Wings of Gold

I did it. I earned my Wings today. I capitalize it because it is such a big deal to me: it has been my goal for the last 18 months. I am the Marine Corps’ newest Naval Flight Officer / Weapons System Officer. I completed two flights today, and shortly thereafter I was doused with champagne and ice water to celebrate. The Flight School Adventure is over. What makes this even more memorable is that I winged with a classmate who was also in my company at TBS. He crewed the other aircraft – since our last events are BFM, or “dogfighting” events, we always go up in pairs – and though I got the best of him in our engagements today, neither of us would have made it this far without working together. Tomorrow another classmate gets winged, and we are looking forward to celebrating together this Friday after the ceremony.

Perhaps I should back up. When I transitioned from the T-39 to the T-2, I my remaining events comprised three different kinds of flights. FAM flights came first, designed (through a simple air navigation mission) to give me the time to get comfortable in the new cockpit and aircraft. WEPS flights are low-level air-to-ground flights meant to provide practice operating as a section, or as two aircraft in one flight. For the rest of my career, almost every single flight will have at least two aircraft in it. The third kind of flight is BFM, which stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvering.” These are the most fun. We depart the airfield as a section, head out over the water, fight each other until we get low on gas, then come home. Today I completed my final BFM flight first, then flew my final WEPS flight. Experiencing both kinds of missions made for a fitting wrap-up.

The T-2 is perhaps the ugliest aircraft ever built, at least when sitting on the ground. In the air it seems much more aerodynamic. It is also, literally, a vintage aircraft. It was designed in 1957, and the last modification we have was probably completed in the late ‘60s. We still fly it with genuine ‘60s flight instruments, too…no computers here, which can be frustrating. For example, the instrument which shows our aircraft heading and navigational information actually drifts over time, and requires constant correction off an old-fashioned wet compass. Every 10 minutes of flying—less if there has been any kind of maneuvering—we must readjust our navigation displays. It is ironic that this instrument is so unreliable, considering how important it is to fly the right heading, especially when a) flying in very busy airspace (so you don’t hit another aircraft), b)flying in clouds (when you can’t see) and c) when flying an approach (so you actually find the runway). Another crazy feature of the T-2 is the Electrical Disconnect Switch. Since the T-2 was designed as a pilot trainer, somebody thought it would be a good idea to enable the Instructor (presumably in the back seat) to simulate a total electrical power failure. So they installed a switch that actually shuts off the generators and the battery – so it doesn’t so much simulate an Electrical failure so much as cause one. Then, of course, you become an emergency aircraft with no way of navigating or communicating…and oh by the way your engines may fail without the electrical spark plugs, which means you either have to airstart one of them or eject. Brilliant.

Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the T-2 is a pretty perky little jet. We routinely pull up to 6 Gs during turns and Aerobatics, and it low over the ground it flies really well. During WEPS flights hug every curve of a road at close to 400 mph, then execute a high-performance pull, roll inverted, dive in at our “target” to deliver weapons, then pull hard up and away again. It is fun, dynamic, and physically draining – imagine trying to keep your head up looking around and your arms moving around a cockpit when they weigh five times more than usual! Yet BFM flights are the most fun, not only because you are fighting a buddy, but also because you continually operate the aircraft in high-G, high-performance flight. You might pitch up to arc over the top of your opponent or slice around in a max-performance turn to get behind him, or (if you’re in trouble) you might “unload the jet” (go to zero-G flight) so as to accelerate quickly. In this kind of flying, the only instrument you watch is the altimeter, because you are upside down as much as you are right side up, and the only thing that matters is not hitting the ground. It is extremely exciting flying. It is what I signed up to do. But before I could get there, I had to complete the obligatory aviation simulations.

T-2 Simulator Events are pretty low-key. The instructors are all former military pilots who work for Lockheed and have a contract with the Navy. Some of them have fought as long ago as Korea , and many have ejected at least once from their aircraft. One of my instructors flew the now-obsolete F-8 Crusader, now distinguished as the last American fighter jet designed with guns as its primary weapon system. It was fast, though, and my instructor told me that a peer of his was flying around at Mach 2.4 when the wind blast sheared his canopy right off the aircraft. Desperately trying to slow his jet down, the pilot was pulling the throttles to idle and putting out the speed brakes when the wind pulled his upper ejection handle out from the top of the seat, and ejected him at Mach 1.7. He was hopelessly out of position and slammed by wind traveling over 1,000 mph, which caused his knees to break so badly that his feet were slapping against his helmet visor while he parachuted down. The pilot lived to fly jets again, though my instructor had this comment: “that man does not walk like you or me anymore.”

Despite the sea stories, sim events are graded and can be stressful. My last sim was with an instructor who I had flown before. Though he is widely regarded as one of the nicest instructors around – in the lingo of flight school, a “Santa Clause” – I have always performed poorly with him. He wasn’t mean to me or anything, but for some reason I never, not once, had a good flight with him. Remarkably, he only failed me once. At my Intermediate Graduation, where I graduated first in my class, he pulled me aside afterward to ask incredulously, “How, out of all of these students, did you graduate first?” Anyway, when he walked into the T-2 student lounge to pick me up for my final sim, he stopped in his tracks, looked at me appraisingly with a funny little smile and said, “So we meet again.” Fortunately, I had a fairly decent event (though certainly not my best), and afterward he handed me my gradesheet, saying, “Well, you’re free of me forever.” We had a good laugh about that.

One little side adventure I had during this phase was a trip to Washington, DC. This took place during my three FAM flights. It is nice to do them “cross country,” because not only do I get experience flying outside of Pensacola (which I am very familiar with, but I can travel to cool places for the weekend. The flights themselves are pretty low-key, too: I am only responsible for basic navigation, a skill I have been working on since the first phase of training. Friday we flew to NAS Oceana (at Virginia Beach), and then my student partner and I rented a car to drive to D.C. We had a good time: I spent an entire afternoon in the National Gallery, saw a bunch of old friends, and generally relived the days of TBS when I visited DC every weekend. Sunday morning we drove back to Oceana and took the two quick flights home. Travel is one of the benefits of Aviation.

And now, this upcoming Friday, I will officially receive the Wings of Gold. I am near the end of my time in Pensacola , and that makes me just a little sad. I have grown to love it – everything from the beautiful white beaches to the friendly dumpy dive bars has made this an interesting and entertaining cultural experience. I will leave some good friends behind as I move on, but that’s part of a military life – and it isn’t really new. My old room-mate John has gone to California ahead of me, though not to San Diego, and another old room-mate will shortly move from Jacksonville to Whidbey Island, and yet a third has deployed to Iraq. I was nervous when I first moved down here – I only really know one of the guys I would be living with, and practically no one else in the greater Pensacola area. But shortly after moving in, my other room-mate approached me in a bar and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but I really wasn’t sure if living with you was going to work out or not. I didn’t really get along with you at Notre Dame. I’m pretty surprised it has gone so smoothly so far.” I guess that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I had felt the same way. And now I have many good friends from this Pensacola experience.

Enough reflecting. Tonight it is time to celebrate my newly-earned Wings of Gold.

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