By lex, on August 24th, 2004
Jonboy shared his first sea story with us yesterday, and as I promised it has broken the dam that held back some of my own. Before going to flight school, I took two lessons with a grizzled black shoe LCDR who taught weapons at the Boat School, and had earned a flight instructor rating in his spare time. Two hops in a C-152 taught me that 1) I wasn’t going to flunk out of flight school for airsickness (so I had that going for me, which was nice), 2) That this flying gig could be kind of fun and, 3) That considering the expense of paying for flight time and an instructor, this Navy flying gig was going to be great — they were paying me!
After heading down to Pensacola and sitting through six weeks of ground school (weather, aerodynamics, flight physiology, federal aviation regulations, water and ground survival training), there were no immediate billets available in the flight training squadrons. Some of my contemporaries chose to while away the time by working on their tans – I drove up to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia to get some “back seat” time.
It was a blast.
I got socialized (some might say indoctrinated) into the fighter pilot milieu. These guys competed at everything. To give you an idea of the breadth of competition, during my stay the Officer’s Club installed a coin operated breath-a-lyzer in the foyer, whose ostensible purpose it was to ensure that no one who had over-indulged would drive home unaware of his diminished capacity. Shortly after its installation I was treated to the sight of several strong young men, the pride of American youth, the cream of the crop, downing drinks in quick succession and then lining up at the machine to see who could, in the shortest period of time, blow the highest BAC number.
Unintended consequences, to be sure — and the Navy has moved on since then, but anyway.
I was posted to an adversary squadron, and given a practically meaningless job. More importantly, I was issued a harness, g-suit, helmet and O2 mask, and after a brief familiarization lecture on the ejection seat, was put on the flight schedule for my first ever TA-4J ride. “We” were going to be fighting an F-14 from the fleet replacement squadron — I say “we” because I was little more than ballast.
I got the safety brief from my pilot: “Don’t touch anything painted yellow and black.” This sort of made sense because I had learned that things painted yellow and black typically control irreversible actions which either cause Important and Expensive Parts to rapidly separate from the aircraft (canopy, external stores) or cause the pilots themselves to separate from the aircraft. Which is OK, fine, no problem, so long as you’re on fire and your boots are starting to melt but is otherwise frowned upon by the service.
He added, “In fact, it would be best if you didn’t touch anything.” This left me momentarily wondering how I was going to sit in the jet, if I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, but upon reflection I took this guidance as mere hyperbole. At the end of the brief, he finished up thusly: “If we have to jump out of the jet, go through your survival procedures and get in your raft quickly – the water is cold. Paddle over to me and we’ll get our stories straight,” which left me briefly wondering what kind of world I had gotten myself into.
With the help of a parachute rigger, I struggled into my gear, and walked out to the flight line, trying my best to act like all the other fighter pilots — blithely unconcerned, casual — varsity football players suiting up for a scrimmage against the JV. In retrospect I think I must have looked a little more like a penguin waddling up to the carnivore watering hole in sub-Saharan Africa.
Up the boarding ladder and into the jet then: A solicitous plane captain helped me to strap in. Not much to it in the A-4, shoulder harness to the parachute risers, hip fittings to the seat bucket and O2 mask into the receptacle. I’d seen the other pilots taxiing around the apron with their masks hanging from their helmets at a jaunty angle and imitated them, looking around the ramp as casually as I could — just another fighter pilot bagging a backseat hop, you know. Has the afternoon free, most likely. Probably working on his minimums or something. Joe Cool.
When the actual pilot got the electrical power to the jet, he keyed the intercom, saying “ICS check,” which of course, never having flown in an aircraft that had an ICS, meant absolutely nothing to me.
I saw his head move up front, and caught his eyes looking at me in the canopy bow-mounted rearview mirrors. He looked a little unhappy. “ICS check,” he said again. I nodded my head up and down, silently agreeing — Right, ICS check. Good idea.
“Look pal, when I say ICS check to you, you say ‘loud and clear’ to me! And put your *@!$%! Mask on!” he exploded.
This is going well, I thought. Ix-nay on the O-jay Ool-cay.
“Clear canopy,” he growled.
“Clear, sir!” This one I’d been taught. The canopy came home with a thud and my ears popped as the pressurization seal inflated. I put my mask on, cinching the bayonet fittings tightly and experiencing a brief, but traumatizing moment of suffocation before my scrambling fingers found the O2 flow switch. Another lesson learned, and we hadn’t pulled the chocks yet.
Up into the burning blue, radio calls that might as well have been in Greek for all my comprehension, but a gradual acclimatization to the environment. Out over the ocean, far below us — a few puffy clouds on the horizon — a perfect painting of perfect world.
A gentle turn to the left and we settled in on a course that looked, yes – yes it was: generally to the north. I was figuring out that compass thingie. The throttle was up against the firewall, and the aircraft seemed to hum with increasing intensity. I found the airspeed indicator, and it showed about 450 kts. Cool, we’re really hauling the mail, I thought.
Not much in the way of comms with the front seat, just a sense of glowering intensity, of Something About to Happen. I looked around the sky casually, wondering what we were up to when suddenly the sun was blotted out to my left as an enormous shadow like a streaking bird of prey went passed us, faster than my mind could assimilate. Just as suddenly my helmet struck the canopy to my right with a resounding thud, as the pilot executed a violent left hand turn to engage the F-14 he had just passed, left to left. Briefly stunned by the force of the blow, the sudden g-forces pushed my head down to my chest as he wrapped up the turn. Trying (and failing) to raise my head under the g’s, my first experience of air combat was peering up from the under the rim of my helmet to see the stick moving in small arcs, the attitude gyro spinning lazily as he looped and turned, the sun alternately filling the cockpit, then leaving it in shade and the altimeter winding up and down in crazy successions with momentary pauses to reverse direction. My g-suit filled around my legs and torso, squeezing me in a not entirely successful attempt to fight the blood rushing from my brain to my feet.
It was violent and confusing and I was utterly lost but having the time of my life, without quite knowing why. Eventually, I heard a cool voice on the radio: “Guns, kill, knock it off.” My pilot leveled his wings and as the g-forces eased off I freed my chin from its resting place on my sternum. Looking over his head in front of our aircraft, and seeing no F-14 there, I put two and two together, and congratulating myself on my perspicacity, asked him, with perhaps a touch too much exuberance, if perhaps we hadn’t been shot?
Another stabbing glare in the rearview mirrors was his only response, and I thankfully fought down the sudden urge to say, “ICS check?”
There were two more engagements, in which I learned how to brace my head upon my neck and so observe the world around me, and then it was time to go home.
The radio comms with the air traffic and control center started to have English words in them as we returned to base, and as he hit the initial and the throttle once again crept up to the mil stop, the airframe again began raising her mournful keen — hauling the mail into the break, baby. Oh, yeah.
Far better prepared this time, I braced elbows against the canopy rail and my hands at either side of my helmet to keep from hitting my head against the canopy again as he broke hard into the downwind. He ran through the landing checklist on the ICS, and I managed to add, “All set in the back,” receiving a flicker of acknowledgement from his eyes in the mirror.
Safely on deck, and taxiing back to the line, he called “Canopy,” on the ICS, and ready for him this time, I instantly responded, “Clear!” And that was the moment that I learned that, in aviation — even if nowhere else — words actually have meaning.
As the canopy began to rise, the sunglass case that I had stowed on the canopy glareshield slid aft, fell off and bounced once on the canopy rail before starting over the side. My hand whipped out to catch it, just before it would have fallen down the intake, into the whirling fan blades, causing no end of damage, no end of embarrassment, but a very probable end to back seat flights. Turns out I wasn’t actually “clear.” No need to tell him about that, I thought to myself. Would only serve to worry him, and he already seemed to have so many cares.
I’m very empathetic, that way.
Unlike Jonboy’s experience, my man didn’t tell me that I was welcome to fly with him again any time. He wasn’t that kind of guy. But I did fly with him again, and did far better.
And flight school in the sedate T-34 proved a much less demanding experience.