OAKLAND, Calif. - On a clear blue sky day at Oakland Airport's North Field, an F/A -18 Hornet with a slick coat of paint in blue and gold U.S. Navy colors is waiting to take me on the ride of a lifetime. Before the Blue Angels wow thousands, they offered me the chance to go up with one of the aerial stunt pilots. First, I attended a briefing and Sgt. Nathan Lyons explained what I would see in the cockpit, the emergency procedures and how to cope with the high level of G-forces.
"This aircraft demands a lot of your body," he said before teaching me a breathing technique called the "Hick maneuver."
He told me to flex the muscles in my legs and core, let my arms and hands lay loose, then push out a short breath making a “hick” sound. This forces blood back into your brain so you stay conscious. With that in mind, it was time to get inside the backseat cockpit of the Number 7 Hornet. This jet arrives a few days ahead of the team of six to give rides to the media and VIPs. The plane is piloted by Navy Lieutenant Commander Cary Rickoff. The 32-year-old is in his first year with the Blue Angels and serves as the team's narrator during the air show season. Once I got strapped in the jet, Rickoff climbed up a ladder and sat next to me to go over any last minute questions.
"You ready to go?" he asked. "I'm ready to go. Let's do this!" I replied.
The Top-Gun style pilots keep a tight schedule during the season, which runs from March through November and includes shows in 32 cities. San Francisco is the 28th stop on this year's tour.
"It's a great opportunity to get the public to see inside, a little bit behind the curtain, of what we do," Rickoff said. "It's great to go around the country and meet all those people that we represent and get to see their faces and see them watch the show."
Watching the flight team dip, duck and dive is enough to give you butterflies, but experiencing the high speed twists, turns and climbs is even more impressive. As we prepared to take to the sky, I hid my apprehension while Lt. Cmdr. Rickoff's voice remained smooth, his demeanor cool at the controls.
"You ready to go flying?" Rickoff asked. "I am!" I said.
"Head and shoulders back. Reaaadddyyyy. Hit it!" he said and guided the jet straight up to the sky.
The rapid acceleration during takeoff created over 6 G's, six times the force of gravity.
"It's just amazing!" I proclaimed.
Then Rickoff rolled the plane upside down at 10,000 feet. The Bay Area is gorgeous from above. The unrestricted view from the jet's canopy allows you take in everything that makes up this great place. It's not a bad office view for Rickoff. Still, the pilots endure an intense physical challenge. I understand now why the Blue Angels are often compared to professional athletes, albeit athletes who gently land a $21 million dollar jet with perfect precision.