So….There I was”* I’ve been flying F-15s at Kadena for about 6 months and am getting upgraded to Flight Lead. I don’t remember the exact requirements for how many and what type of rides were required, but one sticks out to this day, a defensive 1 v 1 Basic Fighter Maneuver (BFM) ride. Before I get into this, a little background, we had just gotten a new Fighter Weapons School graduate as the Squadron Weapons Officer. The Weapons Officer was supposed to be the squadron’s expert on weapons and tactics used in the combat employment of the F-15 as well as the training of the pilots in their use. Fighter Weapons School was not for the faint of heart. Conducted at Nellis, there was a fair bit of course work, but there was also quite a bit of flying, in all types of missions, from 1 v 1s to X v X. The latter code meaning that neither side knew exactly how many aircraft from the “other” team there were. The difficulty in maintaining situation awareness goes up exponentially with each additional aircraft. X v X is as close to combat as possible in a training mission. But, as usual, I digress. Weapons school missions briefed two hours prior to takeoff and were typically about an hour long, and then the debrief started. It was not unusual for a debrief to last 6 hours. So, a difficult school that prepared some outstanding fighter pilots. I am not a Fighter Weapons School graduate, the above was presented as background to the mindset of my opponent on this particular ride.
Evidently, Weapons School had a defensive BFM where the student was in front and the instructor took up position 30 degrees of his tail and 3000’ out. The requirement to pass the ride was the instructor could not take a valid gun shot. The gun on an F-15 was good out to 2500’, and a break turn by the student would generate enough closure that the instructor would be in gun range almost immediately.
|My estimate is this Eagle is about 2000' away, but it's been awhile!|
This was an almost impossibly hard ride to pass. Being the new Squadron Weapons Officer, and wanting to establish himself in that position he told me that this would be the scenario for the flight lead upgrade ride I was briefing in the morning, including the requirement for passing. Did I mention he and I weren’t best friends? Yes, well….
As I ponder how to handle the tactical problem, I realize the only advantage I have is that I get to call “fight’s on”, meaning I get to determine when we can begin maneuvering. I intend to use that extra nanosecond to my advantage.
So, I get through the briefing, step to the jet, crank and take off. Get out to the area, do our G warmup exercises. Basically, we perform a series of 90 degree turns, pulling to the G-limit of the aircraft (9 G’s), to make sure everything is tied down, the aircraft isn’t having any difficulties, and the pilot is capable of pulling those G’s. Sorry, Sarge, more digression.
Juvat, What’s a G? Well, grasshopper, as I sit at my computer, I am pulling 1 G. One unit of gravity. If I pull 2 G’s, I am experiencing the effect of twice the pull of the earth’s gravity, 3 G’s =3 times etc. Most roller coasters pull 2-3 with some going as high as 4. Now a couple of additional facts about the effect of G. First, Blood, as in that stuff in your arteries and veins that is needed by the brain to keep you alive, is a fluid. As such, your heart maintains a certain blood pressure to keep it circulating. Under G, any fluid will tend to go to the closest part of the body to the center of gravity. That tends to be your butt and below. By tensing all the muscles in that area, a pilot can slow the flow of blood and keep himself conscious, but pulling G’s is hard work.
Second, everything weighs their normal weight times the G load. A 200lb pilot pulling 9 G’s weighs 1800 pounds. A human head nominally weighs 20lbs and at 9 G’s weighs 180lbs. Lifting your arm to move a switch while pulling 9 G’s is hard work.
Third, when pulling G’s, you want your spine from top to bottom to be straight and as close as possible parallel to the center of lift. That way the G’s are pushing straight down on your spine and the G-load is distributed evenly up and down that information superhighway. And that brings us to, as Paul Harvey used to say “The rest of the story”.
We’re done with the warm up, and I maneuver the flight to get the instructor into position for the first fight. I’ve always preferred a left turning fight. With my right hand on the stick, I can turn around further in the cockpit and keep track of him better. In a right turning fight, my right arm impedes the amount I can turn. It’s a small difference, but I’m going to use it.
“One’s ready”. “Two’s Ready”.
I turn around in the seat, have him in sight. Light the afterburners and as I do, my upper torso moves ever so slightly forward. “Fight’s ON!”
Slap the stick to the left and then back to center. Plant it back in my lap and as I feel the G start to come on, my head drops on to my chest. I can’t force it back up because of the G Load. No pain whatsoever. WTF? “Knock it off”. “One Knock it off”. “Two, Knock it off”. I roll out. Out of AB. As soon as the G is off the aircraft, I can lift my head. Still no pain. I know what I did, feeling a bit stupid, I get the flight back into position and set it up again. I really, really want to pass this ride.
“One’s ready”. “Two’s Ready”. “Fight’s On!”. Straight as I can possibly be, load up the jet to 9 G’s and…my head flops over onto my chest. “Knock it off” ”. “One Knock it off”. “Two, Knock it off”.
I roll out and dial Kadena in the inertial nav system. Turn towards home, 150 miles out about 20 minutes, nothing but ocean in between. Neck really doesn’t hurt, just feels weak. Explain to the instructor, that I think I’ve injured my neck and we’re heading home. Contact the SOF and explain the situation. He directs that we declare an emergency, which we do although, I’m not feeling bad, just having a bit of difficulty holding my head steady and my fingers are a little numb.
Setting up for a straight in, I’ve found it’s easier to look around if I turn my torso, rather than my head. Kind of Herman Munster like.
Full stop, dearm and back to the shelter. Shut down, and open the canopy. Release the straps and try to stand up, but can’t. Flight Surgeon is there and puts a neck brace on. That helps and with a bit of help I make it down the ladder.
Over to the hospital and an X-Ray. Flight Surgeon takes a look and it appears I have cracked 3 vertebrae in my neck. By now, my head is somewhat set in a 10 degree left position and all my looking around starts with motion in my waist.
I’m officially DNIF, duty not to include flying. The Flight Surgeon, a pretty good friend of mine, understands what this means to a pilot. He outlines the plan. Wear the brace for a week, then a couple of weeks of physical therapy and see what happens.
So, that’s what I do. After the week in the brace, I can’t move my head left or right more than 10 degrees or so. No pain, just no motion. I report to the Naval Hospital for Physical Therapy. That was the last time I called it that. Afterwards, it was “The Rack and Electrocution”. They used some electrical stimulation device on my neck and shoulders to “stimulate” my muscles into relaxing. Really? I guess when the electric chair finally stops the heart, the muscles relax. Everything up to that point isn’t relaxing. Then, we stepped over to the “Rack”. No kidding, it was the same equipment used in “Thunderball”.
Unlike James Bond, I didn’t have a beautiful Nurse setting the device on a minimal setting. No, I had a big, burly Navy Corpsman who set’s it at high from the start and leaves with a “Nice to have met you, Mr. Juvat!”
This goes on for a couple of weeks and doesn’t seem to be helping. I’m back at the Flight Surgeon, and the new X-Rays don’t show any cracks. There’s discussion on whether they were there on the originals or whether they were a shadow. Who knows? I still have no appreciable ability to turn my head. Permanent Grounding is starting to be discussed.
I’m pretty down.
Mrs. Juvat and a couple of friends decide we need a night out on the town. We’ll visit the Japanese Bath House out Gate 2 Street, then have dinner at Sam’s by the Sea. Now before, I get any chuckles and wink-winks about visiting a Japanese Bath House. This was in the mid-80s, and Okinawa had cleaned up nicely, much more family friendly. This Bath House had the wives on one floor, the husbands on another. You started out with the bath. You scrubbed yourself off first while sitting on an itty bitty stool with a scrub brush, a bucket, and a hand held shower. Once clean, you went into what I refer to as the Hot and Cold dipping sauce. A hot tub and then a cold tub. The hot tub was way hot, as in slide a toe in and gradually over the course of 15 minutes follow in with the rest of your body. The cold tub would qualify you for a Polar Bear club membership. But, surprisingly, after the first cycle, going back into either tub wasn’t so bad. After about an hour, we were ready for the massage.
I go into another room and lie down on the table.
After a few minutes, the masseuse comes in. Again before I get any wink-winks, this lady was 4’ no matter how you measured her. Top to bottom, front to back, side to side. Her fingers were about as big as my wrists. I’m lying there face down on the table with the towel drapped over my waist. She takes one look at my neck and left shoulder and starts asking me questions. Now, I speak very little Japanese. I can order a beer and find a restroom (what more do you need?). She speaks no English. But she’s pointing at where I hurt, so I nod my head.
She spends the next hour massaging that area. At one time, she was so deep, I was certain she was massaging my heart. Sweet Agony! Finally, she has me sitting Indian style on the table and my head is between her forearms. She gives it a twist and there is a “CRACK” sound so loud that my friend, who’s on the next table, sits up and asks if I’m alright. I sit there for a second after hearing the sound, half expecting “fade to black”. Nothing. I try my fingers. No problems wiggling them. Try my toes. Same thing. Try to turn my head….
Moves to the left, not all the way, but darn near. Try to move it to the right, darn near all the way. No pain whatsoever.
Next morning, I walk into the Flight Surgeons office and say “Hey Doc, Look!” then turn my head all the way to the left and right. He asks what happened and I relate the story of my new best friend, the masseuse. He clears me to fly and tells me to be careful. “No kidding?” I think I’m good with that.
Get back on the schedule and back in the air. From then on, a common debrief point was “You know, Juvat, you were a little slow getting the G’s on after the Fight’s on call. You might want to be a little faster there.” “Yeah, I’ll work on that.” And I also spent a lot more time in the gym working on my upper body and neck strength.
25+ years later, I’ve got a very accurate indicator of any impending weather changes and if I let my mind wander, I find myself looking about 10 degrees left of center.
*What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale begins “Once upon a time” and a war story begins “So….There I was.”