By the fall of 1983, I had finished primary flight training at Whiting Field, near Pensacola, Florida. We moved up to Meridian, MS for jet training: Ground school, simulators, back seat ride for basic instrument training “under the bag”, and – finally – FAM 1. My first front seat ride in a jet aircraft.
My flight instructor for the first five or six flights – my “on wing” – was maybe a year or two older than me. A “selectively retained graduate”, or SERGRAD. A guy that had done well enough to finish in the top third of his class without being the number one graduate, the one guy promised to get exactly what he wanted. Kept behind from the fleet in order to fill gaps in the line, what with fleet pilots bailing out left, right and center for to pursue the greener fields of commercial airline flying.
It wasn’t like we were at war or anything, and the fleet bubbas had lived through some pretty austere times. The post-Vietnam drawdown had left enduring marks that Reagan’s defense buildup had yet to heal. One of my IPs had been on a nine-month deployment. In peacetime.
They’d also seen some goofy stuff, like the Bekaa Valley strike against arty tubes in Lebanon. The timing of which had been diddled with by EUCOM more to satisfy the domestic news cycle than for tactical advantage: The A-6s and A-7′s had been tasked to fly into the rising sun, attacking targets shrouded in the darkness by mountains to the east. Air defense targets. Hell, some of the strikers didn’t even have bombs under their wings, most of them weren’t really even briefed for the mission. Just get up and go, get some, good luck.
They all went. The guys with bombs to try and root around down low for small targets hidden in the shadows, targets that could bite back. The guys without bombs went right in there with them, to draw fire. Two of them got shot down, a pilot killed, another crewman captured. It was a goat rope.
I didn’t blame the instructors from bailing. Not when our gear was all broken, our people treated like commodities, the airlines hiring, and promising high six figure salaries with never a cold shower to boot. But that left me with my SERGRAD on wing. Who was kind of a jerk.
As he briefed me for my first front-seat hop, he made sure to tell me what I might do that would constitute a “down” – two or three of those and you’d be on your merry, looking for new work. “Always say ‘clear’ before opening or raising the canopy.” “Never cross the hold short without the canopy down and locked.” “Call ‘flaps clear’ before raising or lowering them, and never in more than 1/2 flap increments.” “Clear the gear going down, never report landing checklist complete without visually verifying three down and locked.”
And so on. Basic stuff, really. The kind of thing meant to keep the wind out of the wetware. But negative, always negative. Guy never smiled unless he was telling you what you’d done wrong. Like there wasn’t enough inherent stress in having an O2 mask strapped to your face, or strapping into an ejection seat atop twin turbojet engines after a mere 70 hours in single-engine turboprops.
Checklists checked and re-checked, I somehow got her started and made my way to the hold short. Triple checked that we were good to go, said the obligatory “clear canopy” on the intercom, received a “canopy clear” in return. Made double sure that the Canopy Unlocked light went out, paused, prayed, made my radio call: “Tower, Shad Niner Seven Niner, Take-off”
“Shad 979, Tower, cleared for take-off runway one nine right, winds light and variable, switch Departure.”
“Shad 979, cleared for take-off, switching.”
Throttles up, creeping forward, ready to cross the hold-short line – Boom. The throttles were slapped out of my hands to idle, the brakes abruptly applied, my instructor’s voice on the intercom, venomous: “Never take the runway without checking final for traffic.”
Geez, another “never.” And oh-so-sweetly added to the mound of “always” and “nevers”, too. I dutifully craned my head to the right, verified that there was no traffic – tower would never have cleared me for take-off if there’d been traffic about to land – and took the runway, blasting off into my future.
Yesterday I had Adam in the back of the wee Varga 2150, hizzoner being a young electronics technician second class from the USS Decatur, that ship homeported at 32nd Street, Naval Base San Diego. Hit the run-up area at the hold short to runway 28R, went through my checks: Throttle to 1800 RPM, check magnetos, carb heat, controls free and correct, flaps up. IFF to RPT, fuel boost on, fuel selector valves on, right and left. Noted absently – but noted – that there was a Bellanca doing touch and go’s in the pattern, heard Tower inform a Cirrus on the practice ILS approach that the Bellanca was in his crosswind turn before clearing the Cessna ahead of me for a right downwind departure.
“Tower, Top Dog One, take-off two in turn, two-eight right, straight out departure to the west.”
“Top Dog 1, Tower, cleared for take-off, runway 28R.”
“Top Dog 1, on the go, 28R,” my wingman on my shoulder. As I taxied out of the ground run-up area towards the runway, saw the Cirrus on final at a half-mile. Climbing. Completing his missed approach procedure.
“All set to go?” on the intercom, I asked of my back-seater.
Taxied up to the hold short, checked final for traffic – an old habit – and found the Cirrus there, looming large, moments from landing. Hit the brakes abruptly. Looked over at my wingman, who shook his head sadly. Took a deep breath, took another, keyed the radio, “Tower, I thought you’d cleared Top Dog flight for take-off?”
“Top Dog 1, hold short runway 28R!”
“Top Dog 1, hold short.” No kidding.
“Top Dog 1, complete readback, hold short runway 28R!” The Cirrus well down the runway now.
“Top Dog 1, hold short runway 28R.” Prick. After trying to kill me.
It’s been 25 years nearly to the day since LTJG Dave Harmon jumped on my brakes at the hold short line to runway 19R, NAS Meridian, MS and hissed at me to always check final prior to taking the runway. In all those years since, I have never once failed to do so. In over 4000 hours flying time I never once saw traffic there. Until yesterday.
Harmon’s voice has echoed in my head for 25 years, abjuring me never to trust on faith what I could verify with my own two eyes. Yesterday he reached across a quarter century and saved two lives, and for that I thank him.
Although I still think he was kind of a jerk.