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Vince Vitrano: Not For Broadcast

The Science Behind my Black-out with the Blues

CREATED Aug 4, 2011
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If it were video of some other chump up there, I'd be laughing too.

With the annual Milwaukee Air and Water show upon us once again, we've aired and posted prodigiously the video of me passing out in the back of an F/A 18 Hornet.

It was the opportunity and ride of a lifetime. I spent an hour airborne with the Navy Blue Angels, and it hurt. A lot.

Folks who've enjoyed watching this over the years often apologize for laughing at my expense. No need. Funny is funny, and watching some joker sound like he's birthin' a baby and then crash out of consciousness is pretty funny.

Because I often get questions about that, let me share a few pieces of science that may give you insight into the moment, and into just how extraordinary these aviators are.

WHY DID YOU PASS OUT? It wasn't from being scared, in fact, I passed out twice. The second time is the one we air, and it was the last maneuver of the 1 hour flight. Scared? That ship sailed a long time before this. Scared had nothing to do with it.

I passed out because my brain had no oxygen. In tight maneuvers, fighter jets pull major G's. Translated, that means extreme forces of gravity are acting against the body. You may pull two G's on a roller coaster, where a tight turn makes you feel twice as heavy as you normally would. These guys pull 4, 5, 6... even more G's! That means that many times the normal force of gravity is pulling down on the body. When that happens, it sucks the blood from the head and drops it into the lower extremities. No blood in the head, no oxygen for your brain... so nighty-night.

WHY WERE YOU GRUNTING LIKE THAT? They teach that. It's called the hook maneuver. It's a method whereby through grunting, and the tightening and releasing of muscles, the occupants fight to keep the blood in the head and hence stay conscious. Imagine grunting the word "hook" just as you tighten every muscle in your body. That's what I was doing. Well, that's what I was trying to do.

IF YOU PASSED OUT, WHY DIDN'T THE PILOT? Because I'm human, and they're not. Simplest answer. The more complex answer is that these are the most highly trained, highly skilled aviators in the world. They truly are the best of the best. They are in peak physical condition. They train for hours a day not only to perform the maneuvers they do, but to survive them. They're better at the "hook" maneuver than me. They manage to keep the blood in the brain and stay awake.

WHY DON'T THEY WEAR "G" SUITS? If you know a thing or two about flying, you know there are pressure suits to help combat the effects of high G maneuvers. They're often called "G" suits. As the G's increase, the suits inflate around the body at various pressure points to restrict blood flow. Two of those points are around the thighs. That's a problem for the Blues. They fear that the sudden inflation could bump their hands on the stick controlling the aircraft. In the tightest formation, the Blues fly fewer than 2 feet apart. The slightest move on the stick could be disastrous. So... they just take it.

WHAT ABOUT THE THUNDERBIRDS? THEY WEAR "G" SUITS. Indeed. In fact this morning I spoke with a couple guys from the USAF who work on the Viper performance team. Same kind of stuff as the Thunderbirds. Asked how come the the Blues don't wear "G" suits, one of the guys responded, "Those guys are crazy."

Crazy only has so much to do with it. The Blue Angels fly F/A 18's. The Thunderbirds, and Vipers fly F 16's. Different aircraft with different configurations. From what I understand the stick sensitivity and placement is such in the 16's that pilots do not have the same fears of suddenly being bumped off course by the inflation of the suit.

There are also some who believe it's simply a macho thing. I have trouble believing that, but I'll leave it for our veterans from the various branches to fight it out. I'm not getting into the middle of an Air Force vs. Navy debate!

So that's the story behind the story. For those of you who actually find that interesting, great! Most of you, however, probably just want a good laugh... for that, go ahead and click on it again.

For more information on the Milwaukee Air and Water show


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