For senior writer Frank Deford the thunderbirds provided an uplifting flight through Americana. For photographer Joe McNally, they inspired awe but also induced queasiness. Taken together, these disparate impressions help shape the broad view of the U.S. Air Force's famous show planes that begins on page 66.
In his 25 years at SI, Deford has examined the fringes of sporting life, as well as its biggest names and brightest venues, exploring such peculiarly American diversions as truck racing and tacky tourism. (A sampling of vintage Deford is available in his new book, The World's Tallest Midget, Little, Brown, $17.95.) The Thunderbirds assignment gave Deford an opportunity to assess an armed services-style sporting spectacular. "I'm not a rah-rah militarist by any stretch of the imagination," says Deford, 48, whose six months of active duty in the National Guard consisted mostly of carrying a flag during retirement ceremonies at Fort Dix, N.J. "But I think it's good to show a little window on the relations between the military and civilians in a democracy."
Deford was able to look through that window from the inside when he took a memorable ride in the rear cockpit of an F-16. Captain Tom Weiler even let our intrepid writer briefly take the controls. "I was worried about claustrophobia, which I sometimes get, not a fear of flying," Deford says. "It turned out to be quite the opposite, very wide open. The sense of being up there in the heavens is far more dramatic than all the loop-the-loops."
While Deford's ride peaked at about 4.5 g's, McNally's was slightly more strenuous. For this assignment, he photographed several air shows but always from ground level. However, at a Thunderbird practice at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, he asked for and got a bird's-eye view. Captain Bert Nelson whisked him around in an F-16 behind the Thunderbirds, meaning McNally went through all the group's maneuvers. With the g forces reaching 8.5, it was practically impossible for him to hold his camera, much less focus it. Yet somehow he managed.
"When I came down I was drenched in sweat," McNally, 35, says. "It was amazing, exhilarating and wonderful, and I'd do it again in a minute. But I was a little disoriented afterward." He was also a lot nauseous.
Because they had different experiences, Deford and McNally left the assignment with quite different opinions. Of flying in an F-16, Deford says, "It's just like a big toy." Of flying in an F-16 and shooting pictures, McNally says, "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do with a camera."