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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fighter Pilot Rule #1: S/A

Keep your S/A--Situational Awareness

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California in 1979 was a base with a mission. A lot of predictions of future wars focused on the Middle East to protect US interests in the volatile region--desert wars. Twentynine Palms had lots of desert to practice in. My husband used to tease me that we lived at the beach--look at all the sand--too bad the water was located so far away. 

VMFA-321, a Marine Corps Reserve Squadron based at Andrews Air Force Base, had come out  to practice close air support on the live fire range.  On July 26th, in addition to the regular briefed mission, the CO of the squadron had a Time/Life photographer Mark E. Meyer in his backseat. The mission had been cleared through Headquarters Marine Corps, Mr. Meyer had flown in many high performance jet aircraft.

Unfortunately, Mr. Meyer arrived only an hour before the hop, after the ready room brief, so he was given an individual “quickie” brief before climbing into the F-4N Phantom backseat of LtCol. Fritz Menning. No one checked the photographer’s flight gear to make sure it met safety parameters.

The briefed hop went well. Afterward, while the F-4s flew in loose formation at 17,000 feet, the photographer asked his pilot, LtCol Menning to make a canopy roll over the lead plane flown by Capt. Rick Loibl. Pictures of the aircraft flying over the desert floor would look good in Life magazine. The squadron CO wanted Mr. Meyer to get the best shots so that his squadron and his planes looked good and got some great publicity on the national stage.

The squadron got publicity all right, though not of the sort they were hoping for.

LtCol Menning didn’t keep his SA. 

In his rollover, either he started too low so his wing fell down on to the wing of his leader (gravity at work), or he misjudged the up and over arc needed to stay clear. Wing surface contacted wing surface sending both planes into unrecoverable spins.

All four crew ejected. Both planes--and the Time/Life photographer’s camera with great shots of the lead plane against the background of the desert floor--ended up in a couple of smoking holes.

The Radar Intercept Officer in the backseat of the lead plane was CWO-4 Robert “Lizard” Waltzer, a combat experienced crewman with 3000 hours in the F-4 and a skydiving enthusiast who made a hobby of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. He later told my Andy, who was the the fixed wing Air Officer at the Tactical Exercise Control Group, how jazzed he was to get to use his skills in a bonafide departure. His use of his chute’s four line release to steer clear of obstacles may have been the first time such a tactic had been used in a fighter jet ejection. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “hanging his Lizard out”!

The photographer’s flight equipment made the accident report because no one wants to eject without steel-toed flight boots. History does not say if his feet sustained damage. I’m betting, yes.

Fighter pilots have to be aware at all times of many different things. They not only have to keep an eye on their instruments, but also have a sense of where their wingman is and watch out for their adversary. They need to know which way is up and keep above the hard deck--the designated Above Ground Level. AGL is usually set at 10,000 ft above the ground to give aviators an opportunity to recover from a spin or a plane otherwise departing from normal flight that wants to obey the law of gravity and auger toward the center of the earth. At the same time, the fighter pilot has to fly his plane, communicate on the radio, plan and react to the bogey’s maneuvers. A moment of tunnel vision can be disastrous when flying at supersonic or even subsonic speeds with other fighters in the sky.

Just like fighter pilots, we need to know where we are and know where we are in relation to others and other things around us. Take it all in. Be aware. If we only look at the artificial horizon, we won’t see the altimeter. We may be in level flight but heading straight toward a mountain.

It is also important we need to know who we are. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I’d make a terrible aviator of any kind. I wear contacts that are always getting dust under them. I drift off into other worlds. I write fantasy well, but dislike strict parameters of behavior.

And once we know the where, the when and the who that we are, we must use that awareness in THIS moment--not be distracted by the fight with the spouse, the problems with the teenagers, that the grass has to be cut, the boss wants the report written, or a parent is sick. Each moment has it’s own imperative for focus. Multitasking in our lives takes focus away from what we need to understand and do right NOW.

Oh--and let’s wear our steel-toed flight boots if we’re in a plane with ejection seats.


  1. I had read several years ago that the camera was found by a hiker and some of the the film was printable.

    ps - I fly a Libelle 201b glider, no easy bailout of those puppies, you are basically 'wearing' the craft!

  2. I hadn't heard about the camera being found. Good thing gliders have an excellent glide ratio. Here's wishing you as many take-offs as landings!

  3. Read where that the camera was found? Sounds like nonsense. I was trying to find the original article that inspired that top gun movie, I knkw Ehud Yonay wrote it in 1983 in California magazine but just can't seem to find it..somehow I stumbled into this read, well written, I liked it.