By lex, on Sun – March 27, 2005
Fighter pilots are, by and large, a pretty tautly controlled set of people, at least around the aircraft.
But some of us are wrapped just a little bit more tightly than the others.
I had a buddy back in the day, call sign “Cajun” – grew up in Lousy-anna and had gone to school at Tulane. For all that he was a southern boy though, and natural ally to your humble scribe, he was by no means your stereotypical slow-walking, slow-talking redneck (and I use that term in the Jeff Foxworthy sense – someone who is delightfully unsophisticated).
Cajun was a smoldering coal of glowering intensity – full throttle, all the time, compete at everything, whatever the cost and devil take the hindmost. Even on liberty in various and sundry exotic climes, he treated every hour of free time as though it had to be wrung for every last experience. He thought himself a man’s man around the bubbas, and a lady’s man at the night club. In short, although I loved him like a brother in spite of himself, the man could plum wear you out.
And ego? My God – he was the very avatar of fighter pilot arrogance. As a fleet FA-18 pilot, he was convinced that he stood astride the world like some latter-day colossus. S-3 pilots need not stand waiting for a civil greeting, and mere surface warfare officers could expect nothing greater than a reptilian indifference. Even amongst the fighter crews, his view of the hierarchical meritocracy extended recognition only to those who had good “hands.” His reputation was critical to him – nothing must be allowed to smear the perfect image of his self-regard. He could be a difficult friend.
Only one thing, and one thing alone, stood between where he was and where he wanted to be: The coveted patch of a Navy Fighter Weapons School graduate. It was the height of all ambition for him – everything else, mission qualifications, ground jobs and collateral duties were sublimated to the goal of receiving a TOPGUN quota – to try himself against the very best fighter pilots the Navy had to offer.
Eventually, perhaps because when the fates wish to punish us they answer our prayers, Cajun got his slot down at Miramar. But the Weapons School had a special request: They were doing a tactics development and evaluation exercise in conjunction with the class, and they wanted us to paint Cajun’s jet a mottled brown and tan camouflage color scheme. We had no experience doing so, and used watercolor-based paints, so that when the course was over, we could readily return the FA-18 to its fleet configuration, haze grey.
All was well and good until Cajun sorted out his ditty bag, strapped on his jet and flew down from NAS Lemoore to NAS Miramar. If he felt any trepidation about the upcoming test, he kept it to himself. Alas, en route to a final approach, he found some weather – a rare southern California rain storm. He flew an excellent approach though, and broke out of the clouds well in time to make a safe landing. As he taxied into the parking ramp, I wonder what he made of the amazed looks and stunned pointing gestures of the assembled linesmen? A tribute to his Herculean arrival? Or mere recognition of his innate good looks and marvelous professional skills?
More likely though, was the fact that the rainstorm through which Cajun had navigated blurred all the water-based paints together, with the result that Cajun’s pretty darn cool looking camo fighter paint scheme had run all together into a color that could only now be described as “pink.” None of the assembled linesmen, ground crews and off-duty fighter pilots could ever remember having seen a pink FA-18 before. I would wager good money that few of them ever dreamt that they might.
They found the spectacle rather more gratifying than did Cajun himself, once he had shut down and finished his post-flight inspection.
No. He felt altogether differently about it. And being that it was Friday afternoon, and the course didn’t actually start until Monday, he got right on the phone and called home base in a rather high dudgeon, insisting, demanding even, that a paint crew be dispatched that very evening! To come make it right.
Which of course, gained no traction with the home guard. No overtime would be authorized to rectify pink fighters over the weekend.
One of our TOPGUN grads got some feedback from the instructor corps down at the School that they seriously considered putting Cajun on a suicide watch. Every time he got called out in a fight, “Fox-2, kill the pink F-18 in a left turn, 12,000 feet,” they could only imagine the sound of his molars grinding inside his mask.
And when he came back to join us, six weeks later? We found that eventually the Weapons School did repaint his jet – among other improvements, the call sign text under the canopy rail had been painted to read “Pinkie,” where “Cajun” had once held place of honor.
And Pinkie learned, like many of us do in time, to be careful what we wish for – because it might come true.