By Joe Darby
In one of many conversations I had with family over the Thanksgiving holidays, I was talking with my nephew Chuck about US Air Force planes. Chuck’s dad was an Air Force officer.
And that conversation got me to thinking about one of the coolest days of my life. The day I got to take control of an F-15 Eagle fighter jet and the day I went faster than sound — though not at the same precise moment.
About 30 or more years ago, an officer and a gentlemen with the Louisiana National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing was preparing to retire. He was going to make one more ceremonial flight in his F-15. As a reporter who had covered the Air Guard unit for a number of years, I was graciously invited to go along with Col. Castor (over the years I’ve forgotten his first name) on that flight. We would use the F-15B model, a trainer airplane that has two seats but otherwise is identical to the standard fighter plane.
So I showed up at the Naval Air Station New Orleans, the 159th’s home, ready and eager to accompany the colonel on his final flight in one of the world’s greatest fighter planes of all time.
Let me interject that aircraft’s record here. It went into service in the 1970s and has seen its share of combat, in Iraq and other places in the Middle East with the US Air Force, as well as having been an important part of the Israeli air force.
It has shot down just over 100 enemy planes. And guess how many F-15s have been lost to enemy air action. None. That’s right. The magnificent Eagle has a circa 100 to 0 kill ratio. It can’t get much better than that for a combat aircraft.
So, anyway, at the air base, I’m suited up for the flight, climb into the back seat of the F-15 and am briefed on what do to in case of an emergency. The seat ejection handle is pointed out to me and I’m warned to keep my hands away from it.
We begin to taxi out to the runway for takeoff and I realize I’m nervously clutching something in the cockpit. I look down and I realize I’m tightly grabbing the ejection handle! If I had pulled that thing, Col. Castor and I would have been ejected skyward and because we were still on the ground, with no time for the parachutes to properly deploy we would have faced serious injury or worse. I never mentioned that to the colonel and this is my first public confession of my potentially disastrous mistake.
But all was well and we took off into a beautiful blue sky and headed south. Within minutes we were over the Gulf of Mexico and the colonel informs me we will break the sound barrier. You may recall from old movies about how our earliest supersonic jets violently shook as they attempted to break the speed of sound.
Well, those days were long gone and the F-15 is so powerful that going to transonic speed is barely perceptible — maybe like running over a small tar strip on the interstate, if even that.
We waited until we got over the gulf so that the sonic boom wouldn’t disturb any folks on land. He pushed the throttles forward, we went into afterburner and, there we were supersonic.
Then, as Col. Castor continues to put the plane through its paces for one last time, he asks me if I’d like to take the stick. Well, of course I said yes. I’ve wanted to be a pilot all of my life but it just never worked out that I had the time or money to get my license, so this was a chance of a lifetime for me.
I already understand how aircraft controls work and I gently put the F-15 into a left turn, while slowly climbing. Then, the colonel asks me what is probably the most flattering question I’ve ever been asked.
“Have you flown before, Joe?”
“No sir, except for a brief orientation ride in a Cessna 182 a good while back.”
“Well, you handle this aircraft like you’ve done it before.”
At that, dear reader, my day was made. Need I say more on that subject?
All too soon it was time to head back to base. Fellow members of Col. Castor’s unit greeted him, fete him and held a party in his honor.
I had to get back to the paper to write the story, but my memory of the flight, and the colonel’s words to me, put me in a real good mood for a long time. I shove to the back of my memory what could have happened if I’d pulled that darn ejection handle, though.