By lex, on January 27th, 2004
The “Laws of the Navy, ” as the preface in the link states, are nearly universally known among naval officers in the Anglo-American sphere, but hardly anywhere else outside that fraternity.
Of these laws, the most famous, and most often quoted for its quality of stern deterrence, is the third law:
“Take heed what you say of your seniors,
Be your words spoken softly or plain,
Lest a bird of the air tell the matter,
And so shall ye hear it again.”
No truer words were ever spoken, or put to rhyme (no matter how inelegant the scansion). Most of us learned this by heart from the time we were midshipmen, and breaches afterward are most often observed through ignorance rather than willfulness.
Which brings me to my story:
When I was starting FA-18 training, the aircraft was relatively new – there was no pool of highly experienced instructors with thousands of hours in type to learn from. Our instructors had, until very recently, flown the A-7
Corsair II, F-4 Phantom, and more rarely, the F-14 Tomcat. But their lack of experience in the FA-18 meant nothing to me, as a transition student – however many hours they had in the Hornet was (X – 1.5 hours) more than I had, where X tends to infinity. And they were instructors, all-powerful, all knowing. Your future and your career were subject to their whims and fancies, your very life was in their hands.
The first flights in any aircraft, before you proceed to more advanced tactical training, are familiarization flights, or FAMs. My second ever flight in an FA-18 was with an easy-going lieutenant, whose last name was “Kivette.” In the nature of things, his callsign, his radio “handle,” ended up being “Space.” “Space Kivette.” Get it?
Anyway, that sort of thing is what passes for elevated humor, in the fighter pilot ranks.
So Space finished his brief to me on FAM-2, telling me what we’d be doing, where we’d be doing it and explaining the expected performance standards. We had a little time left before we walked to the jet, so he asked me what my background was, since as a full lieutenant myself, I was clearly not fresh out of flight school.
I explained to him that I had been a SERGRAD, or “selectively retained graduate” after flight school. Airline hiring had so thinned the ranks of qualified instructor candidates, that certain recent flight school graduates were themselves retained as instructors to teach flight students only a few months behind us in their training.
I asked him where he had been, and what he had flown. It turned out that he had been an F-4 pilot in Japan aboard the USS MIDWAY, the last ship to fly Phantoms on the line (she was too small to carry Tomcats).
I thought the Phantom was a cool-looking jet. In fact, my first exposure to naval aviation had been at an air show at Andrews AFB at the age of seven, where I had seen the Blue Angels flying Phantoms – all that noise and speed were certainly impressive, and I was hooked.
By way of breaking the ice, I also told him that I had been stashed for temporary duty while between training schools at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia, back when I was an ensign. The squadron I was stashed with had two-seat A-4 Skyhawks as adversary aircraft, and I’d often took the opportunity to bag backseat rides in the Scooter. We often flew against the F-4 training squadron, the last one in the Navy.
One day, I told him, while waiting at the hold short in a pouring rainstorm, too ignorant to be concerned about the weather, I’d seen a mishap. It turned out that an F-4 coming back to land in the bad weather broke out of the overcast on an non-precision approach poorly set up to land. He had a pretty significant offset from the runway, whether through flawed airmanship or a poor approach controller I never learned. The pilot made a play rather than go around for another approach, and landing on the slick concrete in a right-to-left drift, had gone off the runway into the soft turf, shearing off his nose landing gear in the process, and collapsing his left main landing gear mount.
Although no one got hurt, thankfully, this was pretty exciting to watch.
My pilot was then cleared for take-off on the other runway (since there were aircraft pieces littering the one the Phantom had just traversed), and off we went, into the goo.
“So anyway,” I finished, “who was that knucklehead?”
Can you, gentle reader, guess who that knucklehead was?
As soon as I finished my last statement, but before he could reply, I did the math quickly:
I had been in flight school as a student and instructor for three years.
A fleet tour is three years long.
Which meant he had been at Oceana, in the last F-4 training squadron in the Navy, at the same time that I had been stashed there as an ensign.
And before he could open his mouth and say anything, I knew. I knew that I had just impugned the abilities and headwork of the guy that was going to take me flying, holding my future, career and life in his hands.
But then again, what were the odds? I mean, there were dozens of students there. It could have been any one of them…
“That was me,” he replied, “let’s go fly.”