Posted on February 21, 2005
I was invited to speak at a fighter symposium in Finland several years ago. I arrived in early March, tasked to give an unclassified lecture on 1v1 fighter combat. That’s a pretty short lecture, alas, but as I was there in conjunction with some other folks, we spent a week sightseeing and mixing with the locals. It was a great trip to a very foreign place, although it was very, very cold.
The kind of cold you read about in books, maybe. Jack London, “Call of the Wild” cold.
The Finns are fascinating people – serious in demeanor, almost grave, and yet much given to partying at late night discos and bars, none of which seem to close prior to 4 AM (I discovered this through personal observation and verification).
Sample Finnish humor: One day Pekka and Toivonen meet after a long time apart and they go to a sauna in the woods. They drink vodka for a couple of hours. Pekka asks how Toivonen has been doing. Toivonen says nothing, but continues drinking for a couple of hours. Then, slowly, he replies: ‘Did we come here to babble, or did we come here to drink?
Finland was breathtakingly beautiful in late winter; the entire country seemed to me like some idealized ice palace out of a Dr. Zhivago set.
Did I mention it was cold?
The Finnish Air Force (FAF) officers are heirs to a professional legacy that includes a spirited defense of their country during World War II against the vastly superior numbers of the Soviet Air Force. During that war, their focus on personnel quality and rigorous training in aerial gunnery stood them in good stead, as they amassed amazing kill ratios in aircraft that were nearly obsolescent even by the standards of the day. There are still a few members of that generation of fighter pilots alive in Finland today, and the FAF reveres them as national treasures.
In particular the Finns used the F-2A Brewster Buffalo, an aircraft designed for the US Navy, but considered operationally unsuitable, to achieve kill ratios of 32 to 1 against the Soviet Air Force I-153 Chaikas and I-16 Ratas.
(F-2A Buffalo, in FAF colors. It was immediately pointed out to me upon arrival that the visually jarring swastika, still in use, was the personal good luck charm of the first Finnish Air Force head, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism. One gets the impression that the FAF has to explain this frequently. Image source: http://www.sci.fi/~fta/BWtoFAF1.htm)
Thirty-two to one is pretty damned good work, done in a pretty basic airframe. Numerous FAF officers pointed out to me this historical superiority in kill ratios. A lot. Quite a few times.
One of my lecture points was the importance of establishing an advanced fighter weapons school. It turned out that I was preaching to the converted.
Parenthesis: In Vietnam, USAF and USN kill ratios against the North Vietnamese Air Force were on the order of 2:1, an unacceptably low number, considering the relatively low cost of the NVN MiG-17s and 19s. Captain Frank Ault was commissioned to determine what could be done, and among his recommendations was that the Navy set up a specialized, post-graduate school in fighter tactics, to share the best practices and lessons learned from returning fighter pilots. This school was known as the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which you have probably heard called “TOPGUN.”The idea of TOPGUN was to teach fighter pilots everything about their weapons systems and aircraft, and everything about their adversaries, in a scientific, analytical process. This classroom instruction was augmented by work in the “lab,” advanced exposure to dissimilar aircraft replicating the threat’s capabilities and tactics. The idea was to teach to an expert level, stress to the breaking point in the air, replicating as closely as possible the stress of actual aerial combat, and then debrief in rigorous detail every possible facet of execution.
Graduates were spread throughout the fleet, carrying the gospel. USN kill ratios increased to 12:1.
At the time of my visit, the FAF was flying MiG-21s, Swedish Drakkens and taking delivery of the FA-18C. The TOPGUN patch features a MiG-21 in a fighter gun sight, and some of the FAF MiG-21 pilots took playful offense.Later that evening, after my lecture, and after sharing a few of the very strongly alcoholic Finnish beers, one gent who had been eyeing me for a while pulled me aside and told me he wasn’t that damned impressed with our 12:1 kill ratios in Vietnam. Had I heard about their WWII record in the Brewster Buffalo?
Putting his hand behind my neck, and pulling my face down towards his, he looked at me blearily and told me in beery breaths that it was 32 to 1! Did I understand that, US Navy boy?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken offense, they truly had been excellent hosts, but one does get one’s dander up after a bit,
“What have you done for us lately?” I asked.
There was a formal dinner, in celebration of the FAF’s 80th anniversary. It turns out that the Finnish Air Force is the second oldest independent air arm in the world. (The oldest? Mexico.)I, along with the rest of the US Navy delegation, wore my service dress blues, unquestionably the sharpest regular uniform in our service. Many among the European delegations from several countries wore their formal military dress, some of which were very formal indeed. Seeing all the glittering gold, shining brass and shako caps, I wondered to myself whether all those European wars over the last couple of centuries had merely been excuses to wear their nicest clothes. But perhaps that’s ungenerous – I mean, what would be our excuse?
Anyway, my companions at dinner included several rather elderly officers from northern Europe, their wives and some equally superannuated diplomats. Apart from them, was one very young, very bored Finnish girl, very pleasant looking in that careless way that comes with youth. By no means beautiful, she had that charming glow in her complexion that comes with a lifetime of exposure to the chill northern airs and genetics.
Her name was Eveliina, if memory serves, and she was 19 years old. We were of those assembled at the table, the closest in age to one another, so we chatted amiably about Finland, Helsinki (her home) and places to visit when there. She seemed very pleased to have someone to talk to about anything, and after a dinner we danced a couple of times.
Some of the local wives were dancing with each other on the dance floor, while their husbands stood clustered about the bar, drinking with grim determination. Upon seeing an actual man on the dance floor, I was passed from one woman to another for a time, until the senior member of our delegation said that he thought it was time that we should be leaving. I thought so too.
We returned by bus to our hotel, to be greeted by a thumping sound from the hotel disco, where the party was still going on a 1 AM, unabated. With a couple of the other guys, we headed in to see what there was to see, and have one more beer before going to bed.
Which we probably didn’t need.
The scene in this particular disco, as it turned out was of eighteen to twenty young women dancing together on the floor, while ringed around them at the bar and tables, men were very determinedly getting drunk. Not just drinking, mind you, but getting hammered. Different strokes.
One young lady caught my eye; she was just as cute as a button, and a wonderful dancer. I smiled just to look at her, and she smiled back and waved me to the dance floor. What could it hurt?
So I danced a dance, thanked her kindly and picked up my cap to head out, and get some sleep.
She looped her arm through mine, and said, “let’s go.”
Now, I’m not particularly good looking, don’t dance all that well, and haven’t got the “rap,” especially in Finnish, so I was a bit confused. “Go where?” I asked.
“Your room,” was her reply.
I don’t know for certain if my jaw actually fell to the floor, but it felt just that way. This sort of thing had never, ever happened to me before. Nor has it since, by the way.
By way of determining whether her interest was professional, I asked to her sit down for a moment so that we could chat. “How old are you?” I asked. She was 23. “What do you do for a living?” It turned out that she was a gymnastics instructor.
Both of my readers would probably have immediately said good night and walked away. I’ll have to admit that evil Lex, who is always being kept in check by good Lex, but who is nevertheless always quietly observing, was momentarily tempted. I mean, when would he next get the opportunity to spend some time with a beautiful, 23 year old, Finnish gymnastics instructor?
But no. It would not do. So I explained somewhat sorrowfully that, while flattered, it was utterly impossible, I was married. “Oh – that’s so unfair,” she replied. “Your wife is here, in Finland?”
â€¨No, she was back in California, I replied. “So what’s that got to do with anything?” She asked.
Back in the States, I was thinking, this sort of conversation Does. Not. Happen. Has not happened. Will never happen. Can’t.
But at two o’clock in the morning, with maybe one too many beers under the belt, it momentarily made some sort of strange sense.
I quickly disengaged before I could get in any more trouble, and went to the bar to gather up my associates. One of the FAF officers was there, feeling no pain and stated, more than asked, in stentorian tones – “So. Tonight you make love to Finnish girl.”
No, I replied. I was married.
“Your wife is here, in Finland?”
Anyway, off to bed, and after a night of somewhat fitful sleep, I awoke early for the flight back home. The hotel clerk said she had a note for me. It was from Eveliina, she of the dinner conversation and dance. “Thank you so much for last night, you made my evening,” Eveliina wrote. “If you’re ever back in Helsinki, give me a call.”
I smiled to myself at the thought, “when ever I’m back in Helsinki, right,” and stuffed the note into my pants pocket.
Flew back to Miramar, met the Hobbit at the air port, and headed back home, wondering how and how much of my trip I should share. That evening, snuggling up before bed, she asked me, “So, Who is Eveliina?”
Doh! That damn note, in my pants pocket. It is perhaps a sign of the intensity of my jet lag that my reply, “That isn’t even the one you should be worrying about,” did not entirely have the desired effect. The Hobbit remained steadfastly unplacated.
So I had to explain about Finland.
Finland, you see, is this whole other country.