Diamond Rio: Wild Blue Yonder

When Diamond Rio was performing for our troops in Korea a couple of Februarys ago, the group’s Jimmy Olander had a chance to take the ride of a lifetime.

Actually all six of the guys in the band were offered the chance, but Jimmy’s the only one who accepted the challenge. In his own words, here is what he told CW shortly after returning to the states.

We played seven or eight shows while we were over there. One of them was an Air Force base down in Kunsan, South Korea. And it was unbelievable, ’cause that’s where I got to hop an F-16—it’s called an incentive ride.

I think it’s an incentive for you to come on over here and do the PR with the troops and stuff like that. Nobody else was interested in doin’ it. I was just kind of by my lonesome. Picked up early—seemed like it was o’dark thirty one morning. Very cool. And I went into training hardcore at 7 a.m. We had wheels up at 11. So, from 7 to 11, I had to go see a flight doc, I went through physiology training, as far as what my body would be experiencing and how I need to combat . . . I got the actual technical term for a Valsalva technique—that’s where you hold your nose and blow to clear your ears. That’s the Valsalva technique! [laughs]

And did some “g” training. I did some lightweight survival/evacuation stuff. Because we were flying very close to North Korean air space while we did this. And I did some emergency parachute landing stuff. Had to go through and get my “g” suit fitted. I’ve done an F-18 without a G suit before. This was my first time to fly with a G suit . . . which actually made it TONS easier.

All we would pull was a 7.3 G. But we went up and did formation flying with another F-16. And when we were in the lead, just off to my left shoulder, the wing tips were less than 36 inches apart—at 450 knots.

They were out there on a training mission, so it was a VIP ride, but they made sure they got their training in.

Another thing that made this very interesting for us was that I was with a combat unit, the Wolf Pack down at Kunsan Air Force Base, and these guys were not used to celebrities comin’ out and takin’ rides with them. They were interjecting me into one of their training missions. So we came down here and on our way out, since we were flying close to North Korean air space, we had all the pins pulled and all the missiles and bombs were hot on the plane. They’re takin’ it really seriously.

And reality kind of hit me. Wow, what a shame it would be if for some reason—and I knew it wasn’t gonna happen—but if for some reason, there was a little bit of conflict, and here we were with a bunch of placebos, you know? [chuckles]

So we went and did that stuff. We did our formation flying. Then our wing man went off a mile to our left, and the pilot gave me the stick and we did rolls and I flew the plane for a little while, which was interesting and fun.

I don’t have a pilot’s license. I’ve got three hours of flying time—one is a Lear Jet, one is an F-18 and one’s an F-16. All highly exotic planes . . . I’ve never flown a Cessna.

After we do that, we go into evasive maneuvers. We took the lead this time—it was kind of follow the leader. This is where we were pullin’ the g’s. And we’re right over this big mountain range in South Korea, north of Kunsan Air Force base, and we’re doin’ this kind of stuff. Which is a really physical workout to stay awake. You’re doing a hook maneuver. Which is like . . . if you’re constipated and straining, with your legs, your calves and everything . . . that’s kind of what you do to create pressure and keep the blood in your head to stay awake. It was pretty amazing, pretty violent.

But when we went into offensive maneuvers . . . and the other F-16 was directly in front of us, and he’s trying to get away from us. And we are right on his tail. And I’m talkin’ dirt divin’ down at the mountains, they’re pullin’ straight up, doin’ loops . . . whatever. And this guy is a couple hundred yards in front of you . . . or a hundred yards in front of you in this big plane. And you are absolutely blastin’ . . . afterburners, the whole shebang. It was stunning. I remember one time, we’re crusin’ along, we’re about on him. He pulls straight up, we pull straight up going to the roof, really pullin’ a lot of g’s. He comes over the top, we come over the top. And, at that time, this glass top canopy . . . I look up over my head, and it’s just completely snow-capped mountain range . . . in this big F-16, and we’re both inverted, comin’ over the top . . . now diving straight at the mountains. It was UNBELIEVABLE.

That definitely increased my respect for the people who do this every day. Oh my gosh. Forty-four year old guy, right? Just the flexibility to get in the damn thing! That was my toughest time that I had with the whole thing! [big laugh] I’ve got size 14 boots.and I’m tryin’ to get in the back of an F-16! And I am not exaggerating! It was a little tough for me to get in there and get all strapped in.

We have not done this before, and it was a fantastic trip. The soldiers were incredibly receptive and were very thankful we were over there.

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