Wings of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief at the loss of a training aircraft

I am currently struggling through the first flying portion of Advanced Training. The stakes are higher here, since each student is destined for tactical aircraft. These aircraft operate in the most dynamic, threatening environment–they fight other aircraft and deliver ordnance through anti-aircraft systems. Consequently, the training is a bit more stringent. This usually takes the form of many long hours in the Simulators on my own, honing my navigation and weapons skills so I can perform them with greater precision and speed. The stress imposed on students has prompted us to to make many ironic statements regarding “glamor of naval aviation.” But flying is still fun, if dangerous. Recently, in fact, our Squadron was brutally reminded about how dangerous this job is. We suffered a serious, fatal mishap we suffered last Tuesday, on January 10 2006.

That day, Rocket 512 (the call sign of the flight) reported over the radio that they entered their low-level training route around 11 AM. They were never heard from again. After two days of waiting and searching, the wreckage of the aircraft was found in Northern Georgia. Of the four aviators aboard, there were no survivors. An investigation into the cause of the mishap is pending.

There was a memorial Mass this morning for the pilot. We do not use active-duty navy pilots; we use contract pilots employed by the Lockheed-Martin corporation, all of whom have a military aviation background. The chapel was full. I reflected there on how close we are in the squadron as a group. Though I personally knew both students and the instructor who died, I was neither friends nor even very familiar with any of them. The students were several classes ahead of me; I had only flown with the instructor once. Yet their absence is tangible. They no longer participate in the stories or jokes we exchange in the Ready Room, they no longer offer unsolicited advice to other students (as is the wont of all aviators), they will never again laugh at or make an ironic crack about the “glamor of naval aviation.” The instructor, particularly, I remember as being funny, friendly and sincere about teaching. He was enjoyable to fly with and made his students better at what they did. He was never cruel, difficult, or petty in the cockpit (as others were). He was a great asset to our squadron.

Perhaps more tragically, he left behind a wife and child. This is also true of one of the students; the other was recently engaged. Of course, this kind of risk was theirs to take and they took it without any illusion – as we all do. Military necessity requires us to ply our trade in dangerous regimes of flight, often at high speeds and low altitudes. Knowing this, we take especial care to identify risks and mitigate them. This is doubly true in a training command, because of “there is no glory in dying in a white [training] aircraft.” All of us officers in the command realize there is nothing to do except grieve, reflect, pick up, and continue with our mission. In fact, I will be doing just that tomorrow.

For this reason (in spite of the loss), things continue more or less as normal. No doubt as I immerse myself again in the task of flying, the grief will recede. But hopefully not the memory of these four aviators. There is a quotation on the wall of our Squadron bar says talks about how any aviator’s death is every aviator’s responsibility; perhaps if they had exchanged one more story about a hazard or they had invested a little more time in training they’d still be among us. That quote in turn reminds me of John Donne’s famous meditation:

“No man is an island, entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main / if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were / any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind / and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls / it tolls for thee.”

The grief I feel is real, despite not knowing any of the dead aviators very well. Their death reminds me of my own mortality, especially at the hand of flight; it is the loss of experience, from which I could benefit. Most importantly, they were comrades whose support I miss, even if I only received it tangentially. Moving on feels good, because grief hurts. But every so often I hear of an aviation mishap, and my mind returns to this one. I hope it makes me wiser.

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.

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…