Day 1: Team up
Zeron: We're in a cottage, on a farm, in Gloucestershire. Mike's discovered some wood, but we aren't sure if the fireplace is ornamental or real. But it's freezing so we agree to light a fire and give it a go. The room quickly fills with thick black smoke. Mike and I are trying to do a runner, but run straight into the landlady. She calms us down and points out we hadn't opened the flue!
Mike: By late afternoon the rest of the crew turn up, and a little later we migrate to the pub. Here we meet Andy Cubin, an ex-Red Arrows pilot. He is to be our 'guide' through the programme, teaching us what it takes to be a fighter pilot. I also find out that, like me, he has a black belt in Taekwondo.
Zeron: After we arrived back at the cottage Nic, our producer, briefed us on the morning's shoot before leaving for his bed. I'm left chatting 'til the early hours with Mike. Although we stuffed ourselves at the introductory dinner, Mike raided the kitchen and polished off a packet of cereal. Mike then showed his endearing side: he offered me the best bedroom in the cottage. And he took the top floor, which he later discovered to be infested with dead flies, what a great guy. Sucker!
Zeron: The filming at the aerodrome was cold and very laborious with lots of waiting around. I soon learnt that the camera crew are the real heroes on a shoot. These guys slave to get the shots that make us look good on screen. Luke, the camera guy, took pity on me and lent me some gloves and his extra warm coat as I was perishing cold while they were setting up. We did lots of introductory shots then it was time for us to go up in the planes. These are two high performance prop planes! It was an incredible ride and it was amazing to start to get a feel for those g-forces.
Andy then took us through some of the basic requirements of becoming a pilot, which included eyesight and colour blindness tests. We both passed the eyesight test but Mike bombed on the colour blindness test.
Mike: The flight was fun - certainly a lot more fun than the gyroscopes and stuff that followed. I thought that the crew should have just asked me to puke on demand, rather than waste time trying to force me to be ill by repeatedly spinning us in the gyroscopes. Even so the day's horrible stuff was worth it for the best flight in my life - to date. In fact, I've always been more interested in piston-engine planes than jet planes.
Zeron: Producer Nic likes to keep us in the dark about all the things he wants us to do, so he can film the surprised look on our faces as events unfold. As we were strapped into the gyroscopes along came Andy with a Gameboy for each of us. We had to compete against each other on the Gameboy while our balance was shot to hell. Imagine being seasick and asked to play Tetris for 15 minutes, as you get sicker and sicker. You don't see this in the final cut, but you do see me about to throw my intestines into a bucket. Which, apparently, was the shot Nic was hoping to get - he's a mean man!
Zeron: Today was a long day. We arrived at an indoor go-cart centre which had been given over to us for the whole day (a boy's dream come true). Our first test was to get wired up and undergo an hour's intense go-cart race. I was relatively confident as Mike kept telling everyone he had never driven a go-cart before. Green light, and we were off. I cut across Mike and sheared his front wheel off. It took 40 minutes to get a new cart - and reset the cameras and sound equipment. We started the race again. Mike (the lying SOAB) took off like a bat out of hell. In the hour long race he lapped me four times! He later confessed (off camera) that he did dirt biking and was a sponsored motorsports racer. That hurt.
Then we started on an endurance fitness test. Face to face with arms stretched out holding go-cart wheels. As expected Mike kicked my sorry ass. I was 2 nil down on the day! Then we had a blood test - a real pain in the arm.
Mike: After the go-carting we drove to a pub in Reading, which took ages. There we had a laugh with a gang of locals doing reaction test games. I ended up having a few pints and countless vodka Red Bulls.
Zeron: We tested our reactions against the locals as a pilot had to think and react with super human speed. Mike could smell alcohol so he was in his element; I could see beautiful women so I was in mine! We played reaction games and I came out of that test clearly the top, while Mike got steadily oiled.
Mike: We left the pub, hungry, at ten, and then drove to a hotel near Gatwick airport. It was about midnight and Alison, the programme researcher who was to travel with us to America, had sorted some food and beer, but the day wasn't over. We still had video diaries to film. We finally finished at two in the morning. The tragedy was that after working for twenty hours and filming for about six of them, not one minute of footage from the day was used in the final programme due to a lack of time. Sometimes working in TV is maddening!
Zeron: Flying only induces one thing in me, the desire to sleep. As soon as the engines are throttled up for take off my eye lids close and I'm out of it. Unlike poor Mike, he really doesn't like being up above the clouds.
Mike: On landing in Albuquerque I couldn't help being happy the weather had been cold and damp when I entered Heathrow airport but here it was perfect. I couldn't see a cloud in the deep blue sky and the temperatures were well up in the eighties even though it was autumn. The sky alone was worth the trip.
Zeron: Wow! America - Albuquerque - heat! We were filmed as we boarded the plane in the UK and were relatively ignored. When we were filmed on the flight we raised some amusement for the air stewards and some of the passengers. But in the US Mike and I became big stars as soon as the cameras were rolling.
Mike: As usual, the American hotel showed how badly the UK does hotels. The room was beautiful, spacious, clean and had everything: bath, shower, cable TV, writing desk and massive bed. All for half the price of a poxy box at Gatwick, complete with peeling wall paper, a dribbling shower, woodlice and dirty windows.
Zeron: We were presented with a warm complimentary cookie as we booked into the hotel - now you're talking! I tried to book in twice for more cookies but got found out. I guess my English accent gave it away.
Day 5: Route 66
Mike: Today was meant to be a day off, but we already knew that when working with Producer Nic, these just don't exist. Instead we cruised around Albuquerque and the surrounding desert in the nice smart T-bird. It was a fun day.
Zeron: We drove out of the city limits to Route 66 to do some driving shots with the T-bird. Mike and I were having a "time out" from filming when a dog appeared from nowhere. To be honest the only time I noticed the dog was when Mike had dived into the camera van, locked the doors and then started screaming "Rottweiler" - cheers Mike! The beast was 6 feet from me and closing - thankfully the dog turned out to be friendly and I was able to stroke it eventually, when I regained control of my limbs.
Mike: We drove to a small, almost dead end town called Alamogordo to visit our first air force base. It was just as you would imagine a New Mexico town to be: huge billboards in gaudy colours lined the route for miles either side of the town. The only visible signs of activity were the thirsty four-wheel drives, driven by Stetson wearing old men, rolling along the road at walking pace, and the occasional dog. To be honest I thought the whole place reeked of American tack but there were some saving graces. The people appeared to be friendly, the food was cheap and it had a great space museum with some of the rockets and paraphernalia that were used during the pioneering days of space exploration.
Zeron: We took a trip to the space museum. You have to understand the overwhelming feeling that standing in a place like this gives you. These are the instruments that have carried man off our planet and started our tentative steps into space exploration. The air was crisp, the sky crystal clear and the stars didn't twinkle like back home - they just shone. I counted three shooting stars. I felt tiny and insignificant.
I felt so comfortable in Alamogordo that later, after everyone else has gone to bed, I threw on my roller blades and took off for a night time discovery of the town, which turned out to be far more extensive than it had seemed at first.
Mike: To get to the air force base we had to drive a few miles out of town - past fly-ridden shacks, derelict bars and bullet-riddled signs. I spread myself out on the back seat looking at isolated caravans parked a few yards back from the roadside. Scrawny chickens scratched around in the dust; an old pick-up truck rotted slowly away in the small plot demarcated by torn wire mesh. A short distance away was a pile of rubbish smouldering pathetically after an attempt to burn it. I have never failed to be amazed at the squalid conditions and abject poverty experienced by so many citizens of the world's richest country.
Alamogordo Air Force Base is a self-contained town. Certain laws and rules apply here which don't outside the base. For instance: every day, at precisely 4pm, the national anthem is relayed over the base on loud speakers and every USAF employee stands to attention, faces the flag and salutes. After the anthem they simply carry on as if nothing had happened.
After the town, the air base was a revelation. It was clean, green and any hint of the scrubby desert was kept outside the perimeter walls. The brick built houses even looked like proper homes and the gardens boasted well-kept lawns. As we waited to be signed in at the visitor centre I read the base paper while a proud security guard told us that there was a library, a range of smart shops, restaurants, a bank, post office and huge new gym. I glanced around the gatehouse, still feeling awkward about visiting a US military base.
Day 7: G-force training
Mike: Once the formalities had been dealt with, the public relations officer took us over to the building that housed one of the fastest accelerating centrifuges available in the world to test human beings. Apart from making a good TV programme, the role of this machine was to make sure that Zeron and I wouldn't have trouble coping with the extreme g-forces that we would experience in a modern day jet fighter. Again the building looked new. It was carpeted and even had well-stocked magazine racks on the back of each toilet door to ensure that airmen wouldn't become bored when having a dump. There was a cheap self-service canteen, the walls were decorated with photographs of the squadrons based at the airfield over the years and the chairs in the lecture theatres were so comfortable that I could have slept in them. In fact, the place was so smart and comfortable that I soon felt totally relaxed, until we attended the lecture.
Our first task was to hear how to prepare ourselves for a 'high-g environment'. There were four of us at the lecture: Zeron, myself, and two pilots who were also both called Mike. Zeron and I were there just to make a TV programme. I wanted to beat Zeron, he wanted to beat me, but if neither of us completed the tests it wouldn't really matter.
Zeron: This was nuts, Mike and I were taking the same lecture on how to withstand 9g as two fighter pilots. They were only 8g trained and needed to pass the 9g test to fly in the F-16. I was in awe that I was in such company. If these guys failed, it would jeopardise their career. If we failed, so what?!
Mike: The first thing our lecturer, Lt Vikki Thompson, told us was what to expect from high-g manoeuvres. The list of effects included monochrome (black and white) vision, tunnel vision, greyouts, blackouts and g-LOCs (g-force induced Loss Of Consciousness). Apparently these are a result of the blood draining away from your brain and into your feet, so to avoid them you have to find a way of stopping this from happening. The slides and video clips showing people suffering all of the above were scary, and neither Zeron or I were cocky any more. Winning the ride in the F-16 wasn't the challenge anymore, just getting through the tests without pissing in our pants would be enough. The scariest thing was watching the haunting image of pilots regaining consciousness after a g-LOC, jerking and convulsing as they came to, dancing the 'funky chicken'. This is where the blood starts returning to your head after you've lost consciousness, the effect seems to be a bit like kick-starting your brain.
Zeron: I listened intently to Vikki, our g-coach. She spoke to us and treated us just like pilots. By now all thoughts of competitiveness was gone from my mind, the whole ocean of what I was about to do had finally hit me.
Mike: A healthy person would expect to start suffering from a loss of vision and other g-induced problems at 5 or 6g; after that they usually need help. The first line of defence is The Strain. It's an exhausting exercise which involves contracting as many muscles as possible in your feet, calves, upper leg, stomach muscles and butt cheeks, while allowing your upper body to remain relaxed so that breathing is relatively easy. It sounds simple enough, but when each of us was brought out to the front of the 'class' to practise, it was far from it. After four or five attempts I managed to synchronise all these movements quickly enough, so that if I knew a hard turn was coming during flight I could 'put on my strain' almost instantly.
Zeron: Front of the class I got the buttocks and calf clenching almost right away. I have a strong lower body from the low Whu Shu (the type of martial arts I do) stance leaps and kicks I do, so I found this wasn't too difficult.
Mike: "Cool," I thought, "got that sussed." Then I tried again ten minutes later while Zeron was practising. Arse - I'd got it all wrong.
The next stage was to work on our breathing. At 9g breathing isn't easy. Imagine lying on the floor with eight people of your size lying on top of you. Whilst not exactly the same as experiencing a 9g turn I was told that it's pretty close. Obviously breathing out isn't difficult, but getting air back in is another matter. The effort needed to breathe in, under those circumstances, is extreme. And as less blood reaches the brain than normal, you want to make sure it has as much oxygen in it as possible, so correct, regulated breathing is doubly important.
The technique that we were taught was to take a natural intake of breath before putting on our strain, then seal our throats with a 'phonetic K'. This is the sound when you say "Ka". After this, every three seconds (which were counted for us) we had to take another breath. Of course, exhaling would be easy, so the air would almost explode out of us when pulling gs, but it would need to be followed immediately be a swift intake of breath and again sealed in with a phonetic 'K'. The breathing routine was practised several times, and I nearly always got it wrong, either breathing in too far on the first breath, or not breathing in fast enough on subsequent breaths. When done properly Vikki (or later during the real test the centrifuge technician) would prompt us in a weird conversation which went something like this:
"Take a breath then strain."
"Now hold it and count one, two, three, breathe."
"Relax your chest, two, three, breathe."
"Maintain your strain, breathe."
"Two, three, you're doing well, breathe." "Kaaaa, Hoook." "Not long now, two, three, breathe."
"One, two, three, relax."
At that I almost collapsed on the chair, perspiring like a mad thing. And that was just in the classroom.
Zeron: The breathing skills took some getting used to! It wasn't easy. They expected us to pick this up in one lesson. The only thing for me to do was to keep practicing. So for the rest of the time all you heard was me going "Kaaa," and "Hoook". We now had to go over and have a full air force medical where my breathing was about to get very erratic.
Mike: Next I had a real blow to my chances of flying. After filling in the forms for health and safety I was told that my asthma would prevent me from being able to go in the centrifuge or the jet fighter. I had already been told that I would never make a jet fighter pilot because I was colour blind. For the sake of the programme Andy Cubin, back in the UK, let me carry on but now my asthma had stopped me going any further. This was a major blow because I have always bullied myself through any incidents where asthma was a problem. Surely there had to be a way of persuading them to let me carry on.
Zeron: This was a perplexing time for me. Here I was, told that I was going to be flying in the jet after all, as Mike has been ruled out due to his asthma. I didn't know whether to feel elated or disappointed for Mike. I skipped around happily on camera but inside I was feeling bad for him.
Mike: Over the next couple of hours there were frantic phone calls between high-ranking officers. Zeron was told that he would get the flight and I got used to the idea of not flying. Then there was a phone call from a General to say that, on this occasion, I could go on with the centrifuge testing and possibly the flight. None of this appeared in the programme. Predictably I was elated, but Zeron had been messed about something rotten.
Zeron: Damn - the competition's back on!
Day 7: continued: The Big Test
Zeron: Before Mike and I went in the centrifuge we watched the other two pilots go through their paces. I can tell you they didn't make it look easy! But they were trained pilots and knew what to expect. However, as if to demonstrate that unexpected things can happen, one of the pilots' g-suits ruptured. His test had to be aborted while they fitted him up with a new suit: something he couldn't have done in the middle of a dog fight. Still, they both passed. I was elated for them and gave both a high five. Now it was our turn and Mike was up first.
Mike: Normally, before anything challenging like a Taekwondo bout, a dirt bike race, or an exam I would relax, enter a trance-like state, visualise what I had to do and get ready to explode with a mental acuity that I believed would cut through anything. However, on this occasion I really thought that I was batting off the back foot. I wasn't mentally prepared, wasn't relaxed and had no faith in my breathing regime or my strain. On the way to the centrifuge I tried to collect my thoughts. I imagined what the centrifuge would be like, went through my breathing and straining and, as I settled in the seat of the huge machine wondered what 9g would feel like.
Then, just as I was ready to give the tests a go I heard the immortal words, "Once more, please," which in Nic's case means "Let's do that several more times, please, so that I can cover it from different angles".
After what seemed like hours Nic had what he wanted and I was ready to go. I went through the preliminary checks, prepared myself and then wham! Within a fraction of a second I had reached 6g. It felt like I'd been sat in my comfy old armchair at home and a speeding juggernaut had crashed into the back of it. My brain felt like it was in my guts. I had to fight to keep my eyes wide open, my cheeks were hanging down where my neck should have been and I'd breathed out at the start of the run - stupid thing to do. "Only fifteen seconds," I thought to myself.
I took another breath. The air almost exploded out of me at first, before I sucked some back in. I was losing peripheral vision. "Strain, Mike, you bastard. Strain, for all your life's worth, or Zeron's doing the flying." I squeezed every muscle from my waist down. I was already aching and sweating. Vikki's voice came over the intercom.
"You're doing good, Mike. Stabilise your breathing. Every three seconds, now breathe."
I breathed and strained, strained and breathed. Slowly the lights came back. I forced my vision to work again and felt like I was cruising. The fifteen seconds were over quickly, and I had made it. After an extremely unpleasant tumbling effect there were now only four more tests to go.
Next was 7g while looking sideways for ten seconds. At first it sounded easy, but this time I had to breathe for myself, without Vikki guiding me. The thought of taking control of my own breathing scared me. I had been breathing for myself for over 37 years, but now the fear of not being told when to breathe in or out was terrifying. And there was another complication. Although it felt like 1g when the centrifuge was ticking over, in fact I was sat at ninety degrees with the pod swung out on the end of a boom which was still rotating fairly fast. It fooled me as long as I was sitting still, but should I turn my head, the fluid in the balance mechanisms of my inner ear would tell my brain that something was up and in the experience of the technicians this would inevitably lead to the pilot - me - vomiting violently. To turn my head around I first had to focus on a light to my right, then very slowly ease my head around to look at it. I did so as slowly as possible, fighting the urge to be sick through the whole motion.
Zeron: My turn to enter the centrifuge. I was nervous. I had just watched Mike do his usual trademark bulldozing through the test. Mike had passed the crucial 9g test so the pressure was all on me.
As I sat being strapped into the machine my mouth was dry so I started drinking from the water bottle. The centrifuge was set and moving on its idling speed of a fraction over 1g. As Vikki and the rest of the staff did final checks, she asked me a question. I can't remember what it was, but I know I told her to address me as "Captain Zeron". Everybody's laughter boomed over my speakers right at the point of me swallowing a mouth full of water. Their unexpected response caused me to laugh as well. Bad move, because half the water in my mouth flew into my lungs and I started coughing. I managed to bring my breathing back under control and it crossed my mind to ask for time out of the centrifuge to clear my lungs. But then I thought I'd look a real sissy. So I pressed ahead.
Go! I got through test one which was to set my body's g-tolerance without the aid of the g-suit. It was about half a g lower than Mike's. But, hey, he has more body fat than me. Vikki had pointed out during our training that because of the placement of body fat in women they can naturally take more gs than a guy! One female g-monster had ridden the centrifuge up to a staggering 12gs. And that was without the aid of a g-suit! Next we "turned on" the g-suit and tried again at 8gs for 10 seconds. Easy, and I didn't lose my vision peripheral vision. But I did notice my breathing was becoming slightly uncomfortable. Now it was time to try 9g for 15 seconds. I pulled back on the throttle and a sledge hammer hit my chest. From 1.2g to 9 in an instant is crazy. I was struggling with my breathing. Vikki coached me through the technique. "Stabilise your breathing. Every three seconds, now breathe."
I did it, I did it! And it wasn't as hard as I had thought it was going to be. With the adrenaline flowing I either didn't notice, or ignored, the warning pains my lungs were feeding me. The water I had sucked into them was being displaced by the gs. I had done the hard part: 9g and I hadn't g-LOC'd!
The rest would be plain sailing as nobody failed this final part of the test. They set the speed back down to 1.2g and I turned my head slowly because any sudden head and eye movement (I had been warned!) could lead to projectile vomit coating the inside of the centrifuge. As I turned my head I knew something was definitely wrong. The sideward turn of my head meant that my chest muscle became tauter and I could feel my left lung was suffering from the presence of water. I only had to hold 7g for 10 seconds - how hard would that be? Even if, by now, my breathing was quite painful.
All I remember is Vikki's voice reminding me to breathe every three seconds. My breathing had changed from "Kaaa, Hoook" to "Ka Ho!" Lights out time.
Man, I was swimming in a void, tumbling over and over. I thought I was in heaven but couldn't figure how I had got there. Where was I? Who was I? What was I doing? "Sir, are you with us? Sir, are you with us?"
And suddenly the lights came back on.
"Oh hi," I heard myself saying "Yeah I blacked out."
I couldn't have looked too bad because they asked me if I wanted to go again. I was told I had actually completed the test but had g-LOC'd after the allotted ten seconds. My lungs were screaming. But having been told I had done it and only g-LOCed during the slowdown spurred me on: "Yes, let's go again."
Nic came on the mic, "Dude, you really don't have to do this."
I was wide awake now and had a false sense of security - I was breathing to compensate for the pain in my lung.
"Take the strain in your legs" came Vikki's voice "You have control". I repeated "I have control" as we had been briefed to do. I pulled back on the stick. I shot up to 7gs, which was great, apart from the elephant sitting on my left lung. If I could just hold out for the ten seconds... I did, but my lung was in so much pain my brain decided, "Enough of this macho crap, you're hurting far too much... lights out!"
Mike: I passed each test, but it was the final one that caused Zeron to g-LOC - twice - resulting in him being raced to hospital with chest pains. I had mixed feelings. I was going to fly in the F-16, but thought that Zeron had been cheated, especially as he passed out due to breathing problems following an accident where he allowed some water to go down his windpipe. I also didn't like seeing my mate in pain. In the TV programme it looked as if I walked the competition, but unknown to the viewer I had come back from certain failure. What a drama. Shame the programme's only half an hour long and so much stuff ends up on the cutting room floor.
Zeron: It felt as though somebody was driving a hot screwdriver through my left lung and shoulder. My lung was full of displaced water and air. The pain was like a stitch, but ten times worse and under my collarbone. As a precaution, I was taken to hospital for a check up. I was in pain, as embarrassed as hell and just lost the flight of a lifetime. All because I had been funny at the wrong time - that'll teach me!
Zeron: I woke that morning with a heavy heart. I had done my best on my return from the hospital to beg if I could take the test again. The gs hadn't hurt; in fact, I knew I could pull it off. But in the life of a busy air force our allotted time had passed. I was grounded. Mike had had the good fortune and won this one. I sat in the back of the car reflecting, trying to join in with the occasional small talk but Mike's obvious cheerfulness and over chattiness was not helping. I didn't want to be in his car racing to Cannon USAF base so he could be fitted in a flight suit. I always felt that putting me in that position was just a bit insensitive. One good point was that I was still suffering from the after-effects of the water in the lung incident, manifesting itself in uncontrollable farts and burps. So was happy to let nature take her noisy revenge on the rest of the team.
Mike: I guess it was a formality when I was told this morning that I would get to fly in the jet fighter. Zeron had done really well, but hadn't made it because of his loss of consciousness. It was time to meet the F16s.
Mike: The day had come to go up in the F16. I was very excited but knew that I'd have to go through the emergency ejection training. It's all a bit freaky because there is so much to remember. For example, I should tuck my limbs in properly when ejecting, otherwise they could easily be ripped off. We go on to discuss what I should do if we land in the middle of the desert, how I should set up radio beacons, flares and so on, and how to react should the pilot become unconscious or die in mid-air. All light-hearted stuff then! It goes OK, and after a burger, Nerf (my pilot for the day) is ready to take me up. I make sure that I don't eat any onions because they taste nasty when you puke them up apparently.
Zeron: I didn't really have much to do today, it was Mike's day. I wanted to stay away as I was still feeling extremely disappointed. Alison said "Well, let's go shopping." I guess she thought it would help - it seems to make most women happy, but it's small fry when you've just missed out on your one chance to get the flight of your life.
Mike: What happened from then on was a blur. I put on the safety gear, checked it over, got in the plane, checked it over, chatted to Nerf, waited for instructions, the engine fired up, I felt a brief surge in my back and we rocketed down the runway.
Zeron: I made certain to get to the air base in time to see Mike take off (I'm not that much of a sore loser.) I waved him off and stood watching as the luckiest guy in TV took off in the world's most formidable fighter plane. Once again I was left in limbo with nothing to do until his plane landed. So I pulled on my roller blades and took off around the base. I wanted to pull my own aerial stunts but was warned off by Nic as we still had other Lab Rat shows to make, and me being ambulanced to hospital twice in one episode would not help his blood pressure. I chose solitude, blading around the sort of airplanes that have fascinated me since childhood. What a disappointing end to my first Lab Rats programme.
Mike: At first we gently left the ground, then streaked up almost vertically into the deep blue sky. From then it was pure ecstasy: up, down, upside down, tight turns to the left, to the right, barrel rolls, aileron rolls, Immelmens, a split S, the bloody lot. Totally awesome, and what a finale to our first shoot. Tough luck Zeron!