Former F-16 fighter pilot Nate “Buster” Jaros takes us along for a ride in the Centrifuge and tells us what it is like to feel 9G’s crushing your body.
You are basically put into a small coffin. It swings a little as you enter, reminiscent of how a gondola swings on its wire, or how a Ferris wheel car wobbles as you climb aboard at the local carnival.
Except this is no carnival ride. If it were, it would be the worst carnival ride known to man.
You are about to feel pain like never before…in the USAF centrifuge.
The centrifuge seat is unlike an ejection seat and feels a bit odd. Immediately there is a sense of claustrophobia in this tight pod-like device. There are no windows in this ride but there is a faint smell of vomit, and sweat…or is that just fear? A worker comes to the hatch and makes sure you are strapped in, goes over a few reminders on safety, and gives a not-very-reassuring “have fun” before sealing you in the dark pod.
Alone and Unafraid Before The Ride
The door clangs shut with a loud and metallic clank. It’s immediately dark and warm. You notice a pocket on the side wall with a strategically placed and unused barf bag in it.
The inside of this coffin is metal. There is a side stick like in the F-16 and a TV screen in front of you. After a few minutes, you notice a row of small lights, positioned horizontally above the screen, as well as the camera staring back at you. The one dim light in the pod reveals a lot of Squadron stickers and “zaps” inside the pod from previous carnival riders who have had the experience. There is also a large LED readout panel. It currently reads “1.0” as this is your current G level.
Soon a voice is heard from the controller calmly asking if you are ready. You respond yes, but you’re also not quite sure about that. Since there are no windows, you cannot discern motion or movement outside your “death bobsled.” This is when the fun begins.
There is a faint hum, and suddenly you feel really dizzy. Your eyes ping left and right, in rapid-fire movement. It is apparent that you are now spinning in this pod, but without visual cues from the outside world, it just feels weird.
The dizziness is an uncontrollable reaction to your inner ear, telling your body that you are spinning when your visual world is not. After a few minutes, the dizziness goes away as vision and movement stabilize at this pre-determined RPM. Unbeknownst to you, the centrifuge is actually hurtling around a room at 45 MPH, with the pod attached to the end of a long mechanical arm. The gauge up front reads “1.1” (G’s).
The thought crosses your mind: to fly fighters, you have to pass this test.
The voice asks again if you are ready. This first run is one of five needed to complete the training. Thankfully, this first run is a warm-up. You will only be pulling about seven Gs and must hold that for 30 seconds. Not a problem, right?
A computerized F-14 Tomcat appears on the screen and it looks like a video game. In this simulation, you are chasing the F-14 and the goal is to follow him. The harder he turns, the more you are supposed to pull on the stick. Pulling on the stick instantly increases the speed of your spinning pod to nearly 90 MPH but also increases the Gs. This means you are in direct control of the speed of the centrifuge AND the pain.
Double checking your G suit, you remember the G straining maneuver. This involves clenching every muscle in your body…from your toes to your chest. The goal is to physically hold blood in your brain and keep from passing out, or G-LOCing. G-LOC (G induced Loss of Consciousness) in the centrifuge is under a safe and controlled environment, but in a fighter it can be deadly. Passing out is not an option today if you want to fly fighters.
The Pain Train Begins
Your answer to the voice is a determined “Ready!”
Breath, clench, ready….Fights on, fights on!
The Tomcat takes off and you pull the stick as far as it will go to keep him on the computer screen. Immediately it feels like a hammer on your chest. The pod accelerates to the sensation of warp speeds. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning.
The speed stabilizes and the G meter reads 7.0. You continue the G strain, but your body is in pain. Not only does it feel like being smothered by really heavy weights, but every inch of your body feels as if it is under a vise. The pain is overbearing, but you have to hang on.
Your face begins to droop as if your cheeks are being stretched down to your shoulders. You’re just three to four seconds in now, but here is where the ride gets harder.
At this point, the body’s natural tolerance for G’s diminish. Your body wants to quit and pass out as all the blood is now draining from your head. It’s nearly impossible to breathe, but this is imperative to survive. Your pulse skyrockets as your heart attempts to keep blood pumping upstairs.
As your tolerance diminishes just three to four seconds into the pull, you distinctly notice that everything turns black and white. Color drains from the visual world and it is like watching a Black & White copy of Top Gun—except it’s not as funny. You continue to strain and push and breathe in short, succinct breaths in an effort to hold back the monster on your chest and in your head. What happens next is even scarier.
After everything goes black and white, the tunnel vision begins. A dark circle encroaches your vision, starting in the periphery, and slowly constricting what you can see. The lights on the end of the horizontal light bar above the screen entirely disappear. The circle begins to shrink further and further until everything is black, except for a little computerized F-14 on the now black and white screen in front of you.
The fight is even harder now. The black hole is beginning to swallow you…and you don’t want to fail. Getting all of your muscles to perform the G strain maneuver is your only hope. Exacting every bit of energy from every last muscle and timing your breathing in three second bursts is the only hope. The dark circle slowly begins to expand. It’s working! You continue to sustain the massive weight of G and most importantly continue to fight.
After what seems like minutes, the 30 second warmup run is complete and the centrifuge rapidly decelerates. The centrifuge slams you forward in the seat straps a little, and thankfully this round is over. There is a brief bit of dizziness with the velocity change in your sensory-robbed pod, but life, and color, and vision all return to normal. You are breathing like a prize fighter after round one but you made it.
The good news: there are only four more of these to go! And for those lucky enough to have been selected for an F-16, you will be rewarded with at least one 9 G profile today! A-10 selectees do a few more 7 and 7.5 G profiles, and Eagle pilot wannabees get an 8.5 G run or two.
After the last run, you are exhausted. So exhausted that when this nasty carnival ride stops, the staff un-bolts the door and assists you out of the seat. They gingerly walk you to a chair to sit in because walking on your own is nearly impossible. You might as well be a baby deer, or elk taking its first steps. No joke.
Some guys and gals lay flat on the ground, some sit in the chair for 20 to 30 minutes. Some vomit. There are well placed garbage cans everywhere. Everyone drinks water. But everyone is glad it’s done.
Another fun side effect is something we call “G-easles.” Like Measles, but with a letter G. They look like a case of Measles, but only appear on the underside parts of your body, where all the blood vessels and capillaries have burst under the massive strain.
You relax and sip water. Every so often the centrifuge whirrs up to speed and then spins back down again. This happens repeatedly as more classmates are going through this difficult crucible. Sometimes it stops entirely, and they haul out the next victim. Other times it stops and no one gets out immediately…another G-LOC occurred.
Unfortunately, that trainee gets to do it all over again tomorrow…or go home. No fighter jet for you.
I don’t know what would be worse, losing an opportunity to fly a fighter, or facing another five rounds against that ugly beast…the centrifuge.