Grief at the loss of a training aircraft

I am currently struggling through the first flying portion of Advanced Training. The stakes are higher here, since each student is destined for tactical aircraft. These aircraft operate in the most dynamic, threatening environment–they fight other aircraft and deliver ordnance through anti-aircraft systems. Consequently, the training is a bit more stringent. This usually takes the form of many long hours in the Simulators on my own, honing my navigation and weapons skills so I can perform them with greater precision and speed. The stress imposed on students has prompted us to to make many ironic statements regarding “glamor of naval aviation.” But flying is still fun, if dangerous. Recently, in fact, our Squadron was brutally reminded about how dangerous this job is. We suffered a serious, fatal mishap we suffered last Tuesday, on January 10 2006.

That day, Rocket 512 (the call sign of the flight) reported over the radio that they entered their low-level training route around 11 AM. They were never heard from again. After two days of waiting and searching, the wreckage of the aircraft was found in Northern Georgia. Of the four aviators aboard, there were no survivors. An investigation into the cause of the mishap is pending.

There was a memorial Mass this morning for the pilot. We do not use active-duty navy pilots; we use contract pilots employed by the Lockheed-Martin corporation, all of whom have a military aviation background. The chapel was full. I reflected there on how close we are in the squadron as a group. Though I personally knew both students and the instructor who died, I was neither friends nor even very familiar with any of them. The students were several classes ahead of me; I had only flown with the instructor once. Yet their absence is tangible. They no longer participate in the stories or jokes we exchange in the Ready Room, they no longer offer unsolicited advice to other students (as is the wont of all aviators), they will never again laugh at or make an ironic crack about the “glamor of naval aviation.” The instructor, particularly, I remember as being funny, friendly and sincere about teaching. He was enjoyable to fly with and made his students better at what they did. He was never cruel, difficult, or petty in the cockpit (as others were). He was a great asset to our squadron.

Perhaps more tragically, he left behind a wife and child. This is also true of one of the students; the other was recently engaged. Of course, this kind of risk was theirs to take and they took it without any illusion – as we all do. Military necessity requires us to ply our trade in dangerous regimes of flight, often at high speeds and low altitudes. Knowing this, we take especial care to identify risks and mitigate them. This is doubly true in a training command, because of “there is no glory in dying in a white [training] aircraft.” All of us officers in the command realize there is nothing to do except grieve, reflect, pick up, and continue with our mission. In fact, I will be doing just that tomorrow.

For this reason (in spite of the loss), things continue more or less as normal. No doubt as I immerse myself again in the task of flying, the grief will recede. But hopefully not the memory of these four aviators. There is a quotation on the wall of our Squadron bar says talks about how any aviator’s death is every aviator’s responsibility; perhaps if they had exchanged one more story about a hazard or they had invested a little more time in training they’d still be among us. That quote in turn reminds me of John Donne’s famous meditation:

“No man is an island, entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main / if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were / any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind / and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls / it tolls for thee.”

The grief I feel is real, despite not knowing any of the dead aviators very well. Their death reminds me of my own mortality, especially at the hand of flight; it is the loss of experience, from which I could benefit. Most importantly, they were comrades whose support I miss, even if I only received it tangentially. Moving on feels good, because grief hurts. But every so often I hear of an aviation mishap, and my mind returns to this one. I hope it makes me wiser.

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