By lex, on March 8th, 2009
There’s nothing on earth that can quite compare to flying fighters. There, I’ve said it.
Nothing like a good, hard cat shot on a clear, crisp day. Nothing like hurling yourself into a many v many merge with 1100 knots of closure in the HUD, with a visual on your well-trained wingmen, perfect situational awareness and a tally-ho on all the bad guys. Nothing like seeing the target that you’ve spent the last many several hours coming to know like the hairs on the back of your hand disappear in a ball of smoke and fire because you put the ordnance precisely where it was intended, and nowhere else. Nothing like putting her back down on your first try, when the weather is down to 200 and a half in mist and rain, the deck is moving around and there’s no more gas in the air if you get it wrong.
But it doesn’t start there. It starts in primary flight training. Where my own number one son is heading, sometime after his commissioning in May.
I never taught in primary, although I did spent 18 purgatorial months instructing in the T-2C Buckeye. By the time my students offered themselves unto me, they had already received extensive ground and simulator instruction, soloed in a million dollar trainer, flown formation and night flights and become familiar, if not adept, at instrument approaches. None of which is particularly “fun,” although the doing of it well can be exceptionally rewarding. Because in time, depending on the breaks, it could place you on a catapult aboard 90,000 tons and four and one-half acres of American diplomacy. The steam leaking out of the cat tracks between your legs while you take tension. Forty-eight thousand pounds of jet, JP-5 and ordnance underneath you. Men you know, love and trust with your very life alongside you. A place to be in front of you. A place that’s not going to be there when you come back.
So anyway, SNO and I had an appointment to go flying this afternoon from Montgomery Field in a Cessna 172. It’s not a T-34, nor yet an FA-18, but there are gross similarities. Put the yoke forward, the houses get bigger. Pull back, the houses get smaller. Keep pulling back, the houses start getting bigger again.
Every part of the TOPGUN instructor still left in me begged for a two hour brief in preparation for the flight, with detailed descriptions of minutely scripted maneuvers, what-if’s and contingency plans. But he’s my son, and flying is supposed to be fun. The time of sweating the details, of memorized checklists and juggling tennis balls while reciting emergency procedures is yet to come. We chatted about what we were going to do in a casual way over a pair of tacos and a chicken quesadilla, preflighted the machine and departed VFR to the west under the lateral limits of the Class B airspace.
Bumpy, on the way out. Did he want the aircraft? Not yet. Not knowing, as of yet, that there’s little you can or want to do about turbulence, apart from riding it out. If the bumpies push you up and you try to counteract them, it’s better than even odds that your control input will arrive just in time for the downdraft to make you wish you hadn’t. It got better off the coast.
The FAA requires a minimum of 20 hours prior to a traffic pattern solo with your instructor watching nervously, and twice that is probably the mean. It took 13 flights in the T-34 before they gave you the keys and let you wander off on your lonesome. Somewhere between 20 and 30 hours of flight time. Fully expecting that you’d take her out to the operating area, do your do and then bring her back in one piece. It’s good training, Navy training. Efficient. Analytical. Merciless.
North of the Del Mar fairgrounds we elevated to 2500 feet for some turns and level speed changes. The things you just know are entirely new to one who doesn’t know them yet. The way that you fly the aircraft both smoothly and positively. The fact that deviations are unacceptable. That you might never get to perfection in altitude, airspeed and bank angle, but that there was no excuse to not always be correcting towards perfection. That there’s no such thing as “close enough.”
Because somewhere ahead of you are axial winds, a rolling deck, reduced visibility and a compelling need to put her down in the spaghetti on your very first try. That you need to do the very best you can when it’s easy, so that you can do it at all when it’s hard.
But all of that is yet to come. First some visual navigation, those turns, and a pair of power off stalls. The stated need to hold the nose up as the airspeed decreases. That altimeter bearing mute witness to a failure to do so. The stall horn, the wing rock, the power coming up, the carb heat off, the right rudder to balance out the p-factor and torque, the very slight easing of back stick pressure to break the stall. The positive rate of climb.
There was so much more to show him, so much more to teach and learn. But we were out of time.
Maybe next weekend.