That time I flew in an F-18 … and lost the tape
A reporter reflects on a cool assignment, a big blunder and what memory means in the digital age
I'm hanging upside down in the cockpit of an F-18 fighter jet, as it barrel-rolls over the sapphire-blue waters of Bonavista Bay.
I feel the flight-suit pressurizing, squeezing my body to keep blood in my brain as the force of gravity multiplies. The pilot looks over his shoulder and, through the intercom, asks how I'm holding up.
I answer honestly: this is the coolest moment of my life.
Of course, I am getting it all on tape. It's summer 2009, and I'm a cub reporter with CBC Television.
But because it's 2009, I am literally getting it on tape — a Mini-DV tape, in this case. That's it.
I'm not furiously posting pictures to Twitter. Facebook Live doesn't exist yet. My BlackBerry doesn't even shoot video.
The magic lived in my memory, and tape
Today, every experience can easily be captured on high-definition video, and shared with every person we know. The big moments in our lives are stored not only in our minds, but in our smartphones and on social media.
It's a new twist on what psychologists call "transactive memory," like the way you count on your spouse to remember family birthdays, while they count on you to remember the Wi-Fi password. It's a way of taking the pressure off our own brains and memories.
Humans have been doing it for millennia, but today Facebook is increasingly playing the role of significant other in managing those memories.
When the F-18 touched down, I stepped onto the tarmac knowing I had experienced something truly magical, that I couldn't wait to share with the world.
A few days later, the story ran on Here & Now … and that was it. If you happened to be watching the news that night, you saw it. If not, you didn't. The next day, the magic lived only in my memory, and on that Mini-DV tape.
But as incredible as flying in an F-18 actually was, what I think is even more incredible is what happened next.
I actually lost the tape.
The dumbest thing ever?
I'll say it right up front: this was really stupid, entirely preventable, and thoroughly my own fault.
Even back in the dark ages of nine years ago, I could have preserved the video of my magical jet ride in countless ways: I could have saved the video file on a thumbdrive, or burned it on a CD (remember those?). I could have dipped the tape in liquid wax, sealed it in a waterproof case and buried it in my backyard.
But though this story begins with an admission of guilt, it deals with a subject on which there's plenty of guilt to go around.
Ask yourself: how old is the oldest photo you have on your phone right now? A year old? Two years?
Do you have Christmases, weddings and birthdays stored on your phone — and nowhere else?
When was the last time you backed up your phone?
Have you ever backed it up?
What if it was lost, stolen, or dropped in the toilet?
Preserving our digital pics and videos is easier than ever, yet many of us still can't be bothered to do it.
So don't judge me too harshly for losing track of a Mini-DV tape.
Because even today, those things are a pain in the butt.
Social media would have saved me
For years, I was furious with myself for having lost the tape.
The actual flight lasted more than half an hour, but only a few minutes of footage ran on television. Such is the nature of TV news; the format demands that stories be brief, and hours of amazing stuff may never make it to air.
Today, longer videos and even lengthy chunks of "raw video" find a home on our digital and social media platforms.
As the years went by, what I began to resent most was not my own stupidity or carelessness, it was my misfortune at having had this amazing experience about four years too soon, when digital media was in its infancy.
If I hitched a ride on an F-18 today, I could record it with a dozen miniaturized HD cameras, while livestreaming my helmet-cam to Facebook and YouTube.
But again, this was 2009. So while I could recover the few minutes of video that ran on TV, the glorious raw footage of the flight seemed to be lost forever.
Up, up and away
If I could sum it up, I would say being in an F-18 is like being on a magic carpet.
Normal air travel is designed to prevent you from feeling the movement of the plane. Passenger jets travel in smooth, parabolic arcs. I often sleep from takeoff to landing.
The F-18 is the opposite of that. It can climb 254 metres in a single second. It has a top speed of nearly 2,000 km/h, faster than the speed of sound.
It can twist and turn, barrel-roll and loop-de-loop, bank so sharply and at such speed that any humans inside feel a sevenfold increase in force of gravity.
You can't sleep through that.
I wound up inside this awesome machine because a Royal Canadian Air Force air show was happening at St. John's International Airport.
To promote the event, local media were invited for a fly-along with the famed Canadian Snowbirds. Officially known as CAF 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, the Snowbirds perform acrobatic aerial manoeuvres to show off the prowess of air force pilots.
But for audiences on the ground to actually see and appreciate formation flying, the planes have to be flying low and slow.
The air show organizers told us there was room for one media member to fly in the F-18 instead.
Guess who raised their hand?
The plan was to fly to Gander and back, a 40-minute round trip. The pilot, Capt. Tim (Donor) Woods, told me he could do it faster, but the sonic boom is really annoying for people on the ground.
Instead, we spent the whole flight over Bonavista Bay (no one on the ground there!), doing the kinds of aerial stunts you normally see only in movies and video games.
Woods said we pulled four g's — or four times the force of gravity — a long way from seven, but the most he had subjected a reporter to.
One of my prized possessions is the barf bag they gave me before takeoff. Woods later signed it, certified unused.
Lost and found
The story ran, and the next day, I put the Mini-DV tape in my desk drawer, confident that one day I would burn it on a CD, or transfer the video to a thumb drive, or any of those things I should have done but never did.
A few years later, I moved to a different desk, and that's when I discovered that the tape was missing.
But a few years after that, I moved desks again and this time rediscovered the purple cassette in the bottom of a long-forgotten box.
My personal Christmas morning.
The small miracle was nearly in vain, as by this time, CBC had abandoned the Mini-DV format and the station's only Mini-DV player was now a sputtering, dust-choked relic.
When I slid the tape inside, it made a grinding sound, as if digesting a meal of plastic and celluloid.
Fortunately, a team of talented CBC technicians came to the rescue, and my tape was saved … a second time.
Lessons about how memory works
So here I am, nine years later. The tape is back in my desk drawer, but this time I have a digital copy, backed up and, yes, published on Facebook and YouTube.
Now the video is in the permanent collection of a global library, where it can be checked out anytime.
It brings me a lot of joy to watch the video again, and to finally share it in a way you really couldn't just a few years ago.
But now that I've watched it and rewatched it, I have to admit: the F-18 ride was better in my memory.
The video is shaky, low-definition, and has no sound (the young me screwed that up too). But even if I filmed it today, with HD cameras pointed in every direction, can any video or photo ever match the emotion of a memory?
I'm sure there's a lesson here. It's probably something like: back up your videos! Don't lose track of your important stuff! Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today!
But maybe it's also about what we lose as we try to hang on to every fleeting experience.
All the time I spent being angry over a missing video, I should have just closed my eyes, felt the force of gravity multiply, and looked down on the sapphire-blue water.
That was never lost.