Working your hardest
By lex, on October 18th, 2004
To get somewhere you don’t want to be…
It’s just possible that some of you have heard of Tailhook ’91 – I was there.
Now, you’re going to have to wait a little longer (like: Forever) for my frank and honest opinion on how this fiasco came about. There is a book to be written on this subject from the inside (several have already been written from the outside – sample title: Naval Aviation Neanderthal Frat Boys – Why they Should All Be Chemically Castrated. Or Else Surgically. Whichever.)
The inside book will be a sensitive exposition on the complex sociological factors that go into a grown man’s need to get together with a bunch of like-minded confreres and drink until he howls at the moon from time to time. It will touch on the post-Desert Storm euphoria meeting in an unfortunate confluence of time and space the growing (and chiefly political) effort to gender neutralize (if not feminize) the combat arms – I will go on record as saying that this has worked out far better than many in the ranks would have forecast, a dozen years ago. The madness, and frankly un-officerlike (not to mention, illegal) actions of a relatively small number of people in that the moment, and how their actions were used to tar the reputation of an entire service will be contrasted against the House of Representatives check kiting scandal, a contemporaneous event which was somewhat fortuitously (for certain members of the latter body) overshadowed by the seamy revelations forthcoming from the western desert. It will conclude with the rather ludicrous image of the senior Senator from Massachusetts finding himself shocked, shocked! to find out that among other things, people would do belly shots in Las Vegas.
But that is not this story.
Full disclosure: I stipulate for the record that criminal acts, of a kind and nature which brought discredit upon the naval service took place at Tailhook ’91. I also state for the record that I myself committed no crimes. Nor did I witness any crimes being committed. Late Saturday evening, I did witness an environment that was growing increasingly chaotic, and potentially dangerous. I reported my observations to hotel security. And then walked back to my hotel and slept.
So. That’s that.
My story commences some seven months or so after the events at the Las Vegas Hilton, in the Fall of 1991. A Naval Investigative Service investigation has made, ebbed and waned, but insufficient numbers of miscreants have been burnt at the stake. The Department of Defense Inspector General has been called in to finish the inquisition, complete with bell, book and candle. Oh yes, the guilty will have their chance in court this time. And then they will be judged. Judged most harshly.
The IG started on the west coast, at (then) NAS Miramar, intending to sweep east across the country. Those of us on the east coast were energized to communicate with our west coast compatriots – how did it go?
“Bad,” was the word we got. “SERE school bad.”
The IG had gone to Miramar bringing the heat – it was the full third degree. Article 13 rights (a Miranda equivalent) were read to everyone. One investigator asked questions, while another sat at 90 degrees to the interviewee, watching body language. Voices were raised, imprecations were made, threats were hurled. And the investigators were infuriated to find themselves stonewalled.
Two things were in play at this point: First, the naval aviation fraternity is one that has been tested in combat – it is designed to ensure survival first, and victory second. The bonds are exceptionally strong, and difficult for an outsider to break. Second, all TACAIR aviators must, as a matter of course, attend Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training. SERE, for short.
SERE trains you how to survive off the land if shot down, how to evade capture, how to resist interrogation (and torture) if captured and how to escape – just like the name implies. And of all the many things that have in some small way sucked in my naval career, it’s absolutely certain that SERE sucked the worst, on a time-weighted scale.
But it was really, really effective training. And when the IG turned the screws tighter on naval aviators across the country, they reverted to their training.
If the IG had appealed to the aviators’ sense of justice or fair-play, rather than brazen attempts to intimidate and threaten, the investigation would have no doubt have taken a very different course. But that is all in the way things might have been, rather than they were. Never mind.
By the time the investigation washed towards Naval Air Station, Key West, Florida, there were only three of us on board who had attended. We would be interviewed separately, and had agreed to only discuss those things which we ourselves had witnessed. We would not speculate, or tell “hearsay” about stories we might have heard from others around the ready room table, against the chance of misspeaking – there was a very real and palpable environment of fear, and the sense that we were all guilty in the IG’s eyes until proven innocent. The media were baying for heads on platters. They too, were shocked.
A good friend went up on a Wednesday afternoon, the day before I was scheduled to see the IG. Like a good friend, he called when his interview was over and admitted that the pressure had been significant, and he was sorry, but that he’d spilled his guts on every story he’d ever heard the rest of us say about that weekend.
“Well,” I said, “Tell me what you remember me saying, so at least I’ll know what they think they know.”
Which fortunately, is pretty much what I’d remembered myself.
The next day I manned up with another guy, a new pilot in the squadron who had also attended ‘Hook. We were in an F-5F, a two-seat jet of late 60′s provenance which we used as an adversary platform. It was the jet the squadron could spare for the trip up to Jacksonville. It was not the jet that Lex would have preferred to fly in poor weather, given the choice. You could get vertigo just strapping into an F-5 on a bad weather day.
Given all that, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that the weather up in Jax was pretty much awful. We pressed on regardless, however – we were authoritatively informed that this was not a meeting we were free to skip.
It was pretty quiet flying up the length of Florida, with none of your usual banter on the intercom. No jokes, just checklists. We were… preoccupied. In what had seemed a very short period of time, we had gone from war heros and Defenders of the Republic to presumptive criminals, and we weren’t entirely acclimated to the new environment. So much so, that I almost blew through an altitude assignment on the descent into Jax – my back seater (not even qualified in the jet) saved my bacon – a tremendously embarrassing thing for a single-seat pilot, and an indicator of the level of stress we were under.
The airfield was right at minimums for a precision approach – 200 feet overcast and 1/2 mile visibility. We’d need a ground controlled approach, a talk down using the precision radar. The instrument panel on the F-5 was all on the starboard side of the dashboard, with the engine instruments on the left and an almost entirely useless pulse radar system taking up the entire center console. An instrument scan involved lots of vertigo-inducing head jinks up and left from the instrument panel. The jet was also fast on final approach, nearly 180 kts on its stubby little wings, leading to a flare to about 150 kts to land. The higher ground speed necessitated a higher rate of descent (just trust me on that) and of course, there was no radar altimeter, so your absolute altitude above the ground was impossible to judge. In effect, we’d be coming down like a turd off a tall moose in a jet hauling ass with no distinct notion exactly how high we were to an airfield that was at the absolute limits of our legal ability to make an approach – and where, the loyal reader is reminded, we were earnestly awaited by an unsmiling pair of interviewers who held our service records in one hand, and our futures in the other.
So yah, it was a pretty good time.
We (I) got a little high on our (my) first approach, and as we approached minimums I couldn’t quite make myself force the nose low enough in the clouds to get back on glideslope, without being able to see the landing environment or knowing (for certain) just how high I was – we were already coming down like a bat out of hell. I had to execute a missed approach – my first ever, in nearly 2000 hours flying fighters. I added power, raised the speedbrakes and went around, just like I was supposed to. As we bottomed out, I caught a glimpse of the runway environment – just enough to let me see that a landing was possible.
Which was good news / bad news, in a way. Making another approach would put us very close to a fuel state which would require us to land – our options to divert somewhere with fairer weather would evaporate. If the weather at our primary destination got just that little bit worse on our next approach, we would be out of options, and committed to landing or ejection.
And the interviewers were still waiting.
We had a brief, terse conversation: My backseater was a cheerleader, essentially. Junior in rank to me, and not qualified in the jet, he was automatically absolved of any responsibility. Whatever I thought was best. That’d be fine with him.
We tried again.
Fierce concentration, the kind where all sound that isn’t your voice or your controller’s gets filtered out, the kind where the tiny vibration of the wings, control surfaces and engines provide the subtle feedback of the way the jet senses the environment through the stick and throttles, and it’s as alive to you as your own breathing and pulse, as the hairs on your forearms in a breeze. After no time at all, a time that lasted forever in zen-like union with the machine, we broke out of the weather in a good position to land.
The runway was wet – there had been a rainstorm recently. This necessitated the use of the drag chute to slow the high-speed F-5 down without hydroplaning.
There was a strong crosswind – this meant that using the drag chute was prohibited. It would weather-cock the nose and send us off the runway.
This was a bit of a conundrum.
Put the nose down firmly – no aero-braking this time. Hope the nose gear stands up to the stress. Stay off the brakes, for God’s sake. Don’t let her start to wander. Use the rudders as long as possible. Touch the brakes so gently, oh – a mere caress. The lightest possible stroke, a lover’s kiss – please, oh please don’t hydroplane. Don’t breathe. Don’t.
She stopped at the far end of the runway, the rain pattering on the canopy overhead. I switched to the ground controller once clear, and asked to taxi to the transient line. Where a car would be waiting, to take us to our interview.
And I had never worked so hard to get to someplace I really didn’t want to be.