The Glamor of Flight and the Onset of Autumn

After a long hiatus, I finally feel like I have something to write about. Recently flight school acquired a new dimension when I began our set of visual navigation flights. Visual Navigation (VNAV) is, as the name implies, navigation solely by external reference points: bridges, road intersections, prominent buildings, and the like. And it is very exciting flying.

First of all, because I am navigating visually, I get to look outside the aircraft for most of the flight. This is a remarkable difference from Instrument Navigation, where I spent most of my time in the air concentrating on the navigation instruments, my kneeboard, and my slide rule. Admittedly, that training is necessary, because it is the bread-and-butter of airborne navigation, but it was really nothing more than a glorified desk job – my desk just happened to be the rear cockpit of an airplane. Being able to (or supposed to!) look around from the air restores the glamour of Aviation: from above, you really feel godlike.

Second of all, in order to be able to clearly see references on the ground, I need to fly lower. Flying low is fun because you seem to be going faster and you feel more connected to the ground – you aren’t simply all alone at 28,000 feet. Flying low is stressful, because there are towers and large buildings that can pass close beneath you, but that only heightens the experience.

Finally, in VNAVs, the maneuvers are downright exhilarating. Gone are boring 30-degree-angle-of-bank turns from Instrument Navigation. Marking on top of a navigational checkpoint involves a 3-G, nearly 90-degree-angle-of-bank steep turn and a quick acceleration to the new airspeed. If I need to check a reference underneath the plane, I can order a “wing-flash,” which is when the pilot dips one wing alarmingly in order for me to get a view of the ground directly beneath us out of the side of the canopy. But what is especially exciting is the target run, when we acquire our “target” by raising the nose and rolling the plane so that it (and the rest of the ground) appear in the upper portion of the canopy so we can comfortably see it. This is flying – this is what I imagined when I embarked on an aviation career.

Of course, preparing VNAVs are equally difficult and time-consuming as preparing INAV (instrument) flights. There is a lot of paperwork: charts to draw and prepare, procedures to practice, and briefing items to memorize. So I am keeping busy. I am not too busy, however, to mark the passage of summer. I am entering the golden days of Pensacola – when the humidity and accompanying violent thunderstorms fade leaving clear and beautiful weather. The deep, choking foliage seems faded, too–enervated, perhaps, by the heavy heat and powerful sunlight of summer. It has become pleasant to run outside, the summer tourist swarm has left the beaches, and the ocean is still warm and still. It won’t start getting cold for at least another two months. Until then, I will focus on waterskiing, beachgoing, and barbecues.

I count myself very lucky to be here now. It sometimes seems like an accident that I ended up in Aviation, and equally so that I live in Pensacola. As I write this, the late summer sun streams through my window, and I can’t help but marvel at how good things seem at times. Pensacola may be a small town, it may be aggressively “deep south” in character, and it may be dumpy and poor, but it certainly has its own beauty. My perception of it, of course, includes the flying, the tight group of peers I fly and live with, and my experiences in the city itself–but I am happy here. Though I hope eventually to be posted to San Diego (which is famously beautiful), I can’t get very excited about it when in the midst of a beautiful September afternoon in Pensacola.

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The Adventure of Dennis

It feels like a long time since I last wrote, and I miss it. Writing my experiences in this on-going journal is enjoyable and cathartic. Recently, however, I have been occupied with memorization and studying such that I had little time to reflect upon and re-write my adventures into something that sounded like an exciting life. Then Hurricane Dennis hit Pensacola. And though this kind of weather probably seems far away to most of you (it always did to me), it is a very big deal here.

I didn’t really pay attention to the path of Dennis (reported in the news) as it traveled up through the Caribbean past Haiti and Jamaica. When it closed in on Cuba, the hurricane watchers here at Naval Air Station Pensacola decided to cancel activities last Friday and fly the planes out to a safer location. As our collective eyes turned toward the storm, it aimed toward us much as Ivan did last November, and we were told to evacuate. There were all hands meetings Thursday afternoon and Friday morning to officially secure the Naval Air Station and evacuate all personnel by Saturday morning at six.

I left Pensacola on Friday morning under clear, beautiful skies. I was headed to Chapel Hill, NC, to take refuge with a high school friend of mine there. I drove past long lines at the few gas stations that still had fuel. The superstores (Wal-mart, Target, etc) had posted large signs listing products they were out of (plywood, lumber, fresh water, and so on). The radio stations were broadcasting National Weather Center flood warnings, potential evacuation orders, and hurricane advisories. This all stood in stark contrast to the absolutely pristine weather throughout the Southeast United States that day. It all seemed very ironic.

For those of you under the impression that western States are big, and eastern ones are small (as I used to be), let me be the first to disabuse you. Twelve hours I drove that day, all of it on the freeways and none of it in traffic. However, my friend made me very welcome, and the evactuaion felt more like a vacation. Essentially, I spent a carefree weekend checking out the college hangouts of UNC Chapel Hill. The only dose of reality I had was my morning telephone call to my class leader, letting him know I was alive, and periodic visits to the Weather Channel. I have to admit, it looked pretty menacing for most of Saturday and Sunday. Dennis followed the same path as Ivan, and predictions continued to place Pensacola right in the middle or just to the east of the middle of his projected path. East of the eye is the most dangerous place to be in a hurricane. The earth’s rotation, called the “Corialis Force,” imparts a counterclockwise motion to air around a low pressure area, which means that to the east of the hurricane, the wind is blowing off the ocean and has greater force than wind coming off the land (on the western side of the eye).

We were lucky, though. Dennis moved northward and came ashore right at Pensacola Beach, to the east of the city – the best possible scenario. There was minimal damage.The Navy Base was largely unaffected. I got the call to come back on Monday morning, and by the early afternoon I was on my way. Power had largely been restored to the Pensacola area by 11 PM as I drove in (though there continues to be a gasoline shortage), and at nearly every intersection there were state troopers and workmen repairing traffic lights, signposts, and power lines.

So the adventure ended well. I am impressed by the people of Pensacola and its environs. Everybody I met was more than willing to help with evacuation and hurricane preparedness, and most were calm and proactive about getting out. I had vague ideas of mass panic and desperate shortages at the onset of a hurricane, but Pensacola had prepared well (though, to be fair, it has significant previous experience) and the repairmen have worked straight shifts since Monday afternoon to restore power, put the traffic grid back together, and direct the return of evacuees.

I have just finished putting my apartment back together – pulling televisions out of closets, replacing the valuables that I carried with me, and resetting all the clocks. I have a test soon, and the next phase of flights is imminent, but such things are far from my mind. As I write this, Tropical Storm Emily is spinning north out of the Atlantic toward the Caribbean. Here we go again…

Falling apart (and picking myself up again)

I write this evening with a sad, tired smile on my face. It has been a hellish week. I am comfortable now, sitting glumly in my favorite little internet cafe, while outside it is raining as it only can in Virginia – heavy, painful drops that turn puddles into rapids and roads into rivers. There are serious tornado warnings for Northern Virginia, including the area I am in; evidently Hurricane Ivan sent us some exciting weather. The savage noise of the rain and all the sounds which accompany it – the frantic whipping of windshield wipers, the wet flop of feet scurrying over pavement, the incessant roar of water cascading off of roofs – leave a feeling of crumbling, as if somehow the world is disintegrating. Every thump my wheels make as I drive leaves me wondering if the air has left the tires, every turn of the wheel seems painfully close to a skid, everytime I step outside I grow more bedraggled and wet.

I finished my tour as Student Company Commander today. As part of our training, we undertake leadership billets within the company for two weeks at a time. These billets require us to take responsibility for our peers and for the training schedule. It means spending a lot of free time coordinating events with various staff members, keeping an exact count of the Marines in the company, and – what is hardest of all – ordering my peers to do things they don’t enjoy, like cleaning stairwells. It is fun to be in charge, and fun to deal with the challenges of leadership, but it is also draining – I feel completely exhausted. I am also relieved; now I can focus back on the technical training aspect of TBS.

This past week we continued patrolling exercises. These mean 12-page orders, overlays of pre-planned artillery targets, preliminary “warning orders” to divide the responsibilities among different patrol members, a detailed terrain model, and then finally the exhausting conduct of the patrol itself. Twice. Once during the day, and an abbreviated version during the night which culminates in an ambush. It was also physically demanding, coming as it did on the heels of Land Navigation 4 – by the end of the first patrol, my legs were losing their ability to balance properly and I was panting with every step. It was not only a lesson in patrolling, but also a lesson in endurance.

Yet these kinds of extreme situations are nourishment to me, and I imagine to every Marine. The suffering is the price we pay for all the fun we have: the helicopter insert and extract, the many rounds of ammunition we fire, and the opportunity to simulate actual assaults on our fellow lieutenants. The helicopter ride alone made up for most of the pain. The essential fact, I think is that combat is fun. I suppose that is a shocking thing to write, but under consideration it makes sense. Why is competition (especially in sports) such a universal pleasure? Because humans enjoy fighting, after a fashion. It forces us to strive greatly, to use our bodies and minds to solve puzzles, and (if done correctly) yields us the victory. The stark physical and mental difficulty of planning and conducting a patrol resolves the simple pleasures of doing things well and winning into great clarity. I am beginning to discover how much I love my job.

I realize now, with great satisfaction, that I could complete another six hour land navigation session tomorrow morning at 7. There is one scheduled, as remediation for those who failed the earlier event. Fortunately, I am not in that group. But I know I could do it (as I have for the past two weekends). It seems, after 12 weeks of TBS, we are learning how far our real physical limits are from where we thought they were. Just when we think we have reached the end of our our strength, and we can’t walk any more miles or carry any more weight, we simply focus on the ground and do it. It honestly seems like a bonus to have the entire weekend off.

After the recent birth of a baby daughter, which he nearly missed after being in the field with us, my Platoon Commander told us, “the Marine Corps is a big green machine, and it will keep going with you until you jump off or it spits you out in 20 or 30 years. It never stops.” This is why people join the Marines: to be part of an endeavor greater than themselves. It is equally well expressed by a 1980s recruiting poster for the Marines, showing a column of vehicles moving down a road, with the headline “The Marines need a few good men…to keep ’em rolling.” The Corps takes good men and makes them professional warriors, it executes our nation’s policy with military force when necessary, and it does these things without demanding excess money or complaining about tough tasks. The formula for this is a continuous tempo of operations, the basic and universally understood imperative to pick up and keep going even when tired. Recovery will come, but it won’t come in luxury – your body will heal in the classroom, and your mind will rest in the field.