empty back seat. There are far more instructors than students at 410. And often times the instructors will instruct instructors. When a mission is scheduled and an empty seat is available, often times an OJT (On the Job Training) member will fill the seat. This gives them the opportunity to learn the job they may have down the road. In my case, I assumed the role as the OJT person. None were requiring a ride that day, so I was up to bat!!  

This was to be another BFM mission. However, there was a twist to this one. This was a training mission focusing on the newer Instructor Pilot that would be in the back seat of the other jet. In the front seat of the other jet was a lead Instructor that would be portraying the role of a ‘green’ student. Being highly experienced, he would pretend to do some ‘silly’ and ‘off-the-wall’ stuff during the mission to gauge the abilities of the Instructor. Our jet would be providing the role of ‘target’ for this mission. We were the ‘Bad Guys’!!!  

After the pre-brief, we headed off to get geared up. Like the day before, the weather was really warm. After my flight the day before, I was covered in sweat. Wearing all that gear in these warm conditions gave me a newer respect for these guys. Is it any wonder why they’re always thirsty!! 

After signing out the jet, my pilot and I headed out to the ‘line’. I followed, briefly, in the ‘walk around’. I then headed up the ladder of CF-188B #188936. I did most of the strapping in myself this time. I was getting better at it by now. The ground crew made sure I was buttoned up good and tight. The procedures were all the same again today. Once the jet was fired up and all the checks complete, we taxied out towards the main runway. I kept thinking to myself how lucky I was, getting 2 flights in 2 days. Once lined up and ready to roll, the pilot nailed the throttles to the stops!!! I don’t care how many time I’ve done this…taking off in the Hornet is a total RUSH!! I’m sure the only thing that would pin you into the seat harder would be a ‘Cat-Shot’ or ‘Top Fuel Drag Car’. Either way…seconds later we were pushing through 7000 feet AGL (above ground level), and doing +300 knots. 

After consulting with the other jet we set up to begin our mission. We started off with some ‘guns weave’ manoeuvres again. After that, we set up to do some fantastic ‘loopers’ and ‘rollers’. These terms simply describe the manoeuvres the jets do on some head-to-head engagements. A great deal of the time was spent at about 4.5 to 6 g’s and in a vertical heading. The loopers would have us basically looping in the sky at each other. Trying to gain the advantage on each other was the order of the day. We would spend minutes at a time heading straight down only to pull into the vertical and head straight up. We hardly did any of this mission on the straight and level. Again I was really struck by the awesome beauty of seeing the other jet so close and skidding sideways across the skies. These BFM trips are the best. I’m sure all high performance fighters have this same characteristic, but there is something that really stands out during a Hornet flight. During hard manoeuvring and high g-loads, the sound is indescribable. The closest I can say is it’s sort of like a real hard ripping sound. You hear and feel this intense roaring ripping sound of the jet slicing through the air. It’s an incredible sound and feeling. It really brings home the whole reality that fighters are intoxicating. 

After about 40 minutes of BFM, ‘bingo’ was called. We set up the standard ‘battle damage check’ and then started back for the Base. Our 2 ship performed a nice formation into the break over the Base. On final my pilot realized we had a bit of extra fuel we could burn. Performing a ‘touch-an-go’, we took-off again. Once wheels and flaps were up, the pilot skimmed the earth to the end of the runway limits. He then pulled into a nice 4.5 g vertical and cranked us off to the right. We went around and did another touch-an-go. This time we headed off a bit further. We flew about 4 or 5 miles away from the Base. The pilot then gave me control of the jet. He instructed me to put in full afterburner and execute a 4 g right hand turn. After lighting the burners, I pulled to the right and pulled back on the stick. I was at about 2 g’s when the pilot came back on the radio and said “Come on ya pussy, pull 4 g’s!!” So at that, I pulled the stick much harder. After executing a 5.5 g turn and rolling back out into straight flight the pilot took control back. The next radio call was, “Good job, you pulled 5.5 g’s instead of 4 g’s….I guess calling you a pussy was enough to egg you on!!” 

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The pilot then set us up for the pattern over the Base. Just prior to getting there, he again gave me control. I then flew straight over the Base. He had me execute the pattern, turning to the right (4 g’s) at the break point, bringing the jet around, and lining it up for the landing. He then took back control and brought it in for the final landing. This landing was cool. He showed me how some of the students bring the Hornet in. Most people know that the Hornet does not flare on landing. It’s designed to fly ONTO carriers. Switches in the landing gear need to be tripped in order for a smooth landing. Flaring a Hornet on landing can result in a real squirrelly landing. On solid earth, a 3 degrees nose-down profile in standard. The pilot told me he would show me a 4 degree landing. That was fun. The jet just thuds right down on the ground. You certainly know you’re on the ground. 

A few final checks, seat ‘safe’, pins in, and taxi back to the ramp. After parking and shut-down, we egressed the jet and did the walk back to the hangar. The de-brief followed shortly after, and that was it. 2 rides in 2 days!! And I was invited back for more anytime the schedule permitted it.

I plan to head back to Cold Lake in September during the ‘Tiger Meet of the Americas’. I don’t know if I’ll get to go flying during that time, but I’ll enjoy myself all the same. Having 3 Hornet rides (2.9 hours total) under my belt, I feel so incredibly privileged. The pilots and members that have assisted me along this path will never be forgotten. I’ve put myself into a position that even I can hardly believe I’m in. I have many goals in life that I haven’t obtained yet, but that’s the challenge. I’ve seen how I’ve overcome many challenges so far. If I’ve learned anything from my experiences over the past few years, it’s that NOTHING is impossible!!! If you want something bad enough, you can work to get it. Let nothing stand in your way of reaching your goals…whatever they may be!!



Photos and text © 2003 by Lyle ‘Tilt’ Katchur