This past weekend was busy. My new squadron celebrated the Marine Corps’ birthday on Friday night, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The celebration takes the form of a Formal Ball, except when Marines are out in the field. Then, I am told, it is usually celebrated over an MRE (or whatever chow is available). Regardless, it is a big deal, and tradition dictates that we follow a specific procedure: first we read the original birthday message from General Lejeune (the 13th Commandant), then we read the message from the current Commandant, then we cut a cake with a sword. The first piece of cake is given to the oldest Marine present, who takes a bite and passes it to the youngest Marine present to symbolize the passing on of tradition. The ceremony this time was followed by a pretty good dinner and dancing, and everyone got pretty convivial. I stayed as sober as possible, however, for I had to drive out of town the next morning.

During the same weekend, my church’s young adult community held it’s annual retreat at Whispering Winds Catholic Retreat center in Julian. If you followed the wildfire saga here in San Diego, you know that Julian was hit pretty hard. It sits up in the mountains east of the city (elevation some 5,000 feet), which is where all the fires start when the Santa Ana winds blow. Fortunately, though, the campus was unscathed, and the utilities were restored mere days before we arrived.

The retreat started on Friday night, and that was when everyone did the icebreaker-type events and made “affirmation bags” where other people could leave them encouraging messages of faith. Saturday morning they heard the first of several talks aimed at young adults–the one I missed concerned Theology of the Body–and had some reflection time followed by lunch. That’s when I arrived.

I showed up in an enthusiastic mood. The road up to Julian winds through narrow canyons, over knife-edge ridges, all in a glory of tight turns and sudden views. My car got quite the workout–I must have taken 10,000 miles off my tires. There is something wild and relaxing about the mountain scenery, the clear sunlight, a zipping car, and solitude. A kind of reflection occurs at such times, unconscious and unintended, driving focus to the immediate present and pushing away external and extraneous worries. It was providential: I arrived in Julian freed from the burdens of everyday life and ready for the retreat.

I know a fair number of the church’s young adults by now, and it felt like ‘going home’ to meet with them–they make up my core friends here in San Diego. But there were also many new people to meet. Fortunately the retreat schedule offered “free time” in the early afternoon where people could go to confession if they wanted, and also participate in any number of social or religious activities. One guy organized a football game; another a hike. I chose to make my confession and then participate in the Rosary walk. This may seem like a silly thing to do, since it involves praying a notoriously “rote” prayer in a group, but for me it brought back sweet memories of my pilgrimages to Medjugorje, where the Rosary and it’s focus on the life of Jesus was second only to the Mass, and nearly always prayed/celebrated as a community. There is also an additional measure of accountability and support when praying as a community, which prevents any worries or whims to distract from the prayer itself. Furthermore, the rosary only occupied a short amount of the “free time,” so I also got to play in a touch football game. Like the drive up, there was something clear and refreshing found in that time spent outside in the sunlight, amid the smell of pines and the thin mountain air. The advantage of the football game over the drive, though, was that I got to share it with others.

Later that afternoon we heard a talk on vocation, and how vocation isn’t necessarily a job, a call to religious life, or a call to marriage; rather it is a responsibility to do God’s will in all the small acts of our lives. As I write this I am shocked to see how obvious it appears, baldly contained in one small sentence. But like many people I am victim to the temptation of focusing only on the big things in my life: my career as a Marine and an Aviator, my important relationships, my spiritual life. I find it easy to overlook what God’s will might be for me when I do a specific thing, like go to a church function, or drive to work, or undertake a job around the squadron. But the speaker explained that making our entire lives a prayer depends on the holiness we exhibit in all our actions, not just the big decisions. This lecture was the first of several events at the retreat which thus far have subtly began to change my life.

After dinner we headed down to the chapel for adoration and confession. Though the team had priests offering the sacrament during the free time, this evening event was much larger in scale. The intent, I think, was to gently remind us that there is an immense acceptance of grace found in the act of adoration and the receipt of the sacrament. Both were once cherished elements of Catholic faith that seem to have fallen off recently (especially among young people). Though I am a rather conservative Catholic myself–and therefore quite open to such practices–it was good to hear again the dogmas and teachings behind the Catholic framework of worship. Because I had gone to confession earlier that afternoon, I prayed silently for a while and left the chapel to pray another rosary with a close friend of mine under the chilly stars.

What a night it was! In an earlier post I talked about suddenly discovering stars, and the impact of that experience was no less in Julian. Ringed by mountains, undimmed by human lights, the stars above us that night shone forth in pre-industrial splendor. The Milky Way and the familiar constellations stood out clearly among thousands of stars I had all but forgotten. The crisp still air seemed to sharpen my senses and evoke a sense of exhilaration. I spent little time examining the panorama above, but its presence seemed to infuse the conversations that evening with a excitement and wit and laughter that I seldom experience, even among my closest friends.

During one such conversation a fellow retreatant told me that because I had no “affirmation bag”–I didn’t arrive until Saturday, so I wasn’t around during their creation–he made one for me. It may seem a small thing, but for me that represented the ultimate act of kindness. Having something kind to say, and guessing that others might as well, this friend out of charity decorated a paper bag so that I could receive notes and small gifts. I was humbled. I took about an hour and a half that evening to sit and write notes to all the people at the church who meant something to me, and it was a cathartic experience. I have found kindness, hospitality, challenges to be a better person, support, and companionship among this community, and it felt right and satisfying to thank each and every person for what they gave me. When I first heard of the concept of an “affirmation bag,” I cringed inwardly. Here, I thought, there would be sentimental, yearbook-style, banal notes that would sound the same for everybody: “so nice to meet you, hope we see more of each other, you’re so cool.” But as I wrote to my friends I found I had something unique to say to each of them. I realized then that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was part of a cohesive group of friends, where I could appreciate them individually and collectively, not just as my personal friend but as friends of each other too. I have much to be grateful for.

The next morning started with Sunday Mass, then ended with breakfast and the pack up. An easy camaraderie had formed among us that made the worship and the meal a simple and penetrating joy. In its closing the effect of the retreat is hard to put into words. Long had I known the right spiritual steps to take in my life, regarding both my personal prayer life and my interactions with others. But long had I put off taking those steps, due perhaps to fear that I would find spiritual dryness, or to my own selfish clinging to a comfortable routine, or even simply to a kind of spiritual apathy. But since I’ve returned I’ve discovered a subtle inspiration born of gratitude and humility. Perhaps that is the manifestation of accepted grace, brought on by the constant prayer at Whispering Winds. I write this more deeply grateful for all that the church community has given me; I am humbled by the good and virtuous company of my friends. I have received a great gift.

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.

The Green Knights

Today I had my first flight as a “Green Knight” of VMFA(AW)-121. For those of you who don’t know, each letter in that acronym “VMFA(AW)” indicates something specific about the squadron: the “V” denotes its a fixed-wing squadron (as opposed to rotary-wing); the “M” identifies it as a Marine Corps squadron; the “F” and “A” are for our primary missions, fighter and attack; the “(AW)” indicates we are organized for all-weather operations; and 121 is our numerical designator. After three and and half years of training, I have finally joined an operational–“fleet”–unit.

I finished at the training squadron, VMFAT-101 (“T” indicates it’s a training squadron)’ on Tuesday, September 4. The last three weeks with them were a flurry of air-to-air flights, often twice a day. The pace was hard–so many flights packed together meant a great deal of studying too–but the flights were fun and fast-paced with plenty of air combat. My final flight was an combination air-to-ground and air-to-air tactics sortie as I led a division of four aircraft on a self-escort strike. We fought our way into the target area, bombed a target, and fought our way back out. It was a complicated and intense flight, and after I finished the training squadron kicked me unceremoniously out the door.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned. Generally, I have little patience with technical applications–I prefer to focus on “big picture” stuff, like theories and tactics. Yet my profession is dauntingly technical, requiring operation of a complicated machine designed to accomplish many different missions. In order to juggle everything effectively, pilots and WSOs must develop a sort of “muscle memory” about their equipment: we have to be able to operate on instinct in order to focus meager brain power on the layout of enemy fighters, air defenses, and the thousand little surprises that come up in such a dynamic environment. No plan, after all, survives first contact with the enemy…or even Air Traffic Control. It requires a lot of rote memorization and repetitious practice to make the most out of training flights.

Yet even with all my training, I am only technically 60% combat ready right now. The aircraft of my new squadron have more capable equipment than those of the training squadron. This stuff blows my mind, and I am making a concerted effort to learn about it: encrypted radios, sophisticated sensors, new modes of operating our radar, The tactics of real combat go far beyond the introduction I received in the training squadron. So it is true what they say: as an aviator you never stop learning. If I ever become really proficient in the systems I am operating now, there will be new ones to learn being installed on our fleet aircraft. In short, I have not “arrived”–I still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove.

The increasingly technical dynamic of my job makes it hard to write about, which is why I have slowed my posts related to the military. Back in TBS, every week we were introduced to new skills and theories. In the early part of flight school, every month or so I was introduced to a new type of flight. At this point, however, I’m past the theories and broad overview knowledge and required to specialize in my own airplane and our unique tactics–the details of which are probably pretty boring to the outside world.

Yet I could not have found a better place to take this next step. VMFA(AW)-121, or the “Green Knights,” is one of the most storied squadrons in the Marine Corps. It was formed as VMF-121 here at Miramar in 1941, along with the 2nd Marine Division, and was among the leading elements to hit Guadalcanal in 1942. The maintenance Marines of the squadron assaulted the beaches of Guadalcanal as infantry, fought through the jungle to capture the partially finished Japanese airfield there, and begin directing flight operations to bring in Green Knight aircraft. Stories tell how the fighting was so close to the runway that Green Knights would take off and drop ordnance without even retracting the landing gear, and circle back to the field to reload. VMF-121 would later fight from the legendary forward air bases of Espirito Santo Island, Turtle Bay, Bougainville, and Emirau. During WWII, the Squadron produced 14 Fighter Aces while downing 209 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat–scoring higher in both categories than any other squadron.

The Squadron dropped more bomb tonnage during the Korean War than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron, devastating enemy airfields, supply dumps, bridges, and railroad yards. In November of 1962, the “Green Knights” deployed to NAS Cecil Field on the coast of Florida in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Vietnam War, the Squadron helped pioneer new night-attack and targeting systems. On December 8, 1989 the Squadron acquired the F/A-18D Hornet (my own aircraft), and was redesignated as VMFA(AW)-121– the first Marine Corps F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet Squadron. Slightly over one year later, the Squadron deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and earned the nom du guerre “Heavy Haulers” for dropping more ordnance in support of ground forces than any other squadron. More recently, the Green Knights flew combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq–in fact, I checked in immediately after the squadron returned from their latest deployment to the Middle East.

The Green Knights are proud and demanding. As a new WSO, I am expected to read and learn various tactical manuals in preparation for my “combat wingman” qualification, and they have set high standards for me and the other new check-ins. Long days of study are the norm, and I usually fly back-to-back flights. The veterans are strict with everything from how we brief to how we talk on the radio. But I sense behind the work a strong commitment to maintain our tradition of excellence and battlefield success. Wish me luck!

Tactical Flight, and life in San Diego

It has been four long months since I last wrote about my continuing military adventure. This is partially due to the time commitment of my job, partially due to the other activities I have taken on, but mostly due to the fact that my job is no longer so easy to explain. As I get more specialized in my profession, the knowledge I acquire is more technical and thus of diminished interest to the world at large. But I will try to adequately describe the excitement of operating a real military jet, which is much more than the experience of flying.

As a refresher, I am currently assigned to the Fleet Replacement Squadron VMFAT-101. The purpose of this unit is to train new pilots and flight officers how to specifically operate the F/A-18 Hornet. The program consists of several phases. The first I wrote about in my last post about flying. The next is air-to-ground training: how to bomb and deliver advanced weapons — the ones you hear about on the news. Much of knowledge required is technical specifications about the ordnance itself, or the delivery systems organic to the aircraft, and much of that stuff is secret (no, it’s really classified…I’m not kidding). But the flights themselves are rewarding, because we generally “roll in” on a target, a fancy way to say we dive-bomb it. It has a few advantages: you can look at your target and thereby attack more accurately, and you can deliver the weapon on a moving target (something harder from high altitude). There is little in the world as exciting as flying toward the ground at 500 mph, trying to put a steel bomb on target without actually impacting the ground yourself. Naturally, we are very careful–and we certainly don’t hesitate to pull out of the dive if a dangerous situation develops. But it requires a lot of concentration.

Some of you may be inquiring why we dive-bomb when we have all these fancy GPS weapons. Others might be thinking that we’re crazy to dive-bomb at all, what with the threat of turning ourselves into a kamikaze jet. A single answer suffices for both: dumb bombs are cheaper than smart bombs, and the most effective way to deliver them is by a dive delivery. And since the whole purpose of Marine Aviation is to put bombs on bad guys, we do that as best we can…even if it’s dangerous. And we train to it. Hence the many practice flights. You’d think it gets repetitive, but it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun, partially because it’s such a challenge. There are few things in life as satisfying as doing a demanding job well.

Speaking of putting bombs on bad guys, the culmination of the air-to-ground phase is CAS, or Close Air Support — supporting ground troops actually in contact with the enemy, as opposed to pre-planned deep strikes against solitary (and presumably high-value) targets. This is also very dangerous, because the explosive effects of our weapons can cover a lot of ground, and the worst thing we could do is hurt our own troops. To add to the possibility of error is the fact that oftentimes we cannot plan our targets in advance, since a battle is always fluid and we have to respond to developing situations. We instead rely on external controllers (airborne or on the ground) to direct us to targets as they appear. So we have strict procedures to follow in the airplane to deliver our weapons accurately. There is a specific brief over the radio (the 9-line) and standardized radio comms to keep everybody informed and allow ground personnel to check our attack parameters and target location. I can’t really describe the excitement of this kind of mission: it is exciting, challenging, and intense. It is, in fact, exactly what I wanted to do when I signed up for Marine Aviation. It’s worth noting that as a backseater, I will eventually train as one of the (airborne) external controllers, and my job then will be to fly above the battlespace and direct other aircraft (including helicopters) in Close Air Support. I can’t wait.

In my civilian life, I have found a church here with a very strong Young Adult program (they tend to get offended if referred to as “youth,” though I still think of myself as such). This facet of their ministry is appropriate considering their location in Pacific Beach , a neighborhood of small shops, tattoo parlors, bars, and small apartments whose chief residents are college students. But the ministry offers everything from a Memorial Day barbecue to in-depth conferences and bible studies oriented toward (and led by) young adults. It’s a fun group—we often go out to dinner after Mass, or simply go out drinking if the mood strikes us. Recently I began leading a bible study with a friend of mine, and the chance to do the “great books” thing again–by immersing myself in the text and trying to understand it with other people and perspectives–has been very rewarding. In fact, spending time with these young Catholics constitutes my largest extra-military activity.

As my parents found out when they visited over Mother’s day, life is good in California. The weather is nice more often than not, and (at least around the city) the landscape is beautiful. It is definitely desert, though–I find it amazing that the entire coastal landscape becomes distinctly greener after a day of rain, and becomes gradually browner during good weather. The real desert is evident when flying over the mountains east of the city to the bombing ranges. It is a bleak, magnificent landscape; never easier to appreciate than when raging around at 300 feet above the desert floor, rolling over dramatic ridges and diving through valleys. Though it’s fun to see that kind of landscape, I prefer the comparatively lush coastline.

On one flight out over the ocean, I chanced to look down as we went “feet wet” and noticed what appeared to be a solitary beach immediately below me. That afternoon I went to check it out as a possible location to go for a run. There were only a few people there, but oddly enough half of them appeared to be naked. It took a minute for this to sink in (since it was so unexpected), but I discovered later that I had found Black’s Beach, which is apparently a de facto nude beach. Given the several-hundred-foot cliffs that separate it from the headland, authorities rarely (read: never) come to enforce the San Diego ordinance prohibiting nudity. Despite that, it is a largely solitary and clean beach, nestled between the surf and the cliffs–a beautiful place to run. In fact, there are many beautiful places around here, and I am happy to be able to enjoy them.

Southern California has not disappointed me.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

I write this just having returned from Centrifuge training at NAS Lemoore, and it turns out to be a tale worth telling – in fact, it is the first really interesting thing I have done in the past five months. My orders out of Pensacola directed me to report to NAS Lemoore on my way to Miramar, which is a nice little detour north of San Diego to the Fresno area. Centrifuge training has been a requirement since 1998 or so for tactical aircrew, and is designed to accustom new pilots and WSOs (I’m a WSO) to the dynamic “G” forces they will endure while flying high-performance fighter and attack aircraft. These aircraft are designed to turn very quickly through the air in order to either gain an advantage over another aircraft in a dogfight, or run away from an attacking enemy. These aircraft turn so quickly, in fact, that their crew are subjected to several times the force of gravity (a multiple of the force of gravity is called a “G,” so that one G is the force of gravity; two Gs are twice the force of gravity, etc.). Since the human body is designed to operate perfectly under the influence of only one G, the effect of excessive Gs is to cause blood to pool in the lower extremities (away from the head) causing in extreme cases a total loss of consciousness. Obviously, a loss of consciousness on the part of the aircrew renders their jet ineffective in a fight, and may cause the jet to crash for lack of human control. To combat the effect of Gs, naval aviators are exposed to these G forces in a giant centrifuge, where they learn to flex certain muscles and control their breathing in order to stay conscious during this type of flying. The F/A-18 – my future jet – can be flown up to 7.5 Gs.

I left San Diego on the 6th of December. Lemoore is located roughly a third of the way up the length of California, forty miles south of Fresno. With careful attention to timing so as to avoid the worst traffic in the Los Angeles area, I drove the “straight” route up I-5. That freeway is huge – at least eight lanes wide from San Diego to well north of LA. It hugs the coast for a while, affording sporadic views of the Pacific, but turns inland in LA and slows down. I fought traffic for a while before reaching the Santa Monica mountains north of the city, which are beautiful, barren, and high: the freeway climbs to over 4000 feet of elevation between rugged ridges before dropping suddenly off into the San Joachin valley, between the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada. When I say “drop suddenly,” I mean it. Around a bend in the road I suddenly saw the valley floor far below me, spread out to the horizon and covered with a pall of smog.

The San Joachin valley is much like Eastern Washington. It is an irrigated desert and filled with huge crop fields and huge stockyards. Coming up on the latter you notice a foul stench several miles before you actually get to the compound. Lemoore itself smells the same way, including the tap water, which is…unpleasant. The freeways are so straight here that there is an actual vanishing point in front of the car – the road literally proceeds for hundreds of miles without changing direction at all. The towns themselves are small and provincial; apparently one has to go to Fresno (which has a university) in order to find a bar that stays open past midnight. Last night I went to a party in Lemoore where the chief entertainment was a bonfire made from throwing together all the beer case boxes and pizza boxes left over, dousing it with two gallons of gasoline, then lighting it. In relating this, I don’t mean to reflect poorly on the partygoers. As far as I’m concerned, they are make the best of their situation. But there is literally nothing else to do in Lemoore.

The centrifuge itself was painful. There were seven other aviators in my class. We completed our run through the centrifuge one at a time, and got to see videos of each other struggling against the increased G forces on our bodies. I blacked out twice, though I didn’t lose consciousness. It is strange to experience your field of vision draw inward to a mere point of focus, and then have everything turn slowly black…and even stranger to find that, after straining to flex the large lower body muscles, your vision comes rushing back. All that flexing, however, has its price. I am still very sore, and the effect of blood pooling in my lower extremities has left little red welts across my waist and legs. This is normal. The Centrifuge run was fun in the sense that a certain camaraderie developed amongst the members of the class – we laughed at each other a fair amount, especially watching the funny faces we made fighting to keep from passing out. It was a short day; we were out by noon. I took the rest of the day off.

The drive back was certainly the most memorable part of the trip. Having heard much about the beauty of the California coast, I proposed to drive from Lemoore to the coast via California Highway 41, then down the Pacific Coast Highway. I will say at the outset that it is the most beautiful drive I have ever done. Highway 41 cuts southwest across the valley floor and through the coastal mountains, which start as a series of barren rolling hills that gradually become more fertile as one gets closer to the coast. About halfway to the ocean occasional vineyards appear straddling ridges off to the left and the right, the terrain gets more rugged, and trees begin to appear. Amazingly, many were still wearing autumn colors, so I was paid back richly for all I missed in Pensacola. At higher elevations there are numerous sharp curves and switchbacks that required me to slow the car significantly. Every so often the road would crest a hill and the land would fall in humps and mountains and ranches and rivers as far as the eye could see. Storm clouds scudded thickly and quickly across the sky, laying their shadows fitfully on the ground. Several times I drove through localized rainstorms, and there was often a view of a rainbow. I paused at a rest stop shortly before reaching the coast, and when I got out of the car I was struck by a delicious, cold, wild scent. After that I drove with the windows open.

I reached the coast at a small town called Morrow Bay. Though I turned south on California Highway 1, which runs down the coast, I had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for a sight of the Pacific. I passed many small surf towns characterized largely by an absence of chain restaurants, near-uniformly white buildings, and waving palm trees. The ocean was always to my left, its breakers throwing up visible foam in the sunlight. The road would intermittently detour through wet fields, from which the fragrance of cilantro and would seep into my car. This continued for many miles, broken only by the larger town of Santa Barbara, which appeared first as sporadic houses clinging to the hills over the sea and grew into a large beachside city. Afterwards, the highway wound through mountains again before rejoining the coast at Point Mugu.

The terrain was steeper now, and there were more houses. There were also surfers dotting the water off the beaches. The evidence of unbelievable wealth appeared…I saw my first Ferrarri south of Point Mugu, my first Aston Martin north of Santa Monica, my first Bugatti in Santa Monica itself, and I would later pass a Lamborghini and a Lotus dealership while driving into Los Angeles itself. There were probably more beautiful cars than I remember, but I was distracted by the scenery. The sun was setting now amid the storm clouds, lighting up the water and diffusing in the spray of the surf. At times the road would climb very high, affording a panoramic view of the coast and the water, then it would dive down to beach level. I don’t need to explain how expensive and impressive the houses were. What amazed me was the apparent lack of crowding. Even in Santa Monica itself there were pleasant clumps of buildings that enhanced the scenery instead of obscuring it. And the diversity of trees and flowers was beyond my appreciation. Palm trees were the most recognizable, but there were others equally impressive – strange bright kinds of firs, beautiful tall trees with white bark, and an astonishing array of colored shrubs. The sun finally set as I drove under the Santa Monica pier and entered the huge metropolis surrounding Los Angeles.

There I paid for my beautiful drive. I found the Pacific Coast Highway, which had intended to follow until it rejoined I-5 north of San Diego, disintegrated into a series of boulevards chopped up by traffic lights. I finally gave up that plan and found a way to the interstate – after the wide wild roads I had driven earlier, the city seemed crushing and frustrating. As if to emphasize the change, the rain began to fall in earnest, and continued all the way back to San Diego.

I am still recovering in awe from that drive. I have little more to say, except that I check in to my unit at Miramar tomorrow, and there isn’t room to be nervous at all – not after today. It feels like all the relaxation I needed to get ready for the next phase in my training–learning to fly the Hornet–was provided by that single trip. I’m going to love living here.