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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fighter Pilot Rule #2: Wingman


“Bird” was a Marine fighter pilot, a good stick--meaning he flew a jet around in the sky with skill and flair--and a good friend. Snatch first knew him in the Advanced Training Command at Kingsville, Texas where they were both instructors.

Kingsville had about seventy-five instructors, fifteen of those Marines, and lots of students. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, Marine pilots went to OCS, then Basic School where they did all the Marine grunt things like run with heavy packs, tbefore going to flight school where early on a decision was made to funnel some students to helos, some to fixed wings, then later fixed wing students learned if they’d fly jets or prop planes.

One night while driving around Texas, the timing chain on Snatch’s Shelby broke when still hours away from home sweet bachelor apartment. Bird got the call at two o-clock in the morning. Did he tell his good ol’ buddy ol’ pal to get a motel room? Nope. Bird rubbed the sleep from his eyes, fired up his Corvette and drove three or four hours to the rescue and three or four hours back to Kingsville. That’s a good friend.

A few years later, Bird and Snatch were both pilots in VMFA 314, flying Phantom F-4s based at MCAS El Toro on a cross-country.

Immediately after taking off from Navy Dallas on their way back to MCAS El Toro, Bird’s jet suffered a utility hydraulic failure and had to land at the closest field: the one he’d just launched from.

The utility system worked the brakes, the tailhook, and flaps. A utility failure was better than a primary control hydraulic failure, which affected all the flight control surfaces. The primary control hydraulics were redundant systems, losing one PC wasn’t catastrophic--the other system took over. Lose both primary control systems and the pilot had a rock without controls.

With a utility failure like Bird’s, his flaps could be blown down by pneumatics, the hook would fall down by gravity, but being SOL--shit out of luck--on brakes, Bird required an arrested landing--trapping the wire.  Snatch brought Bird around, talked to him on the radio since two heads were better than one in an emergency--made sure everything that could be done was done before landing.  He stayed on Bird’s wing and made sure he landed okay. 

Bird taxied off the runway, and looked for Snatch’s plane to land. Snatch was not only a friend, he was the AMO--Aircraft Maintenance Officer of VMFA-314. AMOs knew how to get planes fixed, even at far from home airfields. Bird’s misery wanted company.

Not so fast.

Snatch saw an opportunity in Bird’s misfortune, an opportunity for a bit more flying and some socializing with his favorite brother. He told Mutt, his RIO, to re-file direct to Clovis, New Mexico where his Air Force brother was stationed.  No reason for both pilots to be grounded. I’m sure Snatch heard some high and to the right language over his radio as he flew off.

Maybe Bird should have told Snatch on that long ago Texas night to sleep in his Shelby and call for a tow.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Snatch knew he left Bird at a base with repair facilities, a RIO to drink with and he also knew Bird was a big boy, able to deal with the situation all on his own. Bird, on the other hand, expected his friend’s company while grounded.

Friendships change over time. What a young lieutenant would for his buddy was different than what a senior captain wanted to do.

Regardless, I find more to admire in Bird’s middle of the night drive than in Snatch’s need to visit family.

In my own friendships there is always a search for balance of expectations versus boundaries. I call a friend, wanting to get together, and they’ve got a crazy couple of weeks or can’t chat right then--no problem, no hurt feelings. A friend calls in need, I can drop most anything to listen or to help. A friend who calls in need everyday and doesn’t let me off the phone without guilt even after a hour--problem. A friend who never calls except to ask for favors--also a problem.

Most importantly, am I the friend I want to be?

Am I a middle of the night driving sort of friend or a leave them at Dallas Field friend?