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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Taking Back Seat in Ride of Life

June 24, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

SUMTER, S.C. — "OK Eric, no turning back," Capt. Randy Redell warned on his intercom as the bubble canopy of the F-16 fighter jet locked into place.

The F-16 took off at 10:30 a.m. from Shaw Air Force Base, afterburners blazing. It was like riding atop a rocket ship.

In 47 seconds, the jet zoomed from sea level to 18,000 feet, the nose pointed straight up. There was 30,000 pounds of thrust coming from the single General Electric engine, more powerful than the starting lineup of the Indianapolis 500.

Having survived four G's--four times the force of gravity--my confidence was soaring. Then came the nine-G's left turn.

My whole body went numb. I was jammed into the cockpit as if a Volkswagen were resting on top. My anti-G suit inflated; my stomach churned. My face was contorted and my forehead was drenched in sweat as I took deep breaths from my oxygen mask. No ride at Disneyland or Magic Mountain could ever prepare me for a nine-G experience.

Never wincing once was Redell, the 30-year-old pilot who played quarterback at Crespi High and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"All that time on the football field prepares you for things like this," he said while trying to reassure his terrified passenger. "This is like riding on a magic carpet or riding at the end of a broom stick. I'd do this seven days a week for free."

*

As a high school student in Encino, Redell was more interested in football than flying.

"Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was lead the UCLA Bruins to the Rose Bowl," he said. "But there aren't many 5-foot-10 1/2 quarterbacks. I went to the Air Force Academy and thank God every day. I'm addicted to flying."

Redell started flying the F-16 in 1995. He has more than 1,100 flights under his belt. He helped enforce the No Fly Zone in Iraq. In August, he leaves for a one-year tour of duty in South Korea before returning to become an F-16 flight instructor.

"Going through high school, you never dream what you're going to be when you grow up," he said. "I have to hit myself sometimes because I can't believe what I'm doing."

It didn't come without lots of perseverance.

"Sports got me to think this way," he said.

In 1984, Redell's junior football season at Crespi, the Celts went 0-9-1. Rather than looking at it as a negative, Redell turned it into a positive.

"Whether you finish dead last and lose every single game, as long as you never quit, you will eventually be successful," he said.

He applied the same standard to flying.

"There's been a lot of stumbling blocks along the way for me," he said. "Overcoming the academic classes at the Air Force Academy, trying to overcome airsickness when I first started flying . . ."

Married with two young children, Redell has moved six times in his eight years of military life. He finds inspiration in his flying and from the people he works with.

"These guys are unbelievable," he said of his fellow F-16 pilots. "One of them is convinced he's going to be the first person on Mars."

Redell has adopted a simple philosophy. "Shoot for the stars," he said. "You might not ever get there, but at least you'll get in the clouds somewhere."

*

It's not every day a sportswriter gets to fly in a $25 million F-16. This was made possible by the Air Force's Orientation Flight Program.

St. Francis High football Coach Bill Redell, Randy's father, first suggested the story. Then he tried to scare me.

"Let me tell you something--you're going up 50,000 feet in 10 seconds," Bill said.

Randy assured me, "I can make it as benign as flying from New York to Los Angeles or as bad as my worst football game."

After the flight was approved, Randy wrote in a letter, "If you thought [running back] Russell White was fast, you will soon gain a new appreciation for speed and performance."

But there was no guarantee I'd fly when I arrived at Shaw AFB last Friday unless I passed a physical and made it through a life-support training class.

The physical went well. A flight surgeon checked my heart and blood pressure and examined my ears.

"Good to go," he said.

Then came the one-hour training class for an ejection. Yes, it was a worst-case scenario, but it was more frightening than the flight itself. I climbed into a makeshift cockpit wearing a fire-resistant flight suit, steel-toed boots, leather gloves, an anti-G suit, a harness that's connected to the parachute, a flight helmet and oxygen mask. I was bolted down with a series of seat belts.

Then I was told about the yellow handle between my feet. If you pull it or the pilot pulls his, you'll be shot out of the cockpit and a parachute is supposed to open. If the parachute fails, you open it manually by pulling a chord you can't see.

"Bail out, bail out, bail out," is the command to pull the yellow handle. Those are words I'll never forget.

Equally ominous is trying to escape the jet while on the ground. That cue is, "Egress, egress, egress."

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