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: