CHICAGO — It was truly an experience of a lifetime. I was invited to be a guest rider with the US Navy Blue Angels, on board a Boeing FA-18 Super Hornet.
I’m having a hard time putting the experience into words. Most of you know I’m a roller coaster enthusiast and that I love a great launch coaster. I’ve been on some of the most forceful launches in the coaster world. They were nothing compared to this.
My pilot was #7, Lt. Griffin Stangel, call sign “Pushpop.” Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Stangel was excited to be back in the midwest flying with Blue Angels team.
“Eight of those years I have been flying the Super Hornet,” Lt. Stangel told us on Wednesday. “I love this aircraft. It was the first grey jet I learned how to fly. I had my first flight in it. It was absolutely exhilirating.”
Even more exhilirating? Taking this jet off of an aircraft carrier.
“I’ve taken it on and off the ship about 200 times,” Lt. Stangel told us. “It’s the ride of a lifetime. We’ll have a lot of fun today, but getting shot off the front end of a carrier is something special.”
I was strapped into the back seat of the aircraft and then Lt. Stangel came on board. The canopy came down and we were off. We get to the runway. The jet starts cooking. We hit the air. The afterburners kick in. Lt. Stangel is narrating everything that is happening. Then he says …“Reaaaaaaady …. HIT IT.”
I can’t explain the feeling of what happened next. If you’re a roller coaster enthusiast like me, think about the launch on Maxx Force at Six Flags Great America or the uphill launch on Lightning Rod – and then multiply that by like a million. We were vertical and we were hauling. We pulled about 6.5 Gs on that takeoff. In a matter of seconds we were at cloud level and rolling to the side. It was all so fast and so surreal – extreme power but also extreme control.
And that’s what I took away from this experience the most. These pilots are special people who are so good at what they do. I find myself inspired by people who have worked incredibly hard and have dedicated so many hours to perfect their craft. Lt. Stangel is an example of this. He told me later about how much training went into what he does. He has been flying for 10 years in the Navy and has been on multiple deployments. Today he is traveling to air shows all season, in hotels in so many cities, and he stays on top of his nutrition and he is working out 5-6 days a week. It takes commitment and consistency to be able to pilot an aircraft like this and to do these types of maneuvers like it’s a walk in the park.
We were given a cockpit video and you can see a lot of it in my WGN Morning News story at the top of this article. Unfortunately, there was a technical issue on my ride and the cockpit audio didn’t record. One thing I wish you could have heard was how calm Lt. Stangel was throughout this ride. It really made me, the guest rider, at ease knowing that a professional is at the controls who wanted to make sure I was having a great time.
If you head out to the Chicago Air and Water Show this weekend, you will hear Lt. Stangel on the beach. He is the official narrator for the Blue Angels team and will be explaining all of the maneuvers you will be seeing the team perform on the lakefront.
The Chicago Air and Water Show is happening Saturday and Sunday, August 20 and 21 at North Avenue Beach from 10am-2pm. You can find more information on the official website here.
You can learn more about the U.S. Navy Blue Angels on their official website here.