Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Emotions, Not Necessarily Sweet

Cat terrified at a dog. From life, by Mr. T. W. Wood.
Illustration from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Public Domain
While perusing some of my favorite blogs, I came across this brilliant essay by my blog buddy Shaun, the Naval Air Cowman. He writes about his time in the Navy and his days on his ranch in Nebraska. (If you haven't started following him, I suggest you do. His writing is evocative and downright brilliant. Well worth your time. He's also fairly prolific, posting most days, sometimes twice.)

Now that essay left me thinking deep thoughts. Watching that Tomcat lose an engine on launch, seeing both crewman eject, neither surviving is what I would call a significant emotional event (an SEE, as they taught us in sergeant school, BITD - never pronounced "see" but always spelled out "ess-ee-ee," for those who just have to know). An SEE is something that leaves its mark upon your psyche, something you will not forget. Ever.

I've had a few of those in my time, each having its own affect on me, each leaving its mark, so to speak. An SEE generates powerful emotions, remembering an SEE can kindle those emotions all over again. (Note that these are my definitions, I did some research online regarding SEEs and the web of world-wideness is all over the place regarding the topic. I think the Air Force must have given us the Psychology-Lite explanation of an SEE. Or I might just be "misremembering" things. I do that from time to time. I'm using the whole SEE terminology as shorthand for the point I'm trying to make. Yes, I'll get back to that. Even when I'm trying to be serious I tend to digress.)

One of my earliest memories is of a jet crash. It's as clear in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. I'm not sure what year it was, other than it was sometime in the mid-60s.

It was a beautiful summer day, The Olde Vermonter and I were inside, no doubt taking a water break from running through the woods and generally enjoying life. I remember Mom and Dad sitting in the living room. My youngest kid brother was still a baby, if I rightly recall.

It was then that we heard a low flying jet, something very rare in Vermont back in those days. Oddly enough we used to see the occasional P-2 Neptune come booming over the house at very low level. Not sure what that was all about, but we kids loved it and would rush outside to wave and revel in the sight.

A Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune (BuNo. 135588) assigned to patrol squadron
VP-7 Black Falcons flies over the Atlantic in 1964.
Public Domain Photo

So we heard a jet, a small one from the sound of it, and it was low. So we started outside.

I remember stopping short in the doorway, my brother pushing to get through.

Why did I stop short? I could see the jet, a Lockheed T-33. It was shiny and all silver. But something told me, "This is not good."

USAF Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star Public Domain Photo

Because just as I saw the aircraft, which was beginning a shallow dive, it rolled over onto its back. I watched in horrified dismay as the aircraft proceeded down towards Cherry Hill. I could not for the life of me understand why the bird was upside down and getting lower.

Then there was an explosion. It was like a fiery orange and red blossom.

Bear in mind that this was not over a half a mile from our house. We lived on the side of a hill, Craig Hill it was called. Cherry Hill was not far away on the other side of the Black River Valley.

I dashed inside to tell my parents what I had seen, looking towards Cherry Hill from our living room, I saw another explosion. This time (thinking back on it) the explosion was different, it seemed to spring from the trees. (Later I learned from the girl up the street that the jet had exploded in mid-air, then again when it impacted the terrain. She, being at a higher elevation, had a better view of the event.)

When I saw the second explosion, the noise from the first was just rolling over us. Oddly enough all I remember is a hollow "boom," I don't remember any noise from the second explosion.

My Mom was convinced that the Russians were bombing us (this was at the height of the Cold War, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis). I reassured her that it wasn't bombs.

We all looked across the valley at a column of black smoke rising from the woods. Wondering what had happened. Were the crew still on board? Did they manage to get out? What caused the crash?

Later we learned that the Air Force lost two pilots that day. While the government did come in to investigate and had sealed off the crash site, the local ghouls managed to get there at night and collect "souvenirs."

Most of the people in town were aghast at such behavior. Two of "our boys" died in that crash, how dare they scavenge the area?A few folks were actually turned into the police when they exhibited a scorched bit of metal they'd found. Different times back then.

I later learned that the Air Force suspected hypoxia was to blame for the crash. Something had caused the pilots to lose consciousness and that was all it took. No doubt a fault in the oxygen system. It happens. Anyone familiar with hypoxia knows that it can sneak up on you.

I have searched a number of on-line sources to determine the date of the crash and the exact circumstances. It has haunted me to this day, who those men were. Men who wore the same uniform as I did in later years.

Which brings me to this.

The WSO was in the DC area in early December on a cross-country flight. Lemoore to DC and then back again. (She and her pilot were in town long enough to catch the Army-Navy game. Good timing!)

On their flight back West, they had to put down in Texas. Seems their On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) was having issues. As in, wasn't working right. Yes, the oxygen system had malfunctioned.

Yes, some memories came back when my daughter called me from Texas. Unpleasant memories. Triggered an emotion or two as well.

It's cool and awesome to have a daughter (and a son-in-law) in Naval Aviation.

It's also bloody terrifying at times.

22 comments:

  1. Another fine recounting, Sarge.

    Glad the divert for the OBOGS worked the way it was certainly briefed. I don't know if I could bear having kids or s/o riding those flaming pigs.

    One of the things that concerns me about blogging, particularly about sharing some of those vivid memories, is the possibility of causing anxiety for parents/partners/children.

    A little smug of me to assign myself that kind of power, but it still worries me.

    On the psychobabblogical side, I remember a flight surgeon asking me if I needed to "talk" following a particularly ugly rescue-turned-recovery. I recoiled at the notion, having extremely firm and inflexible views about the appropriate deportment of bulletproof folks like myself. Get all touchy-feely about the hard realities of life and you end up with "clap" for a call sign. Of course my views were hard as iron but my unprotected psyche was soft as jello. Eventually took quite a bit of touchy-feely to fix that wreck.

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    1. Thanks Shaun, while I hope my tales are not angst-producing, I can see that being an issue for some. I will leave out details which don't contribute to a tale, some which are things best left unsaid.

      In many ways this blog is therapy, it's also my "winter count" and a way of leaving something for my grandchildren to ponder when I'm gone.

      I try to maintain an impenetrable exoskeleton, but inside I'm an old softie. I seem to get more emotional / sentimental as I get older. Tuna has a theory about that, there comes a point where you have seen so much, perhaps too much, that the emotions just overflow.

      While I never participated personally in any "recovery" operations, I had friends who did, one of them went from a gregarious, fun-loving prankster to a very serious and gloomy person. So I know how that stuff can work on a person.

      Sometimes that "touchy-feely" stuff keeps us from going "round the bend," but it's not something you tell people about. No way.

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    2. I sat next to an EOD Chief on a flight out of Heathrow once. He explained that flying in big jets made him extremely uncomfortable and said he might need to leave his seat very suddenly. He was actually at Tenerife when the collision happened and his most sage advice was to never ever go near an airliner crash. "You will see things you cannot unsee", he said. I directed recovery operations several times as a salvage officer but not the terrifying ashore ones with children. Mine were strictly military.

      It's too bad there's no weight/moment for some sort of O2 UPS in a plane. The pilot would be on UPS air and the backseater on OBOGS. If the backseater sounds loopier than normal, O2 failure is imminent and the pilot gets down to breathing flight levels.

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    3. I make it a point to stay away from all crash sites. Heard too many horror stories.

      I like your idea on the O2 UPS, I wonder if that's possible.

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  2. December 1967 watched a Frontier DC-3 stall and spin at the old Denver Stapelton airport. The tower had the fire trucks rolling before the stall as it was evident the plane was in trouble. What I remember most clearly was a fire truck shooting foam going off the steep taxiway directly into the flaming wreck. The accident was, in hindsight, preventable. you can read the accident report.
    http://www.airdisaster.com/reports/ntsb/AAR68-AF.pdf
    For this then young lad with a fresh Commercial ticket and working on the Instrument rating, it caused some deep contemplation of attitudes and practices.

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    1. I remember Stapelton well, been in and out of there a few times.

      It's always tough seeing that kind of thing, tougher still if it's your chosen profession.

      Glanced at the accident report. There's a reason you do a thorough pre-flight.

      Damn, just damn.

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    2. For 20 years I flew into Stapleton for a week of skiing in the mountains with family. I also, when I was young, flew planes. Little ones. Pre-flight was your ticket to landing safely. I was once waiting for a very late flight out of SFO one night when I saw the captain walking around his plane with a flashlight. I watched him walk under the belly of the beast and then return a minute later and wave a ramp man over and lead him under the belly. He came out shaking his head. About 3 minutes later the gate agent said our flight was canceled. By that point, I was already on my cell phone getting a seat on another plane heading to San Diego.

      That was 14 years ago. I have never in the 200 flights since then seen any cockpit crew doing a walk-around inspection/pre-flight of the plane I'm about to board.

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  3. Took me right back to 1952! I was but a lad and my family were staying with people we had met when on holiday. Those people lived in Farnborough and we went to stay to visit the Farnborough Air Show - and it happened to be the day the De Havilland 110 flown by John Derry smashed the sound barrier - and exploded in mid-air, killing him and 29 spectators.
    http://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-farnborough-tragedy

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    1. That's a story I hadn't heard before.

      Watching the film was heart breaking. 30 people, gone. I shudder to think of it.

      Many in the military aviation community have mixed feelings about air shows. I know why.

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    2. As Lex would say, they're trying to tie the record for lowest flyby. There is NO up percentage in it.

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  4. There's a reason I never encouraged my daughters to consider military service. Not sure how I'd have responded if we had a son, but the point is moot.
    Just the same, I was reminded of a bloody-awful "man overboard, through-the-screws" event that occurred on my tin can in the Med ... I recounted the event yesterday as if had happened last week. Surprising how many details came pouring out, and how strong those feeling are.

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    1. I neither encouraged nor discouraged my kids from serving. They all chose to serve. But when Dad is career military, when most of their friends had Dads and/or Moms who were career, perhaps that caused them to lean in that direction. Then again, I have a lot of military buddies whose kids wanted nothing to do with the service.

      Events like you mention don't really ever go away. Sometimes a visual image, a smell or some other stimulus can bring it all back.

      I guess that's the "significant" part of the equation.

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  5. Was a witness to one plane going down while I was at the 8th RRFS:
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150932511813521&set=a.480938238520.251687.542333520&type=3&theater

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  6. I'm going to inject a bit of levity here before I forget (That happens a lot nowadays.):
    From my friend, Craig Woods, another 98C from the 8th RRFS:
    "FROG" code name was used while I was at the 8th. One morning while briefing MG Hockmuth he asked his SIO, Lt. Salmon, what the "frog" situation was below the DMZ. Salmon had a brain fart and replied that since it was the rainy season he figured there were a lot of those little fuckers up there. Hockmuth didn't appreciate the levity.

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    1. PS: "FROG" was a NATO designation (Free Rocket Over Ground).

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    2. Bwaaaa haaaaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa!!!!

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    3. On a further note:

      While the general did not appreciate the levity, I certainly would have.

      I had occasion to "crack wise" like that in my USAF career. Some generals have a better sense of humor than others.

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  7. I've never witnessed an airplane crash. Having logged many hours commercially, I'm glad of that (as I would be no matter what my own circumstances, of course.) My uncle was in the USAF and I know he had to put his plane down in a cornfield somewhere in Kansas one time; that's the nearest I have to a second-hand experience.

    If you say Shaun is good, then I know he is. I'm headed there now.

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    1. I think you'll be pleased with Shaun. Let me know.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)