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.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Aviator Brief XV: Swim Quals and Sea Monsters

      Trigger dreaded swim quals. Raised in inland Texas, comfortable on horseback, roping calves, and comfortable training pilots from his rear seat in the airplane, he could barely manage to keep his head above water even in a pair of swim trunks, much less in a flight suit, g-suit, seat harness and flight boots. 

      Pilots and RIOs were required to pass a swim qualification--recreating what they’d have to do if they ejected over water and their life raft failed to inflate properly. Aviators had to jump into the practice pool fully clothed, take off their flight boots, and tread water for a period of time without drowning. Since the military invested a lot of time and money on aviators by the time they got to swim quals, there were rescue divers in scuba gear in the pool watching to save any who might be in trouble.
     Taking off his boots required the longest time with Trigger’s face underwater, so he thought he’d outwit the hardest part by loosening the laces until they barely stayed on his feet on the pool deck.
When ordered, the aviators jumped in. Unfortunately, leather became sodden and sticky when wet. Trigger tried to remove his boots without submerging, only gasping on the surface, his lower lip barely clear, while tugging frantically. He must have struggled too much. The ever-helpful rescue diver on the bottom of the pool came up and helpfully tugged on the boot as well, pulling Trigger’s lower lip and head under. He gasped in a lungful of chlorinated water. He clawed his way to the surface. Snatch always laughs and says Trigger's eyes were the size of a ship's steam gauges.
     He did not pass that round. Rumor had it he took three tries before barely succeeding.
     Trigger was even less fond of the parachute drop. A motorboat would tow the aviator up in the air over the ocean--think Acapulco parasailing--and then disconnect the parachute and aviator from the towrope. The aviator would then float to the sea, and into the sea, where he would practice disentangling or cutting himself from his parachute without drowning.
     As much as Trigger disliked the intimate contact with water, he feared what lurked beneath the surface more. He knew, just before his toes touched the water, a great white’s open maw filled with razor sharp teeth waited. He called the parachute drop, ‘Trolling for Sharks’.

      Life is a lot like trolling for sharks. I took the leap: I’m here, I married, I had kids. But taking the leap with a parachute isn’t enough; just when I think I am ready for what comes next, it occurs to me to worry about what might lurk below the surface, circling with teeth. The fear is worse than what lies ahead of me. When the dread hits, the dread of the future, my guts turn to water and I forget to climb into the life raft once I settle into the ocean.

    I have to focus on today. To live for this day, this task. Tomorrow will come, but worry will not help me swim to the raft unencumbered by parachute or shroudlines.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aviator Brief XIV: Loss of Consciousness

A necessary piece of an aviator’s equipment while flying a high performance aircraft was a G-suit worn over the flight suit. The aviator inflated the G-suit by connecting it to the bleed air from the turbine engine. It prevented the blood in the brain from pooling in the toes. Brains do not work well without a blood supply; they black out, experiencing LOC--loss of consciousness. Hard to keep a plane under pilot’s control if the pilot has ‘checked out’ or ‘taken a nap’. When pulling G’s--increasing the pull of gravity from earth normal to up to 10 times earth normal--the valve in the suit connection sensed the onset of G, opened, and the bleed air filled the suit, pressing air bladders in the torso and legs to keep the blood from the extremities. A pilot helped this evolution by grunting, holding air in his lungs, and bearing down--all actions reminiscent of taking a dump. Not romantic, but neither was crashing and burning.

Mike Flood, an FNG lieutenant known as Flash, was flying a 1v.1 ACM hop, which called for a neutral start engagement. As the two F-4s arrowed straight toward each other, radome toward radome, Flash--trying to look good at the field and impress the lead plane’s veteran pilot, Fog--made a high G bat turn at the pass--a very quick, instantaneous turn--to the left, but it was too high G a turn, at least a G or two above his G tolerance. Neither Flash nor the G-suit could compensate quickly enough. Flash checked his six--looked behind the plane--over his left shoulder and promptly ‘took a nap’.

The airplane came off the turn doing odd things, like rolling over and falling out of the sky. Steamboat Willie, Flash’s RIO, tried to get his pilot on the ICS--the Intercom System. No response. The plane continued doing weird things, departing from controlled flight. Steamboat Willie saw the pilot’s head flopping to either side. He called out, “Mike? Mike!” As the plane pointed nose down, passing 10,000 feet above sea level, speeding toward the center of the earth, the wise backseater called, “Eject! Eject! Eject!” turned the T-handle, and command-ejected both of them. From all reports, Flash didn’t come to until he floated in his chute, about to hit the water, with absolutely no clue where he was or how he got there.

Turned out to be one of the first documented cases of sudden loss of consciousness. Not documented before this because, in most other suspected incidents, the pilot, the plane, and the RIO hadn’t survived. As part of the accident investigation, they put Flash in a centrifuge, spun him up to a certain amount of G-force, had him look back over his shoulder and he blacked out. When he came to after they stopped the centrifuge, he had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there. In the interest of scientific inquiry--and maybe to fuck with the young pilot--the investigators had the centrifuge cranked up twice more. Flash turned his head and it was, “Say sayonara, baby” all over again. The video was a cult hit at squadron parties for weeks afterward.

On the day of the accident, once the helo had plucked the crew out of the water and flown them to Miramar, after determining both were safe and uninjured, Snatch called Flash’s nineteen year-old wife. Squadron protocol dictated contacting the wife or next of kin before the wrong story came from unreliable sources--i.e. Other wives.

She answered the phone.

“Now, Mrs. Flood, Mike’s been involved in an aircraft accident and had to eject over water. I called to tell you he’s okay and uninjured.”

A pause.

Snatch was sure she’s going to cry, panic, or faint following the words ‘accident’ and ‘eject’--all normal and justified reactions to the survival of an ejection by a loved one. Wives tended to be hysterical when reminded how dangerous their husbands’ jobs were. “The helo’s picked him up and they’re bringing him back to Miramar. He’ll call you himself as soon as he can.”

“Oh. Okay.” Her voice burbled bright and bubbly. “Tell him I’ll be at the beach.”

Unconscious and Unconscious’s unconscious wife.

No fear.
I’ve never been that person. For awhile, I felt safe from loss. All the pilots I cared about were good at their jobs--good sticks. But I have always been a cautious person, thinking ahead to carefuls, watchouts, and don’t go theres. If I climbed a tree, I knew it was sturdy. If I stood on a cliff, I stood well back from the edge. And I warned my friends, husband, children and students. They didn’t always listen.

Risk without fear is foolishness. Risking while knowing all can be lost is a quiet kind of bravery. Some days I am braver than others.

Caution or risk? How do you balance them?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Aviator Brief XIII: Fear and the Aviator

Aviators avoided even thinking about fear. Belief in invulnerability was essential to performance in situations where weak dick pilots and the lesser folks of the universe crashed and burned. Pilots trained to make automatic the choices keeping them in controlled flight. RIOs trained to be an extra set of eyes and ears, and brain for their pilots who held the control stick but might not have total SA--situational awareness. 

Sometimes events happened so far out of normal that fear tapped a skeletal finger on even the bravest aviator’s shoulder. On a hop--out near San Clemente Island--Doug Farmer, a RIO in VMFA 531, hadn’t been able to keep his front-seater from getting disoriented in the clouds and departing controlled flight, so they both had to eject. 

Doug soon floated alone in his little survival raft on a glassy sea off the California coast, his pilot nowhere to be seen. Through the tendrils of fog and mist, he noticed the waters roiling quite close to his raft. Something huge and dark appeared out of the depths and rapidly approached the surface. A black conning tower of a submarine erupted out of the ocean next to him, rocking him with the wash. Rising higher and higher, thirty feet out of the water, it loomed very, very dark and very, very big--with no markings on it to indicate its national affiliation. 

Doug Farmer had a lemur. 

Lemurs typically happened when a pilot got thumped--one fighter came underneath the second plane, then swooped up right before the victim’s radome--the front pointy end of a fighter. The jetwash of the first aircraft thrashed the victim’s plane, resulting in a physical thump. Getting thumped sent a cold shot of piss to the heart.

It wasn’t another pilot fucking with him, but in this confrontation with a submarine, Doug Farmer’s heart stuttered.

Men came out on the deck, but didn’t speak. They threw him a line and waved him toward the boat.
At the time, high tension existed between the Soviets and the United States, with the Soviets known to patrol the waters off California. Why wouldn’t the crew talk to him? The only explanation--they spoke Russian and he would soon be spending years in a Siberian gulag. 

Fear sloshed in his raft. He did not take the line. He did not paddle closer. He did not say anything either. Name, Rank, Serial Number, he reminded himself. 


Whoop. Whoop. Whoop. Coming closer.

A helo appeared overhead, US squadron markings clearly painted on its sides and belly. Rescue divers jumped into the water, waving at the sub crew before helping winch Farmer aboard the copter for a ride back to terra firma, terra cognita, California. The sub disappeared again below the waters of the Pacific.

Turned out the sub was a boomer--our nuclear super-secret-stay-underwater-for-two months-at-time-and-never-let-anyone-know-where-you-are-so-you-can-launch-missiles-at-the-enemy submarine. But the call had gone out ‘Plane Down’ and they’d been very close to where Doug’s locator beacon had been pinging. The captain of the sub broke protocol just to surface. Obligated to check in case he needed medical attention, they weren’t going to talk to him. Not even to assure him they weren’t bogeys.

Fear turned into a great story at the O-Club. Looking good at the field.

        Most of the time my life as a mother consisted of making sure  my kids were alive at the end of the day (thank you Erma Bombeck), and that they had been fed, clothed, their homework done. On a good day all had some hugs and love yous thrown into the mix.

        My life as an aviator’s wife meant moving a lot,  leaving old friends, getting to know new people. I also tried to make sure home was a welcome haven from the stress and demands of the job.

      The hardest part of my life has been controlling fear.

        Fear as a mother meant watching the girls try out new things, go to houses of people I barely knew, learn to drive and then drive off in the car at night. I’ll never forget being called by the cops at night. My fourteen and sixteen year olds had met some boys at a park (prearranged). The boys had beer, the neighbors called the police. My daughters tried to run away. The worse part? My sixteen year old had guns in holsters as she ran! Disneyland Frontierland toy guns--but in the dark as they ran I am still so grateful the police did not feel threatened and shoot.

       The worst part about fear is that it did me no good. My fear came after everything turned out all right--or didn’t. Then it was too late.

         Fear as an aviator’s wife stalked me. Every time he flew, I worried. We had lost friends in “training mishaps” where wings fell off, clouds turned to rocks and water met sky. My brother’s F-4 tried to fit into the same piece of sky as another F-4.

        My husband still flew--even transitioned to F/A 18s. I couldn’t, wouldn’t let my fear keep him or my children from trying their wings.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Aviator Brief XII: Yen Roll

One O-Club competition, known as the Yen Roll, began on base while stationed overseas--in Japan. Usually later in a drunken evening than earlier, someone collected the yen. Typically, they anteed up 3000 to 5000 yen per aviator, about 10 to 15 dollars. Starting with a number--often the squadron number--say 232, the aviators took turns rolling five dice. Each ace rolled subtracted from the original number. 

The aviator who rolled the last ace, grabbed the money and hai-yakued to change out of his flight suit and make for the bars and girls in the ville. The lucky aviator had to spend the yen as fast as he could in places unlikely to be discovered--if found by any squadron-mate or -mates, he had to split the remaining funds. $300 US could buy a real good time in Japan in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Half that, half as good a time. Find the bogey and shoot it down was a time-honored tradition in air-to-air combat. Not surprising the fly boys figured a way to play it on the ground.

The games aviators play and the games wives play have very different objectives. Find the bogey. I've had bogeys in my life: problems presented by marriage, children, other women--other wives. Chasing after a problem to destroy it while hoping to get rewarded not only didn't work, it was counter-productive. Marriage, family, wives: we were all in it together and needed support, not competition. Bless all the wives and girlfriends who supported me on my run through life.

By the way, there are many games I enjoy playing with my husband, but not to shoot him down. I need him flying high and feeling lucky. Then we both get lucky.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Aviator Brief XI: Flappable

      The runway for jets at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma ran parallel to the runway for prop planes. The area offshore for air maneuvers was almost perpendicular to both. Snatch took off and his wingman followed shortly thereafter. The lieutenant in the second jet had been told to join up as quickly as possible. Lieutenants want to please the senior officers and don’t always engage their brains before trying to do so. So he took an early right turn, gear up, immediately after takeoff--right in front of a C-117 holding short, ready to take off in the other direction. An F-4 in take-off afterburner is loud and violently vibrates anything it passes close to--rattling the plane on the ground and probably soiling the C-117’s pilots’ underwear.
     Someone complained. Someone always complained. They called the squadron--because the VW on the F-4--the designated tail design for the Black Knight squadron--had been front and center in the windscreens of the startled prop guys. The XO, Hanley, got the call. Remember, deflecting flack away from the CO remained his main job . He stomped into the Ops office and demanded to know who was in the air.
     “Why, Snatch is.” The Ops Officer didn’t mention the lieutenant.
     After their ACM over the water, fuel low, the birds returned. The XO met Snatch’s plane on the flightline even before the engines had been shut down. Rumplestiltskin had nothing on Hanley for getting purplish-red in the face and hopping up and down and stamping his foot. “You’re grounded! You’re grounded for weeks!” The veins on his neck looked ready to explode.
     Snatch had no idea why or what had the XO fuming. He’d taken off first and had been miles away when the lieutenant spooked the props. But he knew better than to argue. He let the bulldog chew on his ear and snarl and snap on the way back to the ready room.
      Hanley grabbed the Ops O and stabbed a forefinger at his face. “Snatch is off flying for the next three weeks! Maybe longer!”
     The Ops O blanched. “If Snatch doesn’t fly, we don’t have enough pilots to fly the hops to get the required hours.”
     “We don’t?”
     “Oh.” The XO paused, regrouped, and retreated. “Snatch, you’re back on the schedule.”

     A wife or girlfriend had many reasons to complain: a move to Twentynine Palms, a yearlong unaccompanied tour while left at home pregnant, too much time having to deal with life’s uncertain turns while a husband flew off and away.

     We all knew those who complained by taking off high and to the right: screaming, shouting, stomping around. Don’t know how it worked in others’ households, but my guy would not give me a good mad back. He’d just wait me out and and do what he was going to do anyway.

     Pilots need to stay cool under pressure--but not with ME! I wanted my guy to have a face curtain so I could command eject both of us to rocket him out of his cool and controlled flight. 

     Crazy accomplished nothing and all too often left me on the tarmac looking like an idiot. I’ve learned not to be a Rumplestiltskin. I too can be a cool calm and collected pilot of my life. Most of the time.

Aviator Brief X: Unflappable

Some wives were hysterical most of their days, others were known for their calm demeanor under the most unusual of circumstances. Fish’s wife (Fish was the XO of our squadron) owned the descriptor unflappable--rightly so. One day she answered the doorbell in her southern California home to find a man standing on the doorstep wearing a Lone Ranger mask--and nothing else.
She swung the door wider, turned, and yelled up the stairs, “Honey, it’s for you! It’s Rob!”
She never did admit how she knew the CO with his face covered and totally, starkers naked.

We had a lot of parties with naked men. Never any naked women. Why? Well, we didn't want our husbands embarrassed. We had our dignity, too. The guys could be silly. We could be silly. The guys could get naked. We didn't get naked, but we laughed about the naked guys. They did it to entertain us and we were entertained.

We wives had to deal with a lot of unusual, unlooked for events. Just about the time everything seemed to be going well, a wife would have a sick baby, someone would be in an accident, the CO's wife would get cancer, a husband would leave for a year long tour of duty in a foreign land. Life happened.
Life still happens.
We need all the grace we can get.