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"CNN Correspondent Loses Sight: Endures 6G-Force Intensity Prior to Fighter Jet Flight"

Achieved lifelong "Top Gun" ambition, flying in a South Korean Air Force F-4 Phantom during a ceremonial flight, symbolizing the retirement of the iconic American fighter aircraft, after 40 years.

CNN senior global military affairs writer Brad Lendon is pictured just before boarding the South...
CNN senior global military affairs writer Brad Lendon is pictured just before boarding the South Korean Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jet on May 8, 2024.

"CNN Correspondent Loses Sight: Endures 6G-Force Intensity Prior to Fighter Jet Flight"

For an hour and forty minutes, tucked cozily in the back seat of a South Korean Air Force F-4 Phantom, I became the iconic character "Goose" from the famous 1980s film, and let me tell you, it was absolutely worth the wait.

Growing up, I had a deep affection for journalism, writing, and newspapers. Naturally, journalism seemed like the perfect career path for me. But my fascination with military matters, and particularly military aviation, was unmatched. The stories of US Navy aviators during the Battle of Midway in World War II, where the US managed to turn the tide against Japan by sinking four of their aircraft carriers, were especially captivating.

After graduating with a journalism degree in 1981, I thought I could give military flying a shot. So, I approached a Navy recruiter and went for the physical examination. This involved a colorblindness test, where I had to identify red and green pinpricks of light in a dark room. Unfortunately, I failed miserably and, as a result, the application was denied.

Fast forward to a few months ago, the South Korean Air Force invited CNN reporters to participate in a farewell flight of its F-4 Phantom fleet. If there was a perfect match to fulfill my fighter dreams, it had to be the Phantom.

First flying in 1958, a year before I was born, the Phantom was the military aircraft of my youth, frequently showcased on the news during the Vietnam War. It was the plane that the US Navy Blue Angels and US Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration teams flew when they appeared at my hometown Cleveland National Air Show in the late 1960s to early 1970s.

South Korea similarly acquired the McDonnell-Douglas-made jets in 1969, to boost their air forces against potential aggression from North Korea. These supersonic F-4s could reach the demilitarized zone in under five minutes, and their aerial combat capabilities and bomb load were significantly stronger than those of a World War II B-17 bomber.

The fact that F-4s are still in service more than 60 years after the model's first flight speaks volumes about the jet’s durability. The US military stopped flying the F-4 in 1996, but South Korea, Greece, Turkey, and Iran are still using the Phantom.

To prove my physical fitness for the flight, I had to undergo a series of tests. These included coping with low air pressure, handling an aircraft ejection, dealing with simulator-induced vertigo, and, most importantly, withstanding 6Gs – six times the force of gravity – on my body in a centrifuge simulator. I was informed that nearly half of the test-takers would pass out under the intense force.

The 6G test would take place at a South Korean Air Force medical facility south of Seoul a few weeks before the flight. After getting suited up in a flight suit and boots, I joined other reporters who were also being considered for the trip. We were taught breathing techniques and how to tense our bodies to prevent blood from rushing out of our heads.

Despite being viewed as a less-than-ideal candidate due to my chubby frame, poor posture, and age, I was determined to succeed. After all, I was an Ohio boy, hailing from the birthplace of aviation. With notable figures like the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn originating from my hometown, I was confident I could make it.

I was granted two attempts to withstand 6Gs, and I was instructed to keep calm and avoid passing out within 20 seconds. Climbing into the simulator, I gave a thumbs-up, and... holy smokes! Experiencing 6Gs kicked my vision into darkness, leaving me to see only vivid pink spots against a black background. I gasped for air and let out a series of guttural shrieks, almost as if I were undergoing an exorcism.

However, I didn't pass out, and that was good enough for me.

My Phantom flight later that day was the second leg of a two-part commemorative flight, arranged by the South Korean Air Force to celebrate the retirement of the aircraft. As of June 7, their service had come to an end. During each leg, there would be four F-4s flying in formation, with three carrying journalists in the back seat, and an F-15 carrying a photographer to document the events.

As our bus pulled up to Daegu Air Base on a sunny Thursday afternoon, the morning flight – from Suwon to Daegu – roared over the runway. I felt a rush of excitement and preparedness. This was the real deal, and I was ready to take off.

Upon meeting a US journalist who had flown on the morning flight, I asked for her feedback: "How was it?"

Four South Korean F-4 fighter jets fly in formation on May 8, 2024, during a commemorative final flight of the aircraft.

Darn, she said, but not so for those Korean reporter fellows in two different planes. Both got queasy. One even vomited - twice.

After our lunch and a chat with the pilots, we were all set to gear up and hop onto the planes for the second flight of the day.

Back on the runway, things were as swift as the F-4 itself. Preparations turned into a whirlwind. I'm almost sure I gave my pilot a high-five - "Feel the need, the need for speed" - before climbing the ladder to the cockpit, securing myself, and the pilot revved up the General Electric J79 turbojet engines.

Then it was my turn to work as a true back-seater. I flipped on the radar. It was only accessible from the back seat. That's right, I'm Goose.

We taxied out to the runway and tore into the Korean sky.

History, and future, at 4,000 feet

As we hit cruising altitude, our flight formation got tight - those beefy fighter-bombers almost touching wing tip to wing tip.

The pilot adjusted the throttle to keep up the pace and maintain the distance, delivering a smooth yet bumpy ride. I realized now where those Korean colleagues of mine had gotten their stomach problems.

After about 10 to 15 minutes, I looked down and to my right. Tucked neatly into our flight formation was the future of South Korean military aviation, the home-grown KF-21 fighter, a prototype and one of only six yet to take flight. Another KF-21 joined us from the left.

Korea Aerospace Industries, the creators behind the KF-21, have built six prototypes undergoing test flights until 2026, when mass production and deployment will commence. Around 120 are expected to be given to the South Korean Air Force by 2030, and the jet is expected to be export-friendly.

After 15 to 20 minutes with the formation, the KF-21s broke away, their wings near-vertical to the ground, and returned to their base.

The Phantoms kept flying.

As I appreciated the KF-21, I also marveled at the jet I was sitting in. I etched in my mind pictures of the controls and switches and levers on three sides of me.

This vintage marvel spoke to me, to my time, my generation.

Lendon in the back seat of a South Korean F-4 Phantom flying over southern South Korea on May 8, 2024.

Those KF-21s are digital marvels, a different kind of flying.

One Korean Phantom pilot shared with me that he wouldn't be switching to the KF-21. He'd be flying something like a Boeing 737 instead. Others might end up flying simpler fighters in the Korean fleet or even become drone pilots. One said, with a hint of melancholy, he'd be sitting behind a desk. No one they knew would be flying the KF-21.

The final stretch

As we soared over the Yellow Sea and along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, I checked the analog clock on the instrument panel in front of me.

"Damn, it's 10 minutes slow," I thinks, confirming my observation with the Casio watch on my wrist.

Somehow appropriate but still a bit disappointing, as this adventure was going to end sooner than I had anticipated.

Soon, the pilot banked the Phantom to the right, radio chatter increased with instructions, and we started our approach to Suwon Air Base.

The analog dials on the lower left of my instrument panel showed the flaps extending as the pilot slowed the Phantom and then the landing gear lowered.

We banked sharply to the left and then again to get on final approach as I looked almost directly down on the Suwon landscape.

In seconds, the wheels hit the runway, smoother than a passenger jet would feel. To my surprise, no jolt, no vibration as the 30,000-ton warplane coasted onto the runway.

As the ground crew checked the four planes before we taxied to the hangars, the pilot asked for my thoughts.

"I'll race to get in the front of the line again," I said, my mind drifting back to Ohio, and sprinting among the barriers to get back to the front of the line for another go on the rollercoaster at Cedar Point amusement park.

I have a laminated card in my wallet, my "Aerospace Physiological Training Certificate," which authorizes me to fly on South Korean fighter jets until June 30, 2025. That's the proof I passed the 6G test.

No way, don't even think about it, wouldn't be the same.

South Korean Air Force F-4s flying in formation with two KF-21 fighter jet prototypes over southern South Korea on May 8, 2024.

For an hour and 40 minutes, I was "Goose." For an hour and 40 minutes, I lived my four-decade dream.

Read also:

Despite the thrilling experience of flying in the F-4 Phantom, some journalists found the ride challenging. Their opinions varied, with some expressing excitement and others sharing feelings of discomfort.

Hearing the pilots' perspectives on transitioning to the KF-21 fighter, it was clear that their sentiments towards the new aircraft varied greatly, with some expressing a reluctance to leave their cherished Phantoms.

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