By lex, on September 23rd, 2008
Someone pointed out last weekend – after I’d shared the story of flying John – that I had never written of my own first flight. There’s a reason for that really: The truth is probably anticlimactic.
The polite thing, of course, would be to say that it was a roller coaster ride, the full E-Ticket, love at first sight. The real story is a little more… pedestrian?
Senior year at the Boat School. I’d always wanted to fly fighters in that way that young men of a certain bent do. Guys that believed – against all evidence – that they were superb drivers of their hopped up cars, that bad things happened to other kids. We knew two things for sure: We were young, and we’d never grow old, and we’d never die.
Wait, that’s three.
Rolling my old E-Type Jaguar on Old Annapolis Road should have taken some of the polish off the apple, but it didn’t. I’d come out from under with nary a scratch, barely a bruise.
I already had flight school orders, but was stashed at the Academy waiting a report date when I decided to go to the USNA flying club and get a couple of lessons in one of their Cessna 152s. It wasn’t so much because I wanted to get ahead of the game so much as it was making sure that I wouldn’t get horribly sick once airborne. You could never tell.
My instructor was a lieutenant commander from the Weapons Department. A no-kidding nuclear physicist who’d spent a couple of years brown water in Vietnam and had the chest candy to prove it. A grizzled veteran of maybe 35 years old.
Kind of a prick, too, the way I remembered it. My perception no doubt colored by the fact that he’d gotten one of my classmates kicked out for an honor violation. Cheating.
We had these weapons labs that finished off our final semester in the discipline. It involved developing a rather complex and articulated computer simulation coded in Basic, as I recall. Line 100, go to, if then. That sort of thing. Yellow paper off the roll, none of your WYSIWGs or object oriented development environments. Tedious.
My instructor was a suspicious sort, it seemed: Developed a Basic program of his own that iteratively compared blocks of instruction, looking for patterns. Looking for replication.
Looking for cheaters.
My buddy – guy I’d worked alongside, sweated with, stormed through the lines with on the playing grounds of Dahlgren Hall, rumbled with against our upper class oppressors – he was never the brightest light on the tree. Hard worker though, good guy. The weapons lab overcame him I guess, or he just slipped up. “Borrowed” somebody else’s work. Maybe 20 or 30 lines of instruction in a program that ran on for many hundred lines.
The prof’s program called him out for suspicious duplication. He got called over to Weapons to explain the similarities between his work and someone else’s. Other guy got called in too. Both of them were given half an hour to replicate their work. One of them could. One of them couldn’t.
My buddy went to an Honor board and got kicked out. The fleet didn’t want him. Gone.
Which, don’t get me wrong: That was exactly what should have happened. A midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal.
But still, writing a computer program to catch cheaters and hurl them to the curb? It seemed a bit much. One thing to catch a mid cheating. Another thing entirely to go looking for him at random. It made for some complicated feelings on my own part, feelings that took a while to sort through. Your classmates were what got you through, they were all you had. The Honor Concept was who you were.
Let’s just say it made me disinclined to bond with my first flight instructor. Because my buddy was a really good guy. As far as I know that was the only time he ever fell short.
You only have to fall short once. Come to think of it, that was maybe a good lesson for the flying business.
Anyway, a few hours of ground school and a half hour brief and we walked out to the little 152. It wasn’t much to look at, for a guy who had dreams of afterburning fighters. Looked like Nash Rambler technology, only maybe leaned out a bit. Frail, like.
Got in, went through the checklist, spun up the little four-banger. He did the first take-off, and we were airborne. It’s probably a letdown to tell you that I didn’t feel any excitement. Didn’t really feel any fear, either. We were flying, and there was only the recognition that I had a very great deal to learn. Time to get started.
A few months later I was on the runway at Whiting Field, running the throttle up on a T-34C TurboMentor – slowly, trying to keep her aligned with the right rudder – and then we were airborne, again. Gear coming up. Flaps. Course rule turns to the area. Visual Navigation. Summerdale. Baghdad. Saufley. Fairhope. Silverhope. Evergreen. Stalls, spins, high and low altitude power losses. Precautionary approaches and simulated emergencies. Basic instruments, formation flight. Night fams. Landings. Always landings. Over and over.
A lot to learn.
Meridian, Mississippi for basic and advanced jets. More fams, much more formation flight, some basic – very basic – fighter maneuvering, a little bit of high angle bombing – no computers. Carrier qualifications. Fun on deck with those I went through class with. All work in the cockpit. Stayed on for a bit as an instructor after getting my wings. Still learning, teaching along the way.
Lemoore, California for an FA-18 transition. Seven fam flights with an instructor – standards get higher at every step – and then a burner take-off for my first solo in the Hornet. Wheels and flaps up, climb angle set, strained around to look behind me in order to see: Not just an empty back seat, but no back seat at all. Me and a $35 million fighter climbing out at 10,000 feet per minute in full grunt, radar sweeping for air targets, gloved hand on the stick changing radar modes. Suppressing a whoop of joy, knowing that there was so much more to come. A great deal more to learn. But that I was on my way.
I think that was my first flight.
You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn’t any woman and there isn’t any horse, nor any before nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane, and men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others. — Ernest Hemingway