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, March 18, 2008

Aviator Brief VII: The Ready Room (#3)

Marine aviators loved to push the envelope--especially if it would win them glory. In aeronautics, the envelope was the known limits for the safe performance of an aircraft. Test pilots had to test (or push) these limits to establish the exact capabilities of the plane, and where failure was likely to occur--to compare calculated performance limits with ones derived from experience. Test pilots called this ‘pushing the edge of the envelope’.

Rules of Engagement for Marine aviators established the ground rules, but the main requirement for being a good stick involved knowing when to push to the edge and when the rules didn’t apply. Marines were told what they couldn’t do; Air Force pilots were told what they could. Air Force pilots flew by the book and had itemized checklists for all contingencies. True, they lost fewer planes on the average, but in a 1v.1 with a good Marine pilot, they were beat like a rug.

The rules also required verbatim memorization of spin procedures, so they could be accomplished automatically, without thought, while in extremis. Out of control? Neutralize everything or just let go and grab two nonessentials in the cockpit. Upright spin? Have to know which way the plane is spinning, then where to put the stick to reduce the angle. Inverted spin? Different G- forces, but a pilot still needed to know where to put the stick. Can’t remember the spin procedures? Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.

After briefing the Rules of Engagement, the brief always covered a NATOPS--Naval Aviation Training Operation Procedures--question of the day. Every aviator was expected to know the answers found in the big blue NATOPS book. One question might be, “What is the hydraulic pressure supposed to be?” Know your plane, save your life.

The Emergency Question of the Day followed, such as, “What is the procedure in the event of the landing gear not extending? Know the procedures: save your life and your plane.

The brief almost finished, the guys would talk some more about the hop--the aviator’s term for a flight--using the white board and/or stick models, planes--usually an F-4 and a MIG--on the ends of dowels to represent the good guy and the bogey. “You do this, and I’m going to be trying to do that.”

Any questions?

Time to man-up.

Children are a lot like Marine aviators. They always want to push the envelope, and they don’t want to fly by the book. Their learning curve is sharp and they grow to be strong, independent human beings. Unfortunately, pushing the envelope caused all sorts of ‘office hours’ with my kids standing front and center, getting read the ROEs. Not that the reminders of the rules made any difference in the short term. The next time they went flying, they still tried to skirt the outside parameters without being caught out by gravity--us, their parents. In the long term, they still want to fly outside our box and we have lost the gravitas of the Commanding Officers. They are adults whether they act like it or not.

I was a parent like the Air Force (although my Marine wife soul cringes at the thought), wanting my children to follow itemized checklists. Parents want children to survive their childhood; rules and regulations try to accomplish that.

The truth is that life always has spins in store. So children push the envelope, parents impose checklists, and sometimes both need to know spin procedures. Reminds me of driver’s training--learning where to turn the wheel instinctively. I am glad I do not live in the lands of snow and ice--I still don’t know which way is ‘into the spin’--the way the car is moving or opposite to the way the car is turning. I have a feeling I always worked against the natural forces of my children’s spins.

With my grandchildren I am more like the Carrie Underwood song. I throw my hands up in the air and let Jesus take the wheel.

Oh, and then I hug them, tell them how precious they are to me, and how much I love them.

Age does bring some wisdom.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Aviator Brief VII: The Ready Room #2

The preflight brief also covered the ROEs--Rules Of Engagement. Pilots needed the rules and expectations for any hop to take away unpredictability--so they could come back in their plane, and without looking bad at the field. The rules were like a good wingman, the pilot knew ahead of time what the other aviator would do in any given situation. One of the rules for pilots was ‘right to right’--in any potential nose to nose collision, each plane was to turn right, veering away from disaster. Jet fighters went very fast. How fast? Well, if an aviator told you the maximum speed, he’d have to kill you. However, fighters routinely flew toward each other at one thousand knots--1150 mph--of closure. Without prior discussion, a pilot had a fifty-fifty chance of turning the wrong way in a head-on confrontation. Bad odds for planes. Worse for aviators.

A pilot out of Beaufort, South Carolina on an ACM--air combat maneuver--centered the radar dot within a mile of the intercept, pointing his plane at the same piece of sky as the bogey. A mile at a thousand to twelve hundred knots of closure left little time to avoid a midair collision. The pilot found the bogey all right--very quickly and close enough to touch. Oops! One imperative in ACM and formation flying: ‘no touch touch--however slight’. It takes very little contact to make parts of planes fall off--often with catastrophic results. The F-16 lost most of a wing, the pilot ejecting safely. The F-4 ended up damaged, but flyable. The result? A new ROE that forbade centering the dot within a mile of the opponent.

The rules also mandated disengaging from and steering clear of planes out of control. Just as a civilian driver recognized a weaving car indicated the driver was
non compos mentis--drunk out of his mind--and should be avoided at all cost, so aviators avoided the pilot who lost control of his plane for any reason. The out of control drunk wouldn’t be looking out for other drivers; an out of control pilot didn’t have the time or the ability to steer clear.

Any pilot experienced departure from controlled flight at some point. A smart pilot knew how to keep a departure from becoming a post-stall gyration. Only Dilberts continued to lose control until an oscillating spin required deploying the drag chute.

Altitude saved planes and lives by giving room to maneuver before air turned to unforgiving dirt. Pilots were to knock off any air-to-air combat maneuvering at ten thousand feet AGL--Above Ground Level. A pilot who flew too low and ran out of sky ended up a smoking hole in the ground. No glory in that.

Right to right. Remember that the next time you head straight toward someone in a grocery aisle or at the mall. Is there anyone who hasn’t done the awkward dance back and forth and then the inelegant sidestep and “Excuse me.” followed by nervous laughter? Right to right--from now on for everybody. I go right and you go right. Nothing to do with liberal or conservative bents. Can you imagine? If liberals go left and conservatives went right and moderates--well they should own the whole damn road, anyway--stayed in the middle--everything would be balled up in a mass of confusion. Instead of moving through the mall or grocery store, we’d be making a statement and in gridlock. Wait. That sounds a lot like the state of politics in America today.

Centering the dot. Some people lock on their radar and refuse to swerve from their goal. That can be a good thing, but not if their goal involves opponents or other people who might be the target. I have to remind myself I do not move through this world by myself. Other people have wishes and dreams and goals and feelings. No touch touch, however slight. Apply that maxim to my neighbor of the preemptive nastiness (Brief VII), and we know why it’s wrong. The slightest contact at high speeds can cause great damage and distress.

Sometimes I have to stay above it all: altitude saving my life--or a relationship I value. When my pride keeps me heading down to auger into the good hard earth, I should break it off and live to fly another day. Walk, fly, run, drive away from those who would hurt me, anger me, belittle me, take off pieces of my fuselage. No glory in that for them or me.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Aviator Brief VII: The Ready Room

Before pilots or RIOs took off and slipped the surly bonds of earth, they met in the Ready Room to get their shit together with the other flight members.

First, they got the admin details out of the way: like when to walk to the plane, when to man-up--be in the plane ready to strap in--when to taxi and take-off.

Second, they had to brief the set-ups and engagements. Would the air combat maneuvers, ACMs, be on radar or visual? A radar set-up meant starting BVR--Beyond Visual Range--a visual set-up began much closer in.
Aviators then briefed where the planes would be the start of each engagement.

Different start parameters meant different tactics. If 1v.1--one fighter fighting against one other--in a defensive start, then one plane had an advantage. The bogey--the bad guy--could come up on the fighter’s ass or could have an angle of attack to shoot a virtual sidewinder missile for a virtual kill. Fox Two!

A neutral start began with bogey and fighter side by side, turning away 45 degrees in a butterfly maneuver before turning head on, so neither had an angle, no position of advantage on the other.

An offensive start gave the fighter an advantage--say at the six-o-clock ready to attack the bogey up the rear. Aviators preferred an advantage right from the git-go but they needed to practice offensive and defensive tactics so in a real combat situation, they could get themselves out of tight spots, find the bogey, and shoot it down--the job of the fighter pilot according to the Red Baron. As he said, “Anything else is nonsense.”

Fighter pilots practiced and practiced how to get one-up on their opponent, so they could eliminate them as a threat or destroy them. In my life, all else isn’t nonsense; all else is the core of my life. I’m a civilian.

So there’s the contradiction in my world. I believe in peace, and I want a strong military. I love my fighter pilot, even though he’s no longer flying. I admire all the hops he flew, the training he engaged in, the work he did. Believing in peace doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice for war. Strength is a deterrent. But I don’t believe in preemptive strikes.

A former next door neighbor told me one day of spreading a rumor to destroy another woman’s reputation among their circle of acquaintances. I asked what the woman had done to her. “Oh. She did nothing. Yet. But I know that kind of person, and I figured I needed to take her out of the group before she did it to me.”

I try to keep my starts neutral. No advantage to any. Advantage to both. Life is tough enough already without finding your neighbor and shooting them down.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Aviator Brief VI: By Any Other Name

Some pilots have more than one call sign--the one they have in the training command and later, the one they earn. One particular squadron CO probably had one he used all through his early years as a pilot, but that name changed forever after his first squadron AOM, All Officer’s Meeting.

Picture the officers, pilots and RIOs, sitting in the ready room, eager to hear the words from their new CO. A lot of data could be surmised from the brief the CO gave straight out of the chocks. Would his words indicate he was a good stick, a stick-in-the-mud, or both? Would he operate a flying club--where his favorite guys got the majority of the hops--or would he be interested in keeping everybody up to speed, newbies and buddies alike? Would he be a micro-manager or a laissez faire, hands-off kind of leader? Would he be a screamer or silent and deadly when crossed?

So there they were, lounging in ready room chairs ratcheted to a reclining position, sitting in decommissioned ejection seats, perched on window ledges, with their morning cup of joe, or a cigarette, or both--and the new CO stalked in.

His speech went something like this: “Good morning, a--holes. Welcome to my f--ing squadron. You may not know much about me, but if you’re f--ing pussies about my f--ing language, you can shove it up your a---, and walk right out the g--damn door right now. I don’t give a flying sh--t about your f--ing sensibilities and I won’t be watching how I f--ing talk around you.”

Except Col. Profane had filled in all the blanks, the air was blue, he went on for much longer, and the faces in the room reddened from laughter or were transfixed by the level of skill required to incorporate that many body parts, bodily functions and irreverent verbs into one speech. Generally, a CO is expected to demonstrate a higher standard of behavior than a lowly lieutenant. In this case, the Colonel performed past all expectations. A lot can be forgiven a good stick or a great RIO. Excellence as an aviator in any arena is lauded.
History doesn’t tell if any walked out of the ready room that day, but if they did, their call sign would forever be the equivalent of ‘Pussy’.

Until I went to college I had never said a swear word--not even the most mildest forms. My mother would swear in German: “Gott in Himmell” and “Scheiss” when she was very upset. My mother was Scot-Irish, so go figure where she got that vocabulary from.

In college, the ability to swear represented a freedom from the old rules of our parents. Oh, we thought we were so grown up to be able to use body parts and scatological references to express anger, joy or frustration. Remember this was only shortly after bra burnings had regularly occurred. My first friend at college, and roommate my sophomore year, was adept at using all the formerly forbidden words.

Marrying a Marine, however, was a revelation. Marines didn’t swear to make themselves look cool and free. They swore because Marines swear. Perhaps the drill instructors are particularly able to inculcate all Marine virtues of toughness--and that requires singe-proof ear fuzz.

I’ve become bilingual. Teaching school required a cleanliness of language even beyond normal societal expectations. I taught my sixth graders to say “buttocks” when referring to the rear portion of a person. Doesn’t it sound more refined? However, when I wrote my memoir about life in Marine Corps I returned to the language of my rebellious youth and my husband at work with the flyboys.

One last thought--if we had to actually eat our words, I think we’d pick tastier ones to chew on.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Aviator Brief V: Cross-countries, TADs & Deployments #2

Jack Proctor and Major Dawson, two pilot aficionados of happy hour at Tinker Air Force Base, took off from Beaufort, South Carolina late because of maintenance and fueling delays. Their objective: to reach Tinker Air Force Base in one leg with no refuel or they would miss the better-looking ladies. In Oklahoma, after all, good-looking O-club babes were a limited population.

When they took off, the blivot on the racks had been installed backwards, so the left main landing gear wouldn’t fully retract. An unretracted landing gear slows down a plane and reduces miles to the tankful. Driven by a serious case of GetAboarditis--where getting there took precedence, overriding all safety considerations--they continued on anyway, following their heatseekers.

The term ‘GetAboarditis’ came from the Navy aviator’s imperative to get aboard the carrier. The option in the middle of an ocean was a wet one--even if the ejection went well. Somehow, the mindset transferred to all Navy and Marine aviators, even though many more places existed to set a plane down safely over dry land.

Twenty minutes from Tinker with fifteen minutes of gas, the pilot in the back seat kept saying, “Don’t fuck it up. You’d better not fuck it up.”

They made it on fumes.

No harm, no foul.

My version of GetAboarditis involves racing around, yelling at anyone taking up floor space where I need to be or go through on my way to wherever I think it is important to get to. Andy has a knack of standing in the one place in the kitchen I need to be to cook the meal--and when he moves, he moves into the next place I need to be.

I know. I hear you. I should be sweet and kind and patient and tell him where I need him to be so I can cook his hollandaise sauce and steam the artichokes and shred the cheese before I pound the chicken between pieces of plastic wrap and froth the eggs and get out a bowl for the bread crumbs. I should not yell, “Get the *&%# out of my way!” I shouldn’t yell because I love him and I love cooking for him.

But I don’t love him being in the exact wrong spot.

And he is usually trying to be helpful.

As one of the stories in Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be You and Me pointed out, “Some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without.”

Monday, March 3, 2008

Aviator Brief V: Cross-countries, TADs & Deployments #1

The number one job of an aviator was to get as many hours as possible flying in the airplane. A cross-country was generally a weekend spent in the plane going somewhere and then coming back. If the pilot could get out Friday, he could land somewhere and spend the night; then fly somewhere else on Saturday and spend the night; then return on Sunday--three legs, more flying.

A TAD (Temporary Attached Duty) involved a longer period of time, sometimes with one aircrew--pilot and RIO, sometimes with more. Getting selected for the Navy’s Top Gun school was TAD, so was Nellis Air Force Base called Red Flag where pilots flew against ‘enemy’ combatants to practice ACMs (Air Combat Maneuvers) There was another black (super-secret etc.) program near Nellis where American fighters flew against so-secret-I’m-gonna-have-to-kill-you-if you-find-out-about-it something or somethings. Rumors were they had Soviet MIG fighters. How did wives know about any of this? They listened when the guys stopped talking, and usually they were listening before--when the guys had forgotten wives were present.

I couldn’t have written about the uber-verboten program ten years ago without getting Andy into trouble--or myself. I checked on the web--bless the web--while I was in the process of writing WING WIFE and found out it had all been declassified.

For awhile, after my brother’s death, some strange guy in Yuma went around whispering that Bullet had been killed in Russia after flying one of the super-secret-missions in a super-secret plane to destroy a missile-targeting laser facility. The guy telling the story was of course the only one to survive going in to destroy all trace of the mission and the bodies. Come on. Dale Brown wrote that book about a year before the guy starts murmuring to my brother’s widow.

Who keeps secrets best? Men or women?
I keep secrets I need to keep. There aren’t many of those because I believe the truth will set you free. I have kept the secrets of the crazy things my college roommate did--but then again, she’s kept mine as well. No purpose to serve in doing anything but teasing her about the fact that I KNOW.

Andy and I have argued about gossip for years. He was dead set against talking about anyone we knew out of their hearing. I believe women help the world run smoothly by trying to understand their friends, family, and neighbors through discussion. It’s more like group therapy--without a moderator. I concede some people and some groups need moderators. Gossip that spreads information for sensationalism is wrong. Talking about the foibles of others, to try to reach their truth, is different. I choose friends who talk about others with a kind heart.

Guys don’t gossip much. They just have an opinion about another person and hell will grow daisies before they will change their minds.
So I think women keep secrets best, because they know so many more.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Aviator Brief IV: To Eject or Not to Eject (#2)

Stu Mosbey, while landing behind a DC-10 in Yuma, got caught in the wake turbulence--in the days before safe separation was established--his F-4 flipped upside down--a bad position to eject from close to the ground. Did he panic? Did he try to eject anyway? Did he crash and burn? Nope. He lit the afterburners and flew it out. Mosbey’s Aerial Circus Act. “Hey, Stu, You should take that one on the road with the Blue Angels.”

If the afterburners wouldn’t fly you out, there were three ways to eject from a fighter. The first required reaching up above the helmet with both hands, and grasping the face curtain--not an actual curtain, just a striped loop--then pulling down, putting the elbows in a safe position for launch. The second method required reaching between the legs and pulling up on the ejection handle, another striped loop.

The third method was not to eject. This has only been successful once. A pilot making a red-eye tracking run at the Yuma Proving Grounds made a very low pass. Too low a pass. He ran out of sky and bottomed out on the desert floor. Next thing he knew he sat amid the sage and scrub in his ejection seat, but without a plane surrounding him. It had disintegrated into pieces in the crash. He had not. Known as the immaculate ejection. Grins all around.

The worth of an ejection seat depends on circumstances. Shit happens. Machines fail. A lucky pilot who keeps his cool lives to fly another day.

Miraculous. Lucky. A good stick. Sometimes the prayers of angels or God’s hand saved me or mine from certain death--physical or spiritual. Sometimes the fortunes of the world shook the dice or the Fates decided to change what would have been a certain horrific outcome. Sometimes years of training and practice and skill paid off, rescuing my loved ones or my precious-to-me rear end and the rest of my attached self from certain annihilation.

Do I care what agency of miracles, luck, or skill achieved those saves? No. But I care that I am still here and semi-sane and able to be a wife, a writer, a mom, a Nana. My father-in-law used to say, “The proof is in the pudding.” By which--I think--he meant something about my kids turning out well so I must be an okay person.

The proof is not in the pudding for me. I am proud of my creative accomplishments and the impact I have had on the future of the world. But if my pudding never sets--my books aren’t published, my children reflect poorly on me, my husband and I become distant, my grandchildren act like no relation of mine, a former student does a terrible act (and none of these horrific scenarios seem a distant possibility)--what is important is that I made the pudding. I acted. I collected ingredients. I learned how to read a recipe. I measured and poured and mixed and hoped it would all turn out tasty. I did the best I could do with the best of intentions.

I never ejected, either. But I think about flying in a broken plane, a burning plane, an unflyable plane. I realize I would eject--not from life, but from that one untenable situation. To live to fly another day. Let’s all live to fly another day.

Photo of ejection seat used by permission of Kevin Coyne:

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.