By lex, on July 17th, 2009
Flew the club Cardinal out of Montgomery yesterday afternoon for the flight to Hanford, California. The shoreline VFR transition route took me through LA’s Class B airspace and, having flown direct to Ventura to leave the Class B, I was free to pick my way across the low mountains guarding southern California from the central, San Joaquin valley. (For GA pilots planning cross-countries, AOPA‘s Internet Flight Planner is a lovely tool that, among other things, can show weather, winds aloft and route, both overhead and vertical profile. It’s nifty, and well-worth the annual $39 subscription service.)
Culture changes with geography out west, and as the densely populated coastal enclaves fell behind me a broad, and sparsely populated rural plain unfolded beneath me. The terrain is deceptively sere – the valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in America – and breathtakingly hot.
N217AF is not much to look at, as a club aircraft she’s been run hard for many years. But she was honest and upright with me for a little over two hours, giving 23″ of manifold pressure at 8500 feet yielding about 130 knots of indicated airspeed or maybe 150 knots made good with light winds aloft.
It beats churning up the Grapevine.
After an uneventful landing – the best kind – and wrapping the bird up for the night, then out State Route 198 to NAS Lemoore, California. It’s been over eight years now since I last left Lemoore in the rear view mirror, and I haven’t looked back much. All things change, but some change less than others.
I tried hard to find something to feel nostalgic about as sights from the old days spun out behind me – flat farmland and dusty, hard-bitten hamlets, the false promise of the murky Kings River, fat mourning doves perched on power lines. But it wasn’t any good – there are many places I might go once the kids are all successfully launched down track, but Lemoore is not atop that list.
The air station itself has undergone a number of superficial changes. The old naval hospital where I spent too many mornings with my elbows on the table lies eerily deserted, with a shiny new facility across the street. On base housing has been totally redone, and looks less like the old cinder block public housing nightmare than someplace you might actually want to live – a neighborhood. Somebody had a lot of MILCON to burn, and since Lemoore is considered borderline hardship duty, it was money well spent here.
Had dinner with a pair of old Hornet jocks who are still hanging on, good men from the old Navy, navigating their way towards the final few turns to the pier. Caught up about mutual friends, talked with our hands over a few adult beverages. A lot of flying talk.
We used to fly a great deal more than the kids do today, back in the day. It isn’t that the missions have gotten any easier – they haven’t – it’s just a matter of what can be afforded. There’s a fine art to managing the knee in the curve of training hours, proficiency, effectiveness and safety. It’s my sense that naval aviation is right up against the margins.
They’re doing it by being much smarter about training: When I was a junior officer thirty hours per month was considered about right, and you could get that by flying your daily sorties and going on a BFM cross-country down to Miramar, throwing yourself up in the air three times a day on Friday through Sunday, finding out for yourself what worked and what didn’t. With the youngsters today flying less than half as many hours monthly – and some air wings taking months off entirely post-deployment – they have a much more rigorous preparation process, with value being wrung out of every moment.
I had a small part in developing and teaching the standardization process that enabled that rigor, but there are times when I almost regret it. We’ve taken a portion of the sheer joy of flying fighters out of the game and replaced it with a kind of monastic devotion. What used to be the Navy biker gang has instead become a clan of Shaolin monks, living in a remote citadel, heads immersed in text books, chanting out ritual incantations to employment timelines, factor range and energy rate transitions.
I guess these are always somebody’s future good old days. I’m just glad I had mine.