So there I was….stationed at Holloman AFB in lovely Alamogordo-by-the-sea NM. I’ve been married about a year now and my personnel officer bride and I have managed to align the moons of Jupiter and gotten assigned together. She is working at the Consolidated Base Personnel Office (CBPO) and I am assigned to the 435th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (TFTS) as an Instructor Pilot (IP) at Lead-in Fighter Training (LIFT). (I’m trying to expand Sarge’s Acronym Locker).The 435th mission was to teach newly graduated pilots the basics of flying a fighter, and also trained existing fighter pilots in the AT-38B and qualified them as IPs.
I’ve completed instructor training (Ed Rasimus was my IP, story(s) at a later date), and have been working as Squadron Scheduler. Ed’s description of his Replacement Training Unit (RTU) scheduler, Wimpy, in “When Thunder Rolled” accurately describes a scheduler’s duties.
In any case, I’m building the schedule one day when the Squadron Commander walks in. He’s one of the VERY few people allowed in the scheduling office when the schedule is being built. Reduces distractions, eliminates the opportunity for pulling rank, bribery or blackmail to get on the schedule. But the Squadron Commander is the boss, so he’s allowed. Anyhow, he walks in and says “Juvat, old boy, I've got a good deal for you!” Immediately I think “Shields to Maximum! Ready all phasers and photon torpedos!” I am attentive to his every mannerism at this point and, based on previous experience, am evaluating various escape routes.
He says “You know we’re getting a new DO (Director of Operations, the person in charge of all the Operational aspects of a Fighter Wing, an O-6, Full Colonel) shortly. Because we’ll have to work around his schedule, and since you’re the scheduler, I want you to be his Instructor.”
Now, I need to go off track a bit to set the stage for what I envision is an opportunity to commit career suicide. At this point in time, Tactical Air Command had instituted a policy which, to me, was absolute genius. They modified the uniform regulation for flight suits so they could include a small patch on the sleeve showing a pilot’s experience level. One silver colored star for every 500 hours of Fighter Time. Additionally, a pilot would have a gold colored star if he had even 1 hour of combat time and would add additional gold stars for every 500 hours of combat time.
There were a lot of Vietnam era pilots in the 435th at the time.
Ed had at least 3 gold stars ( I think he might have had 4). Most of the Majors and above had at least 2.
Since I had a little less than 1000 hours in the F-4, I had one silver star.
The reason I thought this policy was genius, and undoubtedly the reason it was done away with, was you could instantly judge a senior officer’s credibility with a quick glance to his sleeve. Fighter Pilots judge credibility primarily on having employed weapons from a Fighter in anger, multiple times. So an O-4 with 3 Gold Stars and 6 Silver stars (4000+ hours of flying time and at least 1000+ combat time, AKA Ed) had much more credibility than an O-6 with 2 Silver Stars (our Wing Commander at the time).
About now, Sarge is probably saying “Get ON with it, juvat! We’re paying by the electron here.” Back in the squadron, as I have now eliminated all possible escape routes as impossible, I’m thinking about the many different ways I can screw this up. If he’s a rising star in the, as LL at Virtual Mirage would say, Chair Force, I will probably run afoul of him because, well let’s just say, I’m not very tactful. If he’s actually a Fighter Pilot (an attitude not an AFSC), what is little ol’ minimally experienced ME gonna teach him?
But, the die is cast; I am to be his IP. The day of his arrival is now upon us, and I happen to be looking out the window when I see a brand new Corvette sweeping into the parking lot. By sweeping, I mean driven as a Corvette should be driven, with authority! Out steps the driver who jams his flight cap on his head at the requisite Fighter Pilot angle and with the Fighter Pilot crush at the back.
|Robin Olds, NOT Vegas, but the flight cap is right.|
He strides into the squadron like he owns it (which technically he does), and the squadron is called to attention. Bellows “As you were”. Walks up to me sticks out his hand and says “Juvat, I’m Vegas” I reply…..”Pleased to meet you, Sir.” We sit down and I begin the flight briefing for his first ride.
The Instructor Pilot program at LIFT was divided into 2 parts, aircraft qualification and Instructor qualification. Aircraft qualification was 5 flights, 3 in the front and 2 in the back followed by a check ride. Successfully completing the check ride meant you were qualified to fly the aircraft. The front seat rides were for practicing aircraft handling as well as landings. The back seat was for instruments. Landing from the back seat was taught after the check ride as part of the instructor qualification.
So, for Vegas’ first ride, we’re going to go out to the area and do a little acro then some stalls and falls, then return to the base and beat up the landing pattern. We get suited up and walk out to the jet, fire it up and taxi it out. The AT-38 was a pretty sweet little jet and performed the LIFT role well, but takeoff at Holloman on a hot summer day was often exciting. Holloman’s field elevation was 4000’, which meant that a lot of runway 22’s 12000’ was needed.
Vegas gets us airborne and flies the departure like he’s been doing it for years, we get through the advanced handling without me demo’ing any of the maneuvers, the man has golden hands. Back into the pattern, pitch out, configure, on airspeed in the final turn, touch down on the numbers on speed. Power back up; go around, another perfect landing and another and another. Full stop and taxiing back in, I’m trying to figure out what to say in the debrief. I can’t say “Got nothin’ Boss, great ride!” without appearing like a suck up, but that’s what it was. However, we get into the debrief and he starts with “Man, I think I was about 2 knots fast on that first touch and go……” and proceeds to conduct his own debrief.
Second ride is in the back seat, he wants to do the takeoff. Smooth as glass. We head to Roswell to shoot an approach. That penetration and approach was pretty tricky, there’s a big descent to make a hard altitude and if you’re not paying attention, your airspeed can get away from you, making the rest of the approach difficult. More than one pilot has busted a check ride on that approach. His approach was textbook.
|At one point in my life, I could read this. Now, pretty much Greek.|
We get back to Holloman and I’m looking forward to maybe getting SOME stick time at least with the landing, but NOOOOOOO. Vegas asks if he can do the landing. Greases it. I’m glad I let him land, might have been embarrassing.
So this goes on for rides 3 and 4. I’m learning more from him than the other way around. We’re now heading back into the pattern on ride 5, his last ride before the qual check. I’m very relaxed. He pitches out, configures, comes around the final turn and we’re over the overrun, but a few knots slow. I notice the nose start to rise a little sooner than I expected as he begins the flare and the throttles start coming back. BAM, we smack down on the runway. Power comes up, we complete the touch and go and get cleared for a closed pattern (pitch up to downwind from the end of the runway rather than go out to the pattern entry point and reenter traffic). I’m thinking, what the heck was that, a fluke? Configure, start the final turn, rollout. And the same thing happens again. Too slow+Early Flare=Hard Landing. We've got gas for one more pattern so I can’t demo. If he doesn't land correctly this time….He doesn't. If anything the full stop was worse. So much so, that we’re taxiing on the runway longer than usual. He asks me “How was that?”
The mind is racing. Decisions, Decisions…
“Well, sir, I think you need another ride.” He says, “Can we do that? How?” I say “I bust you on this one.”
I’m thinking, well at least McDonald’s is hiring.
After clearing the runway, we typically would call back to the squadron with the Aircraft status (Code 1-fully operational, music to Sarge’s ears, rarely happened; Code 2-flyable, but some problems; Code 3- not flyable without repairs) and the mission status (T3C -Student Passed, T2M- mission unsuccessful Maintenance, a needed system was inop, T2W- Unsuccessful Weather and T2S- Unsuccessful Student non-progress). Hard Landings have to be written up, so the jet is Code 2.
“Black Eagle ops, Juvat, Code 2, T2S”
“Juvat, Black Eagle Ops, say again”
“Black Eagle ops, Juvat, Code 2, T2 Sierra”
“Juvat, Black Eagle One (the commander), say reason for T2S”
Before I can respond, the DO gets on the radio from the front seat and says “If my IP says I busted this ride, I busted this ride!”
I’d follow him through the gates of Hell.