Friday, April 7, 2006

Thunderous takeoffs performed with breathtaking grace

Marine jet fighter pilots awe onlookers at Hailey airport

Express Staff Writer

The takeoff maneuvers Tuesday of three F-18 Hornet jet fighter pilots drew "Oh my gosh!" gasps by onlookers at the Hailey airport. Photo by Willy Cook

While milling around their F-18 Hornet jet fighters on the Sun Valley Aviation ramp in a light rain Tuesday preparing for departure, three Marine pilots fielded questions from a dozen admiring residents clustered near the gray war birds. They had landed Sunday at the Hailey airport as part of a training mission, and were preparing to return to San Diego.

How fast can they go, someone asked, prompting Lt. Col. R.J. "Spooler" Harries to crack, "It can go from zero to 60 (mph) in 12 inches!"

He wasn't joking. Spectators at the ramp and elsewhere at the airport—as well as the occupants of more than 50 cars parked abreast the runway along state Highway 75—would discover in a few minutes just what the $39 million jets could do.

First, Harries and his comrades, Maj. C.J. "Zer" Leeuw and Maj. Chris "Burner" Baird, struggled into their skin-tight olive drab G-suits and emergency survival gear. Then they climbed into cockpits on ladders that flip up and stow in the wings, donned flight helmets, and ignited the powerful, twin 20,000-pound thrust jet engines through a series of gradual whines and groans until they reached a piercing scream.

Cleared from the ramp by the control tower, they slowly taxied single-file through the dripping rain for takeoff positions on 6,952-foot Runway 13. They would leave Friedman Memorial Airport "light"—no weaponry and only partial fuel loads—for a 10-minute flight to Boise to take on thousands of pounds of JP-5 fuel from a military contractor at Gowen Field for the trip back to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

All heads and eyes turned toward the jets as they awaited takeoff clearance, taking off 20 seconds apart.

Col. Harries spooled up his giant engines, shoved his thrust lever into max afterburner power and rolled—and in less than 3,000 feet was airborne, tucking the landing gear neatly into the fuselage as the jet clicked off speeds that probably exceeded 300 mph before reaching the end of the runway, and still accelerating.

The roar of the jet streaking past onlookers and barely above the runway was thunderous and shrieking, as Harries gently climbed into a high overcast sky south of Friedman.

Then came Maj. Baird, also quickly and nimbly airborne, his engines screaming and roaring with power usually reserved for jet airliners.

Finally, what made every minute worthwhile for spectators: As his jet streaked toward subsonic speeds, Maj. Leeuw held his Hornet barely a few feet off the runway, then in an abrupt, leaping maneuver that drew "Oh my gosh!" gasps by onlookers, he hauled back on the flight control, pitching the F-18 into a maximum straight-up climb that published performance charts list at 50,000 feet per minute.

Applause and exclamations of disbelief erupted from spectators along the airport ramp as Leeuw's jet vanished into the clouds and joined his wing mates.

The takeoffs had surreal qualities—ghostly colored gray jets, streaking through rain against a backdrop of snow-blanketed foothills, handsomely dart-like with their slim fuselages, pointed noses and V-tails resembling dart feathers.

The incomprehensibly thunderous noise, the eerie gray ambiance of the rainy-day setting and the ballet of the jets' sharp climbs into gathering dark weather was a sight of grace and breathtaking beauty mixed with goose-bump pride in the young men entrusted with sleek, supersonic high-tech machines of war.

One senior onlooker from the Vietnam War era of 40 years ago mused lyrically, "Now that's what you call the 'sounds of freedom.'"

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