Now this message for America's most famous athletes: Someday you
may be invited to fly in the backseat of one of your country's
most powerful fighter jets. Many of you already have—John
Elway, John Stockton, Tiger Woods to name a few. If you get this
opportunity, let me urge you, with the greatest sincerity...
Move to Guam. Change your name. Fake your own death. Whatever you
do, do not go. I know. The U.S. Navy invited me to try it. I was
thrilled. I was pumped. I was toast!
I should've known when they told me my pilot would be Chip
(Biff) King of Fighter Squadron 213 at Naval Air Station Oceana
in Virginia Beach. Whatever you're thinking a Top Gun named Chip
(Biff) King looks like, triple it. He's about six-foot, tan,
ice-blue eyes, wavy surfer hair, finger-crippling handshake—the
kind of man who wrestles dyspeptic alligators in his leisure
time. If you see this man, run the other way. Fast.
Biff King was born to fly. His father, Jack King, was for years
the voice of NASA missions. ("T-minus 15 seconds and
counting..." Remember?) Chip would charge neighborhood kids a
quarter each to hear his dad. Jack would wake up from naps
surrounded by nine-year-olds waiting for him to say, "We have a
September 19, 1999
Biff was to fly me in an F-14D Tomcat, a ridiculously powerful
$60 million weapon with nearly as much thrust as weight, not
unlike Colin Montgomerie. I was worried about getting airsick,
so the night before the flight I asked Biff if there was
something I should eat the next morning.
"Bananas," he said.
"For the potassium?" I asked.
"No," Biff said, "because they taste about the same coming up as
they do going down."
The next morning, out on the tarmac, I had on my flight suit
with my name sewn over the left breast. (No call sign—like
Crash or Sticky or Leadfoot—but, still, very cool.) I carried
my helmet in the crook of my arm, as Biff had instructed. If
ever in my life I had a chance to nail Nicole Kidman, that was it.
A fighter pilot named Psycho gave me a safety briefing and then
fastened me into my ejection seat, which, when employed, would
"egress" me out of the plane at such a velocity that I would be
immediately knocked unconscious.
Just as I was thinking about aborting the flight, the canopy
closed over me, and Biff gave the ground crew a thumbs-up. In
minutes we were firing nose up at 600 mph. We leveled out and
then canopy-rolled over another F-14. Those 20 minutes were the
rush of my life. Unfortunately, the ride lasted 80.
It was like being on the roller coaster at Six Flags Over Hell.
Only without rails. We did barrel rolls, sap rolls, loops, yanks
and banks. We dived, rose and dived again, sometimes with a
vertical velocity of 10,000 feet per minute. We chased another
F-14, and it chased us. We broke the speed of sound. Sea was sky
and sky was sea. Flying at 200 feet we did 90-degree turns at
550 mph, creating a G force of 6.5, which is to say I felt as if
6.5 times my body weight was smashing against me, thereby
approximating life as Mrs. Colin Montgomerie.
And I egressed the bananas. I egressed the pizza from the night
before. And the lunch before that. I egressed a box of Milk Duds
from the sixth grade. I made Linda Blair look polite. Because of
the G's, I was egressing stuff that did not even want to be
egressed. I went through not one airsick bag, but two. Biff said
I passed out. Twice.
I was coated in sweat. At one point, as we were coming in upside
down in a banked curve on a mock bombing target and the G's were
flattening me like a tortilla and I was in and out of
consciousness, I realized I was the first person in history to
I used to know cool. Cool was Elway throwing a touchdown pass,
or Norman making a five-iron bite. But now I really know cool.
Cool is guys like Biff, men with cast-iron stomachs and Freon
nerves. I wouldn't go up there again for Derek Jeter's black
book, but I'm glad Biff does every day, and for less a year than
a rookie reliever makes in a home stand.
A week later, when the spins finally stopped, Biff called. He
said he and the fighters had the perfect call sign for me. Said
he'd send it on a patch for my flight suit.
What is it? I asked.
Don't you dare tell Nicole.