VAN BUREN CHARTER TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Detroit Red Wings defenseman/forward Luke Witkowski has always been known as the adventurous sort but on Thursday, he took it to a whole new level -- literally.
Witkowski flew with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds in advance of the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Before the early evening flight with pilot Eric Gorney, a native of Saginaw, Mich., Witkowski was asked if he was worried he might pass out or puke during the ride.
"Just these cameras in my face now are making me a little nervous," Witkowski said. "I realize what I'm about to do right now. The plan is not to do either one of those. I think I'll be all right."
Was Witkowski worried that his long beard might get in his way?
"No, not at all," he grinned. "It'll help the aerodynamics of the plane."
Gorney expressed full confidence in Witkowski's ability to handle the full capability of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
"Super excited for the flight today, we've got a great day, beautiful weather out here so we're going to have a pretty fun takeoff. We call it the max climb," Gorney said. "Then we're going to get out to the airspace, we're going to do some practice warmup maneuvers, make sure he's ready to go. Then we're going to go through a series of solo maneuvers and some of the loops that the demo pilots will do this weekend so it's going to be a pretty exciting ride for him."
Gorney and Witkowski took to the air around 5:45 p.m. and returned a little over 30 minutes later.
"It was awesome," Witkowski said. "Didn't pass out, didn't throw up. I got a good pilot here. That was a once-in-a-lifetime unbelievable experience."
One might think that a professional athlete would be a perfect candidate for these flights.
"Absolutely, because usually they're more physically equipped and ready to be out here and be part of it." Gorney said. "They're used to a little bit more discomfort. of course, and physically are ready to kind of withstand some of the challenges because pulling Gs (g-force) like that is certainly physically and mentally challenging so they have a little bit of an edge on that as well.
"The funny thing is the backseat of this airplane doesn't care if you're a sixth-grade school teacher or a professional athlete, it treats everybody the same. We've had people on both sides do really, really well and people on both sides who just want to take it easy."
From the sound of it, WItkowski did not want Gorney to take it easy on him at all.
"Great job with some turns there and then you got us through the first aileron roll, the fastest one I've ever had a media flyer take me through so thanks for max performing the airplane there," Gorney said. "Then we got right into the whole profile. We did all of our loops, all of our rolls, inverted to inverted, vertical rolls, everything there. Then at the end we had a little bit more time so he flew us around again. I said, 'All right, do you want to see anything else?' Then he wanted the inverted to inverted again.
"For everybody, that's the one where we fly upside down, which is one of the most uncomfortable maneuvers we do, and then we roll from upside down to upside down. So he got to do that twice so that was pretty cool. Then at the end we set up for a max turn, then we got a full 9 Gs. Nice job, he even got a diamond 360 so a full 360 turn at 4 Gs, then ran into a full 9-G turn."
Witkowski said the feeling during all the maneuvers was pretty unique but he tried to make a comparison that everyone could understand.
"Some of it's like the weightless feeling," Witkowski said. "Just imagine you're going down this old country roads and you speed up on that down - some it drops a little bit. It's pretty awesome. If you get sick on roller coasters, this isn't for you."
Gorney, who flies the No. 7 jet for the U. S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, said it was a fun experience for him as well.
"This is a special treat for me coming back to Michigan and of course to fly a member of the Detroit Red Wings is pretty awesome," Gorney said. "So how'd he do overall? Awesome. Definitely didn't have any worries going into this from the beginning and we certainly had a good time. Awesome takeoff, just had to dodge the one little cloud there to get the max climb, which was pretty fun. Then out to the west there over beautiful southern Michigan so it was nice to see some green after we're used to the desert out in Vegas.
"We started off getting the G warmup maneuvers there then handed the jet over to Luke and he did a great job flying around so if the whole hockey thing doesn't work out, then you can fly for the Air Force."
Gorney let Witkowski deliver a few final words to the team.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Witkowski said. "You guys do this a lot. This might be the only chance I ever get. I appreciate your service. Thank you for everything. It was awesome."
The Thunder Over Michigan Air Show runs Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26, with the grounds opening at 9 a.m.
The Thunderbirds fly each day at 3 p.m.