I love both Top Gun movies, so after seeing the first one in the 80s, I immediately contacted the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. I signed up for a ride in the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer.
On my big day I wore blue jeans and a white T-shirt (like Tom Cruise!). I saw the gleaming jet on the tarmac and got excited as the pilot walked towards me. I got nervous when he came up closer because he looked about 14 years old! I asked him if it he was in the military and he said no. He said his father owned the museum and let him take the jet up every once in a while. My heart started thumping.
This jet had the pilot in front of the passenger rather than side by side. I climbed into the cockpit. After adjusting my safety straps and helmet he said, “Let’s go over the ejection drill.” I asked, “Is this necessary?” He said, “Well, we’ve never had to use it, but you never know…”
I remember it like yesterday: pull out the left cotter pin, then the right cotter pin, then lift the left lever to blow off the canopy, and then lift the right lever to eject me in my seat which contained the parachute! He then went over the communications. The jet was so old that it had a clip-on microphone and an ear plug. I would have to press the mic button to speak, and the pilot would have to release his button to hear and vice versa. He climbed in, the jet engine started whirring, and the canopy came down. He then asked, “Are you ready?!” I pressed the mic button and said, “You bet!”
The takeoff was exciting and the 180°-view from the jet was spectacular! We were cruising at several hundred miles per hour when he asked me if I wanted to take control! As someone who has trouble screwing in light bulbs, I hesitated. He said, “Try it!” So for about 60 seconds, I was the pilot and I channeled Maverick! It was exhilarating, and I was thrilled that I didn’t crash!
We headed back to the runway, but the plane was too low and far too fast to land! I started praying! He picked up speed to about 500 mph and I thought that was the end! Mimicking a “Top Gun flyby”, he whizzed by the tower at about 20 ft. above the runway and went straight up! We leveled off (whew!), but the communication turned to static and I couldn’t hear him. I said, “I can’t understand you!” Over his left shoulder I saw him make fists with both hands, smash them together, and turn them in opposite directions. Thinking that he meant, “I’m going to fix the connection!”… I gave him a thumbs up. Unfortunately, he was asking if I wanted to do barrel rolls! With no warning, the plane started corkscrewing and, in a microsecond, I was upside down/sideways/right side up…over and over again! Thank God I SURVIVED!
The moral of the story: Don’t agree to anything if you aren’t clear on the communication!