By lex, on February 9th, 2007
Got home early today – class ended at about 1100. A guest lecture by Stanford engineering professor Sam Savage. Used to teach OR, wrote one of the best textbooks I’ve ever read on analytical decision making as well as writing some pretty cool software plugins for Excel that allow it to do things Bill Gates had never thought of. Brilliant man and witty too. The two do not always go hand in hand. It’s funny to watch two PhDs interact on screen, especially those who have immersed themselves in the more technical fields, where the answer is either right or it is wrong, and there are no extra credit points for linguistic presentation.
I realized that I have spent the last 18 months of my life pursuing a master’s degree whose chief purpose was to inform me how very much I have to learn.
So, early to home and the bird dog at least was happy to see me. Took her for a bit of a frolic in the local park. We neither of us get out as often as we ought and, given the way a dog measures her span of years, I do feel a bit guilty at times. She’s not so young, and hasn’t got that many frolics left. As we were walking back to the house, a pair of Marine Hornets from Miramar flew overhead, outbound for the Whiskey Areas off the SoCal coast. They had already pushed out to combat spread from their initial rendezvous, and I thought to myself, “That looks like fun.”
I spent the first few years of non-flying – that’s the way the world is divided by the way: Flying and non-flying – green with envy of those who still managed to worm their way into some Nomex from time to time. Th’ungrateful wretches that they were.
Flying fighters is like a governmen-sponsored crack addiction. Quitting is like going cold turkey, and at first you don’t believe it. It takes a good two years or so at least for the poison to mostly leech out of your veins.
True Story: I was back in Virginia a few years ago, when I was a squadron XO and full of piss and vinegar. Joined a threesome of retirees – two Navy, one USAF, all fighter guys on the first tee at Army Navy Country Club (Fairfax). Late June, it was already hot, even as early as it was in the day. We exchanged bios briefly, walking down the fairways. Two of them had flown Phantoms, one had flown Tomcats and we knew some of the same folks. Although successful in their new lives, they were all a bit envious of me that I was still flying. I sort of pitied them as “use-to-be’s”.
We were all in shorts and I noticed that, like me, none of them had much in the way of leg hair at sock level or below. Twenty years or so of wearing flight boots mostly rubs that fur out.
It leaves a mark.
So anyway, there I was looking up at them – not with envy this time, but something more akin to professional introspection – and I thought to myself, “You know, it really isn’t fun for them, not just yet. They’re just flying in formation, just clearing away from the ground. The lead is thinking about traffic and comm shifts and what he ought to be doing next, trying to stay ahead not only of his airplane, but of his wingman’s too. The wingie is working his butt off to remain in perfect position, working through his combat checklist and checking every item on it twice. He’s trying to anticipate what it is his lead will do next, because that’s a great way to get through his upgrade process with minimum fuss once the time comes. It also helps him to be a “good wingman,” alert to his lead’s demands, ready to answer them instantaneously. Which sound like faint praise to Type-A personalities unfamiliar with tactical aviation. But trust me, those who know the business realize that a good wingman is a pearl beyond price.
Soon though, they would be cleared to climb, enter the area, get set up. Brawl.
That’s when the fun begins, and it’s not the kind of fun that comes with riding a roller coaster or having a laugh with a friend at a party where the mood’s just right. It’s a different kind of fun entirely, a savage, hurtling joy that is not much removed from embottled rage. It comes from a dark and heady place, as internally primitive as the environment is technologically advanced. It is expressionless.
You have never looked at anything with the same terrible and fixed intensity as that wingman will regard his lead, nor the lead his wingman in return. Never looked into the face of the one you love, nor the babe there in your arms with the same degree of enthrallment. There will be quick head snaps inside the cockpit to check parameters – altitude and airspeed, it is shameful to have been thought a cheat – but mostly they will squint at each other with lidless concentration until the lead calls, “Lead’s speed and angels set.”
“Two’s speed and angels set.”
And then you shove the throttles into afterburner, and wind it up and see just what the other guy has in mind. Oh, yeah. That’s where the fun begins.
Short, I know, but time presses in. Have a great weekend!