By lex, on October 2nd, 2011
In fleet support, that is. This time in support of the air defenders of VINSON Strike Group.
It’d been a week since last I flew, a combination of adverse weather and aircraft availability thwarting my efforts to amass ten hours of flight time in the airframe, without which I was constrained by weather minima. Needed a dime to fly in the weather, couldn’t get a dime because of the weather. I’d flogged up and down the 405 more times than I care to admit in the crushed hopes of going flying or in the quiet, thoughtful drive home.
(Note to Angelenõs: Really? Rush hour starts at 1530 on Thursdays? By which I mean, “locked in crawling traffic rushing absolutely nowhere?” I thought Sandy Eggo traffic was bad, but at least down south we keep our gridlock moving at 75-80 MPH, and don’t fall back or you’ll get rear ended.
I don’t know how you do it, my Southland neighbors, day after day, week after week, the weeks stretching into lost months and years spent banging your forearms off the dashboard. It at least helps explains the rash of road rage incidents back in the late 80s and 90s, if not the fact that they have stopped. I found myself wondering, from time to time, how much it would cost to put a plausible dummy in my passenger seat for to take advantage of the HOV lanes. Less, probably, than the traffic ticket I would inevitably receive for having done so.)
Up at 0530 yesterday, and – it being a Saturday – the commute was a relative breeze at right around three hours. The coastal hills at first hiding dawn’s advance before revealing skies entirely innocent of clouds. Had a $20 breakfast * in Malibu consisting of Eggs Benedict – the lissome waitress with the megawatt smile assured me it was one of the restaurant’s “most exciting” offerings – and “organic” coffee. Leaving me wondering what sort of coffee I’d been drinking all these years, and if it was not organic than what could it have been, the mind reels. How was your breakfast, exciting, oh, you, turning and smiling. Turn and smile forever, my dear, for you’re a national treasure.
But Yeats is not why you have come, I don’t think. So.
Got to the company’s spaces – I find it almost impossible not to write “squadron”, for that is the feel of it – around 0900 to find that I was the first pilot on scene, the maintainers busily at work getting up aircraft ready for a busy flight schedule, or laboring to make down aircraft come up. They laugh as they work – really – trade friendly barbs in echoing shouts across the hangar bay and sing along with Adele as she goes “rolling in the deep,” a song whose insistent rhythms and vocal artistry has become, in your correspondent’s personal opinion, a little tarnished by overuse. Nothing here in Southern California being so wonderful that it cannot be done to wretched excess, countered by the observation that no man is a hero to his valet, but I wander.
A professional brief by my lead, himself flying a Hawker Hunter, there being only one Kfir available to the flight schedule, and the decision having been made that it was better to get your host airborne in a mixed two-ship than not at all. Loaded with a centerline tank, wing tank, EA pod and TCTS pod, the ship was the heaviest I had yet flown.
We got out to the hold short in good time, and once cleared for take-off I gave my lead 15 seconds rather than the customary 10, for the Hunter trundles airborne at a relatively slow airspeed while the Kfir takes up grunches of runway for its 190 kt rotation, nor did I want to catch hizzoner at the departure end, far less overtake him with the wheels still coming up. I am by now accustomed to the nevertheless slightly objectionable sight of runway remaining boards flashing past while willing the airspeed indicator needle to hit the reference bug. Just a little pilot induced oscillation on the take-off – not so’s an outside observer would notice – and the landing gear came up in short order, nosedown trim to counter increased airspeed and shifting CG.
Cruising to the operating area, I was pleased to have my lead out front, handling the comms and nav whilst I played with the two GPS devices, trying to enter our CAP and bullseye reference points while keeping the jet more or less upright and at speed, lacking as it does any autopilot relief modes – she can be a bit to handle, and at 300-350 kts a moment’s inattention can lead to significant deviations.
Once in the area, in our operating block and fenced in, our controllers immediately began giving us separate vectors all to hell and gone, and – lacking a radar or even a radar warning receiver – I was forced to assimilate whatever situational awareness I could via bearing, range and altitude vectors. Never even got to a merge with the blue forces, who were apparently quite satisfied to let their AIM-120s do the killing work at range. We meandered back to our rejoin point, and – having calculated the distance to go for a next run and our fuel remaining, we were relieved by our controllers to head home. One run then, and an increased appreciation for all of those MiG-21, 19 and 17 drivers of bygone years forced to let themselves be driven into merges by ground controllers with no personal skin in the game. Oh, well: I suppose for them it was better than simply scanning the horizon 10 miles ahead and five miles behind as their elders had done, trying to remain alert over the sonorous drone of a piston engine.
My lead wanted to fly some ILS approaches, while I had performed sufficient ground controlled approaches in the last two flights to last me a while. I was detached to the overhead a Point Mugu, approaching from the southeast to break over runway 27 and land on runway 31. That’s 220 degrees of turn for the math-challenged, and it seemed to go on forever.
Nothing to do to configure the jet for landing but lower the gear and maybe turn on the landing light. The checklist calls for hydraulic pressure checks, brakes testing, anti-skid cycling, and the use of a “bip” button which sends a short tone across the auxiliary radio, confirming by alternate means the testimony of the three green lights on the landing gear indicator. Again I found myself overshooting final, the 200 kt turn radius making a fool of my visual observation that we were almost there. I found that attempting to visually line up on the parallel taxiway gave better results. It’ll come in time, I’m sure.
Four low approaches to save wear on the tires, none of them remarkable, and then the final landing with around 800 liters of fuel remaining. A good touchdown, the gratifying tug of the drag chute as it deployed, aero-braking with the elevons trailing edge up to 120 kts, off by the A-2 intersection with no drama. The maintenance truck was there to gather the chute up expeditiously, and I taxied back to the line, cleaning the cockpit up for shut-down.
Had dinner with my flight lead, a younger man, with the company a year or so. He has very kindly offered me the opportunity to share his lodgings with him, so the tent and sleeping bag remained stowed at the pilot’s locker room. He confessed that he was happy to have someone of my previous accomplishments on board, adding that he was hoping to learn from me. And to be true, it is good to be somewhere that your skills and experiences, such are they are, are valued rather than ignored or even resented.
In response, I told him that I was just happy to be here.
** Same Restaurant but website gone – link changed – Ed