Well not quite, but the sense of unfamiliarity was definitely up there. I have just flown with the RAAF Roulettes and I can safely say it was one of the most significant moments in my life. About the closest thing I can assimilate with it is an extreme rollercoaster, but even that is a pathetic mockery. A medical exam and one of a half hours prep (for a 50 min flight) suggested something big was coming.
Firstly, I'm fitted with a basic navy green-coloured overall. The medical is surprisingly quick and that's where I learn of the 'g-suit'. Thankfully, not quite as uncomfortable as a g-string, this is a section of inflatable padding that straps around the lower body. The PC9 single-engine aircraft is capable of pulling six gees (six times the weight of gravity) and this pressure makes easy work of forcing your innards, blood included, downwards. The g-suit is designed to combat this effect by inflating like a blood pressure pack around the legs and lower torso. This is now duly demonstrated to me so as not to cause undue alarm at an inappropriate moment during the flight, and I'm surprised at how tightly it constricts my blood vessels. Like a blood-pressure strap but multiplied by ten.
After a couple of signatures it's time for the life-vest. Not quite as large as a normal vest, it's more comprised of bulky straps which make room for the inflatable section (for emergency water landing), torch, flares, and other assorted items which I've since forgotten. The volume of information to take in before the flight is quite staggering.
The helmet is suitably Top Gun cool, and comprises two visors: clear, and tinted. To my initial surprise considering the proposed altitude, I'm fitted with a full oxygen mask. Quite a contraption in itself, its standard setting necessitates a very firm fitting on the face to produce a vacuum seal. If smoke or toxins fill the cabin, another setting snaps the mask even tighter, which is demonstrated to my not-insubstantial discomfort. But I'm sure it beats dying of smoke inhalation. Another flick of the latch in another direction and the mask falls away. I then learn that this is also the communications device, with a switchable microphone fitted into the mouthpiece and speakers into the ear area of the helmet. By the end of the flight this contraption had left an impressive impression on my face.
As I walk outside with the pilots and ground crew onto the tarmac of Brisbane Airport we're greeted with the seven main stars of the show, the PC9s. Lined up neatly and sparkling like new they sit as if in anticipation and with an apparent sense of purpose. The weather is typical gorgeous Queensland sunshine and I'm told I couldn't have picked a better day, as if I had a choice in the matter.
A step up from behind onto the wing, another step into a designated foothold, then a last step awkwardly onto the rear of the plane's two seats, I settle in as my pilot explains the oxygen system, the air-con, a few of the gauges, and a small yellow-striped area of switches to steer clear of. The awkward topic of the ejector seat is then raised and preparation for this more creative way of exiting the aircraft is also surprisingly lengthy. A master safety pin is to be removed just before take-off, 'arming' the chair. The dirty big I-hope-I-never-have-to-use-this handle sits comfortably between my legs. Should the horrible need arise I'm told the pilot will radio a may-day, then attempt a couple of backup procedures. Should these fail the pilot will call out 'eject eject eject'. On the first 'eject' I need to flatten my legs onto the seat (the explosive upward force of the chair can break the legs if they're raised), tip my head back, place my right hand on the handle, and my left hand over my right wrist; then with elbows tucked in to avoid smashing them on the way out, a quick yank is all that is required. By the third 'eject' I should be ready to go. I'm assured my pilot will wait for me to leave before he ejects himself, so time is of the essence. I am happy to hear that the chair is set-and-forget. Once you're out, a parachute automatically releases and you drift soothingly downwards onto a tropical island with cute girls and cocktails. Or at least that's how I imagine it. Although, having to realistically consider the idea of leaving the aircraft in mid-air, and to know and remember exactly what to do, is as scary as it is thrilling.
Appropriately, even the strapping-in is complicated. Through-the-leg straps, over-the-shoulder straps, a few loops and onto a master buckle that would do Einstein's head in. Two more belts wrap around just below the knees to pull the legs in should the need to eject arise. A stick switch allows partial freedom in forward movement of the upper body, or locks the shoulder straps back holding you fast in your seat.
I'm handed ear-plugs with a quick "whatever you do don't drop them". It seems the floor is a complex mix of rises and bumps seemingly built to accommodate the structure of the rest of the aircraft. It's time to fix the helmet and oxy-mask and as I slip the helmet on I discover that one of my ear plugs isn't in far enough and it's knocked out by the tight-fitting helmet. I force a slight delay in having to remove the helmet, undo the labyrinthine layers of straps, and fumble my way out of the plane to allow a member of the ground staff to awkwardly feel around for the ear-plug on the floor. The last thing we need during a gravity-defying loop is the distraction of a foam ear-plug floating unrestricted around the tiny cabin.
After the minor mishap I'm back in the chair, helmet on and ready to. The oxygen hose and comms lead are then connected and I somewhat nervously remove the seat's master pin grasping it like my life depended on it so as not to drop it. I then seat it in it's in-flight home on the edge of the cabin window to the confirmation and thumbs-up of the ground crew.
My pilot babbles away in another language on the comms while testing the engine, rudders, brakes and who knows what else. It's a pleasant little ride out onto a section of runway where we wait for two 'important' planes to land. It seems our little joy ride is factored into the schedule of Brisbane's main domestic airport's traffic control. My pilot explains that we're actually taking off in our main flying formation: three in front forming a triangle, then us directly behind the leader flanked by five and six completing the large arrowhead formation.
It's our turn and we taxi onto runway 01/19. The take-off itself is smooth but the air above the ground is not. Shortly after we leave the ground the other five roulettes close is on us and sit uncomfortably close. All six aircraft (with a seventh 'chaser') are being thrown around all over the place, and it takes a little while to get used to the idea that we're just three metres from the closest two planes. I put my faith in the skill of these experienced RAAF pilots and rest a little easier.
I don't notice much below us for the first few minutes, as my eyes are fixated on the surrounding aircraft and their extreme proximity. Shortly after, we approach the city, and this is one view I am definitely looking forward to. Apparently, we are to do a few sharp banking laps and two loops over the Brisbane city centre, all without losing formation. The loops will force me down into my seat at four gees so I mentally prepare myself for what this might feel like. The view is unsurprisingly spectacular, especially considering we're sideways and I'm looking to my left straight down the length of the buildings and onto the city streets. Amongst the haze of my excitement I notice mini-people crawling around King George Square, but cannot make out if they're looking up at us. I shoot a few pics. The pilot informs me that it's time for a loop and that I should refrain from shooting and concentrate on holding the camera firmly so it doesn't fly out of my hands and cause damage to the cockpit (and perhaps it's occupants). I switch it off and grasp it so hard it's uncomfortable. This discomfort would be nothing compared to what I am about to experience.
The pilot gives me sufficient warning and in unison the six roulette planes pull up and as the horizon slips away below us, I discover what it's like to weigh 340 kgs. The feeling is indescribable as the g-suit kicks in and I strain to deal with the incredible pressure my body is now under. My vision is washed with an infinite blue sky when the sun appears in front of us from nowhere. It traverses downwards providing me with a useless point of reference, but a point of reference all the same. The downward pressure eases as we approach the apex upside down. I'm seemingly unable to turn my head to appreciate the side view. Eventually the horizon appears above us and gradually slips down till the city buildings rise up in front of us. With comforting predictability the landscape continues to slide down until it is underneath us again and I realise I have just had an experience that I will never forget. With no time to ponder the significance of this moment it's time to go up again for another loop. Amongst the madness but with the comfort of a slight familiarity I manage to snatch a sideward glance and watch the landscape twist around us. My pilot says it's ok to scream out so I attempt to oblige but to my amazement, I barely manage a squeak.
The completion of the loops find us gliding comparatively peacefully southwards down the Southbank reach of the Brisbane River towards the Captain Cook Bridge. A sharp left bank and we're over Kangaroo Point coasting northwards up the city reach revealing one of my favourite views of Brisbane city from the ground. Up here, however, and it's splendor is magnified a thousand-fold. I now have time to really appreciate this view as we do several laps of the city. From up above, the city buildings take on a new perspective as they stretch up towards me, with the ground falling back in the distance. This effect is magnified is we go down low and bank 90°, and directly to my left I feel like I can reach out and run my hand over the tops of the buildings.
Our next 'leg' is to the Gold Coast, which will take about ten minutes. The bumps of the ride make themselves apparent again, and with time to breathe and reflect, and to relax somewhat, the slightest tinge of nausea becomes apparent. My pilot had requested that I inform him of even the smallest feeling of nausea or light-headedness and I do so now. There's an air-sickness bag in the pocket of my lower leg, but there's no need to reach for it - yet. I try and calm my thoughts and my stomach as the beach metropolis comes into view.
Again, we bank steeply around the towering buildings and over the aqua-blue water of one of the best beaches in the world. The tilted sweeping view is like something from a movie, and attempting to mentally place my weakening stomach to one side, I lap it up. The brand new, still-under-construction apartment building, advertised with a typically 'bigger is better' mentality stretches higher than the already lofty beach-side high-rises
A few more perpendicular sweeps and we head northwards along the east coast of Stradbroke Island. The impressive network of channels, waterways and sandbars are striking from this altitude, especially under the sunny sky. The ride over the water is a little smoother, or so I'm told, but my stomach fails to feel any difference as it's voice becomes a little louder. I'm starting to sweat and my gloved hand reaches desperately to the air-con outlet for some coolness. Being so padded up, there is precious little exposed skin to enjoy the cool air so the pilot allows me to remove my oxy-mask. With my leather glove, I wipe the sweat from my lower face, reluctant to lift the tinted visor lest the bright sunshine blinds me. Mild claustrophobia now pops it's head up for a view amongst my increasing discomfort and I'm really wanting to lose the helmet and gloves and get some air. I focus on the landscape in an attempt to steady myself and divert my attention, and I'm wondering how much longer this trip will last.
My pilot then tells me what I don't want to hear: we're doing another loop before we land. With sweat now dripping from my forehead, a rising nausea, a general feeling of unwell, but also a knowledge that I may never get to do this again, the 'news' is a mixed blessing. I endure another ten minutes, which feels like half an hour as we travel back towards Brisbane airport.
The comms mic is designed to operate at a certain threshold. Speak at a normal volume and you will be heard but normal breathing is below the threshold and is inaudible. Heavy breathing, it seems, is above the threshold and I hear it through my headset. My pilot hears it as well and enquires about my well-being. I explain that my sickness is a little worse than before but I'm still cool. He's sympathetic as we approach the location of the final test of my endurance. This time he allows me to take photos, but reminds me that my camera will weigh four times what it normally does. I briefly try and imagine how heavy this would feel in a normal environment.
We approach runway 01/19 from the east but instead of descending, the intense pressure of gravity times four begins again and pushes every atom of my being relentlessly downwards. I practice a mental steadfastness that would make Ghandi proud. The descending second half of the loop is comparatively easy, as I'm informed of one more manoeuvre before our landing.
In a display that would look spectacular from the ground, just before we hit the runway the leader is to pull steeply upwards, with his flanking pair banking sharply away in their respective directions. I fail to remember what our flanking partners are instructed to do, but we will roll sharply to the right which will apparently produce an gravitational effect not unlike a loop. One last final act. I can do it.
Where the loop is a somewhat gradual introduction to the effect of multiple gees, the very sharp bank is an unexpectedly sudden one. Coasting mildly, my head, stomach and everything else is instantaneously yanked into that intense pull that makes me question how much more I can take.
We finally circle around and approach the runway for landing. A jumbo jet and two domestic aircraft are waiting patiently for us. The notion of professionals on important business trips waiting for fourteen joy-riders to get out of their way provides some light relief.
Considering the susceptibility of such small aircraft to the elements of nature, our landing is surprisingly smooth, though my pilot disagrees, saying he's done better, but that he's
also done worse.
Realising that it's finally all over, my body relaxes but the nausea nearly bubbles over, if you'll pardon the expression. I burp and swallow, telling myself to just hold on another couple of minutes. I notice the grass next to the runway and convince myself that it's better to do it outside then into a bag in the aircraft. I just have to hang on. My pilot asks if I'm ok, and I manage a deceptive grunting affirmation. I swallow desperately and grab the sickness bag, feeling sadly that my stomach will win in its epic battle with my mind. As we taxi towards the General Aviation terminal, my stomach somehow stays in check - just.
Finally, the nausea gives way to elation as I attempt to find the words to thank the man who's hands my life has been in for the last fifty minutes. I quickly forget the sickness and discomfort as I relive the experience in my mind and realise I am one of a very lucky few to do this, and that I likely never will again. How people do this for a living is beyond me, but it's clear that it takes lots of mental and physical fitness and is not for the faint-hearted, or faint stomached. I must concede that I feel a certain selfish pride in just managing to keep the
contents of my stomach down.
The breeze that washes over me as the cockpit is opened is like a shower of pure bliss. I remove my gloves and helmet and bask in the coolness for an all-too-brief moment before I'm asked to refit the seat's master pin and a ground-crew member is unbuckling me. I step out of the cockpit, onto the wing and finally onto solid ground with a mixture of relief and elation. In sheer amazement of what I have just done I jump around the tarmac, arms flailing, enjoying the newfound open space.
I meet up with the passengers of the other aircraft and enjoy a shared wonderment. An appreciation is expressed to our respective pilots and photos are taken. TV crews are here covering the event. The Roulettes are up from Sale, Victoria for a combination PR exercise and test run for Brisbane's annual Riverfire fireworks event in six weeks time. Passengers include photographers and videographers and I am here representing Riverfire's official sponsor, Triple M.
Back in the terminal and riding on a high, I remove all the required padding, boots and clothing and enjoy the familiarity and comfort of my normal clothes. I thank my pilot and the organisers profusely, but feel that no amount of verbalising can adequately express my appreciation.
My incredible high continued through my day as I attempted to find ways of expressing the jubilation I felt. Grinning maniacally and screaming out of my car window, I figured I didn't do too badly. Writing this was also helpfully cathartic.
I then wonder what flying in an F-111 might be like.
Many thanks and much appreciation to Flight Lieutenant Mark Ellis, Squadron Leader Dennis Tan, and to all the RAAF Roulette pilots, ground-crew and organisers of this flight. Big thanks also to Owen Smith for the photos of my preparation.
In the lead-up to Riverfire on Sat 3 Sep 2005, I had a quick chat with the Cage Breakfast Show on Triple about my experience: