HOW TO BE MARRIED TO A MARINE FIGHTER PILOT--A Marine Corps pilot's wife: F-4s, F/A-18s and aviators from my perspective.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Aviator Brief IV: To Eject or Not to Eject

The Phantom F-4 came equipped with a Martin-Baker mkH7 ejection seat. Aviators fly planes. This is important to remember when discussing ejections. An aviator without a plane to fly becomes just a Marine, not a bad thing--but not as good, either. Ejections guaranteed a pilot would look bad at the field by abandoning a multi-million dollar piece of machinery to crash and burn.

Aviators did not want to eject. But plane wings could fall off; engines inhaled birds through the turbine blades--something known as FOD--Foreign Object Damage; or equipment could malfunction at a critical point in flight, creating an unrecoverable airplane. Those were regrettable, but not the pilot’s fault. A pilot who ejected in these circumstances and survived received sympathy and joined the Lucky Bastard Club--an unofficial community, as well as the Martin Baker Tie Club--an official honor and tie given to all pilots who eject from a plane with the aid of a Martin-Baker seat. The count currently stands at seventy-two hundred pilots saved. Most of the time, ejection seats worked.

But too many things could go wrong with an ejection, not all of them dependent on the manufacture of the seat. First, the canopy had to be blown off. If not, the pilot or RIO would impact the thick plastic. The plastic would win. Then, an explosive had to explode under the seat to send it and the aviator up the rails, pulling ten to twelve G’s. Elbows, knees, and shoulders needed to be tucked in or the force of the ejection would break, dislocate, or mangle. A rocket had to shoot the seat free of the plane. If the plane traveled at too high a rate of speed, the jet blast of air would hit the aviator like a brick wall. The jet blast would win. The parachute had to deploy properly and the aviator had to come down somewhere he could be recovered, preferably not in the fireball of his crashed bird. Pilots thought paratroopers crazy for jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. So there was a corollary to Rather Be Dead Than Look Bad At the Field: Airplanes Are Meant To Be Flown, Not Jumped Out Of.

A Musing: This reminds me of that commercial where people are in extremely uncomfortable situations and the voiceover says, “Want to get away?” However, the people are not at risk of dying like a pilot with a malfunctioning aircraft, they are only at risk of dying of embarrassment.


I have chosen to live my life without an ejection seat.

As a child I feared so many things: embarrassment, my father’s anger, being caught doing something I shouldn’t, letting someone down. I never feared the dark. I never feared death. I never feared strangers. I feared the monsters I created and that were closest to me.

And when I did what I knew I should not--why do we do those things?--I almost died from the dread of what might happen when I was found out. A friend of mine--who is Catholic--calls this Catholic guilt. I have not found it to be religion specific since the Jewish writers I’ve read think they own guilt--or a least their mothers are the masters of it. I am sure the Protestants and the Buddhists have their own versions of ownership.

Part of my journey to live without choosing to eject has been: Doing what is right as much as I am able, then facing what happens head on. I’m only responsible for flying my own plane in life and making sure I do regular maintenance of my body, my brain, and my heart.

I am not responsible for other planes who might choose to crash into my life, or for bird-strikes, or for unforeseen maintenance mishaps. I listen to my conscience, but try to live without the dread of guilt.

It’s tough--and I don’t always do it right--and then I feel bad. But not as bad as I used to feel, and not for as long.

Aviator Brief III: Squadron Jobs (#3)

The Administration Officer worked for the XO doing all the grunt work of the picayune details of filling out all the paperwork a military bureaucracy can generate--and then taking the shit dished out when it wasn’t done right. Admin was a thankless job even when the pilot liked the XO he worked for.

What was the worst job in the squadron? Call it the Voting Officer. The pilot holding that ‘esteemed’ position had to make sure everyone had absentee ballots if needed. Later, when drug tests came into vogue, the VO made sure guys peed in the bottle. Why was that the worst job? Well, part of an aviator’s mystique and power was tied to the importance of the job he had in the squadron and the excellence in which he performed it. Absentee ballots and drug tests were completely non-essential to flying, with no opportunity for excellence. In fact, being excellent at getting your fellow pilots to pee in the bottle pissed them off in more ways than one.

The main job an officer had in the squadron was to be a pilot or RIO. Pilots were judged on their competency in the air, whether they were ‘a good stick’. This ranking went on a scale from “a damn fine stick’ to ‘unsafe at any speed’. Pity the pilot in VMFA 314 known by the call sign Unsafe-At-Any-Speed. Pity him, but don’t respect him--and if you’re a RIO, try not to fly in his backseat.

RIOs lacked control in the air--except through the radio yelling at their front-seater to land before they ran out of fuel and through a RIOs capacity to command eject. They could decide to eject both seats if the pilot was incapacitated--or too stupid to realize he had reached the point of no return to controlled flight. Since some pilots would rather be dead than look bad at the field, that ability to make the decision to abandon a multi-million dollar airplane often rested on a RIO’s realization that staying alive allowed for redemption, while a smoking hole in the ground did not.

Control. Woo-eee. Some people want to control everything. Some people spend years trying to set the boundaries for a controller--parent, friend, spouse, child, or sibling.
Try to control the world and the world/life/God eventually gets around to giving a lesson and whomping you upside-the-head.

One thing I’ve learned in my lessons: I don’t control everything. I can’t control everything. I don’t want to control everything. That’s the Big Guy’s job. I can only control how I act, not how it is perceived by others. I can only control my words, not how they’re heard and interpreted. I can only control the gifts I give, not how they are used, squandered, rejected, or loved and appreciated.

And staying alive allows for redemption.

One other thing--the wife job has no designator. There is no alpha-wife job versus low-life job. Well--I guess some wives could be designated a ‘good stick’.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Aviator Brief III: Squadron Jobs (continued)

The Ops O--Operations Officer--held a lot of power in the squadron because he wrote the flight schedule. Everything depended on getting as many hops--flying the planes--as possible.

The AMO--the Maintenance Officer, Aircraft Maintenance Officer--held a position of respect. As stated before: Everything depended on getting as many hops as possible. If planes were broken, they couldn’t be flown. A good relationship with the man in charge of the troops who fixed the planes the pilots flew was therefore essential.

The Safety Officer’s job also involved keeping planes flying--safely. The ASO--Aircraft Safety Officer--had done his job when there were no accident reports for the quarter, the year, or so many hours of planes in the air. Somehow, AMOs and ASOs had different ideas of how to accomplish this objective. A Safety Officer who micromanaged every little hydraulic fluid leak and stuck valve into a downed airplane created negative attitudes in the AMO, the pilots who wanted maximum hops, and the troops. An airplane taken off flight status meant a pilot and a RIO not flying it. It also meant the troops had to work longer hours repairing it.

Colonel Mike Sullivan maintained, “If twelve aircraft takeoff down the runway everyday, nothing else matters.” Corollary: When all the planes fly, the troops are happy--because when planes are in the air, they don’t have to be fixed, loaded, unloaded, or fueled, and ordinance guys could lift weights and the maintenance guys could jaw-jack, shoot the breeze, and bullshit each other--what they liked to do when all the planes were in the air.

As a Marine wife, I had my own planes to ready for takeoff down the runway everyday--my husband and children. In the early days, I didn’t work outside the home--notice I did not say I did no work--and so my squadron job was support for the troops, my troops, my guy and our three little girls.

I already knew how to bake bread and make cookies, but learning to cook a family meal took a very different skill set and little praise. Many would ooh and aah over homemade wheat bread. Cookies? The cook was a hero who made cookies. But no one applauded casseroles and baked chicken. More likely they’d whine, “Macaroni and cheese tuna casserole, again?” or “I’m allergic to succotash.” No one was really allergic to corn or lima beans in my family; they’d just break out in a bad case of the I-don’t-want-to-touch-those-with-these-lips-itis.

I turned to my main resource of support and information--just like the squadrons are supported by H&MS--other wives. Potlucks are the best way to acquire new recipes--they’re time-tested, family tested, and almost always easy. Besides, at a potluck there was lots of food, but I only had to make one thing; and there were lots of sympathetic ears.

Food to eat and friends to listen. Can’t get much better than that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Aviator Brief III: Squadron Jobs

The CO--the Commanding Officer--was the boss. He made command decisions, ruled the roost, and if he thought it important--it was important. Number one mantra for a squadron aviator: Don’t make your CO look bad.

The XO--the Executive Officer--was the paper-pushing, attention-to-details, pain-in-the-ass who made sure the big vision of the CO was turned into reality. He did a lot of the admin work and in any court-martial, he was in charge of the details.

Snatch and his wife had a running discussion for years on who was the CO and who was the XO of their family. She maintained he was the XO since he paid the bills and did the worry-work over the administration details; and she was the CO, making command decisions on the big picture like how many children they would have, what the rules were for the children, and where they would retire. He always snorted and shook his head after she reminded him of the qualifications, but he didn’t really argue because he knew she was always right. Proof she was the CO.

A Musing:

I like making important decisions, but I discuss them with my husband first. Sometimes, Andy makes a major decision without me--like taking the car in for an oil change and coming back with a new car. A new car that we never talked about getting! What part of getting a stick-shift transmission didn’t make sense? Let me see, maybe that we had three teenaged girl drivers, none of whom knew how to drive a stick?

Aha! I hear the husbands out there saying, "Clever man to get a car he doesn’t have to share." I recognize the sneakiness of that, but my car became the designated share car. Not fair.

In my head I hear my daughters whining about something--anything--many things--not being fair. I hear my own voice saying, “Life’s not fair. Who ever promised you fair?”
As CO, Commanding Officer-in-Charge-of-the-Family (and--I wish--the world) I want the world to be fair for me.

Huh. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Aviator Brief: Call Signs II (continued)

Okie, of course, hailed from Oklahoma and had an accent and an outlook on life to prove it. Slug must have reminded someone at some time of a big, slow thing.

Given names were common fodder for call sign generation: Swizzle’s last name Cwaliscz, properly pronounced “Fah-leash”--impossible to see and say, Donut’s last name of Duncan, Bolt’s last name of Leitner, Soup’s last name of Campbell. J.C.’s first name and middle initial was John C., but he built his reputation doing stunts in and out of airplanes that made others say, “Jesus Christ!”

Some earned the name they carried by their actions. One lieutenant said he earned his call sign Dangler while out on the carrier with VMFA 323--the Snakes. On the way back from a busy combat hop, he was in marshall--stacked in the queue waiting his "Charlie" time when he could land. He decided he needed to take a leak, so he got out a piddle pack and took care of business before being notified he was “on the ball” to land. Distracted from what he had been doing, he focused on catching the wire to get aboard the carrier. After a successful landing, parking and being chained down, he climbed out of his fighter, walked across the deck, took care of the paperwork in maintenance control and returned through the ship to the squadron ready room. Upon entering the ready room, one of his fellow pilots said, "Dude. Did you know your dick is hanging out?" Dang.

Could any pilot be smart enough to stay alive but dumb enough to leave his manhood blasted by the twenty-five knots of wind or more whistling across a flight deck?

Snatch insisted his call sign meant ‘to grab fast’ and came from his ability to snatch victory from defeat in a dogfight. He never explained the inevitable laughter or its connection to a synonym for a female nether-part.

A Musing:

I would want to be named after the place I came from--if only my choices were better. Having a call sign of ‘California’ or ‘Claremont’ is unwieldy. The shortened versions: ‘Cali’ sounds like a cartel and ‘Monty’ is not for me.

My brothers nicknamed me ‘Whale Spout’ for the topknot I wore unwillingly through 2nd grade, and then ‘Mah-sah’ as if saying my true name weirdly made it a bad thing. Funny. It did.
My roommate from college called me ‘Jones’ because it was my last name when we met, but it isn’t as funny as Donut’s or Swizzle’s or Soup’s.

The best would be a name relating to my most embarrassing moment like Dangler’s. I could be named after my poor choice of an overhead. Always a challenge to think up fun activities that will not tax the abilities of an unknown substitute, I loved different media to communicate ideas. 12 and 13 year olds can be a tough audience, especially sixth grade gifted and talented ones. Using a comic book format for grownups History of the World page to review the differences between Athenians and Spartans seemed a good idea once I had blanked out the private parts of the Spartans. (Spartans exercised and competed in the nude.) I then made an overhead transparency. Unfortunately, I neglected to read the speech bubbles. One included a verb and a description of who Spartans liked to do that verb with--completely inappropriate to a class of sixth graders, no matter how smart they were. However I did not discover my error through the sub’s notes (she never mentioned it) or through angry parents’ phone calls to the district (there were none). I discovered my grievous mistake while reviewing for the chapter test on the overhead with my class. They kept me from putting the offending transparency up to the light by telling me I might want to read it first, carefully. Only the kids whose parents would think it was funny were told my story. I loved that class.

So they could call me ‘Hump’.

I’m glad I don’t have a call sign.

Aviator Brief II: Call Signs

Bullet--Donald S. Jones USMC
Call signs--military nicknames used in air-to-air combat to avoid revealing an aviator’s identity to the enemy--served within the world of friendlies to identify members of the fraternity of airmen. Pilots always had a moniker, and RIOs--Radar Intercept Officers who navigated and worked the radios but didn’t have a control stick to fly the airplane, poor bastards--often earned a name other than their own. Easily recognized were the self-bestowed call signs of pilots versus those invented out of the fruitful and irreverent brain of a fellow flyer. If the call sign sounded too normal or too cool, the pilot had probably given it to himself.

An ideal name like Burner incorporated an aviation term so those not in the know would think its genesis to be from afterburner--a part of a jet airplane that when lit makes the plane very loud and very fast. The way the name game is played, he could be very slow, very quiet, or have a tendency to pass gas with explosive consequences. Burner wasn’t telling. The conical shape of Bullet’s head in the cockpit melded into his shoulders, mimicking the live ammo F-4 Phantoms carried. Was he named for that or for taking aim at a target (usually a member of the group he called ‘the idiots of the world’) and shooting it down?

Pipperburn’s call sign referred to the pipper being locked on, but not fired--burning a hole in the opponent. The pipper--predicted impact point, PIP--was the location at which a ballistic projectile--e.g. bomb, missile, bullet--was expected to strike if fired. Pipperburn’s youth, inexperience, and tendency to consume copious amounts of alcoholic beverages all precluded him from ever actually firing on any target: a bogey--any adversarial airplane--or a female.

A Musing:

Idiots of the world. We’ve all met them. I try to avoid them, and when I can’t, I find excuses for them. I’ve been an idiot more than I’d like. The world is a tough place, why make it harder?

Writing is a tough job--you know: sit around in pajamas all day with a lap top in front of me. Eat when I want. Sleep if I want. Sometimes tap words on to the page in front of me (or is it a screen?). My writing is tough because I have to persevere putting thoughts to page in a systematic and still creative way. No deadlines in these first manuscripts, only deadlines I set for myself.

The problem? The tough stuff? Not sounding like an idiot of the world in the words I put down. My self editor is a tough boss.

Aviator Brief I: Rather Be Dead Than Look Bad at the Field

One of the major tenets of fliers involved looking good at the field--the airfield. That meant pilots and RIOs--Radar Intercept Officers who sat in the backseat--were allowed to do wild and crazy things, even encouraged to do wild and crazy things in the air and on the ground. However, if they didn’t show to advantage while doing whatever, they knew they’d get a ration of shit ranging from being given a bad time, all the way to losing the respect of any flier who heard the story. Most pilots would rather die than look bad. However, no pilot believed he could or would die--the wings conferred immortality. Other guys died. Stupid guys, young guys, and guys who had no luck. No pilot claimed fallibility or stupidity--except after they escaped by the skin of their plane from the teeth of death. Then they had joined the “goddam lucky bastards” club and they were golden. Grins all around.

I hate looking bad anywhere. No one likes to look a fool, but my daughters are much more relaxed about their physical appearance. My hair has to be freshly washed, blown dry. My makeup has to be applied and my clothes worthy at least of a lunch date if I am going to step out to the store--or even step out to get the paper. My youngest daughter will rubberband her sleep hair into a sumo knot on top of her head, drool tracks still apparent across her cheek, and run out to Ralph’s grocery store dressed in pajama bottoms and a ratty sweatshirt. I envy her confidence. Actually, my non-maternal, little green meany side is totally pissed off at her.

And then I wonder, who do I meet at the grocery store or getting my paper? Why do I care how I look to the strangers and my neighbors? My life as a writer is internal and they have no control over whether I publish or perish. Come to think of it--I’ve seen some of them outside in CRAZY outfits with CRAZY hair. I am going to get my paper tomorrow wearing my robe and slippers. Proudly.

Change comes in small, often crazy increments. Looking good at the field is in the mind of the doer.