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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aviator Brief XIX: Flying At Any Cost

Maintenance officers appreciated pilots who got a plane home to be worked on. If it could be flown safely--fly it. Some weak dick pilots and RIOs downed their ride for every little hydraulic fuel leak. Phantoms were elderly planes--they all leaked a little bit. Get some balls, fergodssake.

An FNG lieutenant in VMFA 314 didn’t like causing trouble for his AMO--Aircraft Maintenance Officer. So, on a refueling stop in Yuma, one leg away from home base, frustrated when the F-4 wouldn’t accept external electrical power from the starter, he decided to try a non-standard procedure, principally used for testing the RAT--ram air turbine, in order to get going. In the non-standard procedure, high-pressure air is directed at the RAT, which spins into operation, providing power. The lieutenant deployed the RAT, and standing on the wing, held the nozzle of the hose from his Wells Air Starting Unit.

The pilot intended to guide high-pressure air from the hose across the blades of the RAT. The RAT would spin and produce enough power to light off his fighter.

Fast-moving air charged through the hose to the nozzle.

Unfortunately, back-pressure on the hose caused it to thrash about wildly. The hapless lieutenant, flying twenty to thirty feet in the air, whipped back and forth, held on as long as he could before being tossed to the concrete below.

Medical personnel needed over a hundred stitches to close up the deep three-inch gash on the lieutenant’s arm.

He lived to make general--and to be a credit to the Marine Corps.

Ignorance was temporary, unless it proved fatal.

Redemption comes if the lesson is learned. The lieutenant had his story told in Granpaw Pettibone--a safety cautionary column in Approach magazine. The theory being that aviators can learn from others’ mistakes and prevent further injury or loss of valuable equipment. Andy always talks of the aviator as one of the more expensive pieces of equipment the service has. In 1970 it cost 1.5 million to train a fighter pilot. Nowadays it is more, probably a lot more. If you add in the time it takes for OCS through flight training--the military can’t afford to lose personnel.

All of that is an accountant’s view of aircraft mishaps and reasons to prevent them.

On the other hand, I know how many people are affected by the loss of a single person.

I dreamt of my older brother Don last night. Sunday will be the 31st year since he died in a midair. In my dream, he walked into a room where I spoke with other writers about writing and publishing and marketing. He was so big and full of life. He grinned and said, “Hi guys!” I was so very glad to see him.

Many things would be different if his plane hadn’t run into the same piece of sky as another. His loss changed my family dynamics and exposed so much of the dysfunction of my childhood.

As the New Year begins, I need to look at the costs of my own mishaps and learn my lessons so they are not repeated, so I don’t crash and burn leaving sadness and regret in the ashes.

What mistakes have you made that you need to learn from?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas SOP

The following was sent to me by MSgt Ben Spotts. Tis the season for all kinds of orders :)

To:      ALCON

Subj:   Christmas SOP

Ref:    (a) OPLAN 360-04 (North Pole) of 4 DEC

1.  Per the reference, an official staff visit by LtGen Claus is expected at your house on or about 25 DEC.   The following instructions will govern the activities of ALCON during the visit.

     a.  Not a creature will stir without permission.  This includes Warrant Officers and mice.  Marines may obtain special stirring permission for necessary administrative action through DPAC.  Officer stirring permits must be obtained through the XO.

     b.  All personnel will settle their brains for a long winter nap NLT 2200, 24 DEC.  Nap Uniform will be: Pajamas, Cotton, Light Weight, General Purpose, OD, and Watch Cap, Wool, Black.  Equipment will be drawn from Supply prior to 2130.  While at Supply, all personnel will review their ECR card and sign a checkage (DD Form 1131) for all missing items (remember, this is the "season of giving.")

     c.  Personnel will utilize standard MRE sugar plums for visions to dance through their heads.  MRE ration pack sugar plums should be eaten with egg loaf, chopped ham, and spice cake to ensure max visions are experienced.

     d.  Stockings, Wool, Cushion Sole, will be hung by the chimneys with care.  Officers will conduct ORM to ensure the necessary safety precautions are taken to avoid fires caused by carelessly hung stockings.  Stocking handling plans will be submitted to the S-3 (Training) prior to 0800, 24 DEC.  All SNCOs will ensure their subordinates are thoroughly briefed on the safety aspects of stocking hanging.

     e.  At the first sign of clatter, all personnel will spring from their beds to investigate and evaluate the cause. Immediate action will be taken to tear open the shutters and throw up the window sashes.  On order, para 6-8 (c)(3) of the reference takes effect governing shutter tearing and sash throwing.  SNCOs and NCOs will be familiar with
procedures and are responsible for seeing that no shutters are torn or sashes thrown prior to the start of official clatter.

     f.  Prior to 0001, 25 DEC, all personnel possessing binoculars and night vision equipment will be assigned "wandering eyeball" stations.  SNCOs will ensure these stations are adequately manned even after shutters are torn and sashes are thrown.

     g.  The S-4, via the Motor Pool, will assign one (1) Sleigh, Miniature, M-24 and eight (8) reindeer, tiny, for use by LtGen Claus. The assigned driver must have a current sleigh operator's license with roof-top permit and evidence of attendance at the winter driving class stamped on his DD Form 348.  The driver must also be able to clearly
shout "On Dancer, On Prancer, etc."

2.  LtGen Claus will initially enter the CP via the CDO.

3.  All houses without chimneys will draw one (1) Chimney Simulator, M6A2 for use during the visit.  Draw chimney simulators as necessary via a DD Form 2765-1, which will be submitted in four (4) copies to the S-4 prior to 23 DEC.  Chimney simulators must be properly cleaned before turn-in at the conclusion of visit.

4.  All SNCOs and NCOs will be rehearsed in the shouting of "Merry Christmas To All and To All a Good Night."  This shout will be given upon termination of the visit.  Uniformity of shouting is the responsibility of the Officers.

Semper Fidelis,


Fideli Certa Merces
"To The Faithful There Is Just Reward"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Aviation Brief XVIII: Marine Corps Formal Traditions #2

A pre-cruise dinner at NAS Lemoore evolved into a night to remember in a different way. Two Navy squadrons hosted two Marine squadrons and the other Navy squadrons that were part of CAG-11--Carrier Air Group 11. Meant to be a bonding time for the squadrons who would be sharing the confines of a ship for six months, it was put together as a Navy version of a Mess Night.
All had progressed as it should up to the meat course. Then, as someone at the head table spoke at the microphone, a lone roll arced high overhead, followed by a return barrage of rolls, some buttered lavishly. Before long, heavy artillery in the form of fully loaded potatoes launched. By the end of the evening, the rolls and potatoes were the least of it.
The El Toro based Marine squadrons saddled up and departed in the squadron jets by ten hundred hours the next morning--aviators breaking the ‘twelve hours from bottle to throttle’ rule.
The Lemoore base CO did not see the damage until early afternoon. He pulled in the CAG-11 CO, who dragged in the A-7 COs, who burned up the phone lines pulling in all their squadron officers. 

The Marines from El Toro did not fly back in to help clean up. Their absence was duly noted.
Shortly afterward an official message arrived at MCAS El Toro addressed to the two Marine squadrons:

** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
* U N C L A S S I F I E D*
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
PT 02 00                        085   1517 06

RT TU ZY UW R HH GG O4 18 0851 M -U UU U- -R UW JG FA 1S
UNCLAS  //NO 17 10//

5. VA-27 AND VA-97 SEND

The Marine squadrons got the message. The COs of VMFA-531 and VMFA-323 held closed-door sessions with their officers. Significant “voluntary contributions” in the thousands of dollars were extracted and forwarded to NAS Lemoore.

Food fights are a male bonding activity. It’s obvious the guys need the civilizing influence of women who would not have  wanted butter on their evening gown or sour cream in their hair.

We all want to have fun. As a wife the really fun part of being an aviator--flying--wasn’t an option. Darn it. But this party activity would not have been funny to me. The aviator who told me this story thought it hilarious. And it is--the return message by the Lemoore squadrons was a clever and not whiney method of getting the message across. You played--now you pay, or--

Making a mess and not cleaning it up--that is a whole other kind of flight into irresponsibility. I know VMFA-531 jet jockeys thought they had “gotten away with it” by flying off in the morning. But spouses know that “somebody” has to clean up the mess. And too often it is not the one who made the mess who has to scrub the floor and repair what’s broken.

My grown-up self wants to make sure I clean up my own messes. It wants to be the “somebody” who is responsible. Inside of me is my child self that says, “Somebody else will do that, take care of that, comfort them, step up to the plate.”

Which are you? How do we build children who take on the responsibility of being the somebody others need? How do we learn to be our best selves?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Aviation Brief XVIII: Formal Corps Traditions Part 1

Most formal occasions in the aviation community, such as the Marine Corps Ball, had wives and girlfriends present--in recognition of the women’s civilizing effect on flyboys. Women also enjoyed dressing up more than the men. Formal clothes for women were slinky and comfortable, once they removed the killer heels. Formal wear for the aviator was stiff, starched, and tight on the collar--the complete opposite of a flight suit. Short of taking off the jacket and unbuttoning the collar, no relief was to be found from the constriction. No relief from the restriction of socializing with generals and colonels, either.

Once in awhile, Corps tradition presented a formal occasion with no women. At Basic School, Mess Night for each class became an institution. Beforehand, company XOs admonished new lieutenants about such taboos as loosening a tight collar or imbibing to the point of passing out at the dinner table. Several minutes of the lecture explained the requirement for bladder control and the planning needed to accomplish it. They cautioned that the bugle call "last call for the head" just prior to marching into dinner might be the most important musical accompaniment of the night. The requirement to remain at the table once dinner had begun was absolute.

At Mess Night, the band played and Marine officers marched in adhering rigidly to custom and tradition. They ate and drank their way through a multi-course dinner. Stewards filled wine glasses when appropriate, and the serving and removal of courses evolved with the panache of the Sunset Parade at 8th and I. Cigars appeared and the President of the Mess lit the smoking lamp. With the last toast, "to the Corps!" all felt proud to be a Marine. Mess Night reached its climax at the bar: lieutenants, captains, majors and colonels holding snifters of brandy. An evening to remember. (To Be Continued...)

The Marine Corps Birthday Ball was the one night my guy would consent to dance on a dance floor with other people around. Now the horizontal rhumba--he was and is passionate about, but that is in private and usually on a bed. Thank goodness we’re in sync about that. Dance isn’t my favorite either. I have a decided lack of rhythm or maybe it’s just that I can’t dance as if nobody’s watching. I can’t say I’m all that comfortable following his lead. Remember, we are still having the conversation about who is the CO and who is the XO in our marriage.

The Marine Corps taught me a lot about tradition and its importance. An institution with traditions shows itself respect. When all else goes to shit--the traditions told me what to do, when to stand, when to toast, how to celebrate births, how to help in times of trouble, when to go to a house that grieved (--as soon as possible and as often as possible). No man left behind is a Marine tradition. No spouse left by themselves.

Tradition is important to show respect to a marriage and a family. Andy and I always go away overnight at least one night for our anniversary. Sometimes it was a night at the Motel 6--those were lean years--but we still got a chance to look in each others' eyes and remember why we fell in love in the first place. Holiday traditions are a basis of strength into the future for the children. Even now when my children are grown up and far away, they know at my house the tree will be up, the cookies will be baked, there will be turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, homemade butterhorn rolls and peas. I’ll have the creche on the mantel, the stockings hung from silver snowflakes on the stairs, and a wreath on the door.

I wonder if the Corps traditions are still holding firm today. So many young men and women have given all to their country. So many families left bereaved. I need to try harder to be there for them. Do you have suggestions?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Aviator Brief VII: No Guts, No Glory

On a day of such crappy weather even the seagulls stayed grounded on the grass between the runways, Colonel Sullivan turned for takeoff from Runway 7 at MCAS El Toro. Pushing forward the throttle and kicking in the afterburner, he lifted off from the surly bonds of earth into a flock of seagulls startled by the decibels of an F-4 turbine.
Three hundred seagulls funneled into a jet engine were a problem of compressibility. Blood and feathers, guts and bones don’t pack well into the relatively small space of a Phantom’s engine.
With one turbine destroyed and unsure of the damage to the other, the colonel looked at the land near the base. If the jet stopped being able to fight gravity and he had to jump out, the hunk of steel and explosive jet fuel would twist and burn into homes, schools and/or stores. Not a good option.
Good pilots make good decisions in the worst of circumstances. He pointed his radome south and flew the crippled bird with its many mangled birds to Yuma, Arizona, where he managed to land safely.
The CO of the squadron appreciated the decision to divert, preventing a potential public relations disaster. He also appreciated the skill of the pilot in preserving a valuable piece of machinery. Engines could be replaced. A plane crashed and burned was unrecoverable.
Yuma, the day Col. Sullivan landed, had a high of 105-degrees. Yuma registered 105-degrees the next day, too. The plane, with its multiple bird strike, FODded engine, sat on the flight line in the heat for two days.

Then the maintenance officer, Snatch, flew to the desert to inspect the extent of the damage to the engine.
The guys in Yuma working on the tarmac were happy to see him. A wide area had been cleared around the colonel’s aircraft. No one wanted near the miasma of gull guts rotting in the gutted turbine blades. 

Neither did the hapless maintenance officer.
Snatch got the guts. Col. Sullivan the glory.

I never thought about this story much before re-reading it this week, but the troops were the ones who had to use the pressure hoses and replace the engine in the Yuma heat with the smell to high heaven. The AMO would have supervised, and had to deal with the smell, but the guts were on other hands. Snatch says the plane still stunk for awhile afterward, which would have made the airframe one of the least favorite to win in the “What am I flying today?” lottery.

So who am I in my life? Am I the person who in the nick of time and with derring-do flies a plane away from those who could be hurt by it if it crashed and burned? Am I the maintenance officer who has to supervise the rotting guts of the disaster and repair it to fly again? Or am I the troop on the ground who actually gets my hands dirty fixing what the magic flyboys wreck (even when it is no fault of their own?)

I’d never have made a good pilot. My reaction time is slow in an emergency. I don’t panic, but I don’t automatically react with split second decision making. In a disaster, time slows waaa-aay doowwwnnnn. I usually get to a good solution, but I’m afraid the plane might be in twisted bits if I were at the controls. I’m no Col Sullivan.

I would have made a good maintenance officer. I like to know how things work and I like to fix my life and those of my friends. I’d much rather tell someone else how to fix things than get seagull guts all over me. I don’t much like taking orders.

So I’d probably not make a very good troop. God bless them for what they do and the shit they take. The troops help keep the derring-doers and the other pilots like my husband up in the air and back down again for safe landings.

So who are you? In your life and relationships do you fly through bird flocks, but recover well? Do you analyze a situation and figure out how to fix it? Do you like to give orders or just follow them?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Aviator Brief XVI: Donuts and Sympathy

A well-run squadron is like a family, with the CO the tough yet benevolent father figure watching over his aviators. Personal troubles at home could affect performance in the air. A pilot might be taken off flight status temporarily for a death in the family, financial problems, a separation, or a pending divorce--anything with the potential to  divert concentration. The CO had an obligation to evaluate how each aviator handled stressful situations and the likely impact on his ability to fly safely.
Jack Hartman got called into his CO’s office. The CO invited him in, told him to take a seat, and make himself comfortable. He offered Jack a donut out of a pink bakery box. Jack chose one and sat back, waiting to see what the CO wanted.
The CO hemmed and hawed, then in a roundabout way suggested everyone went through tough times and there was no shame in it. The CO said, “I hope you know you can always come to me to talk about anything troubling you.”
“Sure, CO.” Puzzled, Jack figured the boss needed to feel needed. He took a bite of the donut.
The CO said, “So tell me about what’s troubling you.”
Jack didn’t know what to say. He took another bite of the donut and mumbled, “I don’t have anything troubling me.”
“You’re not going through marital problems?”
The red-faced CO stood up, grabbed the half-eaten donut out of Jack’s hand, and kicked him out of the office.
No troubles? No donut.
Jack unknowingly broke the number one rule. Never make the CO look bad at the field.

It is human nature to reach out to another who we perceive to be in need. We want to comfort them and feel better about ourselves--if only for a moment--for breaking out of our self-absorbtion. Sometimes the other has not wanted my comfort, pity, or I have completely misread their life and emotional cues. 

At such a time I want to grab my donut back and kick them out of my sympathy office. Rejection! 

Just as I believe our reaction to tough times in life defines our marriage, so I believe my reaction to rejection defines my life. 

I have been blessed in my life by tragedy. How can I look at it that way? I would love it if bad things never happened. I would give almost anything to have my brother back alive and well and with his beloved Kathy and adored kids. But he is gone, and his loss in a midair tested my commitment to my husband. Could I afford love when my husband flew the planes that my brother had died in? Instead of drawing away from me when I backed off emotionally, my husband reached out again and again until I realized he was going to be there for me no matter what. I knew then that I would also be there for him no matter what. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in good times and bad, 'til death do us part. 

Being rejected by an agent, an editor or a publisher shouldn't make me angry or make me give up writing or give up sending out my manuscripts. I need to write. I made a commitment to myself to write, to put ideas out there, to try to make sense of the world. "In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in good times and bad, 'til death do us part."

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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Aviator Brief IX: Compromising Positions

Pilots and RIOs in the Phantoms needed each other. Each had their tasks to accomplish. Each watched out for the bogey and other bad things heading their way. Pilots have saved RIO’s lives with spiffy flying. Backseaters have saved their pilots’ asses by seeing what they couldn’t, or command-ejecting both when the front-seater wanted to save his reputation and/or the plane more than his life. But RIOs all have a story of a pilot determined to fuck it all up.

Mike Fagan was a RF-4 backseater flying with his CO as pilot. They climbed in formation from Navy Dallas, Love Field, under IFR--Instrument Flight Rules--in big thick thunderstorm clouds. Formation flying in thunderstorms is difficult, so hard to do even the best pilots ‘squeeze the plastic’--whiten their knuckles around the plastic control stick. In IFR formation flying, one plane takes the lead, flying instruments only. The wingman has to keep in parade position--slightly back off the wing of the lead plane while keeping it in sight. The planes were buffeted about, in and out of thick clouds. The CO drifted a little too far from the lead plane, and lost sight.

At that point, the smart thing to do would be to take a 45-degree turn away, radio call, “Lost sight,” hold the heading and rejoin above the cloud cover. Instead, the CO tried a shadow rejoin--joining up on a shadow he thought might be the other airplane in the clouds--a definite no-no by all formation flying wisdom. He collided with and damaged the stabilator on the tail of the lead aircraft. The contact, not-so-slight, disintegrated their own radome--the fiberglass nose of the plane covering the radar--that was sucked into the jet intake, FODing their own engine--FOD, Foreign Object Damage--very bad for turning turbine blades.

A pilot with good judgment would shut down the affected engine to avoid a fire and evaluate if the plane was flyable. If it wasn’t, then a smart pilot would slow down the plane for a safer ejection. A sharp pilot knew to yell, “Eject! Eject! Eject!” because the RIO is the first to leave the plane via ejection. By the time the third “Eject!” left the pilot’s lips, the canopy would have been jettisoned and the RIO would be up the rails, well warned and in a safe position for sudden departure from his flying machine.

None of that happened.
Mike Fagan, the backseater, knew he had a good fifteen minutes after take-off before he had any necessary task to perform. So he brought out his flight maps for later, kicked back mentally, and had just opened up the latest Hustler magazine to the centerfold spread when he heard a thump, followed shortly by a cough. He didn’t know it was the sound of shit hitting the fan--the radome parts hitting the blades of the turbine and the subsequent engine deceleration. He didn’t know and he had no time to think about it.

Within half a second, and without warning from his pilot, the canopy blasted into the jet stream, maps and magazines sucked out in the vortex. Immediately, he was exposed to a driving thunderstorm with no mask or visor--he had been looking at the pictures, fergodsake!

A half second later the seat gun exploded him up the rails and out into blinding rain, cracking lightning, and hailstones.

The plane landed in an empty schoolyard--thank the good Lord for Sundays. The wheel chocks punched three feet deep in a driveway. Mike Fagan and the pilot landed on a golf course, an empty golf course because of the sheets of rain, wind, and lightning flashes. Mike never recovered his Hustler magazine, though his sense of humor did help him recover his temper--eventually.

All of us need our backseaters, the people in our lives who are another pair of eyes. All of us suffer when we take them for granted or don’t keep them in the loop.

We have to be the backseaters for our loved ones too. “I’ve got your back” what a great way to say I love you. Being the backseater means not always being in control. Behaving when we are left back home. Staying in touch.

My husband had an unaccompanied year-long tour to Okinawa when my oldest was 18 months old. Three weeks after he left, I realized I was pregnant with our second. I hated having him gone. I struggled with my high energy toddler during the not-so-good days of pregnancy and then had problems with the pregnancy and went on bed rest for the last two months. My mother and all her advice came to stay with us. Bless her for her help and bless her heart I wished she’d kept her opinions to herself.

My middle daughter arrived in October. My dad called Andy and told him about his baby girl. I sent him a picture in December--yes, two months later. My husband met her when she was two and a half months old, on his return home from his tour of duty.

It took me a year and a half to forgive him for having been gone. Does that make sense? No. He didn’t want to be gone; he wanted to be with us. I’m ashamed of my young self. Sorry, honey. I love you.