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F-16 PROVIDES A ZOOM WITH A VIEW

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More than 300,000 people are expected to be on hand today to see what the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team and its F-16s can do. Another 6 million have seen or will see the Thunderbirds this year.

What most spectators won't see are the support effort it takes to keep the show flying and the view from inside the cockpit.The first is impressive. The second is awesome, as I found out Friday at the Thunderbirds' invitation. Please tighten your parachute harness and join us for the ride you may never get in person.

My pilot was Capt. Dan Torweihe, the Thunderbirds' advance pilot, who also narrates their shows. He flies the group's only D-model F-16, which has a back seat. The rest are one-seater C models.

The F-16 is a single-engine fighter that can sizzle along faster than the speed of sound and make turns so sharp the force shoves you into the seat at nine times the force of gravity.

Torweihe told me he still has a hard time explaining to people what nine "Gs" feels like. Try this: Take your hands and stretch the skin on your face back as far as it will go and then have a horse sit in your lap and squish all of the air out of you until your vision goes gray.

Among the gear fighter pilots (and passengers) wear is a G-suit, which has air bladders that fill up and squeeze the blood from your legs and abdomen back into your upper body while the jet is in G-force maneuvers.

The plane is quieter than a commercial flight, because you're outrunning your engine noise, and because of ear plugs and helmet. The view through the cockpit's Plexiglas panorama also makes the windows on commercial jets comparable to looking through the peephole in your front door.

There is no flight attendant to hand out peanuts and soft drinks, but a woman's voice sounds in the cockpit when the fuel is low. Throttle controls are in your left hand and the control stick in your right hand. Rudder pedals are at your feet, but the F-16 is smart enough that you never have to use them.

"You have the aircraft," Torweihe told me, after pulling us through a loop.

So I took the stick and followed suit. Then we took turns pointing the F-16 skyward and spinning the jet as it headed straight up. Top Gun, here I come.

Flying at the speed of sound (Mach 1) was entirely possible but not allowed, so Torweihe took us close enough to the ground to appreciate how fast the bushes were going by as he pushed the throttle to Mach .99.

I didn't get a letter grade as a student, but Torweihe gets top marks in his role as host and instructor.

He calls his two-year tour with the Thunderbirds the "best job ever," but the 300 days he will spend on the road during the Thunderbirds' touring season takes its toll. Just ask his wife and four children.

Membership in the elite Thunderbirds squadron is by application for its eight pilots and support crew, which totals 140.

The six show pilots, Lt. Col. Stephen J. Anderson, Maj. Darryl Roberson, Capt. Anthony J. Seely, Maj. Jeffrey W. Fiebig, Capt. John Keith and Capt. Russell Quinn (who is from Salt Lake City) commute in their F-16s from show to show. They rack up 20,000 commuting miles each year traveling between shows, while the support staff and 52,000 pounds of tools, spare parts and other cargo travel in a C-141 cargo jet.

Maj. Jim Harder, the team's operations officer, flies a C model that is used as a performance backup in case one of the primary six has to be pulled after the team arrives at a show site. Torweihe flies the only D model, which could also be used as a show backup. Three additional F-16s are in the squadron's inventory, bringing the fighter total to 11. At $23 million a copy, that's a pretty impressive motor pool.

Personnel at Hill are also drafted into the air show staff when the Thunderbirds visit, arranging publicity and managing traffic, first aid and crowd control.

Gates open for the air show today at 8 a.m. The Army's Golden Knights skydiving team performs at 10 a.m. as part of an opening ceremony honoring veterans. The Chilean Air Force Halcones will make their debut performance at Hill at 11:15 a.m. and aerobatic demonstrations by current and historic military aircraft fill the schedule during the rest of the day until the Thunderbirds perform the closing act at 3:30 p.m.