WR Joey Galloway gives the thumbs up shortly before taking off on a 35-minute thrill ride
Joey Galloway didn't try to hide his jangly nerves.
At approximately 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' turbo jet of a wide receiver was scheduled to take a ride in a real fighter plane. The renowned Blue Angels were in town for Saturday's annual air show at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, and Galloway had eagerly accepted an invitation to ride along in a 45-minute "maneuver package" in a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet.
In other words, he was scheduled to fly at about Mach 1.0 and pull somewhere in the neighborhood of seven gees on Wednesday afternoon, and that prospect admittedly made the ultra-confident receiver a bit anxious.
So, while outwardly calm, Galloway didn't deny his nervousness, not on the drive south to the base, not during the nearly 30-minute pre-flight brief and not as he was being strapped into the cockpit behind Major Nathan Miller, the jet's pilot. However, as the plane's canopy descended automatically into place and Maj. Miller began speaking to Galloway over their helmet radios, the passenger appeared to relax. He nodded at the last-minute instructions, gave a thumbs-up sign to the onlookers on the tarmac and even laughed several times at the pilot's jokes.
The only sign that butterflies might still be fluttering in Galloway's (mostly empty) stomach? As the "#7" Hornet began to taxi off its blocks, Galloway pulled out of one of the six air-sickness bags within his reach and humorously showed it to the crowd on the ground.
Number Seven Crew Chief Deo Harrypersand, who delivered the pre-flight briefing, estimated that 50% of the VIP riders who flew with the Blue Angels ended up using one of those bags, but we can happily report that Galloway landed 35 minutes later without having needed one.
He was, however, tired, exhilarated, awed and more than a little sweaty as Maj. Miller rolled #7 back to its parking spot. In fact, with a soaked t-shirt underneath his flight suit and an extremely parched mouth, Galloway realized that the physical conditioning he famously pursues to maintain his top-end NFL speed has little on what fighter pilots must do.
"I would imagine it's very similar," said Galloway. "After flying for a little bit, I realized why you have to be in good condition, why you need to be hydrated up there. It's very warm and it puts a lot of strain on your body. I enjoyed it, but I need a rest now."
Galloway and two other VIP flyers arrived at their MacDill briefing room at about 11:00 a.m. The three sat around a small wooden table with Harrypersand and absorbed information on the controls in the cockpit, the expected maneuvers and the physiological effects of pulling high gees. Harrypersand told the riders they would feel as if they had worked out for two hours when the flight was over, and ended with three ground rules. One: Don't touch any control in the cockpit on which they were not briefed, particularly avoiding anything with black and yellow handles. Two: Do not take any loose objects, such as watches, into the cockpit. And three: Enjoy the ride.
"This is your tank of gas," said Harrypersand. "If the pilot does something you enjoy, ask him to do it again. If he does something you don't enjoy, ask him not to do it again. You either love the heavy gees or you don't. But this is your ride. You're flying in a $30 million airplane and goofing around."
Harrypersand instructed the passengers on methods to make them more comfortable during flight, including ear-clearing hints and the "Hook" technique for preventing unconsciousness during heavy gees. After the briefing, Galloway was escorted out to the tarmac to take the day's first ride. Harrypersand helped him into his straps and once again went over all of the controls and displays in front of him.
As he felt the restraints lock in, Galloway knew he was in for a wild ride.
"When you're in there and you're getting strapped in and locked in, you start to think, 'Okay, they're preparing me for something pretty big here,'" he said.
After Crew Chief Harrypersand performed a safety inspection, Maj. Miller took #7 and #84 into the air at about 1:30 p.m. After leaving the ground and flying parallel with the runway for a few seconds, Miller hit Galloway with that first 'something big.' Yanking back on the stick, the pilot took the F/A-18 into a sudden and steep climb, the sort few planes are capable of. Within a count of 45, the plane was out of sight for the onlookers on the ground.
After the tour, Galloway actually called that steep takeoff the "easiest part of the ride." Still, he learned right away that Miller's warnings were followed rather quickly by action.
"That was the first thing I told him – he said, 'Ready…hit it,' and then he pulls the throttle back," said Galloway with a laugh. "I told him I needed a little more leeway on the 'ready' and the 'hit it.' Because once he pulled it, we were gone. That was amazing."
A veteran of many such VIP flights, Maj. Miller makes it a priority to keep his passengers comfortable while delivering a series of unforgettable experiences. Thus, he quickly adjusted to Galloway's request.
"Everybody that performs in the back seat performs it differently," said Miller. "So I just said, 'Roger that.' The bottom line was for him to have a fun time and he did, I think. I just slowed the cadence down and let him know when the maneuvers were coming up. I think we had a good exchange in the cockpit."
Though much of the 35-minute ride went by in a tumble and blur, Galloway remembers executing spins, turns, climbs and rolls. He was even allowed to take the stick at one point and execute a roll. Still, Miller discovered quickly that Galloway's favorite part – not surprisingly – was when the speedometer would climb. In other words, he enjoyed the 700 mph the "#7" plane reached during their tour a bit more than the six gees at which they topped out.
"He likes speed," said Miller. "That's his mantra, so going fast was pretty cool. We got to fly just shy of the speed of sound. Unfortunately we couldn't break the sound barrier being over land, so we hit just about 40 knots shy of that. He liked that; that was probably his favorite part."
For his part, Galloway wasn't completely sure which segments of the flight he enjoyed the most, at least not in the minutes just after his feet were back on solid ground. At that point, he was still trying to sort the once-in-a-lifetime experience out in his head, and looking forward to reviewing the tape from the camera that was trained on him throughout the flight.
"I think I'm going to have to go sit down and let this sink in," he said. "I think once I look at the tape – because a lot of that stuff goes by so fast when you're up there – I'd like to sit down and kind of reflect on it. Some things happen so fast up there that it's kind of tough to now sit back and think what actually happened."
Overall, though, Galloway knew he had just been on the ride of a lifetime.
"It was a great experience," he said. "It was interesting, to say the least. It's a different feeling. It was fun. It's kind of hard to explain. We sat inside and talked about it, but you can't really explain that feeling until you do it."