By lex, on January 19th, 2008
This morning, as I might have mentioned, was much taken up with the attempt to fashion a perfect spreadsheet to capture several thousand flight hours, landings and instrument approaches. Dreary work up front made filling in the blanks a little less tedious on the back end. But I started at around 0645 this morning and by 1500 – having worked through lunch without realizing it – I was only up to April, 1985.
This is going to take a little while.
Log books contain a great deal of data, and when it comes to manipulating data there is nothing to improve upon automated systems. I have signed to “Certify a Correct Record” whatever it was Yeoman Apprentice Wishes E. Were-Ellswear calculated more often than I should have done. It appears that “error carried forward” did not entirely vanish upon graduation from college.
But there’s something about a physical logbook, sitting on your desk. You will have so many times looked at it over the course of a career. Scrutinizing its pages as though they contained some hidden mystery – legends of experience, competence, potential. You will have watched it grow with a quiet but increasing pride. Watch it spill over from first one book, to two. Eventually four for me, three of them wrapped in a naugahide binder, my last one loose. Plus the civilian log book, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of that one.
Twenty-odd years. Over four thousand hours. Black ink for day flights, red ink for night. Green for combat.
Going through entries from 24 years ago I almost felt as though I was peeking into someone else’s life. There’s the name of my first instructor, LT Doug Seward, through my first seven familiarization flights. He had been an A-6 pilot as I recollect and I considered myself lucky to have him – it was a rarity to find a jet guy teaching primary.
I busted his chops a bit in a good-natured way at my “tie-cutting” – the celebration of one’s first solo – for his oft-expressed dreams of flying for the airlines. I wished I hadn’t later – he was a good egg, and trying for an extension at the training squadron. Needed to build his hours I guess, or else the majors weren’t hiring just then. The helo and prop instructors all guffawed, but he turned right red at the moment. The politics of all of that was well beyond my ken back in 1983.
On to T-2′s in Meridian and the pages spoke to me again. Of nervousness wearing a harness and 02 mask, strapped into an ejection seat, under an instrument “bag,” unable to see outside but feeling in my inner ear the acceleration as we took off into a wet February morning. Compared to the T-34, the T-2 at first seemed like a lot of airplane. I smile at the thought now, but what you know is what you know.
There too was Pitt’s name, in the “Remarks” box. Just like it always has been. A true gentleman, a graduate of Virginia, an inspirational pilot and instructor. He was seven kinds of fun and a wonderful golfer to boot. His wife was breathtakingly beautiful and clever, and he was leaving the training squadron soon to fly Tomcats in Oceana – that had always been his dream. On his last night on this earth he asked me if I wanted to join him – he was flying as a night chase for student solos. I almost said yes, but didn’t – I had earned my wings by then and had been kept behind as an instructor. Flying with an actual pilot rather than a cone-headed student was reckoned good clean fun in basic jets. But although I was always a flight hour hound in those days, I asked to beg off regretfully. I had already flown three times and I was tired, and eager to be home.
When the phone rang that night to tell me that he had been killed I couldn’t believe it. Turned out later that the elevator boost pack had taken an uncommanded hard-over. The mishap board surmised that Pitt had probably been pinned to the canopy, unable to reach his ejection handles. It took eleven seconds to go from 17,500 feet to the unyielding Mississippi clay. Wasn’t a whole lot left to put away by the time the fire was out, a fact that was eventually wrestled out of me by his grieving widow – I was the casualty assistance calls officer for his case, and she “wanted to see the body.” Some jobs are harder than others.
I used to wonder whether I might have saved him that night, when he asked me to jump in the back. Whether I might have made a difference.
Sometimes I wonder that still.
Then there were those first arrested landings in the T-2 aboard the USS Lexington. I remember how impossibly damned small she looked from overhead holding. I rechecked my altimeter twice, thinking we must have been higher, but no: 2000 feet overhead and she looked not much bigger than a jon boat. Two touch and go’s later I was starting to feel comfortable – this wasn’t so hard. Then there was that first arrested landing, and after that all was a blur. You’ve heard about the “controlled crash” aspect of carrier landings? In CQ you do it over and over again. With kick-you-in-the-bollocks cat shots to liven things up in between.
Two touch and go’s and the first trap. That’s all I remember. I had not quite 160 flight hours by that time.
I remember how the advanced jet training squadron seemed somehow cooler, more professional. Everyone seemed a great deal more serious, and the A-4 Skyhawk was a high performance machine. Great fun to fly, but demanding too. She’d kill you, if you let her. Not personal. Just business.
And it was harder. We weren’t playing at pilot anymore – an instrument check was a valid Navy license to fly in the goo, and the standards were rigorous. Bust a minimum descent altitude on an instrument approach by it didn’t matter how much and you were done, that failure went into your training record as a “down”. Twenty-five percent of any given class, having been winnowed along the way to getting to advanced jets would disqual at the ship in A-4′s, also leading to a down.
If you got two downs anywhere in the syllabus it was time to look for new work. Up until this point we had been learning how to fly. The advanced jet instructors would walk with us on our first steps towards learning how to kill.
It was a thousand years ago. It was yesterday.