Prose & Photography: Ryan Kelly & Ryan Tykosh

Rain RK-June 09, 2018-02.jpg

Full Disc Aviation recently had the honor of chatting with Major John “Rain” Waters for a few short minutes after his arrival to the Rhode Island National Guard Open House. Rain is in his second season as the F-16 Fighting Falcon (affectionately known as the Viper) demo pilot for the US Air Force, and operates from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to points all across the country. In addition to flying the hell out of the F-16, Rain is as humble as can be.

For those who aren't familiar with this aircraft, the F-16 is a multi-role platform that was originally designed as a front-line fighter for the USAF. It boasts nearly 30,000lbs of thrust from a single afterburning turbofan, and can nearly double the speed of sound in a clean configuration at altitude. Rain has been flying the Viper on the airshow circuit for two years now, quite literally creating clouds during his performance with the vapor he pulls from the air pulling 9G turns. Full Disc Aviation would like to thank the entire Viper Demonstration Team for what they do and Major Waters for taking the time to chat with us. His jet had an issue which caused him to make a pit stop short of his intended destination, hence our first question…

FDA: So the jet had an issue coming in today?

Rain: Yeah, had a ECS (Environmental Control System) that had an issue which generated a fire which we were able to [put] out and safely recover the jet. So the thing is, obviously there's lots of parts and pieces that are moving in these planes, and they're getting older, so stuff does break... everything is designed to fly [the jet]; we use it and we max-perform it, [and] just like your car, at points, things are going to break. And we go back to training; we spend a lot of time, money, effort training different emergencies so that you can handle and deal with them if something happens.

FDA: How the does the selection process for the position work?
You apply for it and the process is pretty much the same... so there's only one F-16 single ship demo team. That's at Shaw [Air Force Base]. We actually just went through the process of hiring my replacement and so what that looked like was; submit...one; say 'I'm interested in doing it,' submit a resume then go through some interviews with various leadership on base, and then they pick the next pilot. So it really comes down to, one; being interested, right place right time, and then having the qualifications and the experience that they deem, 'hey you know what you're probably a decent fit to go do this' and then we'll take the next demo pilot in the off season; December, January, February, and put them through about 20 rides to get them ready to go do this.

FDA: You have well over 2,000 flight hours in various aircraft from the T-6 to the F-16, what has been your favorite?
The F-16, by far. That's like strapping on a rocket motor with two wings. I've been fortunate enough to go out there and do what I wanted, which is [to] go to combat in the F-16 and do the mission... airshows are a whole different world, it's like, now I get to drive around the Ferarri and fly [it] like I stole it, which is kind of cool...kind of fun to do stuff that is normally not allowed to happen at most airports. So I love flying the F-16, I love flying airshows... it's a great plane, it's honestly the best one that's out there.

FDA: We all get to see the great videos online of your demo from within the cockpit, and I’ve always wondered, what does 9 Gs feel like?
 It hurts. [laughter] There’s no way to say that it’s comfortable. I weigh 200 pounds, that's equivalent to 1800lbs of force exerted on my body. I'm definitely straining in a G suit, legs are tightening, abs are tightening, [using the] breathing cycle in order to stay awake doing that. On average, goin' off the Garmin watches and stuff like that, I burn off 5-600 calories per demo sortie so 12-15 minutes... it is a full on sprint for that long. I get about a 20 second break when I run uphill, and then it's right back into it so...and I'm focused, right? 'Cuz you're at 200 feet, going 700 miles per hour, pulling 9 Gs. The tolerance for any error doesn't exist.

FDA: Being that it’s your second and final year with the team, what has been the most impactful/standout moment for you?
 So, the best part about it is honestly the people and doing crowd engagements and stuff like that because people are really enthusiastic about aviation, so when you find people who share that common interest, it's really cool. I'm very fortunate; I've gotten to do a lot of really awesome stuff, from flying over the Super Bowl to doing airshows, every day is something I didn't think that was possible, I didn't think I'd have that opportunity to do that, which is really kind of cool. It literally is the best job that is out there.

FDA: So you’re living the dream?
I am, absolutely.

FDA:What's the next step? How will you take this experience on the team into your next role?
 Like everything in life, it builds upon itself, so, this is one experience I'll never forget. I'll cherish everything, I've learned a lot and met a lot of people, and so it's just trying to take what I've learned and done and apply it to my next phase of life, whatever that might be, but I think it's kinda cool again to be a part of this, through all the people that I've met, you know, you change and learn things and you take good ideas and [recognize] bad ideas and say 'maybe this will be applicable down the road.'