PENSACOLA — The world slowly began to close into darkness as Blue Angel's No. 7 Lt. Cary Rickoff encouraged me again and again to "keep fighting."
I pushed my heels hard into the cockpit floor and began the "hick" breathing exercises I was taught earlier in the day. The world quickly came back into focus and, amazingly, I was staring upside down at beachgoers enjoying the Gulf of Mexico below.
"Awesome," Rickoff said after seeing I was still conscious. "You did it. We hit 6.5 Gs on that one. People always ask me if I can see them waving from the beach. As you can see, the answer is yes."
The Blue Angels select one media person each year to experience a demonstration of the maneuvers performed at the Pensacola Beach Airshow. Rickoff, whose call sign is Chewie because he's "tall, big and hairy," is the announcer of the show this year while serving as No. 7. Next year he will perform in the air show after moving to the No. 6 position.
Throughout the flight, Rickoff offers several options for every maneuver so riders can pick the intensity. Countless people made sure to remind me that the flight was "once in a lifetime," so I grabbed a vomit bag and gave him the OK to push me to my limits.
"Ready. Set. Hit it." was the cue to fight with all you had against the G-forces using "hick breathing," which sounds just like its name and pushes blood back into your brain. One G is the amount of force, or gravity, pressing on our bodies while standing still on the ground. Each G-force following is double the amount our bodies normally experience.
After about five maneuvers and reaching 7.2 Gs, it was zero Gs — the feeling of being in space — that put the vomit bag to good use.
It was between maneuvers while coasting straight, even once going so fast it broke the sound barrier, Rickoff encouraged me to take in the views of the coast. It took all but five minutes to get from Panama City Beach to Gulf Shores, Alabama, with large, fluffy clouds offering just small glimpses of the clear water and beachgoers below.
The last maneuver of the day was the landing, and Rickoff said we'd likely reach 7 Gs for 15 seconds. I braced myself for the last time and felt indescribable pressure press down hard against my helmet. I awoke immediately disappointed — I had lost consciousness.
My first question was how long I'd been unconscious while grabbing for my second vomit bag. Rickoff said I had stayed awake for all by one second at 7.6 Gs.
Once I landed, the words of all the pilots, friends and family members hit me hard. This truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I felt humbled and couldn't stop thanking the pilot for such an incredible ride.
I know the soreness and migraine from the flight that stretched well into Friday will eventually fade. But, I truly hope the memories of the flight, with Rickoff's voice repeating "Ready. Set. Hit it." never will.