@Aric_Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Smithfield Foods Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, had the experience of a lifetime, donning the jump suit worn by the elite Thunderbirds and going up for the ride of his life in an F-16 fighter jet.
“I’ve been begging to do this for the last four years,” Almirola said. “And it finally worked out that they were in the same place that I was. Scheduling all worked out and I was finally able to get that ride here at Daytona.”
“It’s something that is an opportunity of a lifetime. From the very beginning of being at Richard Petty Motorsports and having involvement with the US Air Force, I’ve wanted to fly with the Thunderbirds. It was really special to get this opportunity.”
Almirola was also thrilled to don his new US Air Force Thunderbird uniform, particularly as he has such close ties to the military through his family as well.
“Obviously, the US Air Force is the best Air Force in the world,” Almirola said. “To be able to fly in an F-16 fighter jet and do all the maneuvers that we did today was spectacular. The pilot Scott took me to the limit and showed me everything these planes are capable of. We did all kinds of aerobatics and what not. It was amazing and makes me appreciate the fact that there are men and women like this up in the air fighting for our freedom.”
In order to take the flight, Almirola had to rise and shine early, as well as go through multiple briefings before even hopping aboard the two-man aircraft.
“I was up at 6:30 am and here at the airport at 7:00 am,” Almirola said. “There was a technical briefing on the airplane, a medical briefing and evaluation, and then a briefing on an emergency evacuation just in case situation. They taught me how to fly a parachute this morning and how to pull the eject button and all the things I needed to be prepared for just in case.”
“That’s the one thing that I’ve learned being a part of the US Air Force over the last four years is their attention to detail. It is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They check everything off twice and really are prepared for any situation, good or bad.”
Just as he usually describes a good race run, Almirola relished in sharing the details of his adventure with the Air Force flying elite.
“First of all, we took off at a rapid climb,” Almirola said. “We went from just barely hovering off the runway a hundred feet off the ground up to 12,000 feet in about two seconds. So, to watch the world get that small that fast was pretty amazing. Then, we flew over some restricted air space over Cape Canaveral and we were flying right over the shuttle launch pad which was pretty spectacular. We were doing all kinds of maneuvers, barrel rolls, and loops, flying upside down, and knife edging through the clouds.”
“You name it and we did it. It was a lot of fun.”
“One of the tricks that my pilot did, we were flying at 4,000 feet in the air and we flew right over the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA and right as we approached the building, he turned the plane and we went straight up in the air to about 15,000 feet. Then he started spinning the airplane in a circle while we were still going straight up, all the way until about 18,000 feet. That was unbelievable.”
“I was glad that he showed me that trick. He said that a lot of people don’t get to experience that but because I hadn’t thrown up or passed out yet, he was willing to show me.”
Almirola noted that the Air Force was indeed prepared in the event that his stomach got the best of him.
“They had two puke bags at my legs just in case I did get sick,” Almirola said. “But fortunately, I didn’t need them. I didn’t have a big breakfast and my pilot Scott was a hell of a pilot and was so smooth that I didn’t get sick.”
While Almirola loves his No. 43 race car, he had difficulty relating any similarities between his car and the F-16 fighter jet.
“There really was nothing similar at all between the race car and the plane,” Almirola said. “The plane is so much more maneuverable and so much more of an amazing piece of machinery. The race cars are amazing too but for our cars most of the technology at the core is from the 1960’s. These planes are just amazing and the things that they can do in the air is unbelievable.”
“I’m probably a little jaded about how special our cars are because I get to experience them day in and day out. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to fly in this F-16.”
So, what will Almirola think when he sees the Thunderbirds flyover during pre-race festivities prior to one of NASCAR’S biggest races, the Daytona 500?
“That is something I was actually thinking about as we were coming in to land,” Almirola said. “It will be really special on Sunday for the Daytona 500 to watch the Thunderbird fly over. And to know that just a few days ago I was sitting in the back seat of one of those, I’ll feel like I have a little bit more of a connection than the other 100,000 people at the race track getting ready to watch the Daytona 500.”
“I’ll definitely feel a little more connected for sure.”
“And even more important, it certainly is an honor to represent the US Air Force and I have that much more of an appreciation for them now than I ever did.”
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