I was about to push faster than the speed of sound, something the human body was not designed to endure. Especially mine. I was twenty, weighed in at 100 pounds and focused on staying skinny, breastless and amenorrheic. I was also being fitted with a G-suit which would inflate and squeeze my thighs and abdomen. The purpose was to push blood to my brain while in flight and pulling Gs, which would prevent me from passing out. I was doing this because I had been awarded an “incentive flight” on the F111 while stationed with the U.S. Air Force at RAF Upper Heyford in England. A one-time event that very few could claim.
I was asked if I had any neck or head injuries. I lied. The military culture at the time was to be unbroken. If you happened to be fragile in any capacity, never show it. I was known as a fast-burner, an over-achiever in my career field of Flight Data and Airfield Management. My success was from inner drive and determination coupled with a need for approval. At the time, I slept under three hours a night, which meant I had a twenty-two-hour wake period of productivity. I was deemed fit for departure once I signed pages of waivers stating that I was in perfect health, able in body and mind, and would not sue the Air Force if I died.
I tried not to think about the flight as I was geared up because I didn’t want to chicken out. I climbed the ladder and was strapped in, feeling both secure and trapped. Unlike in most fighter aircraft, the F111 crew sat side by side instead of front to back. Once I was harnessed, the pilot boarded, placing a thermos of coffee in his cup holder.
“You have time for a beverage while driving this thing?” I asked, not considering how he could take a sip at the rate we’d be traveling. This jet could pull three, sometimes four, Gs and I was beginning to question if this was a good idea. I knew that pilots died more in training than in combat.
Once cleared for take-off, there was no turning back. We taxied and it felt like we were airborne in about three seconds. Then up. High and fast. The ground looked small and speckled. We flew to a training zone and the pilot asked me if I was ready to have some fun. I gave a thumbs-up, feeling brave, uncertain of my preparedness. We dipped, maybe as low as 500 feet above the ground and I looked to the instruments to note our speed, 480 knots, about 550 miles per hour. We were in a valley and the periphery flashed and blurred into olive green mixed with gray.
I could feel the suit’s pressure as the jet sped up. My face began to stretch across my skull and flatten onto the seat behind me, like a bad ride at the fairgrounds. I started to worry about early-onset wrinkles and bags swelling beneath my eyes. It was about this time when the compression of the suit and the rate of acceleration made me feel as if I weighed 400 pounds. My vision dimmed like a lens closing on a camera. And then I remembered.
I remembered how heaviness had haunted me the first time my step father had laid on top of me. He was a big man, just over six feet and 230 pounds, all in the belly. I remembered how his skin felt slimy and his tongue, pushed into my mouth, felt like an eel, or at least what I imagined an eel would feel like. I remembered the stark pain as my skin and insides tore when he entered me and I thought to myself, only a small girl at the time, just beginning school, that the bleeding would most likely never stop. The tension tightened around my abdomen and my mouth filled with vomit. Tears streamed into my hairline instead of down my face.
“You doing all right?” the pilot asked.
“Couldn’t be better,” I said, swallowing puke. I was breathing hard and realized I hadn’t looked out the windscreen for some time. We were over the white cliffs of Dover and no longer whizzing, more like sailing and I felt like God was pulling me through the sky, pulling me through the haze. I felt jealous of the heavy British clouds that looked like they were always ready to weep. They didn’t mind feeling massive and they didn’t mind letting it all go.
I looked over at the pilot and saw him eating brownies.
“I didn’t bother with a full lunch since this is a short sortie,” he said. I laughed. I felt safe, held in this small space speeding through the sky. Contained and untouchable and as if, for once, I could sleep if I wanted.
About the Author: Rebecca Evans served eight years in the United States Air Force, and is a decorated Gulf War veteran. She hosts the Our Voice television show, advocating personal stories, and mentors teens in the juvenile system. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Boise State University (BSU), minoring in Psychology, and was honored with the BSU “Women Making History in Idaho” award. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and serves on the editorial staff of the Sierra Nevada Review. She lives in Idaho with her three sons, and, once, served Sammy Hagar tequila on stage.