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, 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."