Spending nine years with one ‘G’ on his helmet in no way prepared A.J. Hawk for the rush of nine G’s weighing on him while zipping across the Dayton sky at nearly 700 miles an hour as part of a VIP ride with the Thunderbirds Demonstration Squadron.
“It’s obviously different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Hawk, a Centerville native who played 11 NFL seasons with the Green Bay, Cincinnati and Atlanta after starring at Ohio State.
“My daughter asked me before we came if I was nervous, and I said ‘Yeah, I am a little bit,’” Hawk added. “I joked with my parents and wife and everybody that I get car sick if I’m riding shotgun.”
That was nothing compared to what he felt when his pilot, Operations Officer Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, thrust 10,000 feet into the air immediately after takeoff to begin a wild, and at times difficult, 45-minute ride on the F16 Fighting Falcon.
“I was struggling,” Hawk said. “I’m not scared to admit that we landed and I puked. I was good in the air for a while. It was probably a boring flight for him because I had to make him go straight and level for a while to catch my breath for 9 minutes in between each maneuver it seemed like.
“I definitely don’t feel as good as some guys do when they get in there,” Hawk said. “But it was well worth struggling through parts of the flight for sure, especially to be able to pull 9 G’s with him and didn’t black out. I feel OK about that part at least.”
The VIP flight was a promotional opportunity ahead of the Thunderbirds appearance at the Vectren Dayton Air Show on Saturday and Sunday.
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Walsh, a Long Island, N.Y. native who learned to fly F16s at the International Air Force Base in Springfield, said he has flown a number of athletes and celebrities during his 18 months with the Thunderbirds. And while he knows making his passenger sick is always a possibility, it’s not something he tries to do.
“My goal is to make it a pleasurable experience that he speaks fondly of after we land,” Walsh said. “It’s all about going out and having fun and exposing them to the Thunderbirds.
“He’s an athlete, so he knows how to handle himself in high pressure situations when the environment is challenging and different and something you have never experienced before,” Walsh added. “In terms of meeting that challenge, he did very well.”
Walsh said the unrestricted climb to 10,000 that started the flight took just five to six seconds. After soaring 90 miles to the east, they circled back with Walsh taking Hawk with the numerous maneuvers the Thuderbirds will put on display this weekend.
Sheila Wallace, the media relations coordinator for the Air Show, said the Thunderbirds have been offering VIP rides for years.
One of the previous participants — Ohio State Highway Patrolman Jeff Kramer, who took his ride in 2011 as part of the Hometown Heroes program — came to watch Monday’s flight with his son and daughters and some of their friends, all of whom are big Hawk fans.
“It’s ridiculous how cool it is,” Kramer said of the flight. “It goes beyond expectations.”
Also on hand to watch Hawk’s flight were his parents Keith and Judy, his brothers Matthew and Ryan, his niece Ella and his daughter Lennon and son Hendrix.
Wallace said many people offered the VIP rides turn it down due to fear, but Hawk never considered that an option.
“I jumped right away,” he said. “I knew I’d make it work, whatever the day was, whatever the schedule. If they asked me to come, I was going to do it. It’s not something I could see myself ever turning down. It was awesome. I loved it. I had a great time.”