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, 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?

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