Marcus Larson/News-Register##Juanita Clarno is an adviser to the EASA robotics team in addition to teaching engineering and manufacturing at the McMinnville High School academy.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##Juanita Clarno is an adviser to the EASA robotics team in addition to teaching engineering and manufacturing at the McMinnville High School academy.
Submitted photo##Just before her flight with the Blue Angels, Juanita Clarno gives a thumbs up signal from her seat in the rear of an F-18.
Submitted photo##Just before her flight with the Blue Angels, Juanita Clarno gives a thumbs up signal from her seat in the rear of an F-18.
By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Stopping By: Flying high with physics

“It was a living physics experiment. It was awesome!” said Clarno, who teaches manufacturing in McMinnville High School’s Engineering and Aerospace Sciences Academy.

In her fifth-year as an EASA teacher, she was nominated for the Blue Angels flight by a parent, Col. Kelly Smothers, commander of the local National Guard Armory.

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Three of Smothers’ children have been in Clarno’s classes. The colonel himself has helped out with the EASA robotics team, the NerdHerd.

Clarno was pleased just to be nominated. But she was overwhelmed when she learned the Blue Angels pilots had chosen her as one of two community representatives getting the chance to fly with them at the Hillsboro Air Show in July.

She was picked because of her activities with science, technology, engineering and math. In addition to teaching STEM classes at Mac High, she also has trained other educators in STEM curriculum.

The team is made up of six single-seater F-18s and one two-seater. The pilot of the latter takes two or three people up the day before each performance, then acts as MC as his buddies fly their breathtaking maneuvers.

Knowing she would be subjected to strong G forces on her flight, Clarno stepped up her workouts. She hiked more and started doing situps.

She didn’t need to do any weightlifting, she joked. As the mother of a 2-year-old, she carries 30 pounds around all day long.

The Blue Angels pilots work out six days a week, she said. “They’re in very good shape.”

They have to be to deal with the physical strain of flying the elite planes.

During their shows, they experience up to 7.5 Gs. One G is the gravity we experience in normal life, Clarno explained, while 2 Gs is double that, so it feels as if a person weighs twice as much.

At 7.5 Gs, seven and a half times normal gravity, even a highly trained, strong, buff pilot can barely move. Yet they experience that level of gravity in the finale of every show.

The pilots must be at the top of their game on every flight. The precision flying done by the Blue Angels includes rolls, right-angle turns and formations in which the planes sometimes are only 18 inches apart.

The Blue Angel pilots, all in their 30s, were top fighter pilots prior to joining the team. Most are Navy pilots, but the one Clarno flew with was from the Marines.

After a four-year stint with the Blue Angels, they return to active duty in regular aircraft.

“It’s a plum assignment, but it’s hard, too,” said Clarno, who talked at length with her pilot during the flight. “They’re home only 60 days a year. The rest of their time is spent training or traveling to air shows.”

Submitted photo##In mid-flight, Claro enjoys the G-forces as well as the views. Like Blue Angels pilots, she did a special muscle-tightening maneuver to send blood to her head, keeping her from passing out.

Before her turn in the air, Clarno went through an orientation that included lessons in the HICK maneuver, a process of clenching muscles in order to force blood to the torso and brain. The practice is named for the distinctive sound flyers make when they tighten their jaw muscles, going “hick! hick! hick!”

It really helped, she said. She felt close to passing out when her plane pulled 5.8 Gs, first losing her color vision, then much of her field of vision. But she flexed harder, and, thanks to the HICK maneuver, remained conscious.

Prior to takeoff, she also donned a flight suit like the Blue Angel pilots wear — a regular fireproof suit, not one designed to counteract the effects of gravity. She fitted a helmet on her head and confirmed that she could hear and speak to her pilot, Jeff Kuss.

“It was interesting to pick his brain during the flight,” she said.

While many military pilots learn to fly after they’ve joined up, Kuss became a private pilot before enlisting.

He told Clarno that his interest in flying and joining the Marines were sparked by his high school science and technology classes. “STEM really impacted him,” she said, relating his experiences to the lessons her students engage in daily.

Then she was strapped into the rear seat of the F-18. It’s a snug fit, she said, but there’s plenty of leg room.

The seat was adjusted so there was about 4 inches of headroom between her helmet and the canopy.

In the event of an emergency, she was told, the canopy would blow off. She would be ejected, attached to her seat, which contained a parachute that would deliver her safely to the ground.

Then it was time for takeoff. Her pilot engaged a pneumatic force generator that built up pressure to start the jet engines. And they flashed down the runway, soon becoming airborne.

“It was the most fun, a high-performance climb, a 45-degree angle and 5 Gs,” she said.

Clarno said she felt G forces during the acceleration, but since gravity was pushing her back against her seat, it didn’t bother her. The “delta,” or barrel, roll was fine, too, she said, and so was the “squirrel cage” loop.

In fact, she said, “experiencing the G forces was neat!”

But gravity nearly won when the plane changed direction in mid-air. It was during a quick 90-degree turn that she felt “the G Monster coming” and increased her HICKs.

Clarno’s flight took her west over Tillamook and the ocean, then back over mountains and farmland to Hillsboro. She experienced a variety of Blue Angel maneuvers before landing in Hillsboro.

“Let’s do another!” she enthused as they taxied back to their starting point.

As much as Clarno loved flying with the Blue Angels, it was the next day, when she returned to the air show, that she experienced the highlight of her summer.

The show’s theme this year focused on STEM, so EASA was given tent space. Clarno’s students set up a display of their engineering projects and demonstrated their robots and hovercraft.

The teacher was pleased to see the McMinnville teens show off their projects and network with technology professionals. She encouraged them to talk with the Blue Angels pilots, too, and get their autographs.

The EASA kids even helped the staff of the Intel booth repair some drones, leading to a lengthy conversation about careers at Intel and other tech companies.

“My flight was really cool, but taking those students and seeing them experience the air show was even more exciting,” Clarno said. “It was more important. If I hadn’t flown, but had just taken the kids, that would have been just as valuable.”