Early Cross-Countries and Wildfires

The past several weeks have been very busy – so busy, in fact, that I have not seen the last four Notre Dame games, which for those of you who know me well is quite rare. On the flying side, there was a two-week period where I went on three cross-countries: the first to Phoenix, the second to Las Vegas, and the third to Yuma, AZ (though that one was more of necessity than by choice). The whole idea of a cross country is to take a weekend with a jet and complete some needed training.

This is good from the squadron’s point of view because aircrew get extra flights (and qualifications!) outside of normal working hour, without increasing the maintenance burden. Aircrew get something out of it too: we get to travel on the weekend to places like Phoenix or Las Vegas, and in a F/A-18D. Also, it is fun to fly around unfamiliar places – the sense of detachment and appreciation that comes from looking on new cities and the countryside from the air is always exhilarating.

The Phoenix trip occurred in the middle of the week, because Miramar shut down for the upcoming weekend airshow (October 12-14). We flew over as a two-ship section from San Diego in two legs, stopping each time to dogfight each other. Those kinds of flights are my favorite: high-G, intense, competitive, and just plain fun. We made it to Phoenix without incident, checked into our hotel for the night, and went out for a quiet evening of college football over steaks (I was pleased to see Navy beat Pitt in overtime) and turned in early. The next morning, we got up, drove to the airport for two more flights; the first was another dogfight, the second was practice dive-bombing. That night–Thursday–we went out with the ASU kids in Tempe, spending our evening at a bar called “The Library.” It was decorated with bookshelves (and real books!), but it served strong drinks and boasted the entertainment of an 80s Metal cover band called Metal Head–which meant we rocked out to Def Leppard and Van Halen covers for the rest of the night. It was a little like being back in college, but it was one of the better nights I have experienced since Pensacola.

We recovered Friday morning over a full breakfast spread, kindly (and anonymously) purchased for us by a patron of the hotel who noticed our uniforms. It was the first time I’d received that particular gesture, and I was humbled to realize that, in uniform, I was the steward of others’ respect and hope. I was also very grateful.

After breakfast, I joined my comrades for our two flights back to San Diego. On these legs we fought each other again, and landed Friday afternoon exhausted but satiated with high-performance flying–just in time for the weekend.

That weekend was one of labor for me, as I moved from my La Jolla condo to a San Diego apartment. My new room-mate, Brooks, had his girlfriend, brother, and sister-in-law help us move everything across town, and I had some friends from St. Brigid’s to assist, and overall it was pretty fun. As when the anonymous hotel patron bought me breakfast, I was humbled by the friendship and charity present I found in my friends, who gave up their Saturday to help me move my belongings (in the rain, no less).

The following weekend was the Las Vegas trip, which was a little different from our jaunt to Phoenix. My part in the plan was to get Low Altitude Tactics (LAT) qualified. Next to dogfighting, it is the most fun you can have in a fighter jet: raging around scarce hundreds of feet above the ground, diving through valleys and pulling hard over ridges. Like dogfighting, it is hard physical work– we pull a lot of Gs in LAT due to the high speed of our flight–important because we want enough speed to maneuver and climb if we need to, and high speeds mean high Gs in the turn. LAT also makes the cockpit very warm, because the air entering the jet is ground temperature and does little to mitigate the heat of the sun coming through the thick canopy. Each flight is roughly like an exhilarating, hour-long workout. We flew two sorties that day, stopping in between at Edwards Air Force Base (and landing behind an F-22 which was kind of cool).

Flying into Las Vegas itself was extremely busy, since we have to compete with all the commercial carriers and the corporate jets for airspace. Yet despite the intensity of the approach, I couldn’t help notice in the gigantic multicolored desert cliffs that surround the city, cast into sharp dramatic relief by the setting sun. I always get a sense of awe flying over the high desert–it seems to be all jagged ridges and blasted lakebeds, like a foretaste of the apocalypse. Nearly as impressive is the massive metropolis springing out of bare desert, tucked into a deep valley and bordered by a giant still lake. It looked like something out of the Arabian Nights.

Las Vegas is kind of a destination for military aviators. The airports there are kind to us, the city itself is close to the restricted airspace where we do our training, and there is a lot of entertainment for the evenings. That Friday night we were staying in the Stratosphere hotel, and decided that we would “stay local” – eat dinner there and go afterwards to the Stratosphere nightclub. Before that, however, I was subjected to a “hasty callsign review,” where amongst much drinking “Vigo” was rejected and I was awarded the moniker “ECMO-2.” An ECMO is the backseater in an EA-6B prowler, and is responsible for jamming enemy radar signals. Because that job is so technical, ECMOs are considered the nerdiest of nerds. So am I, apparently. After that was over, we went to the nightclub where I happily sang along to all the 80s music they played until I couldn’t stand up any more and went to bed.

The next morning I didn’t have to fly, so I was free to recover and sightsee as I pleased. It was actually a very depressing day. The temperature was cool–for which I wasn’t prepared–and I was fighting off the nauseating after-effect of the previous evening. I was struck by how quickly and disconcertingly grand impressive casino facades and sumptuous casino lobbies transitioned to tawdry glitter and cheap furnishings adorning the actual casino floors. The entire city seems designed to be overwhelming and beautiful on the outside, but ultimately industrial and soul-less at it’s gambling core. The sight of elderly men and women chain-smoking and drinking alone at slot machines, looking miserable and alone; and that of stylish but easily frustrated young men with bored pretty women aimlessly shopping or sitting at quiet, bitter blackjack tables–it shocked and saddened me. If Vegas is supposed to be a center of entertainment and fun, why are so many of it’s pilgrims unhappy?

Then I went to Mass. The Cathedral for the diocese of Las Vegas sits almost directly on the Strip, just north of the Wynn casino. It is a dramatic, geometric building that looks to have been built in the late ’50s. The façade had a mural showing three men paying homage to a Christ in apotheosis, accompanied by the exhortations “Prayer…Penance…Peace.” Inside, the retablo behind the altar consisted of another, pure art-deco mural showing what I assume to be the resurrection: a noble, powerful, youthful, clean-shaven, and, well, virile Jesus (identifiable only by the holes in hands, feet, and side) springing up from the tabernacle in a burst of atomic light, surrounded by similarly virile angels, spreading his arms wide toward the ceiling. It was unlike any religious art I had ever seen. Also, the trappings on the altar themselves were beautifully carved and impressive, and the church itself was remarkably clean and well-maintained. It occurred to me later that the diocese of Las Vegas was probably quite wealthy.

Despite the jarring decorations, the mass itself was orthodox and heartfelt, and preached to a full congregation. It felt good to shut out the huge palaces on the Strip and retreat for an hour into familiar church hymns and rituals. The depression and the sadness of my day melted away, and I exited the church in a more cheerful frame of mind.

Stepping out the church door into twilight, I was greeted by a gritty blast of cool dry desert wind. The palm trees were bowing toward the horizontal and sheets of dust raged howling up the Strip. Well-dressed gamblers and partygoers, hunched against the assault of sand and air, scurried along to get cabs or get inside. I slitted my eyes and strode as best I could down to the Flamingo, two miles to the south, where I was staying for the night. I passed the silent, wind-lashed fountain outside the Bellagio and inwardly rejoiced at this desert windstorm that had shut down the painful, frenetic pace of the city. At my hotel I ate a nice, quiet dinner with my room-mate, declined my comrades’ offer to go to the Playboy Club, and retired early.

The following morning we ferried the jets home from Las Vegas in one trip, dropping into a range for some LAT (which was fun). More arresting were the small wildfires we flew over to the east of San Diego, but on the whole it was simply good to be back “home” in the solid reality of my own routine and apartment. I looked forward to a week not living out of a suitcase.

But Providence had other plans. The small fires we saw on Sunday grew and threatened the metro area of San Diego itself. On Monday morning, pilots in the squadron flew the jets to Arizona (to get them out of the danger zone) while the WSOs–like me–stayed back to run the squadron. There was much to do. My job was standing Tower ODO, as the officer in charge of running the airfield itself. It is largely a supervisory role and it isn’t too difficult. Mostly I just take phone calls and watch the Marines who operate the actual control tower, the refueling equipment, and the fire trucks do their jobs. My only excitement was some planning for a visit by the President later in the week, which I turned over to my replacement at the end of my shift.

The following day the squadron was shut down, so I sort of had the day off. The day after that, Wednesday, the jets flew back in and I was asked to fly to Yuma as part of a training detachment. Even when fires threaten our home town, training must go on. Significantly, those of us who went to train lived in areas not threatened by the fires.

It was supposed to be a quick trip: fly over Wednesday night, complete the training flights Thursday morning, be back that afternoon. But all of our jets broke. And they broke hard. We spent Thursday trying to fix them, reluctantly stayed Thursday night in Yuma, and found out Friday that the maintenance would take probably several more days. So we rented a car and drove three hours back to San Diego. Although the trip ended up a frustrating experience in many ways, I was surprised and humbled by how well my fellow aircrew and the maintenance Marines handled it. You learn a lot about the quality of your comrades when you watch them deal with adversity. We complained a lot, but not in a negative way. They did it to be funny, and they do it while working very hard to fix what is wrong. They didn’t whine or give up. As a result, the trip turned out to be kind of fun. I am reminded again that I am in the company of Marines.

The events of the last three weeks or so have left me with a wealth of experience. I am not sure how it all fits together. Phoenix, Vegas, Mass in Vegas, moving, wildfires, getting stuck in Yuma–I am fortunate to have enjoyed and learned so much. As a new guy to the squadron, I get the more thankless tasks and the rougher hours, but there is a definite bright side.

Still, I hope I can go at least a couple of weeks without a cross country.