Flying with Air Force Thunderbirds over Daytona Speedway

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) The three hours of pre-flight briefings were more daunting and dizzying than the hour in the air - and that's saying a lot.

Wardrobe fittings. Safety procedures. Health questions. Breathing exercises. Even guidance on ejecting, parachuting and landing.

The United States Air Force Thunderbirds, those high-flying, breath-taking aerial experts who are the stars of air shows across the country, will perform their first show in 2016 before the Daytona 500 on Sunday. A few days earlier, they covered every emergency scenario imaginable and gave The Associated Press an opportunity that proved more thrilling than any roller-coaster and more scenic than anything this side of space.

The highlights came early and often, beginning with a head-pining takeoff from Daytona Beach International Airport in which we reached nearly 500 mph before turning into a completely vertical ascent to about 12,000 feet.

Ears popped. Eyes widened. Muscles tensed. Mouth dropped.

The whole thing happened in seconds.

The memory will last forever.

Maj. Kevin Walsh piloted the F-16 two-seater south along Florida's east coast and into restricted air space above historic Kennedy Space Center. He zipped by decades-old launch pads, the shuttle landing strip and the massive vehicle assembly building, a brief sightseeing tour before the real mission began.

Walsh had a detailed sortie planned, complete with gravity-defying loops, silky smooth barrel rolls and speed/power combinations designed to pull more than nine G-forces - or about twice what drivers experience around the high banking at Daytona International Speedway.

He mixed in routines from solo and formation flights, showing off the maximum capabilities of the Fighting Falcon.

Walsh displayed the jet's stunning thrust - more than 29,000 pounds - and its ridiculous responsiveness. It takes just a slight of hand to cause jaw-dropping moves. He tried to explain all the gauges and gadgets that made up a dashboard more complicated than anything in NASCAR or on a car dealer's showroom floor.

It was cool, no doubt. But I was more focused on the surreal surroundings and the manifest of maneuvers that can lead to air sickness and even blackouts.

Walsh had gone over each of the maneuvers on the ground, using a hand-held replica of the jet to describe each move. A knife edge, an arrowhead loop, a cloverloop, a slow roll, an eight-point roll were just a few on Walsh's list.

He reminded me what was coming next, but there was nothing that could really prepare you for this kind of adrenaline rush. The G-suit inflated with every sharp turn, helping my body handle keep the blood flowing to my lungs and brain.

The biggest moment of confusion came about 45 minutes into the trip, when Walsh offered me control of a jet. ''Excuse me?'' I responded. This part wasn't covered in the briefing.

''Um (gulp), sure,'' I added after Walsh repeated himself.

So I grabbed the side-stick controller with my right hand and the engine throttle with my left, and immediately felt the kind of stomach knot that pilots must get when they climb into a $20 million jet for the first time.

I've jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, ridden an IndyCar two-seater with Mario Andretti and turned laps at Daytona as part of the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

Those seem like routine bike rides compared to this.

Walsh walked me through what to do: starting with a relatively simple barrel roll. I gently massaged the stick and eased the throttle forward, learning pretty quickly that the Falcon was monumentally more responsive than my 2006 Volkswagen Passat.

Walsh let me roll and loop high above the birthplace of the Mercury, Apollo and Gemini missions, an added bonus of flying in Florida.

Running low on fuel, we headed back - with both air-sickness bags still empty and tucked into my flight suit. Walsh decided to take the coastline back, flying low enough for us to make out several Daytona Beach landmarks. The famed speedway, along with its $400 million Daytona Rising project that renovated rickety grandstands, stood out.

But the conversation was even better, with Walsh offering details about a grueling air show tour that takes a 60-person team on the road nearly every weekend between early March and mid-November.

The Thunderbirds' first two shows in 2016 are flyovers, beginning with the Daytona 500. They will fly their signature Delta formation over the track at the end of a military national anthem.

It's sure to cause goose bumps.

It's also just a brief glimpse into what the Thunderbirds do on these trips. ''America's Ambassadors in Blue'' visit children in schools and in hospitals, helping build a personal and professional profile that they hope ultimately will help Air Force recruiting and retention programs..