Nerve-wracking upside-down flight

STACEY KNOTT
Last updated 12:58 08/05/2014
Simon Isemonger
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

TOP SKILLS: Royal New Zealand Air Force Flight Lieutenant Simon Isemonger inverted in a RNZAF Airtrainer aircraft over the Waimea Inlet with Mapua in the background during the Wiseowl exercise based at Nelson Airport.

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Nelson-based journalist Stacey Knott nonchalantly takes up an offer to join an air force pilot for a flight and gets more than she bargained for.

I'm a shaking, sweating mess. A bit too pale, a bit too quiet but pretending I'm fine and unfazed. I've just stepped out of a yellow Airtrainer plane, where Flight Lieutenant Simon Isemonger has swapped a student for me, for a flight.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force is camped out in Nelson this week for exercise Wiseowl, a pilot training squadron deployment designed to test military student pilots in elements of military flying including low level flight, navigation and formation flying.

It's their first time away from their home base, Ohakea. There are about 100 air force personnel living in a tent city at Nelson Airport to support the trainee pilots.

I've waited a few hours for the weather to clear and my turn to take to the skies.

My colleague, photographer and experienced flyer Martin de Ruyter, had joked about needing a sick bag, and me having to wear a parachute. I continued to think he was joking until I was given them.

While waiting in an army tent which is home to the pilot gear, I am kitted out by "Possum", the air force safety equipment technician.

First comes the green overalls, a nice fit, clinched in at the waist. I take a few shameless selfies. I feel quite 1950s glamorous. Next, is the helmet. It weighs about 4 kilograms and needs to fit perfectly, we pull at straps and adjust it so my head is nice and secure.

The last two pieces are the lifevest, and then, the parachute. There's all sorts of safety devices in my pockets, a beacon, knife, rations, and, the sickbag in my pants' pocket. All up, I've added about 20kg to myself, the weight of safety.

In his 17 years as the safety equipment technician, Possum says only one person has needed to use their parachute. My overactive imagination plays me being the second.

I'm getting a bit nervous, but also excited. I've been in plenty of jets before, but the smallest plane has been a 13-seater with Sounds Air.

I chat with one of the air force trainee pilots, Alex Laurence, from Nelson. She tells me not to worry and I'll have a great time.

She's had about 40 hours in the air so far. She's glad to be home and flying over familiar land.

Laurence has been learning to fly in formation, and getting to terms with all the things to think about while in the air. She loves it.

"It's enjoyable, I don't get nervous, you're very busy thinking about what is going on outside the craft, the weather, the other planes, what is next, like if you are going back to base or landing somewhere."

Laurence is aiming to end up flying a helicopter for the air force, performing search and rescue work.

We head over to the small trainer planes. They are dual control, two-seaters. I clamber in, ungracefully.

Strapped in, with five different belts and Isemonger at my side, he pulls the hatch over and straps a map to his thigh.

We wait on the runway for the all clear from the traffic controllers. We speak to each other through the microphones and headphones in the helmets.

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My nerves are soothed by knowing Isemonger has been doing this for about 10 years. He has flown the Iroquois in East Timor and Papua New Guinea and started training pilots for the air force about nine months ago.

If anything happens, we will land in a field, or if it's a mid-air emergency, I have to stand on the wing and jump off. Graphic images come to mind of me falling off the wing and not being able to open the chute.

We get the go ahead, so cruise around the skies above Rabbit Island. I'm loving the view, and wonder if it will remain a pleasant flight on a Wednesday afternoon.

Isemonger then tells me some of the manoeuvres the plane will do. Knowing very little about aviation, I agree that they sound exciting. He also gives me a ranking system to tell him how I am feeling.

"If you feel in danger or uncomfortable at any point, tell me straight away and we'll go back."

I can't help but feel this would be admitting defeat.

I agree to a loop. The plane climbs up and then flips down and around, my head feels very heavy, my stomach jumps into my throat.

We level out, and I think that wasn't so bad. It feels very strange and off balance, but it's interesting. The view is fabulous. We do two more aero manoeuvres; a barrell roll where we are upside down and my leg somehow cramps up and I am sure, that under my helmet, my face is going green. Isemonger tells me its G-force 3.5.

I get another recovery period. Isemonger checks to see how I'm doing, I muster a thumbs up and laugh telling him "this is pretty intense, but I'm OK".

He can't see the sweat starting to form on my forehead.

We top it off with a stall turn, where , momentarily, we are nose down to the ground. I hold my breath and try to play it cool and it feels like we are just floating, then pull back around to level out, and once again, stomach in throat, heavy head and wondering why anyone would want this feeling for a living.

We level again. I try and balance myself out and convince myself I'm overreacting and that churning in my stomach will soon pass.

I'm happy to report it does, momentarily. We cruise along for a bit, then Isemonger tells me to take control, and fly the plane. I feel like a child being tricked into thinking they are doing something important, while I steer the plane with the joy stick, side to side then up down, an irrational fear in my mind that I will mess it up and somehow need that parachute.

He asks if I want to do another loop and something else that sounds terrifying. "I don't think that's a good idea. I've just discovered I don't have the right disposition for this," I half-heartedly joke.

I wonder if I will regret this - how many times do you get these opportunities? Then I think about the consequences and that bag in my pocket. I prefer to save face.

We head back down to solid ground. I've been in the air for about 20 minutes, but it ends up taking me four hours to recover.

I feel like I have a terrible hangover. I have to cancel my plans for the evening, and pathetically crawl into bed.

So my utmost respect to these trainee pilots and those who are teaching them. It's a tough journey, with a notoriously hard pass level because of the demands of flying with the air force. I can now understand the significance of the work they are doing.

Despite now having to put up with my colleagues' jokes, I'm happy to be back in my day job.

- The Nelson Mail

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