Thursday, May 31, 2012

No Really Tuna. I Love Flying!

Old AF Sarge in the SNJ-6
Apparently I have given one of my faithful readers the impression that while I love aviation, I apparently hate flying.

This is understandable, given the amount of grousing, whining and complaining I have done vis-à-vis my experiences with commercial air travel over my last few posts. So I figured I better correct this situation. Forthwith and immédiatement. (There I go with the French again. Toutes mes excuses, c'est dans mon sang.)

My first memory of slipping the surly bonds of earth was when I was just a wee lad. Every year in my home town, nestled in the Green Mountains, there was an air show. Now this early memory also involves my first experience with one of the military's aerial demonstration teams.

Now perhaps you all know, I am retired Air Force. However, my first experience with aerial demonstration teams did not involve the Air Force Thunderbirds. It was the Blue Angels and at the time they were flying the Grumman F-11 Tiger. So the Blues have always been my favorites. I guess you never forget your first.

Now at this air show, my older kid brother and I discovered that they were giving airplane rides. Of course my brother and I explained our desire to ride in an aircraft to my parents. We used logic, reason and no small amount of begging. Much to my Mom's horror, my Dad actually consented to this idea. No doubt my Mother had visions of her two oldest sons being scattered over the landscape amidst burning pieces of wreckage. My Dad, being a guy, thought it was a cool idea. For once Dad had his way and Mom had to consent. No doubt to stop my brother's and my pitiable whining.

We got in line, Dad paid the fee to have his two oldest progeny hauled aloft in a small propeller driven aircraft and before you know it, brother and I were belted in and waving to our parents as we taxied to the active runway. (Okay, it's a small town with a small airport. So there was only one runway. Saying "active runway" just sounds cool. To me, at any rate.)

Of course, my Mom and Dad were waving to us as we taxied. The look on Dad's face was "man I wish I was going with them". The look on my Mom's face was more akin to the look mothers get when they send their children off to war. I'm sure Mom realized that the odds of us not returning were very small. But again, we were young and you know how mothers are.

At any rate, soon we were airborne. I have to admit that I recall being slightly terrified as we lifted off and the ground got smaller and smaller. Soon though, the sheer freedom of flight gripped me. The sound of the engine and the fact that we were actually flying soon made me forget any residual terror I had at the fact that for the first time in my life, I was not physically attached to the ground.

We flew over the town, spotted our street and our house (which to this day I always try to do when I'm aloft) and all too soon returned to the airport. And the ground. As we deplaned, my brother and I were both ecstatic and tried to convince our parents to let us go again. Naturally, my Dad's sense of fiscal responsibility  nixed that idea. Also the look on my Mom's face sort of gave me the impression that if my Dad was so bold as to send us up again, she would terminate his existence. Immediately.

Much chastened, my brother and I moped about the airport, very disinterested in the carnival rides, games, cotton candy and other attractions available at our little airshow. Until the point when my parents herded us to a position in the crowd to view the next spectacle. "Hhhmm, what be this?" I thought. At that age I had no idea what the Blue Angels were. I learned very soon what they were.

The announcer began his spiel and our heads turned with everyone else's to see what the big deal was.

In the distance we could see aircraft. Not just any aircraft, but JET aircraft. Very rare in our little town back in the sixties. Also, to our youthful amazement, these JET aircraft were flying in formation and they were rapidly approaching.

Imagine, if you will, my youthful glee as the Blue Angel's diamond formation came roaring over the field. The sound of those engines will stay with me until the day I die.

Of course, younger brother and I were enthralled. I doubt we slept much that night, recalling our big adventure that day.

For the next view years, at every airshow, my brother and I convinced our parents to again pay for an airplane ride. Eventually our youngest brother also joined us. No doubt this proved to be an expensive proposition for Mom and Dad. Inflation lived even back then.

Eventually we outgrew going to airshows. But at one of those I eventually was introduced to the Air Force Thunderbirds. At the time they were flying the F-100, the Hun. An awesome looking aircraft. Almost made me forget my love of the blue jets. But again, you never forget your first.

Eventually, in the fullness of time, I grew up (sort of - the WSO says I have the mentality of a 12-year old, the Missus thinks the WSO is overestimating), graduated from high school and went on to college (for a year) and then joined the "work force".

However, in the meantime, my best friend from high school had attained his private pilot's license. As neither one of us was what you could call "wealthy", he asked me one day if I'd like to go flying. Provided I paid half of the cost for the aircraft. Counting my pennies and deciding that I could go without beer for at least one weekend, I agreed.

Again, the sheer joy of flying gripped me and held me in thrall. Turns out I gave up beer for quite a few weekends over the next year. Every chance we got, my buddy and I went flying. Many memories of those days still stick with me. Here are but a few.

Flying down the Connecticut River valley early one morning, with fog completely covering the river and its environs. (We were, of course, well above said fog.)

Playing tag with a cloud over Mount Ascutney.

My first experience of negative-Gs. A very small amount to be truthful. My buddy would put the aircraft into a slight dive to gain airspeed, pull up and then push the stick over at the top of the arc. For a brief moment, things in the aircraft floated.

The time I was looking out the right side of the aircraft as we were returning to the airport, observing what I don't remember, and hearing my buddy say, "Crap, another shitty approach." As I turned to the front, sure enough, we were quite a bit to the right of the runway. Rather than execute a missed approach, my buddy managed to side slip the aircraft into a better position and we actually managed to get the bird back on the ground. In one piece, with the aircraft still usable.

The time we brought another buddy with us (who also had to chip in, as this time we rented a four-seater, in order to take said buddy along). I still remember his screech of panic as we came through a mountain pass. Seems that a gust of wind decided to push us towards the mountain to our right. We had air space to spare. But our buddy in the back felt the wind push us, looked to his right and saw the trees on the mountainside getting much bigger than they were before. I can't remember what he screeched, but we never let him live THAT down.

Flying over the winter woods in a very ancient Piper Cub. Seat belts of the friction variety (nothing latching there) and door latches about as flimsy as you can imagine. As my buddy put us into a sharp bank to the right (for to see something of interest in yonder woods, I think it was a small herd of white tailed deer) I realized that I was looking nearly straight down. Then I realized there was nothing between me and Mother Earth but a very frayed friction seat belt and that ten-cent ancient aluminum door latch. Oh, that and about a thousand feet of nothing but air. At the time I thought it was pretty cool, though I did have both hands firmly braced against the structure surrounding that flimsy door. (I was young and, as the young always think, immortal. I would probably wet myself now-a-days.)

Shortly thereafter my buddy enlisted in the Air Force. About five months later I followed.

For the next twenty-four years my flying experiences only involved flights on commercial aircraft and flights on Air Force transport aircraft (C-130s and C141s, very much akin to flying while sitting in someone's basement, with very loud noises emanating from all parts of that basement).

Many of those flights involved many long hours over the Pacific Ocean. From 30,000+ feet, there ain't all that much to see.

Did have one "Twilight Zone" moment involving flying. One Christmas the Missus and I (with a very young Naviguesser in tow) made the trip from Korea to New England for a month long Christmas visit. The return flight was most taxing. We flew to New York, had an eight hour delay, then flew to Anchorage, where we had a three hour delay. Then we were on our way from Alaska to Kimpo, in Korea. Well, turns out that Kimpo was fogged in and it was snowing like you wouldn't believe. So we had to divert to Pusan. And there we got to wait for about four hours.

Eventually we did fly into Kimpo and the Missus purchased bus tickets for the ride home to Kunsan. Because of the foul weather, our bus was roughly four hours late in arriving. When it did arrive, it took about another four hours to wend our way through the Land of the Morning Calm, at night, in heavy snow. We eventually arrived at our humble abode. Roughly some forty hours after departing New England.

Now the "Twilight Zone" moment involving this flight occurred a year later. KAL Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviets at that time. Wondering why that flight number sounded familiar, I rummaged through my desk, looking for our boarding passes from the year before. (Yes, I still had them. Something I inherited from my Scottish grandmother. I'm loathe to throw anything away.)

Sure enough, our boarding passes were for KAL Flight 007. Odd the things you think of at times like those. But it kinda scared the living you-know-what out of me. Which on top of the Free World's lame response to the incident made the whole thing rather surreal.

Now some years after I hung up the old Battle Dress Uniform and re-joined the civilian world another buddy of mine presented me with an interesting proposition. Seems this buddy (former Air Force guy as well) actually has a "bucket list". One of the items on his list was to do aerobatics in a military aircraft.

Turns out that there is an outfit in this Great Nation of ours which provides such a service. For a substantial fee of course. (The outfit is called History Flight, there is a link to their website over at the bottom of my "Things I Like to Read" list. They also do some wonderful work with MIAs.)

Of course, I was champing at the bit to do this aerobatics thing. But the cost was, to me, prohibitive. As I recall it was $400 bucks for a 30-minute flight. So I told my buddy that it was a "no can do" situation.

Now the Missus related my disappointment to one of our marvelous kids, which one it was I do not recall. Later, I believe it was that same day, said children huddled up (via phone) and decided that they would all chip in and send the old man up in the air, to do aerobatics in a military aircraft.

The Missus thought they were all nuts, but they insisted. (Have I mentioned how superbly excellent my kids are?) So I called my buddy and told him that I was in.

We drove to Fitchburg, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for to meet our worthy steeds for a half-hour of flying. On the ramp were parked two Texans. One in Air Force colors, t'other in Navy colors. My buddy offered me my choice of steeds. He was a bit surprised when I chose the Navy version (the SNJ-6, in Navy parlance. the T-6 to the USAF). I related my love of the Blue Angels. not to mention three kids, all in the uniform of our country's naval service. Yes, I'm retired Air Force, but I'm also a Navy Dad.

In the photo above, you can see my buddy's silver-painted USAF T-6 in formation abaft my beam, to port. (I love it when I talk salty, the Nuke does not and tells me so in no uncertain terms.)

Let me tell you, it was one of the best 30-minutes of my life. It was money well-spent to my way of thinking. It scared the bejesus out of the Missus and my buddy's Missus. Especially when we mentioned the part where we were wearing parachutes. And that the guy who strapped us in (plane captain in Navy parlance, crew chief in Air Force lingo) briefed us that if the pilot told us to jump, that we should hit the device on our chests which would detach us from the aircraft, open the canopy and depart the aircraft in a head-first posture over the trailing edge of the right wing. Oh, and pull this D-ring thingy once you're clear of the aircraft. I also related that my pilot asked me if I understood the emergency bail-out procedure. I said I did. He said good, because if he said "Jump" and I asked any questions, I would be talking to myself. I thought that was kinda cool. The Missus? Not so much.

To the WSO's eternal embarrassment (but secret understanding), when she asked me how the flight was, my answer was "the most fun you can have with your clothes on". Oh and yes it was.

Immelmanns, barrel-rolls, aileron rolls, split-Ss, loops and so on and so forth. Oh my word, it was unreal and so much fun. I can hardly wait to do it again.

So yes, Tuna, I actually do love to fly. But flying commercial isn't that much different than riding a bus. The view is way better of course and those "most dangerous moments" while flying, the take-offs and landings?

Absolutely my favorite part.

4 comments:

  1. A post mentioning me- I feel honored. And I fully understand- Military and General Aviation is freedom- Airlines mean the exact opposite, with or without the TSA! Thanks for the clarification.

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    1. Well Tuna old buddy, I felt I had to clarify my feelings regarding flight. Of course, I had to explain to the WSO why I kinda dedicated this post to you. She felt much better when I explained that you were a fellow NFO. Made her feel somewhat better. Of course she did get a mention, which mollified her a bit.

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  2. I should correct that- Military and General Aviation is freedom, Airlines and USAF Aviation is the opposite! A guy Lex knew left the Navy (Hornets), went to the "show", but was furloughed after 9-11. He tried to get back in, but couldn't. Got on with the USAF flying the E-3 Sentry. As an O-5 he had less freedom than he did as a LTJG...having to get permission to do ANYTHING in the plane, from people on the ground no less! Fighters in your day were probably less stringent I'd expect though. Different culture, different world. Ask the WSO about the difference between the ready rooms of VT-10 and VT-86.

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    1. E-3s after Hornets. Yuck! My last assignment was in NATO, at Geilenkirchen, maintaining the software on the E-3s. So I am familiar with the stodgy world of the AWACS. Though it had been many moons since my fighter wing days, the difference was palpable. Indeed I will query the WSO about the VT-10 and VT-86 ready rooms. I'm sure she has a tale or two to tell. Oh, one last thing. At the WSO's patching (VFA-32) I had the opportunity to chat with a Rhino-driver, Lieutenant Commander-type. Seems he had an assignment to Geilenkirchen, to fly the E-3 as part of a "career-enhancing" tour. I just looked at him and said "Seriously? Rhinos to 707s coupling with UFOs?" Grinning, the aviator assured me that he had turned the assignment down to accept a position at NATO HQ in Mons. We both agreed that flying a desk was probably better for that whole "joint-ness" thing, than going from fighters to a multi-engined no freedom flying job. Poor guy.

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