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.

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First Hornet Flight and the Great Southwest

This past weekend I climbed into an F/A-18D Hornet for the first time. From Friday to Sunday I completed five flights. The loss of my weekend was well worth the opportunity to “go on the road,” as the say here, because I got to explore a part of the country I had hitherto only read about.

Friday morning my instructor and I manned up the jet to fly out to Scottsdale, AZ and the to Albuquerque, NM. We had five flights to do, so we started by flying north to Fresno, and then southeast to spend that night in Scottsdale. The first flight is mostly an introduction, so we took time to explore the aircraft capabilities offshore. Part of that is demonstrating turn rates, acceleration, and climb capabilities (all of which are important to know and use when fighting). There, for the first time in my life, I broke the sound barrier. It was actually much smoother than I expected–no more than a slight bump passing Mach 1.0, and then again decelerating. Since it has been six and a half months since I’ve aircrewed a jet, I experienced a little nausea during the maneuvers and some difficulty counteracting the G forces. I was also a bit nervous. But all went according to plan and I didn’t actually get airsick, so all was well. We flew directly over Los Angeles and got to see the entire city from the west hills to Irvine and Burbank, then passed over the inland desert. My attention for most of the rest of that flight was held by the Sierra Nevada in the distance, floating and snowcapped.

We spent about two hours on deck in Fresno, refueling with pizza and Gatorade, and then got on the way to Scottsdale. Our original intention was to fly over the Grand Canyon, but since the sun was westering and we wanted to make it to Scottsdale while it was still light, we decided to scrap that plan and turn to our destination. Having seen it twice from the air (once in a commercial jet), I still have a hard time comprehending just how barren the Southwest is. Our visibility from the jet was unlimited, and nowhere did I see anything but brown, bare, rugged desert. Occasionally a dry lakebed would emphasize the essential lifelessness of the place. It was beautiful, though. It was a place of immense and magnificent solitude. As an interesting bit of trivia is that the Space Shuttle uses one of the dry lakebeds as a place to land – it essentially extends from the end of the normal runway for another three or four miles.

The land becomes more mountainous in the Phoenix area. Small ranges or single mountains grow at random from an otherwise flat desert. Phoenix airspace has become very busy, and my instructor demonstrated the Air-to-Air radar for me by locking up “shooting” other aircraft. We got Scottsdale airfield in sight just as the sun set, and performed a 7.5 G break over the field – far more Gs than I had previously pulled in any jet. That is, incidentally, the maximum for the F/A-18. It was a very exciting, high-performance maneuver and it was a suitable end to an exciting (almost overwhelming day).

The next morning we took departed the Phoenix area to the north. This time we had plenty of daylight, beautiful weather, and were going to see the Grand Canyon if we could. On our way there we passed both Sedona, with its incredibly red gorges and rocks, and Flagstaff mountain, which stands as a solitary snow-capped beacon over the desert. With the canyon in sight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) asked us if we wanted the “canyon tour,” then (unusually) cleared us to deviate right or left as necessary to see the whole thing. Probably only those reading this who have actually visited the Grand Canyon can understand how awesome an experience it is. The terrain around it is 6,600 feet above sea level (and incidentally, was lightly dusted with snow). The Canyon walls themselves plunged alarmingly into a seemingly infinite set of alternate gorges and peaks. It was very colorful, but the most distinct element was simply how vertical the rock formations were. Spires and ridges of stone reared thousands of feet nearly straight up in the air. At the bottom of the canyon was no valley; the Colorado river wound through what was purely a trough of stone. The whole edifice covered hundreds of miles of desert. There are literally no words to adequately describe it, but it was good to fly lazily mere thousands of feet over the canyon and drink in its majesty.

Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed, we called ATC and told them we were heading to Albuquerque. We had a lot of fuel left, so we cruised pretty quickly over there. The Albuquerque airport sits at 5,355 feet above sea level (higher than Denver), and the air is thin enough that the jet takes a lot longer to slow down before landing and a lot longer to stop once touched down, which was interesting and just a bit hairy. We met my instructor’s mother at the terminal, and decided to see the sights of the city. Albuquerque sits on the high desert, with mountains (Sandia peak) towering to the east. There is a famous tram that runs to the top (really more a gondola), which claims to be the longest in the world. We decided to go up, check out the view, and have lunch. It was an amazing ride – the west slopes of the mountain are bare and vertical, with stunted little firs growing trained by the constant wind. Toward the top, three and four feet of ice were plastered horizontally on the boughs. At the top itself, the temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I never knew the southwest could get so cold! Furthermore, the altitude up there is 10,300 feet above sea level. To give you some perspective on how high that really is, in naval aircraft we are required to be wearing oxygen masks above 10,000 feet in order to prevent hypoxia, or dangerous oxygen depletion. The three of us sat up there in the restaurant and drank down tea and coffee to stay warm, and admired the 100-mile views out to other mountain ranges. Around us sat skiers and snowboarders who ride the tram up and ski down the east slopes of the mountain, which is serviced by three lifts and has long, beautiful, powdery runs–which is something else I didn’t know was in the southwest. The desert sunset from the top of the that mountain was an incredible spectacle. When our ticket finally got called to ride down, we froze in the now four degree air and forty mile-an-hour wind blast until the tram arrived, wondering if we’d ever been colder in our collective lives. I certainly hadn’t.

That night we flew back to North Island Naval Air Station, which is on the island of Coronado in San Diego. Technically still on cross country, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again. Flying at night is peaceful, because the radios are quiet and the spread lights look very peaceful from above. After our ordeal on the mountain top and our tour of the Grand Canyon, we welcomed the relatively stress-free flight back home. The next morning (Sunday morning), we drove back to the jet and took off for the extremely short trip back to Miramar. Fortunately, we had fuel and time so we went back out over the water to maneuver the jet again, and I got to fly up to 48,000 feet and see the curvature of the earth along the horizon, then unloaded (put the jet into 0-G flight) and pushed the airspeed up to 1.38 Mach. My instructor practiced some Air Combat maneuvering at high Gs (which has left my legs quite sore), and we returned to the field in time to debrief and get home for the Super Bowl.

Now, back on the ground, I am tired. My body needs to get used to flying again – the pressure changes, the G forces, the mental strain of operating systems and talking on the radio. But it was definitely fun–I still revel in the fact I am flying in a plane that can accidentally break the speed of sound if the pilot isn’t paying attention, and I welcome the opportunity to see new places. It is good to be here again.

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.