By lex, on September 26th, 2007
Every job has its aggravations of course, but apart from specialized jobs within the services, firefighters and police, there are few, I think that require the daily mastery of physical fear. Carrier aviation certainly does, at least in the beginning when an aviator is first building the shell of self-confidence to hermetically surround and enclose his anxieties. It’s really, really hard and you have to do it fairly precisely. Not everyone is equally successful. Not with the flying part. Not with the fear.
I was sent forward as a “must pump” to my first ship, then on the line off Iran’s southern coast. The Navy ordinarily tries to avoid sending newly qualified, or “nugget” aviators to deployed ships – having missed the training cycle in preparation for deployment they are at a profound disadvantage compared to everyone else. Too, injecting a new element of chaos into a smoothly operating ship and air wing team can be disruptive – the must pump can be a liability.
But the squadron I had been ordered to join had sailed with one less pilot than their usual deployed complement and two had been sidelined en route to the North Arabian Sea. The squadron could not sustain the required pace of operations down three pilots.
The first guy who got sidelined was a mid-grade officer who had come to the squadron with some professional baggage. Upon arriving he had managed to leverage a marginal reputation into multiple, shockingly poor examples of airborne headwork and leadership. Having finally lost confidence in his abilities, the CO benched him.
The second was a young lieutenant and A-7 transition pilot who had been a victim of a string of bad luck as much as anything else. He had flown a couple of scary night approaches in the recent past, including a “hook slap.” A hook slap is what we call it when a pilot ties the low altitude record crossing the ramp to land without actually crashing the airframe into the fantail. The hook hangs down a few feet below the landing gear, and is designed to strike the horizontal surface of the landing area – between the two and the three wire of a preference. In this case the lieutenant had gotten so low that even after responding to an afterburner waveoff he could not prevent his hook from “slapping” the rounddown all the way aft. The hook bounced up hard off the belly of the jet, but somehow managed to catch the two wire on the way back down. It was pretty hairy, by all accounts, and it had happened so fast. Got leadership’s attention.
As I’ve related before, those were the days of “throw him at the terror machine until he figures it out,” but a hook slap was evidence of trend in the wrong direction. Our man was in danger of losing his confidence. He wasn’t the only one.
The ship was due to spend a week loading ordnance at Subic Bay in the Philippines, so a plan was devised to fly him off to the nearby airfield at Cubi Point for some extra night landing practice. On his third night, just as he was regaining the sight picture and getting comfortable again, his port main landing gear axle lever arm fractured on landing, which those first generation lever arms had an all-too-frequent tendency to do. The landing gear’s collapse dropped the left wing tip down to the tarmac, and with the wing dragging on the deck, the jet scraped and screeched its way off the runway at midfield in a hail of sparks, thankfully coming safely to rest in deep, soft, wet grass. There was no fire, and the pilot was uninjured after his emergency shut down and egress. But he was pretty damned excited.
And he’d had enough.
You’ve got to know your limitations. He offered to the CO that he’d gladly be a “day only” player around the ship. The CO replied that only the varsity got to play on game day. That was that.
When I was an LSO a kid showed up behind me with a good record of flying in everything but carrier quals, where he was only average. He was the only new aviator in a very experienced set of junior officers for my second deployment, so the focus was almost exclusively on him.
He struggled a bit, especially at night. The new CO leaned on him pretty hard. When we got ashore, I went over to the simulator building with him over and over again, trying to get him to see it, trying to get him to push through. My impression was that he had a problem with his night instrument scan, especially his transition from the head’s up display to the shipboard Fresnel lens and lineup markings. During the transition from instruments to the visual environment, he could manage lineup, or he could manage glideslope or he could manage angle of attack, but not all three at the same time.
You have to manage all three at the same time.
When we got back to the ship again for our next training period, things had not markedly improved. He did fine in the daytime, but poorly at night. And then increasingly, the jets that he was scheduled to fly at night developed mechanical discrepancies forcing him to shut down and miss his flight. Discrepancies the maintenance guys had a hard time reproducing when it came time to fix the jet. People started whispering. Then they started talking.
Somewhere along the way he determined that his eyes were going bad at night, that he couldn’t see adequately. That his vision was to blame for his poor instrument transitions. The CO sent him to the flight surgeons who checked him out thoroughly and gave him a thumbs up. But he was convinced of it, could not be shaken. Something was wrong with his eyes. He got eased out, and that was I think the best thing for him. Best thing all the way around.
It’s not for everybody, and we all deal with fear in different ways. It’s even healthy to be a little bit afraid. I knew another guy once, close friend of mine. He went through a time in his life when he wasn’t afraid of anything at all. Absolutely no fear. Live or die was all as one.
That guy scared me.