What it feels like to pull 4.5g


First of all, when you put on a black flight suit then you instantly feel pretty badass.

You’re Clint Eastwood in Firefox, you’re (a taller) Tom Cruise in Top Gun, you look like a real fighter pilot – a profession that at no point will ever require you to say on a phone to an insistent PR, “no, we wouldn’t write about Spanx but thank you for getting in touch.”

The safety brief, however, is a punch to the gut of bravado. The mere fact that you have to be taught how to eject is a little disconcerting for the enthusiastic passenger.

I’m calmly informed that in the event of “an incident” my pilot will tell me to “Eject! Eject!” and I should pull hard and upwards on the red handles. Then two seconds later I’ll be propelled by an explosion out of the cockpit and into the big blue. A parachute will automatically deploy, all being well. It’s not as fun as it looks. For a start, it’s how Goose died in Top Gun.

Of course I’ve ejected before and I’ve pulled loops, displacement rolls and the odd Immelmann turn in my time, and once in the late Eighties while flying an F/A-18 Hornet I took out a pair of MiG-29s using nothing but machine guns… but only on a flight simulator on an Amiga500. Here, I’d be flying acrobatics for real in an L-39C Albatros, which is used specifically by the Breitling Jet Team because it can maneuver sharply. I can expect to feel the force of up to 4.5g.

Trained fighter-pilots – especially if wearing flight-suits designed to counteract some of the effects – can withstand up to 9g. An un-trained journalist regretting the fourth glass of red from the previous night, and not used to the G-straining maneuver, can black out from 4g, especially if a turn or loop is pulled suddenly.

The video indicates there will be lots of sudden loops and turns.

Potentially you could pull 8g+ in an L-39C Albatros. And by “you”, I mean and actual pilot who knows what they’re doing. My pilot is a Frenchman called Paco who used to fly Jaguars, the Anglo-French attack aircraft that I spent my youth building via Airfix models. I follow him out to the plan and drop into the cockpit.

The red handle to eject is between my legs.

“Don’t worry about that, I’ll let you know if you need to eject… just don’t touch anything,”

“What does that thing there do?”

“That’s the thrust – don’t touch it.”

“How about that red one?”

Paco smiles. “Just hold onto your seatbelt straps and don’t let go of them until we land.”

We take off and regroup in formation, checking in with other planes in a Star Wars about-to-attack-the-Death-Star “Red 5 standing by…” moment. It’s hugely satisfying until I realise that sitting in the back this makes me R2D2.

The seven planes move into display flying, in formation close enough to see the expression of the person in the planes either side of you. And then a big banking turn to the left piles on the g force.

My jaw and eyebrows starts to feel like they’re being pulled down, my stomach then feels like it’s suddenly got a cannonball in there and then I start to lose peripheral vision. The green fields and bright blue skies of Switzerland all drain of colour and I pull a face (the video evidence later reveals) that looks like Harry Redknapp sucking a sherbet lemon.

The G force pushes the blood in my body towards my feet and resists my heart’s attempts to pump it back up to the brain. As a result, the edges of my vision close in like a camera shutter slowly closing until there’s just a disc of light and image way out in front, like looking through a long tube.

I’m about to black out from Gravity Induced Loss of Consciousness – GLOC.

As you pull more Gs, your weight increases correspondingly. So as we bank hard at 4.5g my large 5kg head suddenly weighs 22.5kg, which is about your average suitcase allowance when going on holiday. It goes from normal-weight noggin to mega-nogin in seconds.

But just as GLOC is about to hit, the pilot pulls out and I’m back. Colour returns and the horizon drops away as we head up into a full loop which is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. And there’s Mont Blanc is in the distance, upside down. If there’s a better way to spend a sunny morning in Switzerland I can’t think of it.

The next time we pull Gs I manage to hang on, this time remember to tense my abs (what there are of them) to try and counter the effect. There’s no blacking out, just incredible formation flying.

Then back on the ground for a slo-motion walk from the plane, high-fives and soft-rock guitar solos.

And if those four women looking on from behind the chain-link fence mistake me for an actual fighter pilot, then what’s the harm in giving it the wink and double pistol-fingers?


For Esquire

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