'I Nearly Crashed a Fighter Jet'

When I graduated from flight school, I was given a book called Thud Ridge—an account of the experiences of Col. Jack Broughton, commander of a Thunderchief squadron in the Vietnam War. It was a book written by a pilot, for pilots: we took off, we landed, we flew, we hit targets, we missed targets, we got hit... three hundred pages of dense, often technical stuff. I read it all, and then forgot about it. The book didn't leave much of an impression. Crazy American pilots doing crazy things, brave as hell.

Five years later, I'm in the cockpit of a Kfir jet—an Israeli version of the French Mirage 5—on a training sortie above the Negev desert, pulling up for the attack. Soaring high above the desert and then rolling on my back, leading the nose of the plane down towards the target. I was completely focused on achieving my best aim ,when I accidentally passed through the leader's slipstream, diving less than a hundred feet ahead of me. The slipstream is a trail of corkscrewed air behind a jet plane, and passing through it shouldn't be too dramatic—unless you're Tom Cruise in that scene from Top Gun... or, say, yours truly, in a steep dive, speeding to the ground at 500 knots to release a newly (and as was later found out, only marginally stable) ordnance load.

The nose of my jet tipped very slightly down, and then jerked up. Then down again, violently this time. One moment I'm hanging on my harness in intense negative G, the next I'm squashed into the bottom of my cockpit with positive G so strong it maxed the G-meter ability to record. Imagine the biggest bartender you've ever met, shaking the biggest Martini blender you've ever seen; now put yourself inside it. The negative G choked the cockpit up with dust, and the windshield was filling up rapidly with desert landscape, expanding at an alarming pace. In the words of my 10-year-old son—this wasn't fun.

In his book, Jack describes a manoeuvre of exiting at low-altitude from an attack over Hanoi, in which his jet was thrown into an oscillation state (a word I didn't even know when I read the memoir.) The Thunderchiefs' tendency toward oscillation was well-known, and the pilots trained for that; Jack remains cool-headed, and comes through by letting go of the controls and allowing the seemingly out-of-control jet stabilise by itself. He also notes, drily, that a pilot trying to control the plane in this situation will never match the speed of his correction to the speed of the oscillation, engineering a divergence that will rip the plane apart in mid-air. Just hold back, he wrote. The entire story occupies a three-line para somewhere toward the end of the book. No big deal.

The human brain is truly a remarkable machine. In that ever-accelerating giant martini tumbler, hurtling to the ground surrounded by tons of fuel, metal and explosives, my brain somehow brought up that one paragraph from that book I read once, five years prior. I held back (which was way harder than it sounds) and kept my hands off the controls, even though the desert ground seemed set to burst into my cockpit. The plane slowly calmed down, and I came out of the dive just above the bed of the Neqarot stream, at a height more suitable for driving a 4x4 jeep than for flying. The battered plane and its rattled pilot limped their way to a safe landing at the nearest concrete strip.

And so, ever since that day, I've been chewing my kids' ears off about the importance of reading. It opens up your mind, it broadens your horizons, and there's no way knowing what weird situation it might save you from one day. I also tell them that jeep trails are best traversed in jeeps. Not in fighter jets.

Zvi Frank was a fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force, and is currently a high tech and social entrepreneur.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.