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, 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!