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, 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.