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.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Collateral Damage

This last week I spent a lot of time eating, visiting with friends and family and thinking about my blessings. Last night, one of my blessings breathed deeply next to me: my husband. Twenty-two years a Marine aviator, as many landings as takeoffs, no POW experiences, no visions of war keeping him awake. I fell asleep thinking about some of my friends and family whose lives had changed because of the military service of others close to them. They were collateral damage.

Some of you know part of my story. My brother was killed in a mid-air as a Marine fighter pilot. His son, then eight, has just turned forty and had a party. His brother and sister came to celebrate with him. Bittersweet. My brother would have loved the people they grew into. They would have loved to know my brother as adults know their parents. They all show wounds from an explosion they never saw coming thirty some years ago.

Five years ago, my husband and I attended the marriage of my niece to her twenty-two year old Marine corporal at the County Clerk’s office. He’d already had two tours to Iraq and was about to leave for the third. Their daughter is now four years old. Their marriage has ended in the rages of PTSD and TBI. I asked him if the military makes it easy to get help. He said he didn’t want help, he just wanted to go back to what he knew how to do--fight a war and protect his buddies. He doesn’t want to know how to get the oil changed on the car, talk to his wife, or shop for groceries. Those everyday activities are difficult and full of tension. My niece wanted a husband who talks softly, with respect, sleeps at night, never raises his hand against her. She doesn’t want her daughter to grow up seeing her daddy yelling at mom. His explosions here reflect the explosions he can’t talk about over there.

A fighter pilot’s wife from Korean War vintage has become a friend. She’s shared how her husband never really knew what to do with himself as a civilian, so he drank. He was not a good drunk or an easy husband to have and to hold. She stayed with him. The shadows in her eyes remain even though he died a few years back.

The receptionist at my hairdresser’s is married to a Marine in Afghanistan. He’s only been gone a month, she has five more months to get through. Her struggle? Getting used to not talking to him everyday. He’s in a remote area, no Skype, no realtime emails. She can send him letters that get to him pretty quickly through some sort of email to print option. She asked, “What am I going to do with myself? I’ve already redecorated the whole house!” I hope she learns how to be herself and then find joy in his return. I hope he returns without leaving who he used to be in the Afghan hills.

“Close is only good in horseshoes, hand grenades and pattern bombing,” is a gallows humor saying in the aviator world. Being close to those in military service results in collateral damage often coming as a sneak attack.

In this holiday season, I continue to count my blessings and look for ways to reach out and help out those who strayed into the bombing pattern inadvertently.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TADs and Deployments #4

It used to be, during peacetime, overseas deployments happened once every three years or so. My aviator knew he’d be going to Japan for a year. I planned to learn Japanese and accompany him--to live out in town with my little one. Then he informed me what “unaccompanied tour” really meant. He’d be deployed to Okinawa, Japan and I wasn’t allowed to come. A year! A year apart! We’d only been married three years. I had an 18 month old.

He left right after New Years’. Three weeks later I discovered I was pregnant with our second child. I called the overseas operator to tell him.

Operator: “Sergeant Major who? There is no rank Major Sergeant.”

“His last name is Sargent.”

“Sergeant Major who?”

Once the operator and I got the rank/name thing cleared up and he got on the phone, I told him the news.

“Whose is it?” he asked.

Really--three weeks gone and he thought I’d found a sperm donor? I’m not that kind of girl.

The year went slowly. I tried distracting myself. I crewed for friends of ours on their Prindle racing catamaran until I couldn't fit in my wetsuit anymore. I modified our house with plants and makeovers as much as our budget allowed--which wasn't much since we had costs in the US and Japan.

And I was still pregnant running around after a very active firstborn.

It made me mad. Mad at Andy.

Logically I knew he did not choose to go overseas, it was part of his job. I knew it wasn't much fun for him since it was a non-flying billet with the "Running 9th" Marines.

Then the doctor put me on bed rest.

My now two-year-old, strong-willed child made that difficult.

So my mother came to stay with me. Bless her for that.  It couldn’t have been easy to leave her own home and life and take care of a lonely, grumpy preggo and her challenging toddler. We didn't agree on much about child rearing. We didn't agree about much of anything. Yet she came to help me and I tried to be appreciative.

Which led to an escalation in my anger at Andy. Maybe I should have been angry at the Marine Corps or my mother for being an additional stress instead of the supportive help I wished her to be. Nope. I blamed it all on Andy.

An emotional, non-logical reaction.

So many of us have partners far away through no choice of their own. For some it’s orders from the military. Others travel for their work or work so hard they might as well be in Japan. Anger creates larger distances than deployments. My mother and my husband treated me with understanding and love until my own love remembered to be appreciative.

Friday, August 12, 2011

TADs and Deployments #3


Never liked them.

When I was first married, even a night away from my guy brought lonely to live at my house until he returned. Later, before kids, I learned to tolerate it--appreciating the time to get projects done: a special Christmas present, putting mirror and redwood panels in our bath (It was 1976!), or just to have a day or two to read a book or visit friends without needing to cook dinner or hurry home. After kids, having him gone at all meant no relief at the end of the long day, no adult ear to listen to my joys and woes and ain’t-our-kid-cute? stories.

But all those short cross-countries had a different quality than the TADs. Most of those lasted two or three weeks somewhere else: Tyndall AFB, or Nellis AFB, or Fallon NAS. When my husband left on a TAD, something always happened to remind me why he was indispensible around the house. TAD might as well stand for Things Always Deteriorated.

One time my guy was TAD to Fallon. First, the car quit working. Of course. Then I opened the door to the tow-truck operator and my dog leaped in the air with shark eyes to bite him. I put my hand out to stop her and she bit me. The red feather pulsing out of my arm told me the bite had punctured an artery.

Thank goodness for my civilian neighbors who drove me to the hospital, cleaned up the blood and watched my three young girls. We no longer see each other across the street, but I remember and am grateful. Pennies for Heaven.

Later, when I shared my tale of woe with Andy, he felt bad but he couldn’t do anything about it. I remember he was angry and worried and helpless all at the same time. He flew fast jets, practiced Air Combat Maneuvers--ACMs; control and situational analysis were his mantras. When Things Always Deteriorated when he wasn't around us, he had no control and he couldn't watch out for the bogeys. He’d rather be with us at night then go back to a BOQ room. I’d rather have had him with me at night, too.

But he did love the flying.

So many of our military today are serving back-to-back-to-back deployments, mostly in a war zone. This blog post is for those who stay at home, who take care of the kids and the house and the car and their hearts so there is something to come home to. Make friends with your neighbors--even if they don’t understand what your spouse does. Who knows, your car might break down.

And to the neighbors of our military families--reach out.

Thinking of all of you today.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fighter Pilot Rule #3: Be aware of neutral, offensive and defensive starts.

Rereading some of my blogs from years past, I visited The Ready Room 2008. I'm heading into new territory with my writing and wanted to go back to the comfort of the familiar. There were more lessons to learn from the procedures of aviators preparing for flight.

Before pilots or RIOs took off and slipped the surly bonds of earth, they met in the Ready Room to get their shit together with the other flight members.

First, they got the admin details out of the way: like when to walk to the plane, when to man-up--be in the plane ready to strap in--when to taxi and take-off.

Second, they had to brief the set-ups and engagements. Would the air combat maneuvers, ACMs, be on radar or visual? A radar set-up meant starting BVR--Beyond Visual Range--a visual set-up began much closer in.

Aviators then briefed where the planes would be the start of each engagement. Different start parameters meant different tactics. If 1v.1--one fighter fighting against one other--in a defensive start, then one plane had an advantage. The bogey--the bad guy--could come up on the fighter’s ass or could have an angle of attack to shoot a virtual sidewinder missile for a virtual kill. Fox Two!

A neutral start began with bogey and fighter side by side, turning away 45 degrees in a butterfly maneuver before turning head on, so neither had an angle, no position of advantage on the other.

An offensive start gave the fighter an advantage--say at the six-o-clock ready to attack the bogey up the rear. Aviators preferred an advantage right from the git-go but they needed to practice offensive and defensive tactics so in a real combat situation, they could get themselves out of tight spots, find the bogey, and shoot it down. The job of the fighter pilot. As the Red Baron said, “Anything else is nonsense.”

In my relationships with others, too often I find myself thinking there’s my side and the other side (and the other side is so wrong). I want to prove my point, show them I’m right. I want to win.

In tactical maneuvering in war or combat training winning is important. In war it can be a matter of life or death.

In a relationship, winning or losing can also be a matter of life or death--the life of death of the relationship. Too many times, defense means not listening, offense speaks the unforgivable. A relationship--whether with a spouse, a family member or a friend--is not about offense or defense--except to defend and support the other. Relationships are about establishing common ground--neutral. Be aware of when it’s best to insist, when to break away and when to leave the ACM to fly another day.

I have to remember to be a good wingman, not a Manfred Von Richtofen. We have enough nonsense in our lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fighter Pilot Rule #2: Wingman


“Bird” was a Marine fighter pilot, a good stick--meaning he flew a jet around in the sky with skill and flair--and a good friend. Snatch first knew him in the Advanced Training Command at Kingsville, Texas where they were both instructors.

Kingsville had about seventy-five instructors, fifteen of those Marines, and lots of students. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, Marine pilots went to OCS, then Basic School where they did all the Marine grunt things like run with heavy packs, tbefore going to flight school where early on a decision was made to funnel some students to helos, some to fixed wings, then later fixed wing students learned if they’d fly jets or prop planes.

One night while driving around Texas, the timing chain on Snatch’s Shelby broke when still hours away from home sweet bachelor apartment. Bird got the call at two o-clock in the morning. Did he tell his good ol’ buddy ol’ pal to get a motel room? Nope. Bird rubbed the sleep from his eyes, fired up his Corvette and drove three or four hours to the rescue and three or four hours back to Kingsville. That’s a good friend.

A few years later, Bird and Snatch were both pilots in VMFA 314, flying Phantom F-4s based at MCAS El Toro on a cross-country.

Immediately after taking off from Navy Dallas on their way back to MCAS El Toro, Bird’s jet suffered a utility hydraulic failure and had to land at the closest field: the one he’d just launched from.

The utility system worked the brakes, the tailhook, and flaps. A utility failure was better than a primary control hydraulic failure, which affected all the flight control surfaces. The primary control hydraulics were redundant systems, losing one PC wasn’t catastrophic--the other system took over. Lose both primary control systems and the pilot had a rock without controls.

With a utility failure like Bird’s, his flaps could be blown down by pneumatics, the hook would fall down by gravity, but being SOL--shit out of luck--on brakes, Bird required an arrested landing--trapping the wire.  Snatch brought Bird around, talked to him on the radio since two heads were better than one in an emergency--made sure everything that could be done was done before landing.  He stayed on Bird’s wing and made sure he landed okay. 

Bird taxied off the runway, and looked for Snatch’s plane to land. Snatch was not only a friend, he was the AMO--Aircraft Maintenance Officer of VMFA-314. AMOs knew how to get planes fixed, even at far from home airfields. Bird’s misery wanted company.

Not so fast.

Snatch saw an opportunity in Bird’s misfortune, an opportunity for a bit more flying and some socializing with his favorite brother. He told Mutt, his RIO, to re-file direct to Clovis, New Mexico where his Air Force brother was stationed.  No reason for both pilots to be grounded. I’m sure Snatch heard some high and to the right language over his radio as he flew off.

Maybe Bird should have told Snatch on that long ago Texas night to sleep in his Shelby and call for a tow.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Snatch knew he left Bird at a base with repair facilities, a RIO to drink with and he also knew Bird was a big boy, able to deal with the situation all on his own. Bird, on the other hand, expected his friend’s company while grounded.

Friendships change over time. What a young lieutenant would for his buddy was different than what a senior captain wanted to do.

Regardless, I find more to admire in Bird’s middle of the night drive than in Snatch’s need to visit family.

In my own friendships there is always a search for balance of expectations versus boundaries. I call a friend, wanting to get together, and they’ve got a crazy couple of weeks or can’t chat right then--no problem, no hurt feelings. A friend calls in need, I can drop most anything to listen or to help. A friend who calls in need everyday and doesn’t let me off the phone without guilt even after a hour--problem. A friend who never calls except to ask for favors--also a problem.

Most importantly, am I the friend I want to be?

Am I a middle of the night driving sort of friend or a leave them at Dallas Field friend?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fighter Pilot Rule #1: S/A

Keep your S/A--Situational Awareness

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California in 1979 was a base with a mission. A lot of predictions of future wars focused on the Middle East to protect US interests in the volatile region--desert wars. Twentynine Palms had lots of desert to practice in. My husband used to tease me that we lived at the beach--look at all the sand--too bad the water was located so far away. 

VMFA-321, a Marine Corps Reserve Squadron based at Andrews Air Force Base, had come out  to practice close air support on the live fire range.  On July 26th, in addition to the regular briefed mission, the CO of the squadron had a Time/Life photographer Mark E. Meyer in his backseat. The mission had been cleared through Headquarters Marine Corps, Mr. Meyer had flown in many high performance jet aircraft.

Unfortunately, Mr. Meyer arrived only an hour before the hop, after the ready room brief, so he was given an individual “quickie” brief before climbing into the F-4N Phantom backseat of LtCol. Fritz Menning. No one checked the photographer’s flight gear to make sure it met safety parameters.

The briefed hop went well. Afterward, while the F-4s flew in loose formation at 17,000 feet, the photographer asked his pilot, LtCol Menning to make a canopy roll over the lead plane flown by Capt. Rick Loibl. Pictures of the aircraft flying over the desert floor would look good in Life magazine. The squadron CO wanted Mr. Meyer to get the best shots so that his squadron and his planes looked good and got some great publicity on the national stage.

The squadron got publicity all right, though not of the sort they were hoping for.

LtCol Menning didn’t keep his SA. 

In his rollover, either he started too low so his wing fell down on to the wing of his leader (gravity at work), or he misjudged the up and over arc needed to stay clear. Wing surface contacted wing surface sending both planes into unrecoverable spins.

All four crew ejected. Both planes--and the Time/Life photographer’s camera with great shots of the lead plane against the background of the desert floor--ended up in a couple of smoking holes.

The Radar Intercept Officer in the backseat of the lead plane was CWO-4 Robert “Lizard” Waltzer, a combat experienced crewman with 3000 hours in the F-4 and a skydiving enthusiast who made a hobby of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. He later told my Andy, who was the the fixed wing Air Officer at the Tactical Exercise Control Group, how jazzed he was to get to use his skills in a bonafide departure. His use of his chute’s four line release to steer clear of obstacles may have been the first time such a tactic had been used in a fighter jet ejection. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “hanging his Lizard out”!

The photographer’s flight equipment made the accident report because no one wants to eject without steel-toed flight boots. History does not say if his feet sustained damage. I’m betting, yes.

Fighter pilots have to be aware at all times of many different things. They not only have to keep an eye on their instruments, but also have a sense of where their wingman is and watch out for their adversary. They need to know which way is up and keep above the hard deck--the designated Above Ground Level. AGL is usually set at 10,000 ft above the ground to give aviators an opportunity to recover from a spin or a plane otherwise departing from normal flight that wants to obey the law of gravity and auger toward the center of the earth. At the same time, the fighter pilot has to fly his plane, communicate on the radio, plan and react to the bogey’s maneuvers. A moment of tunnel vision can be disastrous when flying at supersonic or even subsonic speeds with other fighters in the sky.

Just like fighter pilots, we need to know where we are and know where we are in relation to others and other things around us. Take it all in. Be aware. If we only look at the artificial horizon, we won’t see the altimeter. We may be in level flight but heading straight toward a mountain.

It is also important we need to know who we are. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I’d make a terrible aviator of any kind. I wear contacts that are always getting dust under them. I drift off into other worlds. I write fantasy well, but dislike strict parameters of behavior.

And once we know the where, the when and the who that we are, we must use that awareness in THIS moment--not be distracted by the fight with the spouse, the problems with the teenagers, that the grass has to be cut, the boss wants the report written, or a parent is sick. Each moment has it’s own imperative for focus. Multitasking in our lives takes focus away from what we need to understand and do right NOW.

Oh--and let’s wear our steel-toed flight boots if we’re in a plane with ejection seats.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aviation Brief XXIII: Landing

1.    Take turns coming into the break to land.
2.    Open canopy with canopy lever when entering fuel pits; in case of fire, get out quickly.
3.    Hot refuel.
4.    Taxi to flightline.
5.    Wait while plane captain chocks airplane.
6.    Wait until plane captain signals, ‘Cut engine’
7.    Cut engine.

8.    Get face curtain pin out of pin bag and put it in to ‘safe’ seat.
9.    Climb out of plane and on to deck.

Aviators brief hops so the unexpected is expected. All involved know who comes into land first--usually the flight leader. An emergency such as bingo fuel might change that, but other routines prepare for anything not routine.

The canopy is opened before going into the fuel pit because the risk of fire exists and someone somewhere wasn’t able to get out of a burning plane on the ground.

The plane captain chocks the plane then signals to cut the engines because it helps to have hands and eyes on the ground to do and see what the strapped into the seat cannot.

The aviator turns off the engine and makes sure the one very important pin safes the ejection seat from ejecting an aviator too close to the ground. Good to have control of your own life and power.

In marriages we need to brief each other on the expected and be prepared for the unexpected.   Who’s the flight leader? Are there any emergencies? Are there fires in the fuel pit? Do we need to make sure the plane doesn’t run over our plane captain?

I confess I tend to take care of a lot of our life missions. Somedays I believe I briefed the hop as the flight leader only to realize Andy didn’t get the brief. He wants to take care of everything. Tension.

Except when he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants someone else to take charge. Tension again.

 When it’s tough--the kids are misbehaving, the money’s tight, work is frustrating--then I want him to take charge and he wants me to be the flight leader and lead the way to a safe landing. I want to be refueled without fires and explosions. I want someone else to chock my plane and let me know I can cut the engine. So does he.

The hard part is making sure we don’t just brief each other once--like 36 years ago when we married and I thought he was the next best thing to a god on earth. We have to keep briefing and re-briefing and looking out for our wingman.

We all want a safe landing and to be able to climb out of the high-performance fighter jet that is our life on to solid ground.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aviation Brief XXII: Flight Procedures

This is not the correct two-finger start signal
(edited to protect the guilty)

1.    Strap in
2.    Pull the ejection seat pins
      a.    Done by the plane captain. 11 to 12 pins. Shows them to pilot between his/her fingers to 
          make sure all are out. Seat won’t fire if they’re in.
3.    Put away map bag and any other gear
4.    Check switch positions
5.    Make sure ICS is on (Inter-Cockpit System--mike with RIO)
6.    Give two-finger start up hand signal.
7.    Plane Captain checks plane to make sure all the flight surfaces work and there are no leaks
8.    Taxi out
9.    Take off
      a.    Both planes roll--release the brakes--at the same time
      b.    Execute section take-off so flight clearance can be made for both
      c.    Put in burner
      d.    Communicate with hand signals to other pilot
10. No touch-touch
11. Avoid clouds full of rocks

The job of an aviator requires the use of an aircraft. Flight procedures help ensure the plane takes off and returns, or at least gives the aviator a chance to eject if something fails. For want of a pin, an ejection seat failed to fire? It’s the little things that make a big difference.

Strap in. For fighter pilots that means connecting the torso harness to the coch fittings at the shoulders and snapping the lap fittings.That’s important. Just saying ‘Strap in’ means business--means ‘take it seriously’--means ‘get ready’. Everyday I need to strap in, get up, put my contacts in, look the day straight in the eye and mentally prepare myself for what might come.

Putting away any loose gear prevents my life’s debris from hitting me upside-the-head when fighting gravity and maneuvering at a high rate of speed.

Making sure I can talk to my co-pilot. That’s what has whomped me in the head this week. Damn. I thought we talked. I thought we kept each other on a hot mike. I just learned that nothing is heard if he doesn’t press the ICS switch on the throttle--or if I don’t put my foot down (there’s a button on the floor for the backseater).

I’m tempted to give a one-finger start up hand signal. We need a third party to make sure our flight surfaces work. Where’s a plane captain when I need one?

Photo 1970 Iwakuni, Japan of Lt. Andrew R Sargent and Lt Morrone taking a picture with someone else’s camera. Surprise!

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Know Him Too Well

He’s never invited to our table, on base, in housing, with the kids.
He is not welcome to knock on my door, nor my neighbors’ doors
Nor my friends’, nor wanted on a visit to anyone I know.

Yet he sneaks in anyway
Or blows in on a scrap of paper
Or on the evening news
Or in a chance phone call
An email
And he still knocks with the fist of the uniformed
The warm hand of a rabbi, priest, pastor.

Dear God. No.

If he announces his visit ahead of time,
We fight like muddy Marines in trenches,
Like top guns on ACMs over the Mekong,
Like sailors refusing to give up the ship,
We struggle to our last breath
To prevent him overrunning our position.

He dresses in flames and blood, sometimes in mystery
Often in black as tears or red as sobs or gray as grief.

I try not to think of him.
I never remember when he ends his visit.
Even when he has come and gone, he lingers.
And his specter follows me all the days of my life.

When my guy goes out the door,
He sits with me
With the ghosts he came for, before.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Aviator Brief XXI: Dark Waters #2

What could go wrong, would go wrong, and ejections were no exception. Jack Hartman on the USS Saratoga was on the catapult to launch. The bridle connecting his jet to the cat broke on one side and the catapult flung him and the plane from zero to two hundred miles per hour in six seconds--twisted sideways with one wing forward. He knew the plane would never fly, so he ejected.

His plane crashed in front of the carrier.

He floated down to the sea surface directly in front of the bow of the ship going twenty-five knots. The aircraft carrier ran over him. The last thing he remembered while underwater was the sound of the screws, with blades twice the size of a Volkswagen. No one could figure out how he was spat out by the wash without the parachute or parachute cords tangling in the blades.

It wasn’t always enough to be good--sometimes an aviator had to be lucky.

What could go wrong, would go wrong. Yep. My life resembled that.

Give Andy a cross-country or a TDY or send him overseas and that was when the car wouldn’t start and our dog would bite me trying to get through me to the tow truck driver. Thank goodness for neighbors to drive me to the hospital to have my artery repaired--and clean up the half inch of blood in the entryway while my three little girls watched with wide eyes.

Three weeks into his year overseas, I’d discover I was pregnant with our second child--and then six months into the pregnancy, I was put on bed rest for two and a half months. Have you ever tried being on bed rest with a two year old? What could I do? I called my mom. Thank you, Mom. My mom didn’t wrap my two year old in duct tape and I didn’t wrap my mother in duct tape either--though we were both tempted. What do women do without a mom close by and willing to put their life on hold for months on end?

He left one weekend and my cat fell off the headboard of our bed on to my face and I drove myself to the ER holding a pad over my eye to hold my upper eyelid together.

Ask any spouse with a partner in the military and I bet they have stories of their significant other gone and things gone wrong. What did we do when that happened? We dealt with what we had to deal with. We asked for help from the other people in our lives. We hoped we’d survive even when we were deep underwater and heard the screws turning.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Military Writer’s Society of America has an award each month called The William E. Mayer Prize for Literary and Artistic Excellence. I thought I’d give it a shot back in December. The word prompt was “Deceit”. Sometimes I struggle with my writing. This wrote itself from my heart.
I wanted to marry my love. I had no intention of marrying the Marine Corps--so love mixes with anger and anguish.
I’m still glad I married my guy--now 36 years! I’m so proud of him and so proud to be a Marine’s wife. That doesn’t mean I don’t remember being mad about it all.


You lied. 

Even the uniform all starched,
And pressed with red stripe
For the blood of others,
While you promised forever,
In sickness and in health. 

True blue. 
You led me down the path
Of believing while I
Scattered rosebuds where I may. 

No more.
Only Decembers and Januaries
Gripped by cold.
Gripped in cold empty arms.
My white knuckles tighten. 

You take up arms,
You swore,
To hold me in your arms.
Gunmetal arms, mortars, bullets,
Rotors and turbine jet engines,
Take you from me.

I swear. 
I have issues with
Not being issued,
Being left behind
With our children
Who cry
Their worry. 
I worry. 

We miss you.
I miss you. 
Come home.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Aviation Brief XXI: Dark Waters #1

An A-4 pilot flying out of Iwakuni, Japan had a night hop over the Sea of Japan. Next thing he knew he was being picked up out the freezing water by SAR--Search and Rescue. He remembered nothing of a crash or ejection, but his plane had disappeared. Pilots hate mysteries. What they don’t know can, and often has, killed them or others. With any accident, there is an Accident Investigation to figure out the cause of the mishap.

 In an unusual step, they had the pilot hypnotized. Under hypnosis, he remembered going to join up on lights below him, but instead of his wingman’s lights, they must have been reflections on the water. His plane flew into the sea before he realized he needed to eject. He came to, in absolute Stygian darkness, in a cockpit filling with icy water. He tried to manually open the canopy, but the pressure outside wouldn’t allow it. The ejection handle wouldn’t have helped; the water would have held the canopy on and he would have been rocketed into the plexiglass. So he waited in the black cold until the cockpit filled, then he opened the canopy and swam up to the surface, one hundred feet above the plane. He kept his cool to live to fly another day.

Some days I feel like I’ve crashed into a night ocean and I’d do anything to find my way to the surface--any surface. The glimmers of light I followed had fooled my heart to believe everything would be okay if I just continued on my present course and joined up with the others going my way. Or who I thought were going my way.

To carry the metaphor further--it’s dark down here. Dark and cold. And there is so much pressure from outside forces to stay where I am but if I do, I know I’ll die. Panic wants me to claw the canopy bloody, or pull an ejection handle that would rocket me into unforgiving plexiglass.

Sometimes we have to wait out the worst of circumstances until we can do something to change where we are in life. Whether it is with a spouse, a friend, a boss, or life’s circumstances, we can’t control everything but we can control how we react to the dark, cold waters. Then, once the cockpit fills up and we can slide the canopy off, we have to swim to the surface and inflate our personal survival raft.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aviator Brief XX: Quick Change #3

When the Change of Command ceremony was held without a marching band or printed programs, presided over by the frown of the Group Commander, and with the outgoing CO conspicuously absent, did Duke Lynne, the brand new CO, feel any need to knock wood, cross his fingers, or light a candle in the base chapel?

Duke had been on the schedule to fly well before the emergency change in squadron leadership. What better way to celebrate, or mourn the ouster of a friend, than to launch into the sky? The flight of two prepared to take off on their briefed, low-level navigation mission. Unfortunately, Duke’s plane did not cooperate in the celebration. It broke in the chocks seriously enough that Duke and the plane were grounded.

The FNG pilot in the other plane asked if he could continue, flying the briefed mission solo. Duke saw no reason both should suffer from his bad luck. He cautioned the new lieutenant, on the radio, to stay above 5000 feet--although the original brief had been down to 1300 feet above ground level.

Perhaps the radio was broken, too.

The FNG lieutenant returned and landed--miraculously--at MCAS El Toro in an A-4 that had its canopy and tail sawn almost in half by 90 to 100 feet of high tension wire. No ceremony was held for Duke’s ouster.

His tenure as a CO? Six hours.

Sometimes shit happens through no fault of our own. In the Corps, the final responsibility rests with the Commanding Officer. I hope Duke went on to live a long and happy life regardless of his tenure as a CO of a squadron.

I know I have not been a perfect wife or an infallible mother. I wish I could have been better at either task. But no one gave me a training manual! I never had the equivalent of carrier quals. Flying the ball in a marriage with teenage daughters is landing without an LSO, the ball, or a hook on a pitching deck in a howling gale at night.

So I am working on accepting that I did the best I could--just as my dysfunctional parents did the best they could. Each day I try to make the world a bit better for someone else. I can’t fix what I did. I can live each day forward while hoping I am not trailing high tension lines.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Aviation Brief XX: Quick Change #2

The new CO of the squadron, Tim Dineen, a good stick and a good guy, flew an A-4 plane with a high time engine which should have been in overhaul. Engines were required to be reworked every certain numbers of hours. A ten-percent flex was built-in just in case a plane was on a cross-country when the maximum threshold had been reached. Col. Dineen flew a plane well past the flex hours, and then ran out of luck when the over-the-maximum-threshold engine quit, he had to eject, and then was ejected from his command.
They held the Change of Command ceremony the next morning in the Group CO’s office, without a marching band or printed programs, presided over by the frown of the Group Commander, and with the outgoing CO conspicuously absent.

I am so thankful that Col. Tim Dineen ejected safely when his luck ran out. And it reminds me that there are reasons for rules on maintenance.

There are also certain rules for maintenance of a marriage. Some of them remind me of the fighter pilot rules of life. One of the jobs of the fighter pilot in air combat maneuvers is to learn the techniques for neutral, defensive and offensive starts--when no plane starts with an advantage, or when the bogey or the ‘good guy’ starts with an advantage.

Marriage shouldn’t be about offense or defense--except when we defend our spouse against all enemies foreign and domestic. Marriage is about establishing common ground--neutral starts. What do we have in common? How can we get where we want to be? Who is that person I’m flying through life with and how can I help him/her be the best they can be? We need to help each other watch out for bogeys and avoid clouds full of rocks.

May all our marriages make it home without ejections, without changes of command.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Aviator Brief XX: Quick Change #1

One A-4 squadron must hold the record for the most Changes of Command in the shortest period of time--three in six months. Generally, a CO’s tenure lasted from a year to two years. Getting fired short of a year required fucking up enough that the Group CO announced he had ‘lost confidence in the ability of the squadron CO to lead.’ Some men spoke seriously of falling on their swords when faced with such a scenario. They’d rather be dead than look bad.

The first hapless CO flew into Lemoore NAS. Wanting to show the Navy that the Marines had the right stuff, he brought his flight of four overhead in a flashy, yet frowned upon, fan break-where all the planes rolled together toward the runway. Unfortunately, in concentrating on looking good, the CO neglected to deploy his landing gear before touching the aircraft down on the runway. The plane ground to a halt in a shower of sparks and crunched plane parts.

A Change of Command Ceremony was hastily arranged with a band and printed programs.

The First Fighter Pilot Rule For Life: Keep your S/A--Situational Awareness.

I need to know who I am. It is also important to know where I am and know where I am in relation to others and other things around us. This CO didn’t keep his mind focused on his immediate now. The future is created from the now of my life. If I do all I can now to be awake to this moment then my future might unfold as I envision.

I say might because, well with the best of intentions, shit happens. But if I am here and now, I can also abort a foolish, doomed landing and live to fly another day.

Are you here? Have you tried to land unprepared?