By lex, on October 20th, 2005
A couple of alert readers have mentioned this story to me. (LA Times, so the usual beastly registration process is required. Gomen.)
A young man flew his Super Hornet through the airspace of the local aerodrome near which he had grown up. Nearly supersonic, and at the almost unbelievable altitude of 96 feet. Over land. Over populated land. Where actual people live.
Long time readers in this space will be aware that your humble scribe has had the opportunity from time to time to step just that teensiest bit outside the warm and all-embracing box of Standard Operating Procedures, flight rules, the big blue sleeping pill* and yes, common sense. But the only life I ever risked was my own, and if I’d gotten caught, I’d have fessed up and taken what was coming. Because while it’s true that you “rate what you get away with,” the reverse is also true: You don’t rate what you don’t get away with. Kid lost his wings, and now he’ll be finishing off his obligation behind a desk. In Qatar, for the now. It’s a pity, but those are the breaks of Naval Air, and being it was a single seat fighter? There’s only one person he can blame.
Some folks from back in the Vietnam days say that the Navy has changed, and I’ll attest to that. Mostly for the better. We kill a whole lot fewer aviators these days, per our measuring stick of fatal mishaps per hundred thousand flight hours than we used to do in the old days. Break a lot fewer jets too, which is a good thing, as costly as they’re getting.
There’s some talk in the article about the Navy being a zero-fault organization, that you don’t get to make mistakes:
The Navy tradition, he said, is to give a ship’s captain or aircraft pilot a great deal of responsibility and autonomy, but to countenance not even the smallest mistake. The Navy “has a reputation for eating its children…. If you mess up, there are no second chances.”
Which is half true, and half (pardon the expression) horseshit. We do “empower” our people, and we do expect a lot out of them, and frankly we do expect them to make mistakes from time to time. And mostly, so long as no one gets maimed or killed, or no serious damage is done to national treasures, we help them learn from their mistakes and move on. But let’s be perfectly clear here: The young man didn’t make a “mistake.” A mistake is when you reach down to turn the air conditioning up and accidentally vent the cabin pressure overboard. Or when you go to turn the landing light off on the rollout and put the launch bar down instead. Or you think the bandit is tail-on and you go to boresight him, only to find out that he’s head-on with a bag of knots and now you’re a whole lot closer than you’d like to be. A mistake is forgetting to set your radar altimeter. Any one of those mistakes can kill you, and you’d get a missing man fly by and a 21 gun salute, and your friends would speak well of you after.
But this young man didn’t make a mistake. He deliberately set out to do something which he had to know would land him in dutch if he got called on it, and he did it in a fashion almost guaranteed to ensure that he would get called on it. That’s just damned poor judgment. You don’t get to be that stupid and finish flight school, so he either had a “bad things don’t happen to me” attitude, or he just knew that rules didn’t apply to him. Which are two of the world’s most efficient ways to kill yourself graveyard dead in fighter aviation, and maybe take a few innocent civvies along with you. Which is considered very bad form, and not at all what we’re getting paid for. It ain’t the movies, and he’s not Tom Cruise.
In regard to his unauthorized flyby, Webb wrote, “No respected fighter pilot worth his salt can look me in the eye and tell me they’ve never done the exact same thing.”
I’m sorry for your troubles, but you can eyeball me, brother. I was a respected fighter pilot once, and I never burned an airfield at 96 feet. Bank.
You can have a lot of fun in this business, and still sail between the buoys. All you have to do is take pleasant satisfaction in doing an exceedingly difficult thing well, rather than a simple and meaningless thing at all.
*Ed. NATOPS – Naval Air Training & Operating Procedure & Standard