Policy Solution Series 1: Reasonable Gun Control

Recent mass shooting events at a concert in Las Vegas and at a school in Parkland, Florida are the latest in a horrifying sequence of mass shootings in America. The tragic deaths of children (and those of ordinary Americans) cause strong reactions–generally, there is a group that immediately jumps to restricting gun access so such shootings cannot happen, and a group that defends the second amendment to the Constitution’s guaranteed that Americans’ “right to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There are good points on both sides of the debate. It is unconscionable to allow such massive and lethal violence in our free country–particularly toward our children–but also the American Revolution would not have been possible had the colonists not had weapons available with which to resist the British. It is part of our ethos that the government is not only answerable to the citizenry, but also constrained from oppression by its lack of a monopoly on violence. Put simply, the government cannot control Americans through violence because Americans can respond in kind.

That barrier to gun control is ideological and enshrined in our Constitution, but it is also practically impossible to breach. By some counts, there are 300+ million guns in the United States, almost one for every person. Even if magically gun sales stopped, there are more than enough weapons for wannabe mass shooters. And logistically collecting that many weapons is nearly impossible–and highly likely to fail if tried, as gun owners are by and large fairly open about the fact that they simply would not surrender their ability to defend themselves against lethal force.

Some proposed solutions involve targeting certain kinds of weapons and accessories–semi-automatic rifles (like the AR-15), high-capacity magazines, ‘bump stocks,’ and the like. But this is also impractical because high-capacity bullet supplies are easily fabricated and even action-advanced firearms (i.e. bolt- or lever-action) can produce a high rate of shots in a skilled shooter. Such solutions might satisfy the criteria of “doing something” about mass shootings, but it’s doubtful they would deter or hinder another such event.

It is likewise doubtful that increasing the amount of guns will have a measurable effect. Some have called for better security at schools in the form of armed teachers or guards to stop mass shootings, but it seems clear that not having bullets flying within a school is safer than a gunfight between a shooter and a teacher. Moreover, there was an armed security guard at the recent shooting in Parkland who did not get involved–the risk that armed personnel supposed to provide protection from shooters will fail is too great to make that our collective safeguard against such a threat. Also, the shooter in Las Vegas used rifles to kill at a distance, and the firearms carried by security personnel are typically handguns and shotguns, which are ineffective at range. Anyone not carrying a rifle would have been extremely unlikely to have killed the Las Vegas shooter unless they were in the same room as he was.

So here are some proposed solutions to improve security against mass shootings that balance second amendment rights with the unquestioned need to stop mass shootings.

  1. Strict licensing for firearms, and tough criminal penalties for violating terms of license. In the same manner that we prevent people from operating cars (another potentially deadly piece of equipment) through licensing and use laws, we can do the same for guns. Persons under 18 should not be able to use semi-automatic rifles at all, and must be restricted from using other firearms except under the supervision of a responsible adult. Perhaps it is arguable that children and youths learn how to use hunting rifles, shotguns, and handguns, but there should be tough criminal penalties and mandatory sentencing for adults who allow kids access to firearms. This type of law may already exist in many states, and if so that’s a good thing, but the critical action here is to make adults accountable when they provide opportunities for kids to access lethal force.
  2. Require transponders in firearms that are capable of mass shootings. This would apply to semi-automatic handguns (not revolvers), semi-automatic rifles regardless of the magazine capacity, and semi-automatic shotguns. Hunting rifles and single/double-shot shotguns would be exempted. The purpose of the transponder is to trigger a security response in designated gun-free areas such as schools. Any person attempting to enter a school, for example, with a weapon capable of mass shooting would trigger an automated, physical lockdown and alert law enforcement or on-site security. Ideally this would prevent a would-be shooter from even entering a school–and the coverage area could include outside playgrounds and such. Law enforcement weapons would also have a transponder, though it would be coded so that they could bring their weapons into otherwise gun-free zones. The cost of modifying weapons would be borne by the owners; the cost of systems to lock down gun-free zones would be borne by the public. As a backup to the obvious loophole of a shooter bringing in a unmodified weapon or making their own, the security systems would be programmed to respond also to the acoustic signature of a gunshot. For this to be effective, there would have to be strict criminal penalties to owning an unmodified weapon when such a weapon is capable of mass shooting.
  3. Enable law enforcement to respond to credible threats immediately. The first solution here is an strong incentive to prevent the more deadly firearms from falling into the hands of would-be mass school shooters (it would likely not have prevented the Las Vegas shooting). The second provides physical security when a mass shooting is attempted. But the only way to prevent actual mass shootings is to stop the people who would do so. In many of these events, shooters gave ample warning of their intentions–and those warnings were repeated by others who knew them. Law enforcement, from local police departments to Federal agencies such as ATF and FBI, should have the ability to investigate such warnings and a process for doing so that both precludes plain harassment and protects the rights and reputations of those investigated. That likely means funding, additional officers, and legal resources; it also should apply to warning signs like increased gun purchases as well as social media posts or personal complaints. It also means better tracking of gun purchases and more universal background checks. It is hoped that merely the act of being investigated for intent to commit a mass shooting would deter a would-be shooter, but certainly confiscating firearms and mandating counseling or other restraints for substantiated warnings is important too.

These proposals attempt to balance the right of Americans to keep and bear arms with the absolute need to prevent future mass shootings as much as possible. They may in some cases be partially in place, and they may not fully consider ‘workarounds’ taken by some shooters. They are here as points of dialogue only, to generate conversation that recognizes the perspectives of all stakeholders in this issue and drive towards a consensus solution that accomplishes our actual goal of eliminating mass shootings.

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A New Series on Policy Solutions

This blog began as place to put down my thoughts and experiences. When I started it long ago as a site on Blogspot, it seemed easier to keep friends and family informed of what I was doing by posting it online, rather than writing mass emails. I was in the military; I was traveling and having amazing experiences; I was learning and loving the satisfaction of hard work and performing difficult tasks. I thought it was important to record my life primarily because in my affluent network, the military was poorly understood and my decision to join baffled some. My intent in posting was to showcase the joy, satisfaction, and service of the military lifestyle.

Over the years, however, my life has become less interesting. I say that humbly and without agenda–after all, working a civilian job, loving my wife, and raising a family are not exceptional circumstances. Reading about an adventure in South Korea, or about discovering a tiny island atoll awash in history, is after all more interesting than relating the day-to-day life of work, housework, meals for the kids, and my current favorite TV shows. So I have written far less frequently, and I don’t really mind–my life really matters to me, my wife and kids, the house, my work. Those things don’t leave much time for philosophical musing and frankly, they are far more important than philosophical musing.

Today, however, I have a different idea. The hyper-polarized climate of today, with the controversial President Trump in office and an uncertain world of endless “breaking news” reports and too many strident opinions, has made me think deeply about what we Americans can do to navigate this new age. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I think I’ll try addressing issues with feasible, rational ideas to get us collectively from a broken system to one that works. My hope is that when I post these ideas on facebook, I will get a lot of discussion and maybe inject a bit of “wanting the best thing for everybody” into a world of “my perspective is right and I have nothing to say to whomever disagrees with me.”

Here goes nothing.

A curious intersection of math and faith

My eldest child has started CCD this year. The acronym CCD stands for “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” which is the fancy name Catholics give to Sunday School. For the convenience of everyone, it is held on Wednesday afternoons and kids attend after school. Recently, my child brought home a bookmark emblazoned with the words “God is Love.” It’s a pretty well-known phrase from John 4:8 and seems a good place to start when teaching children about the Christian Faith.

As with most things kid-related in our house, it spent some time on our kitchen table before making its way into a book, presumably to be rediscovered by one of our younger kids much later. And one afternoon, I came into the kitchen and saw it upside down. From that perspective it appeared to me as “Love is God.”

This reminded me of math’s reflexive property, which is taught to high schoolers in algebra. If a = b, the property goes, then it is also true that b = a. Which means that if God is (equals) Love, then also Love equals God. That implies that wherever there is love in the world, that is God. The all-encompassing breadth of that statement reminds me of Jesus’ declaration about loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew 22:40, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The imperative to love is certainly the main substance of Jesus’ teachings. Love neighbors, commit acts of love to those imprisoned or widowed or sick, be loving to the most despised people in a society–including lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritan women caught in adultery, occupying soldiers, and so on. Jesus’ main teaching here must be the true guidance for Christianity, and it is consistent with the whole purpose of his incarnation: reconcile humanity to God and atone for the sin of Adam. Our part in being reconciled to God is to be like God. Be Love. That is how we accept the Grace which Christianity teaches is is offered to all.

I’m sure others (including eminent theologians) have remarked on this concept, so I have no illusions that this is new thinking. I know it is controversial, however. The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations often emphasizes the role of obedience and the observance of certain prohibitions, such sex outside of marriage. No doubt this behavior is part of “lov[ing]…God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” or the Great Commandment related in Matthew 22:37. Yet the reflexive property realization that Love is God, however, insists that faith also requires active love in whatever form it takes.

Soylent Day 1

My first package of Soylent arrived on Friday, August 12th. It was a small box with seven pouches; each pouch contains one full day’s worth of nutrients. I was excited to start, but I’d made my decision (see previous post) that I would eat with my family when I’m spending time with family. I *do* enjoy food, and I *do* enjoy making food, and I think that food can be a very social thing: making breakfast for my girls is an act of love; eating at a new restaurant is a shared activity; enjoying food is an intellectual exercise. So I waited until today for Soylent.

I should point out that I’m 5’10” and moderately muscular at about 190 lbs. I try to weight-lift in the evenings, but I have precious little time to do so—in fact, at the moment I’m going on about 10 days without a workout. It’s not uncommon. We’ll see what Soylent does to me.

6:45 AM

I got up this morning and made a day’s worth of Soylent: 2 Quarts, 2000 calories. It wasn’t quite as neat and tidy as I thought. The powder comes with a 2-Qt mixer, and you’re supposed to fill it up halfway and then dump in the powder. Well, the powder fills it the rest of the way up and will “puff” out over everything if you aren’t careful. Mixing is disappointing, too—there were plenty of small clumps in my first batch.

I had added a little mixing ball from a protein shaker, but I’m not sure if it helped.

First impressions: it’s surprisingly creamy; a thick off-white liquid that pours like milk. It tastes very mild and a bit like oatmeal. It reminds me of “gruel,” actually, but it doesn’t taste bad at all. Despite being thirsty, it took me several minutes to drink 16oz because it is fairly thick. That was 500 calories of Soylent—my first “meal” of the day.

7:15 AM

To help it mix a bit, I put some ice cubes in (instructions say to keep it refrigerated, so the ice cubes were also to help transport to work). I stuck it our work lunch room refrigerator. We’ll see how ‘full’ it keeps me.

10:10 AM

So I noticed that I have a curious feeling of fullness this morning. It’s not that I feel ‘heavy’ or ‘slow’—I feel pretty alert and physically capable. But my stomach feels quite full. Maybe 500 calories of the stuff off the bat was not the best way to start. So far no hunger pangs—though I did have a LOT of food this weekend, including a barbecue picnic late Sunday afternoon. It’s not uncommon for that amount of food to keep me from being hungry throughout the next day.

10:55 AM

First hunger pangs, so I went and pulled the Soylent out of the refrigerator and had 12oz (measured by a Solo cup). Should be 375 calories—maybe better approximating a meal. It was surprisingly creamy after being refrigerated, more like cream than milk. Still the same bland oatmeal taste, but goes down fairly easy. I’m back to the curious full feeling, though I don’t feel heavy or slow. I’m expecting to have to ‘eat’ again around 3:00 PM.

12:40 PM

Day is going pretty well, physically. No notable tiredness or hunger (though I should say that I got about seven hours of sleep last night, which is two more than normal). All I have is that curious full feeling. I’m thinking maybe tomorrow I’ll make only what’s needed for the day; i.e. only 1500 calories. It should make the mixture smoother and help me measure it better. Still expecting to ‘eat’ again at 3:00 PM.

1:15 PM

I suddenly got hunger pangs and drank another 12oz of Soylent. I’m surprised to see that I have about a third of the 2qt bottle left (remember I’m only supposed to drink three quarters of it, or 1500 calories, today). If I do the math, I’ve consumed 400z today so far or about 1250 calories. Not bad for halfway through the day, but I’m not actually halfway through *my* day–I’m only seven or so hours through my usual 18 hour day. Takeaway here is that I have only 250 calories left, which works out to 8 oz. I expect to drink that around 3:00 PM, at which point I’m done with Soylent and waiting for dinner.

3:45 PM

Took the opportunity between meetings to drink my last 8 oz of Soylent. I didn’t particularly feel like I needed it, but as I drank it I felt a little empty inside. Literally, I stress, literally. I still have a sort of full feeling, so maybe the emptiness I sense is just because my body is used to full picnic weekend food. I did start getting sleepy around 2:30, but I was in a meeting then so it might have little to do with the Soylent.

I took some time between meetings today to calculate out tomorrow’s need. So if I drink four 12 oz  servings of Soylent tomorrow, that will be the 1500 calories I need. I just need to space them out between 7:00 AM and 6:00 PM, which is the (early) window of dinner for me. I figure if I take a glass every 3 hours, that will keep me full–that’s 7:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 4:00 PM.

Also, I note a delicious (pun intended) irony that I tried this experiment so I could spend less time on food, and the result is that I spend all this time thinking and planning and writing about it. We’ll see where I end up tomorrow.

5:00 PM

It’s time to go home, and I’m feeling the hunger a bit. I don’t note a decrease in physical or mental performance, which is nice, and it could be due to the utter lack of solid food. I also could be low on water, as I have mostly drunk coffee today (and every day). I’m going to make up the remainder of 1,500 calories in my bottle for tomorrow when I get home so I can get a smoother mix. First day was relatively successful–we’ll see how I feel in the morning.

Life improvement attempt: Soylent

While browsing Facebook I encountered a post titled, “Proudly Made with GMOs.” It was posted by two conservative-leaning friends of mine, one of whom is a scientist and another who is very scientifically literate. It’s a provocative title, especially given the current collective disapproval of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and biotech companies like Monsanto who produce them.

The article was very enlightening. I have it linked so I can refer back to it. But the fact that it was written by Soylent also intrigued me. I had heard about Soylent before, and how the creator was frustrated at the difficulty of eating well while very busy (and often ‘cooking for one,’ as they say). So I checked the website to see what this engineered food was really about.

The website, it turns out, had only very basic information. I know the food is genetically engineered for maximum nutrients, sustainable production, and that it is vegan. I understand that it’s designed to require minimum time and effort to prepare for the busy person, and that it’s sustainable and inexpensive so that it may one day help end world starvation. Both laudable goals, but lacking in practical information.

Google helped me to find some testimonials of people who went food free, subsisting entirely on Soylent for a period of time. In fact, there was a wealth of data to include medical information from before and after the some of the trials. Some were conducted by moderately active people (that’s me!) and some by very active people, including a pretty serious runner. Mostly the reviews were positive.

At this point I became immensely attracted to the idea of simplifying food. I am married with three young children, I run a manufacturing plant that operates 24 hours a day, and I am in the process of getting my EMBA from a nearby university. I am very busy. And my daily work does not have structured meal breaks. Like many people in my position, my eating (and sleeping) habits tend to be the first to turn unhealthy when faced with so many obligations. So if there’s a food that is portable, convenient, and nutritious–that’s something I’d like to try!

I know, by the way, that if I just decided to do it, I could eat better with real food. I could, for example, make sandwiches ahead of time. In winter I often spend an hour on a weekend making chili which I refrigerate at work to eat throughout the day. But given the choice between spending time making lunches ahead of time, or waking up early to eat breakfast, I would rather spend my little time at home with my wife and children. Trying out Soylent is purely a decision of convenience.

So I ordered a weeks’ worth, and I’m waiting for it to arrive. I’m eager to have a week where I’m not wondering, “Do I have time to drive out to lunch today?” I want to keep a record of the trial here, too, for memory; also as a testimonial if anyone is ever interested. So we’ll see how it goes!

I think it’s important to note that I have decided not to replace ALL food with Soylent; I plan to take it as a substitute for all weekday meals except dinner. This is so I don’t screw up my digestion with only liquid food, and also because my wife and I try to do family dinners together. This is mostly so we spend at least some time as a family in the midst of our busy lives. But also I think the family dinners will provide some variety in my diet and allow me to continue to demonstrate good eating habits to my children.

That time I almost died…

One sunny day not very long ago I found myself scheduled for a BFM flight. In these days of aging aircraft, such flights are rare indeed. Something about the heavy sustained G-forces and dynamic maneuvering strains the airframe, apparently…and when a certain strain threshold is reached, well, the nerdy engineer chaps say we can’t fly the airplane safely. Perhaps the wings will fall off. Or an engine will break from it’s mounting and depart the aircraft. Catastrophic failures like that would NOT be conducive to continued flight, so with much sighing and private gnashing of teeth we obey said engineers and only fly high-strain flights in order to be proficient for an impending battle. Should the worst happen, and all.

In any case, the world being what it is, the only really fun flights are those that strain the jets, so when it comes time to “maintain proficiency” by flying one, well, there are plenty of volunteers. I was among the lucky ones this time and so was quite excited for the day. There was, it seemed, an extra rich flavor in the squadron coffee, usually so vile. Instead of dragging on, the brief flew by while touching on old, well-learned lessons about how to handle one’s aircraft in the thick of the fight with an unyielding adversary. I couldn’t help dwelling on the glorious sunshine as I stepped from the squadron, my G-Suit, harness, and survival gear each attentively donned, tightened, and adjusted for comfort.

Takeoff, as usual, pressed me back in my seat with acceleration. As our flight of two climbed out into the achingly blue Southern California sky, we noted appreciatively the utter clarity of that day. No haze, no dust, no smog–just an unimpeded view in each direction. It was breathtaking.

And we were going to fight.

Our adversaries that day were F-5 aircraft from the Marine professional adversary squadron, the “Snipers.” A fighter much inferior to the Hornet in performance and avionics, it nevertheless had one significant advantage: the pilot. Sniper pilots have, on average, three thousand or more hours flying over something like fifteen years in the cockpit. They also practice fighting exclusively, being undistracted by other missions such air-to-ground sorties. And they fight Hornets a lot. All in all, our contest could be pretty evenly matched.

Which just made us more eager.

What fleet captain or major wouldn’t want to bring back gun footage of a hopelessly defensive senior adversary?

Checking into our working area, each of our two Hornets paired up with a Sniper and separated for individual fights. The setting was perfect. Farm fields and the Salton Sea below, clear blue sky above, the sun glowing in the south, and the air so clear that our Sniper’s camouflage paint job was nearly useless. We would shortly be locked in a close struggle, the proverbial “knife-fight in a phone booth” of two fighters so close in proximity that the slightest mistake could offer the other a chance to kill, and end the engagement.

There is something compelling about BFM. The acronym stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” and applies to fights that occur with both opponents within visual range. Normally, of course, if we can deal with our enemies beyond visual range, so much the better. Even more so if we can kill them before they can kill us. But once we’re within visual range, all bets are off. It’s pure airmanship. Both players try to maneuver their aircraft through 3-dimensional space so as to be too close or in the wrong piece of sky for their enemy to shoot them, while simultaneously attempting to set up their own shot. Doing so requires careful–even delicate!–flying in order to get the most aerodynamic performance out of the jet; it also requires the strength to fight against the centrifugal forces of an airplane arcing through the sky, measured in units of gravitational force (Gs). At the Hornet’s limit of 7.5 Gs, every finger, limb, even our heads weigh 7.5 times their normal weight. Flipping switches, moving the stick and throttle, and especially moving one’s head around to keep eyes on your adversary become quite difficult. And there is the ever-present threat of the ground to worry about, too –flying into that will end the engagement as definitively as a missile shot.

What glorious combat! Our mettle as fighter aircrew at stake, we sweated and strained against the Gs as we sought to find, maneuver upon, and kill the enemy. The ultimate challenge, an airborne cage-match, and behind the pride and reckless fun lies the haunting knowledge that one day, just maybe, our lives will depend on these skills we practiced that day. Defeat, if it comes, is sobering and frustrating. Victory is sweet.

The propitious mood of the flight continued through our engagements. We fought three sets against our Sniper, getting the best of him each time. Then he called “min fuel” and headed for home. We cheerily confirmed we’d debrief after landing, and, flushed with exertion and success, we climbed up to watch our wingman. Him a newer guy, we had some friendly concern with how he’d handle his wily bandit. We were pleased, my pilot and I, to see him acquitting himself quite respectably. And when his opponent also bowed out for fuel reasons, we decided to have a fourth fight right then there–you know, just because we could. And it also went well (for us).

Hard to beat a day flying like that. One finds himself idly wondering who would be crazy enough to actually pay someone to have so much fun.

The flight back was easy as pie. In that weather, visibility extended beyond a hundred miles, so we had the field long before coming up approach. Gliding gracefully into the overhead break pattern back home in Miramar, I thought to myself, that was the perfect flight.

And it was.

But one in the flying business does not say that, even to him or herself, without feeling a suspicious twinge. And suddenly I remembered another seemingly perfect flight, scarce months earlier.

March 23, 2009 found me six days deep in Hawaii. Now, I was ever so happy to enjoy such an exotic spring break on the dime of the Marine Corps except for the fact that I was headed home from a six-month deployment just then. When we had attempted that task five days earlier, a fellow Hornet broke it’s refueling probe and had to return to Hawaii for repairs. It was my luck, of course, that the fellow Hornet’s wingman was my own, and so I found myself returning as well.

Which, the repairs being completed quickly, left us waiting on the Air Force.

Now the Hornet is designed for fighting and attacking. Highly maneuverable and passably fast (in the order of Mach 1+ and/or 800 kts), it achieves all this by being mostly wing, engine, and fuel tank. The engines are quite powerful (36,000 pounds of thrust total) and eat up the fuel at an alarming rate, even when the aircraft is just cruising. So in order to make it more than several hundreds of miles, much less the 2,300 miles of ocean separating us from home, we need to nurse at a Tanker.

And also you should know that the raison d’etre, partially, of the Air Force–specifically the Air Mobility Command–is to help military units deploy. For this purpose they own tankers, which carry required hundreds of thousand pounds of fuel required to see two Hornets across those 2,300 miles of ocean. But they like their banker’s hours in the Air Force. They do not move quickly, or easily deviate from their schedule. So we waited for them to task a tanker to us so we could finally return home.

Pleasant and relaxing as it was, Hawaii couldn’t quite make us forget our desire to get back. Though the presence of spring break tourists on Waikiki did dull the pain a bit. As did the nightlife.

But finally, on the morning of March 23, we sat looking at Honolulu and Diamondhead from the runways at Hickam Air Force Base, with a single KC-135 tanker already taken off and waiting for us airborne. The KC-135 is affectionately called “The Iron Maiden” by Hornet pilots because its refueling basket is a solid metal contraption, suspended from the end of the boom by an eight-foot hose. It’s weight makes it easy to hit with the refueling probe, but in order to get fuel, the pilot has to drive his airplane (with the basket on the probe) in towards the boom in order to create a 90-degree “knuckle” in the bearing connecting the hose and basket. When the “knuckle” rotated past 90 degrees, the valve opens to let fuel in. Pretty dicey work holding a heavy steel basket steady next to a solid airplane, it is. Add in windstream pushing the basket around and the high-pressure fuel pressing against the probe itself, and you have a stressful little task for Hornet pilots.

But, being as it was a reliable refueling system, and we were experienced aircrew with many TransPac flights under our belt, we were not worried about tanking overmuch.

Yet I must caveat the prior statement with this: TransPacs are worrisome. Flying over large stretches of water with limited fuel reserves is always a little nerve-wracking. So many things can go wrong, like weather. And if something breaks and an airplane can’t take fuel, then does it have enough left to get to a runway? If not, aircrew might find themselves forced into a most unwelcome swim, riding on the rockets attached to their ejection seats, and hopefully close enough to land (or other ships) that they can be rescued before the sharks get them. I never liked the movie Jaws, anyway.

But any risk can be mitigated with much planning, and so we do. Or more truthfully the Air Force does it for us. They provide us with handy little packets describing our route and scheduled refueling points, chosen so at no point while airborne does any aircraft have insufficient fuel to make at least one divert. Theoretically. We pay close attention to such things on this type of flight, and that day was no exception. As it happens the TransPac leg between Hawaii and California is the most dangerous of all, because there are literally no intermediary diverts–no friendly little islands (or even atolls) on which a runway exists to rescue a fuel-starved Hornet. One checkpoint, poetically named “FEARR,” is the midpoint of the trip: nearly 1200 miles from land in any direction. In order to fly that far, a typical Hornet would need 14,500 pounds of fuel…and our max load is only 16,500 pounds. That’s a very small margin of safety.

But we weren’t worried. We’d done this before. On the “Iron Maiden,” too. And what a nice day it was!

It was a nice day. Clear, sunny, with (as I noted earlier) Honolulu bathed in sulight across the bay and Diamondhead rising majestically behind her. At one point, airport ground control held up a commercial liner to let us pass–a commercial liner, no doubt, with several hundred paying passengers. It just didn’t seem fair, I tell you, thinking of them passengers packed liked sardines in their uncomfortable seats while we luxuriated in the unlimited visibility and raw power of a fighter aircraft, but it sure did seem right. And with that little surge of pleasure and satisfaction we blasted off into pellucid Hawaiian air for the long trip to Miramar.

We rendezvoused with the Tanker a hundred miles east of of Hawaii and formed up for the flight. TransPac flying is boring, mostly. Once you get used to the endless span of trackless ocean, the horizon sharp and clear amid the scattered puffy clouds floating just above the water, well, then you only have the other aircrew for company and whatever entertainment is on hand. Periodically, of course, everyone snuggles up to the Tanker and takes fuel when it’s their turn, and that takes some concentration and attention. Otherwise, though, you’re just waiting. Feeling that parachute harness dig into your gluteal muscles. Squinting to keep the rising sun out of your eyes. Updating the nearest divert as you pass every navigational waypoint, on the off chance something goes wrong. And possibly reading, or listening to music, or eating. It’s a lot like a road trip.

But our high spirits that day made it all quite bearable. Kith and kin lay ahead, and a warm welcome after six months (and Thanksgiving and Christmas) spent abroad. We were, in a word, cheerful. Time after time we eased in behind the tanker, carefully and smoothly refueled, and re-assumed our relaxed position in the formation. The miles grew between us and Hawaii, shrunk between us and California. Dancing in our heads were visions of our triumphant overhead break at the field after six months’ absence. It was going to be good.

Closing in on Point FEARR we snuggled back up to the Tanker for Aerial Refueling number six. This was the first of several scheduled refuelings one after the other, designed to keep our fuel tanks full in case of divert. Realistically, we would alternate on the basket with our wingman, keeping our tanks as full as possible. We watch as our lead moved up behind the KC-135 basket and began taking gas. As he was doing so, he commented over the radio, “we’re going to California, boys!” And we rejoiced, for we had just passed the half-way point and were actually closer to home than to Hawaii.

Our lead took a full load of gas. Sixteen-thousand-and-five-hundred pounds. He moved off the tanker to the right side, exactly as he had done for the last five refuelings, and we moved in from the left. We stabilized about 15 feet behind the basket, and my pilot informed the tanker of this fact by calling “Pre-contact” on the radio. The tanker issued the expected “Cleared to contact” in reply. Moving forward at the prescribed 2 knots of closure, my pilot inserted the probe in the center of the basket with characteristic accuracy. It locked. Then he smoothly pushed the basket forward toward the boom, creating slack in the hose that would cause it to bend and eventually make a “knuckle” to allow.

It was a skilled approach, well befitting a fighter pilot and professional aviator. It was a nearly identical repeat of all the previous tanker approaches thus far.

But, suddenly before our wondering eyes the hose performed a funny little jink and, instead of rotating smoothly around the basket on its bearing, it jerked the wrong way, hesitated, then violently spun to the accustomed position.

And exploded in our faces.

Our canopy was suddenly rendered nearly opaque by gallons of high-pressure jet fuel cascading over it and back along our aircraft. In a sliver of vision I caught a view of the hose flailing wildly at the end of the boom with no basket attached. Ominously, there was a large shadow on the right side of the windscreen indicating that the fuel basket was still attached. “Get back” I said forcefully, a mere instant after I heard the engines spool to idle and felt the deceleration of the airplane. In a flash I comprehended: we weren’t getting fuel; we were in an emergency; we would have to Bingo all the way home, and even so we might not make it.

Adrenaline is a funny thing. The whole event took probably two seconds or less from the time our probe touched the basket and the time we pulled away from the tanker. But already I had the awful comprehension that the trip was changed, and that it was suddenly very dangerous, and amazingly enough I couldn’t muster any emotion. No disappointment at all. Just, what happens next?

Away from the Tanker, with our canopy clearing in the windstream, I felt the engines come back up to military power. We were climbing to a higher altitude where the lower concentration of oxygen would lessen drag and make our engines more fuel-efficient. I had our nearest divert, San Francisco International, as the selected waypoint already, and we were heading direct. The Tanker began to fall behind us, and I heard my flight lead declare an emergency. He named our destination as Moffett, a military airfield as close to San Francisco as makes no difference. It was a better choice than SFO.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a friend handy.

At this point, I confirmed that we were on a max-efficiency climb, and advised my pilot of the navigation setup: “You have steering to Moffett with 1150 miles to go.” I then looked at the fuel: thirteen-thousand-some pounds.

That was below our intended Bingo. That was alarming.

I knew that some fuel had been burned as we maneuvered away from the Tanker, and began our military power climb out. I knew also that Air Force Bingos were very conservative, including some 40-minutes of loiter time over the airfield in case of weather, or something. But still, I knew it was going to be close. Especially with a large metal basket hanging off our jet. How much drag did that add to our aircraft?

My lead interrupted my depressing little reverie. “Engine look OK?” he asked. Suddenly really worried, I quickly pulled up the engine monitor page, remembering how close the probe was to the right intake, fearing for a horrible instant that some shard of the basket assembly had been ingested into our right engine. Even a small piece of metal would tear the engine apart, at best causing us to shut it down and proceed single-engine, at worst causing more extensive damage. I scanned both columns on the page, looking for tell-tale discrepancies which might indicate an engine problem. I found that the right engine was running a little hotter the left, with higher RPM and Oil Pressure. I mentioned this, but my pilot confirmed that our right engine had been that way the entire flight. So we were relieved.

And yet with Murphy’s Law and all, who knew what might happen next?

About this time we started having difficulty getting any higher. We had reached our optimum cruise altitude, 33,000 feet. Now pointed straight at our divert airfield–albeit with more than a thousand miles to go–and stabilized at altitude, we painstakingly set the our max-efficiency throttle setting. Our lead told us to fly the best jet we could; he would simply follow us. No problem, buddy! We weren’t going to deviate from the precise settings calculated for peak efficiency, not for all the tea in China.

Our on-board computers showed us landing with about 1300 pounds of fuel, adjusted. That was scary. The minimum landing fuel in the Hornet for us is two thousand pounds, which provides roughly two missed approaches in visual flying conditions, or one missed approach in instrument conditions. We were below even that safety margin. If there was weather, we might not make the runway. If we had to go missed approach (for any number of reasons), we might not make the runway. Heck, if we had a headwind, we might not make the runway! Besides, nobody really knows when the hornet runs out of fuel–is it when the meter reads zero? It’s bad form to test that, especially if the price of guessing wrong is ejection and the loss of a $38 million jet. Or would we flame out with several hundred pounds visible on the fuel gauge? We might have even less than 1300 pounds to work with. I settled in for a very anxious couple of hours.

Now no reasonable man is going to trust his airplane and perhaps his life entirely to a computer, if he can help it. The computer said 1300 pounds of fuel on deck, but I could calculate myself based on our airspeed, distance-to-go, and fuel burn exactly what we’d get to Moffett with. And I did. Constantly. I filled sheets of paper from my kneeboard pad with calculations. At first, my calculations agreed with the dismal computer projections. With that basket staring at us through the windscreen, those were indeed the worst moments of the flight.

Clearing out the cockpit for a possible ejection? Not much fun. Especially if you can anticipate waiting until the last possible minute, then pulling the handle when the engines have flamed out and the aircraft is about to fall out of the sky, all the while truusting your life to a rocket motor, a parachute, and a life jacket (the latter two of which were packed unknown hands, unknown years ago). Scary.

But as fuel burned off and we pulled back the throttle a bit to maintain the same airspeed with a lighter aircraft, the fuel-on-deck numbers crept up. It looked rosier both on computer-generated and the manually calculated projection. Looking suddenly at about 1700 pounds on deck, we decided not to jettison our tanks (now that they were empty) because we figured we could make it. Maybe. Providentially, with about four hundred miles to the coast, a tailwind picked up and grew to about 40 knots. Suddenly we were looking fat, anticipating 2100 pounds on deck! It was a relief, I tell you. And, we reminded ourselves, it didn’t count the fuel we’d save in the descent.

Nearer the coast, we flew into radio contact with Oakland Center. The tanker had radioed ahead to them our situation, so when we checked in as “an emergency flight direct Moffett” we got a cool response and no instructions. Which is exactly what we wanted. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Any excessive maneuvers off course would eat up precious fuel, and we were still hundreds of miles from the coast. But encouraging was the weather information from Moffett, which called skies clear and unlimited visibility, landing to the north. So we decided to aim south of the field and make a nice easy turn north on a six-mile final approach path that would allow us to coast into the runway using as little gas as possible. Things were starting to feel a little more manageable.

I can’t describe what it was like seeing the coast that day. The sight of California, after two hours of wondering whether we’d make it at all, after five hours of endless ocean horizons, and after six months gone was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (until I saw my wife again after 9 years’ absence, but, well, that’s a different story).

Shortly after sighting of the coast we saw the field–easily fifty miles away, but clearly visible on that beautiful day–and took a slight cut right to facilitate our easy turn to final. As a result of our gradual descent we were looking now at a veritable surfeit of fuel: 2500 pounds on deck. Our lead, however, reminded us that we still had a heavy metal basket tenuously attached to our aircraft, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything to accidentally drop it on some unsuspecting Californian. It was the right call. Generally, if something is going to fall off the jet, it will do so when the landing gear and flaps come down, for the new protuberances on the airplane tend to disturb the airflow a bit. With the recent crash of a stateside Hornet into a house in San Diego, we were especially worried. We didn’t want to do anything stupid.

So we lowered the gear just after crossing the coast, right over the unpopulated coastal hills that separate San Francisco Bay from the Pacific. It was with trepidation that my pilot reached up for the gear handle, and for my part I kept my finger hovering over the button that would mark our position and padlocked it with my eyes (the better to follow it’s trajectory), all in case the basket decided to depart our aircraft suddenly. As the gear doors slammed open and the gear began descending, I felt keenly each and every airframe buffet from the windstream, my eyes glued to our unwelcome guest and willing it to stay on.

Fortunately, it did. The gear came down smoothly with nary a vibration from the basket.

Which made for quite a relief. At least, until we saw more clearly what lay beneath our flight path to the field, which was nothing but houses. Pretty little houses, with picket fences, in pleasant suburban neighborhoods. Where you could imagine the basket, if it came off, landing in someone’s bedroom or kitchen. Where you could imagine some family crushed by the thing. Granted, it has survived putting down the landing gear. But it wasn’t like we’d had all good luck. We were a bit tense about it all.

At this point, Approach Control began squawking at us on the radio. They wanted us to take a vector south to get out of the way of northbound airplane passing to the east of us. We refused forcefully, citing (again) our emergency status and worrying again about fuel if we had to fly too far off course. Not to mention the gnawing concern of that basket perched precariously on a stubby fuel probe, flying over perfect suburban neighborhoods. Approach would not stop talking, however, and and as soon as we got the northbound airplane on our radar, we told them shortly we’d maintain separation ourselves and switched tower.

My lead turned toward the field first, and once we had sufficient separation from his aircraft, we followed suit. My pilot then began slowing the airplane for a normal touchdown. The, horrified, we noticed the basket vibrating. Vibrating significantly. Acutely conscious of the unsuspecting suburban residents living peacefully beneath us, we quickly accelerated to stop the basket from shaking. Not now! I thought. Not this close!

As we accelerated past 200 knots, the basket settled back. OK, then, we’ll fly it in at 200 knots.

Now our problem is landing too fast.

At that speed, the nose tire would probably burst on touchdown, which might causing us to lose control on the runway (or even flip over, which is a death sentence). But we had a little space past the neighborhoods, once we crossed the airfield boundary, in which to slow down, and a nice long runway use. It would just take a little touch from the pilot.

My pilot skillfully brought the throttles back once we cleared the house and, with barely a quarter mile to touch down, aerodynamically braked the aircraft for a gentle, 150-knot touchdown. Perfect. The basket vibrated again, true, but it stayed on…all the way through the rollout.

As our airspeed meter bottomed out on the runway, I relaxed suddenly in a slump. It was over. We had made it. Nothing dropped, nobody hurt, back to the good old contiguous U S of A. Pulling off the runway, I called for taxi, responding halfheartedly to the gibe over the radio as we taxied past the tower: “hey, is that thing supposed to be on there?” I just wanted to get out of that jet.

As I tried to negotiate the ladder down, I noticed my hands and legs were shaking. Once on the ground, I stared in disbelief at the large, heavy metal basket we brought 1150 frightening miles. I was drained, but not tired–just eerily aware of all that had happened. Mustering up as much bravado as I could, I snapped some pictures and traded some jokes with my pilot and the lead aircrew. We weren’t home yet, but we were safe, and suddenly it was all that mattered.

The Epilogue is a story in and of itself. After landing, we contacted Oakland Center to have them send the cargo plane with our Trail Maintenance element to Moffett, so we could get the basket off our aircraft. They complied, and we enjoyed a surreal dinner in the posh environment of the Bay Area while we waited for the maintainers to arrive. We greeted them awkwardly when they landed–we knew that they wanted to be home too and felt guilty that we broke to the point of needing their help. But they greeted us with powerful hugs. They had heard about the emergency were very concerned–and relieved that we had made it. It was somehow a great comfort to see them.

With characteristic Marine efficiency, they took off the basket and readied us for flight the next morning. They did it quickly enough that the could continue back to San Diego later that evening. So we made it to dry land; and they made it home. Happy evening for everyone.

As for us, we slept well in Navy housing, woke early, and made our belated return to Miramar at about 10:00. The wonder of California hadn’t left me since that first miraculous view from the Pacific less than a day prior, and I spent as much of the flight as my tasks would allow with my eyes glued to the window, looking from coast to mountain to desert. Finally we saw beloved home field, and as we entered the break I saw the rest of the squadron out to welcome us home. Not a perfect return, by any means, but a good one for sure.

Sometimes, getting home is all that matters.

So on that recent beautiful June day, returning victorious from simulated battle against a worthy adversary, I remembered that a perfect flight is, perhaps, overrated. Getting home is really all that matters. Getting you home, and your jet home. Preferably both working. And in that exact order.

On Robin Williams, Tragedy, and Thumper’s Mommy’s Rule

Since the actor and comedian Robin Williams died two days ago, there have been a multitude of tributes aired on television networks and posted online. Mostly they extol his quick wit, his devastatingly satirical humor, and his dramatic presence onscreen. As of this writing, his death has been attributed to suicide resulting from depression, so others have used this opportunity to focus on that mental disease. Also, given that his death occurred during a time of violent conflict in the Middle East and heightened tensions with Russia, not to mention anticipation of an ideologically charged election a few months hence, other less complimentary media has blown off Mr. Williams’ suicide as insignificant compared to larger events, or characterized it as cowardly, selfish, and particularly reprehensible considering his immense wealth and prestige. This latter vein of commentary is disturbing.

I understand the motivation to pay tribute to a popular figure. Through his movies and other public appearance, Mr. Williams has influenced a lot of people–chiefly by making them laugh. Many of his jokes and one-liners have entered into our common lexicon. People admired him, I guess, because his comedy uplifted their spirits. We sympathized with his confusedly righteous entertainer in Good Morning, Vietnam, we laughed at his comically entertaining everyman in Mrs. Doubtfire, and we drew wisdom from his portrayal as a counselor in Good Will Hunting. It’s no surprise that we should be shocked by his death, at his own hands, and apparently because of the omnipresent sadness, hurt, and anger of depression. The very nature of the event–popular and widely-reported–gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role laughter, sadness, and death play in our own perception of our lives. I confess that his comedy seemed a little wacky to me, so I am (unfortunately) not as affected by his death as others. But why spit on those who do, in fact, grieve?

Demeaning his death, or the attention lavished on it, sends a clear message that any grief felt for it is worthless. That is manifestly not true. Grief is the product of tragedy; any event which shocks us and provokes us to contemplate our own mortality, even vicariously, is tragedy. Mr. Williams’ death is one of many which happen every day, and perhaps one of the least gruesome. Certainly he did not die due to indiscriminate rocket fire, or beheading for being something other than a Muslim. The fate of nation-states does not hang in the balance because of his suicide. But his death is no less tragic for seeming lack of context. Christian doctrine, to which I subscribe, teaches that every person has inherent dignity because they are intimately created, loved, and valued by God, and therefore Mr. Williams’ death, even at his own hands, and even if he is rich and famous, is objectively a diminution of all of us–equally so as the death of a non-Christian in Iraq, or a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Ukrainian Soldier. The loss of a life is certainly much worse than a disliked piece of legislation or an unfavorable election result. As to his depression, I’ll be the first to agree that there are more immediately threatening issues than depression before us–but the relative importance, for whatever reason, of other issues does not diminish the cause of eradicating or mitigating depression (or any other mental illness). I personally grieve for Mr. Williams, more so because I have known his contributions to our culture and laughed with him. That makes the tragedy of his death more present to me than the death of others, and so it has a greater impact on me. There’s no question that Mr. Williams’ death is a tragedy, and he–along with those who loved him, which include his family and his fans–deserves our pity and compassion by virtue of the humanity he shares with us.

The negative reactions to this event raises the question of why we sometimes disbelieve people when they tell us about themselves. I don’t mean when people boast, or curry sympathy, or otherwise seek attention–I mean when they tell us their experiences. Many people who suffer from depression have written about it, and psychologists and psychiatrists alike have documented a pattern of symptoms and results leading of this clearly defined mental disease. Apparently Mr. Williams suffered from it. It is ludicrous to contradict that diagnosis on the barest speculation, as some have done by pointing out that he was a comic, or that he was wealthy, or that he was influential. Those things, nice as they are to be, do not have relevance on mental illness any more than they do on cancer or the common cold. I won’t conjecture whether there’s a connection between comedians and depression, but I do question why some angrily reject that such mental illness can occur in certain people. Can’t they imagine anyone being depressed if they’re rich?

Whatever the reality, second-guessing the experience of others is odious. To use a well-documented issue as an example, some question whether homosexuals really experience same-sex attraction as part of their nature. Why wouldn’t we believe someone who says that about him- or herself? Unless we have a similar frame of reference–i.e. we’ve experienced same-sex attraction ourselves–then we literally cannot understand what that’s like, and cannot judge the truth or falsehood of it. Any glib, ideologically-aligned causes we propose for homosexuality are mere speculation. In rejecting that aspect about another person, we are essentially demeaning them and all who share that experience by denying them personal agency and self-knowledge. Similarly, if one does not suffer depression, then rejecting Mr. William’s mental illness or that it could cause suicide is demeaning to him and all who suffer the same disease. That’s especially true for the self-styled academics who comfortably theorize that suicide is a selfish act and (if they’re religious) a sin. While the experiences of those afflicted with depression attest to both a physical aspect (i.e. a physical defect in the brain, or the operation of the brain) and a mental/spiritual element, scientists and theologians both admit they are very far from understanding the human mind. Therefore commentary on whether Mr. Williams’ suicide was a poor choice or an inevitable result of the disease is only more speculation. On top of that, who among us could say he or she knew Mr. Williams’ conscience, which seems more the point? God alone knows that. And finally, anecdotal evidence about someone falsely claiming depression–or any other sort of identity–in order to get attention is absolutely not sufficient reason to lack compassion. Any number of people who play the martyr by claiming depression, or who whine about the pressures of a life of fame, do not diminish the real thing. The only creditable source about Mr. Williams’ depression is Mr. Williams himself, and those who were close to him. It seems logical we would trust them.

No doubt those profess themselves offended by this suicide, or by all the attention spent on it, will respond to this post (if they read it) by asserting their right to believe and whatever they want. I don’t contradict that right. For my part, I’m certainly aware that I’m a poor source for information: I have no first-hand knowledge of Mr. Williams, nor could I improve upon the tributes written about him by better writers than I. I only remind the participants in this discussion that Mr. Williams had humanity and therefore dignity, as do all those saddened by his death. For that alone he and they are worthy of consideration and compassion. So please remember the rule of Thumper’s Mommy in Disney’s Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all–and leave those who grieve Mr. Williams’ death and reflect on their own mortality in respectful peace.