September 02, 2015

Smoke On, Now.

The Snowbirds - earlier this year in BC - courtesy DND/CAF
"Sign it," he said, throwing a blank form on my lap. I was busy looking down, writing notes, trying to keep track of what was going on. But frankly, I had lost track of what Mike was saying because it didn't matter. I wasn't going.

I looked up at him - his eyes were sparkling, and he was grinning a little. "Sign it," he said again pointing at the form and then moving on to hand out waiver forms to the other seven or so people in the room. I gulped. I was being offered a ride with the Snowbirds, the Canadian air force's aerobatic team. And Mike Lenahan, the communications officer, was in the middle of the safety briefing.

Here's the thing: I'm a terrible flyer - especially if it involves detailed safety briefings - which if you remember I wasn't listening to. I'd rather not, thanks. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself pulling my spine into the back of the seat hoping it and the wall behind me would give way and I could back flip out to the parking lot.

I know, what the hell was I doing there then? Well, in my not-so-infinite wisdom, I had pitched a story on the Snowbirds and their first female technician, Corporal Marlene Shillingford. I was doing research. And that's what I told Mike, who had invited me down to watch the process. "I'm just here to watch and do research," I said, and the sentence disappeared into meekness. "Sign it," he said. I looked at the form and my ears opened up just in time to hear Mike say, "when, not if, you regain consciousness..." My head started spinning..."Wait, did you just say 'ejector seat'?"

It was 22 years ago. And I can still feel it. It was exhilarating, nauseating, nerve wracking. This week those beautiful birds will be flying over Toronto again for the Canadian International Air Show. And I'll be jumping out of my skin and out onto the deck every single time I hear their unmistakable engines. And remembering.

Suddenly I was putting on the navy blue flight suit, the helmet with the mirrored visor, the oxygen mask dangling off to the side. Very. Top. Gun. Then I was climbing into the cockpit of plane #7, to the left of Capt. Frank Bergnach, the pilot. Marlene strapped my shoulders down, hard. I couldn't move. The oxygen came on. Frank explained how the radio works and how to talk to him - and that if I threw up in the mask, it would be up to me to clean it up later. The canopy started closing over our heads as the engines geared up. My mouth was dry. And when I looked down, my knees were knocking together. Literally. I tried holding them with my hands so Frank wouldn't notice.

Frank noticed. The brakes were released and we were gliding out with 8 other planes to the runway. All at once. Doesn't that seem dangerous? Shouldn't we go up one at a time? Why am I here? What was I thinking? As we taxied I could hear Frank through my headset telling me about his vast experience flying: a bazillion hours in the Tutor jet, a bazillion hours in F-18s, a bazillion hours landing on aircraft carriers with the US Air Force...and I felt myself finally breathing in. Which was good. This was an experience, and I - was - not - going - to - miss - it.

All nine planes lined up on the runway in a diamond pattern. The radio squawked to life as we heard the Major in plane #1 just ahead of us, give the command to start rolling. Damn, I was holding my breath again. As we picked up speed on the tarmac, suddenly the Major was off the ground, then us, then the rest, and we unzipped ourselves into a three-dimensional diamond. These planes were flying close together - we were on the far left side of the formation and Frank spent practically 100% of the time looking to the right and watching our neighbour's left wing which was unnaturally close. The plane above us didn't look more that 20 feet away - every rivet, every panel, every detail, visible.

Some perspective
from a shot this year by DND/CAF
The turbulence pushed and pulled us. While Frank looked to the right, he maneuvered the plane, fighting to stay in formation. I could hear him through his mask, grunting, and gasping and holding his breath and then letting it go. All adrenaline, all cardio. All the time.

We were doing banking turns in unison, this way, that way and then heading vertically into the sky. The G-forces bent my head into the shape of a football. At various points the Major's voice would break through and I'd hear him say in his slow drawl (which I still imitate), "Snowbirds. Smoke onnnnn....Noooow" and from underneath the planes a stream of smoke would bleed out behind us into ribbons of white - and then, "Smoke off. Nowwww."

At one point all the planes broke away from formation into their own part of the sky. Frank asked if I was okay and I told him, "Totally. Totally okay."

"Want to go upside down?" Well of course. I'd come that far, and I wasn't even aware I had knees anymore. He told me he was going to throw the stick to the right a little and then all the way to the left. Was I ready? "Just do it," I said.

And he did. And I kept my eyes looking up and through the clear canopy over my head, the world spun around like it does when you're passing out. When he righted the plane, I was whooping. Like a kid. No seriously, whooping, hollering, giggling all at once. And then I topped it off by slapping my legs (since I couldn't jump up and down) and saying, "Again, again, again!"

I had just turned 30 by the way. Three days earlier I had been in Belize on a research trip for another documentary and we had had a "wrap party" which involved celebrating my big birthday - and getting me (for the first time in my life) totally drunk. Drunkety drunk drunk, as one of my friends likes to say. Many shots of tequila, followed by a couple of hours sleep, then a boat ride, then 2 planes to get home. Ugh. But there I was, in the plane, acting like a four year old. And he spun us around again.

Just when I thought it was over, Frank asked me if I'd like to fly it. "Fly what," I asked, trying in vain to turn my helmet towards him. "The plane. Wanna try it?" What? Why hells bells. Yes. So I did. Sort of. I took the stick that was in front of me and starting moving it around. Do you know what it's like to ride a horse that knows you ain't the master of this situation? The horse that either just munches on the grass or heads straight for the barn? That's what the Tutor felt like. It responded. And it was thrilling. But when Frank broke in about a minute later and sped us up and away from the earth, I was relieved.

We all came back into formation and headed back to the airport. The wind had picked up so the order was for the planes to land in formations of three instead of all at once. I was so high I have no idea how Frank held the plane to the ground. We got back to our parking spots, the canopy opened and Marlene was there to unstrap, peel, and extract me from the seat. My feet hit the tarmac and I started jumping up and down like a lunatic. I hugged Marlene, I hugged Frank. What a spectacle. I do not know how people keep their shit together when life offers you an opportunity like that. They do keep their shit together...but I am not one of them.

It was a two-hour drive home. But I think I did it in about an hour. The car's wheels barely touched the highway. I was high for about a week. I dreamt about it. I couldn't stop grinning.

And to think I could have missed that by being too scared. I can make myself crazy with this stuff. I'm so grateful that voice in my head told me to remember that life is an experience, so live it. As I get older that voice diminishes. Among the top experiences I've had so far the snowbirds flight is right up there - along with hiking in the Himalayas, diving with a whaleshark, and my wedding day. Our adventures have tamed out a bit. Life has kicked us about a little and I find myself looking back at the last few years and sensing how gun-shy I've been.

My adventures have been more internal than external. And I think it's just been time for that. I'm grateful - despite all the pollution I've dug up from my depths. It's exhaust - and exhausting. But it's getting done.

And I find myself looking out again at the moment. And the experience. Bring it on.


Addendum, Marlene is still in the air force and, in fact, went back to the Snowbirds a few years back to do a stint as their crew chief, the first woman again to have that job. She flew with the team lead. That was unthinkable when we did that story. Bring it on.

Photos from the CAF image gallery and as per the terms of use -  they are official works (IS2009-0352 and FA03-2015-0001-15) published by DND/CAF and they have not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of, DND/CAF. 


Unknown said...

Great story Nic! Nicely written too! All the best,

Nicola Pulling said...

thanks Unknown!

Anonymous said...

WOO HOO!! What a blast, thank God you went!