National Guard Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand took time out from his preparations for this weekend's IZOD IndyCar Series finale for a visit to Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, where the United States Air Force Thunderbirds gave the 23-year-old IndyCar rookie the opportunity to fly in one of their F-16 fighter jets. While he knew he was in for an awesome ride, he didn't expect it to turn into an active role in flying the plane itself!
Almost soon as they'd taken off, Captain Nick Holmes – fittingly the Thunderbirds pilot No. 4 – was going to allow the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year to fly the plane himself.
"It seemed like soon as we got up on the air, the pilot says, ‘Hey man, you wanna fly the plane?'" Hildebrand said. “I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
While Hildebrand was allowed to maneuver the jet during the ride, the real flying was done by Capt. Holmes, who took JR on a ride that included barrel rolls, a full loop, aileron rolls, flying inverted (upside down), a mock bombing run and pulling a 9G turn – a move that earned Hildebrand a 9G pin, a commemorative pin for the few who have pulled that level of gravity in an aircraft. The flight averaged roughly 500mph while they reached a speed just under Mach 1 flying over the picturesque Sierra Nevada mountains.
“I was freaking out when we pulled nine Gs; you feel like your eyes are popping out of your head,” Hildebrand explained. “This was just an unbelievable experience that far exceeded my expectations. And what was cool about this, too, was being able to fly in the No. 4 jet, we're proud of that number and it's pretty cool to see the other side of that here with Captain Holmes and all these guys with the Thunderbirds who work so hard on all this equipment.”
Capt. Holmes, who is referred to simply as “Number Four” around Nellis Air Force Base, is the "slot" in the Thunderbirds lineup, meaning his airplane flies in the position directly behind Pilot Number One, who is the lead – or point – of the Thunderbirds historic diamond formation.
“He did an awesome job,” Capt. Holmes said of Hildebrand afterward. “It was such a thrill to show the other Number Four how our team works. It's always an honor to be able to showcase the pride, professionalism and teamwork embodied by America's airmen every day.”
It was the thrill of a lifetime for Hildebrand, the self-described “adrenaline junkie,” who told Panther officials at the time of his signing last December that two things he wanted to do this season was fly in an F-16 and jump out of a plane. He marked the first off the list on Tuesday and National Guard officials have already agreed to arrange for him to jump out of a plane after he recovers from ACL knee surgery which is scheduled shortly after the season concludes this Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Thunderbirds noted that when NASCAR driver Carl Edwards flew with them earlier this year, he won the subsequent Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that weekend and gave them the trophy to put on display at Nellis.
“So no pressure, right?” Hildebrand joked with the pilots and crew. “I'd be happy to take Rookie of the Year this weekend, for sure. I'm just not sure I'll get the same adrenaline rush standing up there with the trophy as I got from these guys.”