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.

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.

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