NAS JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Here’s the thing: For the longest, I didn’t think I was that girl. No, I was the girl afraid of roller coasters, haunted houses, and the voice at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
According to my parents and older siblings, I was a scared, shy, quiet girl who didn’t want any problems.
After what I did a week ago today, my sister Tiffany said it best: “Who are you and what have you done with my little sister?”
Let’s put this thing in reverse to months ago when I found out I’d be an alternate to fly with the Blue Angles. I’d heard of the Blue Angels before but never really saw what they did or knew what they did it.
I told my parents about the opportunity, and my dad goes: “No, the hell you not (flying with them),” jokingly, of course. Mom, on the other hand, was serious when she said, “Don’t tell me when you do it, just call me after.”
At the time, all the Blue Angels staff needed from me was a physical. This was months in advance, and I soon forgot about the flight altogether.
Then I got a call saying I was no longer the alternate, but the first rider. It still didn’t feel real — but instead like this thing down the line that I would do and pray I’d to live to tell it.
It didn’t start sinking in until the week before.
The once-distant thoughts of the flight started getting closer.
Wednesday, Oct. 19, got here, and I was on my way to Naval Air Station Jacksonville with my photojournalist Ciara Earrey and close friend/mentor/sister/co-worker Jenese Harris (gang gang).
We met this dope Duval County educator, Mr. Simmons, who was flying before me. He had his whole squad with him: wife, cute kid, sisters, cousins, co-workers.
We drove to this hangar, and it was my first time on a military base, which I’ve come to learn is like its own little town. But this little town is famous for the Blue Angels. You get to see these really cool model planes parked on the grass along the street — pretty neat stuff.
So we linked with this guy Dale, who I’m sure has a much more important title, but I can’t think of it right now. He was our instructor. We sat down, learned about the aircraft, did breathing exercises, and practiced what to do in case of an emergency. We laughed about everything — up until that last part.
Then it was time to put on our flight suits. Mine was super fitting with my Marina Blue Air Jordan Ones. (I’ve always been the girl to keep a pair of Js).
After a few quick pictures, we headed out to see Blue Angel No. 7. I couldn’t help but notice how the plane was painted in the colors of my Alma Mater (North Carolina A&TSU). That was a cute peg for this story — but it was getting real.
Mr. Simmons got loaded up, strapped down and headed for the flight of his life. Meanwhile, I used the bathroom like four times out of nerves. But I thought, “If he can do this, so can I.”
His flight took off into the big blue sky and we followed for as long as our eyes allowed. Forty minutes went by, and he was back down, and you could see this huge smile on his face.
He said: “You’re going to love it!”
Then, it was my turn. Not everyone stayed, which was fine because pretty soon it would just be me, my pilot, and this powerful plane.
I kept telling myself, “Pretend you’re flying in a private jet, just a bit higher and no champagne on board.”
Once I was strapped in, my pilot — “Seven” — reminded me that this was my flight, and he would do what I was comfortable with. He hopped in, closed the glass canopy above us, and I smiled for the camera.
About 5 minutes went by, and we were still on the ground. Then a voice came in through my helmet, “Marilyn, I’ve got bad news.” What a relief it was to hear that and still be on the ground.
My flight had to be rescheduled due to technical issues.
At that point, I thought everyone thought I probably chickened out. I was told to come back Friday to try again.
I couldn’t sleep because of the excitement I replaced with a bit of disappointment. On Friday, I was back on the jet after practicing my breathing a few more times.
This time the plane was moving. Rolling on the ground before takeoff felt like your normal flight, but on a smaller scale.
By the time we took off, I knew there was nothing small about this.
The view, the view, the view. I saw all of Jacksonville.
I remember seeing my reflection in the glass at one point and the sun shone even brighter on the jet. “Seven” took us out over the water, and I saw the long shoreline and thought, “Alright, that’s about to get smaller.”
Things started to get bluer. The higher we went, the more I felt it in my body. It wasn’t a bad feeling. I just started to feel weightless in this little box.
We took it one G at a time.
“Ready to test this thing out?” Seven asked. I said, “Sure, what the heck. We’re here now.”
He started off slow, then picked up speed as we flew at an angle. He turned us to the right, then to the left. We did a slow roll, then a fast one. That’s when I had to take a break.
Then Seven took us to 0Gs. I let my arms loose, and we floated in our seats. It was awesome!
Then, it was time for another trick, but this one was my last straw. The pilot tilted us backward, and I don’t even remember what happened after that. What I do remember is, once we leveled again, barf bag No. 1 was deployed.
“I’m feeling queasy” is what I told Seven.
He took it easy on me after that. The corners of my eyes were getting darker and darker as we sat on 5Gs, I think 17,000 feet in the air.
It’s wild thinking back to the view I had. I just remember a whole lot of blue. But truth be told — yes, the view was amazing — but the feeling, outside of the sickness, was even better. I felt free and super safe.
Seven took really good care of me. I initially worried about being that high up, but then I had to remember who my pilot was. Seven is the man. He’s not new to this. And the jet was packing some major power. I felt comfortable and was given the space to marvel at the view and try something new. I was relaxed to the point where I didn’t want to come down.
Speaking of coming down, that’s when barf bag No. 2 came out. My body did not agree with where it had just been.
I took my time getting out of the jet. Nausea kicked in immediately. I couldn’t walk back to the hangar, so we got a golf cart. I desperately wanted to lie down. Once we got to the hangar, let’s just say it all had to come up.
Despite how awful I felt after the flight, it was what everyone said it would be: the flight of a lifetime and something I’ll never forget.
Would I do it again? Selfishly, I’d say yes — to try to reach 7Gs, but I wouldn’t want to take the opportunity from someone else.
Now I can say I’ve done it. Flying with the Blue Angels made me realize the shy young girl I once was is now fearless, bold and wants to take on any challenge, one G at a time.