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What’s it like to be a fighter pilot? – Torben, aged eight, Sussex, UK.
Thanks for your question, Torben. I’m a professor working at the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory, where we study how humans respond when going into space, mountains, deserts and the sea, as well as what it’s like to be in submarines, spacecraft and, of course, jet planes.
To be a fast jet pilot, you must be fit and smart, and able to do what’s needed, even when the going gets tough. You also get to wear some very special clothes, to protect your body while flying.
Capts. Andrew Glowa, left, and William Piepenbring launch flares from two A-10C Thunderbolt IIs Aug. 18, 2014, over southern Georgia.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter)
If you’re a fighter pilot, you’re not allowed to get air sick (which is a bit like getting car sick, in a plane). And you have to be the right height and weight to fit in the cockpit — and to jump out in emergencies.
Fighter jets can go 1,550 miles an hour: that’s more than twice the speed of sound, or 25 miles in a minute. So, if you live two miles from school, you could get home in less than five seconds in a fighter jet.
Only the best pilots in the world can fly a plane that goes so fast: you have to be able to think and act very quickly. To help you, modern jets listen to your voice, so you can tell them what to do — it’s called “voice command”.
Fast jets aren’t smooth to fly in, like the kind of planes you go on holiday in — they’re more like a fast fairground ride. You have to be strapped into your seat very tightly, so that you don’t get thrown around.
First Lt. Kayla Bowers, a 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, looks out of the cockpit of her aircraft during the squadron’s deployment in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve at Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, March 18, 2016.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden)
In fact, flying that fast and making lots of turns and dives can make you feel very sick. Can you imagine being sick, while wearing a mask and flying a plane at 1,000 miles an hour? That’s why fighter pilots have to be checked and trained to make sure they don’t get air sick.
Fast jet pilots also have to wear lots of special clothes to protect them in different situations. One thing they have to wear is a helmet to protect their head, and a mask with a microphone.
The mask is linked up to a system that can provide extra oxygen if anything goes wrong — after all, there’s less oxygen in the air when you’re flying very high, and humans need plenty of oxygen to breathe properly.
Standing on Earth, humans experience gravity at 1G (that’s one times the acceleration due to gravity). But when fighter jets make fast turns and rolls, the pilot can experience up to 9G (by comparison, roller coasters only produce 3-6G). That means they feel nine times heavier, which can be very unpleasant and would make most people black out.
To help with this, fighter pilots also wear special trousers that squeeze their legs tightly when they go round bends — this keeps the blood pumping up to their brain, to stop them from fainting: trust me, you don’t want to faint when flying a fast jet.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Bishop completes preflight checks before his first sortie in an F-35A Lightning II, March 6, 2013.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr.)
Fast jet pilots may also have to wear a flying suit, a life jacket and an “immersion suit” — that’s a suit which keeps you warm and dry, if you end up in the sea. They may also wear another suit to protect them from chemicals and other dangerous things.
All this kit and clothing can make a fighter pilot pretty hot. Plus the jet has a plastic lid and lots of very clever electronics, which can also heat up the cockpit. And when the plane goes fast through the air, it warms up due to friction — like when you rub your hands together fast.
To stay cool, fighter pilots can wear a special vest with long small tubes in it, which pump cold water around. Or, they can wear a suit next to their skin which has cold air blowing through it.
Pilots sit on a rocket-powered ejector seat, so if he or she gets into trouble, they can pull a handle and be blasted up into the air and away from the crashing plane.
Luckily, the seat has a parachute that opens up and lets them float down to the ground safely. But the force of the ejection actually makes them shorter for a little while afterwards.
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