They let me sit in the cockpit of an F-18!

07 September 2007

Earlier today I was gifted with a unique experience that I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd ever do, much less squee like a rabid fangirl over - I got a tour of the hangar and they let me sit in the cockpit of an F-18 in the facility's air fleet. With the permission of my PoC and the hangar chief, I was allowed to bring my camera in and be photographed while sitting in the (very tiny) cockpit of a fully operational F-18 jet. First off, I had to remove everything that might possibly fall out of my pockets because anything that did would be lost beneath the seat, and retrievable only if someone unbolted the entire seat and hoisted the assembly out of the fusilage. Secondly, any controls (and I do mean any) that were colored yellow, yellow-and-black striped, orange, or red were strictly off limits because they were still live, even though the plane was (so far as I knew at the time) unarmed. This included the ejection seat which, I was told by the hangar chief, would not go through the roof of the hangar (even though it was designed to blow through the canopy if the pilot or co-pilot punched out without blowing the canopy), and that if I did, for some bizarre reason, pull the level, I'd be bouncing around the roof for a couple of minutes before the rocket motors' fuel finally gave out.

The particular plane I was in was manufactured sometime in 1979, which means that my body is marginally older than the jet. It was also the first model of fighter jet that used a fly-by-wire system (where servomotors and hydraulics are used to operate the moving flight surfaces) rather than cables running through the chassis that pulled the ailerons and whatnot. The CPU of the avionics package was described to me as a beefed-up Commodore-64, which caused me to break into helpless gales of laughter. 64k of memory and three registers can do amazing things when you put your mind to it. The hangar chief was amused to no end that I remember the C-64... as for the controls, every surface of the cockpit is studded with toggle switches and the odd square pushbutton protected by a molly guard to prevent accidental activation. There is a simple projection-system heads-up display at the center of the top edge of the console with a DB-9 connector for the attachment of a gun camera. If the HUD goes offline, the dual displays built into the cockpit itself can take over.

On the left-hand side of the cockpit are the engine throttles - ordinarily they click-stop about two thirds of the way toward the front, but pushing farther opens up the afterburners. The control stick is positioned at the front edge of the seat, between the pilot's legs. So far as anyone I asked knows, all of them are designed for right-handers. I guess there aren't many southpaw jet pilots... there also don't seem to be very many tall pilots. It took some doing to fold myself into the front seat of the cockpit, and even then my knees kept getting in the way. I suspect that it probably wouldn't have been possible for the hangar chief to close the canopy even if he'd had a mind to because my head would have gotten in the way.

The normal operational life of such a jet is around 3000 wall clock hours, which was determined by testing an F-18 unto destruction (I don't know the specifics of how they go about this) and dividing the total time by three. Thus, after 3000 hours of flight time, each plane is taken offline for overhaul. The normal range is about 2000 miles before the fuel supply runs out.

A bit of trivia for you about their method of testing new designs of ejector seats: They strap a test pilot into the test-type of the flight seat, weld a rocket motor onto the back, and then place it onto a very long railroad track. The test assembly is accelerated to flight speed with said rocket motor for accuracy, and the test pilot then punches out to test the ejector.

Special thanks to J-, my PoC, for being nice enough to not only get me into the hangar but take those photographs for me. You rock all known sheep.