I was deeply engrossed in work this afternoon when Son Number One surreptitiously penetrated my vital area unobserved. I started when he spoke, and he smiled, asking if he’d frightened me.
I don’t frighten, I replied, with serene equanimity. Although occasionally I might startle.
But that’s not entirely true.
I’d label it perhaps more apprehension than fear, but my very first fifteen minutes in command of an FA-18 squadron was a very uncomfortable time. The outgoing CO had arranged for an air demo after the ceremony, flown by a legacy squadron pilot whom I didn’t know. Guy that was now instructing at the replacement squadron across the street. In one of my airplanes. The plan had been set in ink when he was in charge, but it would be executed under my command and if the whole thing went south it would have been me wearing it around my neck for the next 15 months.
I’ve never been a huge fan of air demos, unless they’re flown by the Blue Angles or that other lot. I’ve always nurtured the sneaking suspicion that the desire to show off in front of a crowd of strangers in a $35 million machine ought to be disqualifying in itself. Zorching around at a couple hundred feet at 7.5 g’s in max grunt might make for good theater, but that’s not what fighters were made for. It’s dangerous enough when the pros do it. And I’ve witnessed far too many semi-pros auger in.
I could have canceled the whole thing once I was large and in charge of course. But that’d have been perilously close to wanking. I let it go. It all worked out.
A few months later, in the middle of my command tour a four-ship of junior officers flew an opposed night strike mission into a target in Fallon, Nevada. They were good kids, serious in the jet and (mostly) attentive to their duty on the ground. Even if a couple of them were borderline liberty risks in a foreign port with anything like a tailwind blowing.
The bandits had set up an azimuth presentation, and my young men had responded to it appropriately, one two-ship targeting the northern arm and the other targeting the southern. The simulated killing work was done in time for a rejoin prior to the initial point. Somehow the rendezvous geometry got gooned and the second two-ship ended up almost running up the tailpipes of the first. They showed me the HUD tape the next morning, the air-to-air TACAN counting down from 10 miles to five to two, to decimal figures, to nothing. The red rimmed eye of the exhaust pipes glowing from maybe 20 feet away in dash-three’s HUD, dead ahead. Maybe 10 feet.
No reason why they didn’t hit. No reason at all. It’s happened before. Will happen again. A dangerous business, even in training. Would have been two jets down at least, both pilots probably killed. Or maybe one would have gotten out. Families to care for, ceremonies to endure, letters to write to grieving parents. A mishap investigation climbing up your six. The professional pity of your peers.
They just didn’t. We got lucky that night, or maybe God wasn’t ready for their souls, knowing he’d have a need for them later. But while it would have been my fault for letting it happen, it redounded nothing to my credit that it hadn’t. Just lucky.
Better to be lucky than good they say, but good endures when luck runs out.
Having been so badly shaken that they invited their own CO to come and watch the video of a pair of single seat pilots nearly mort themselves, the kids were watching me carefully. It had been an almost touching act of trust – they might have kept it to themselves – and they were gaging my reaction.
I’d seen near misses like this wherein the CO convened a formal board to deconstruct what might as well have been a Class A mishap as not. Just like he would have had to if the airplanes actually had collided. Complete with witnesses and privacy act statements. Toyed with the idea myself for a moment before deciding against it. It seemed too much like theater. I shook my head quietly, sadly.
Make sure everyone sees this, I said. In the squadron, in the wing. Let’s not lose the lesson.
And then at the end, my last flight with the squadron. The junior officers had set up an FA-18E tanker for me. Four of them would cycle out to the operating area for one last hack at the old man. In between I’d refuel off the tanker. Good clean fun.
They weren’t the kind of guys who’d give the gray head a cheap win just for the kindness of it. If I beat them, I’d have earned it. I like to think I taught them that, but maybe it’s just something we all know.
Hard fought BFM, at it hammers and tongs, no quarter given, none taken. The first guy flew his jet up to the limit and then – pressed hard, and unwilling to give in – flew right past it. A low altitude departure from controlled flight, a borderline moment. Forgivable to tell him to eject. Forgivable to give him a moment more. I watched in dismay, torn between making the call that would certainly save his life and giving him a little time to save both of our careers. A moment more, the jet flopping around like a fish out of water, I keyed the mike, dreading what I was about to say.
It was a great tour, my time in command. Too short, really, although a man could grow too fond.
When you’re replaced in command, it’s called being “relieved.” I’d never fully understood the word until that last BFM ride was safely over, we flew back to the field and shut ‘em down.
The record will show that I did not schedule an air demo for my replacement