‘Twas two hops yesterday down at the customary, the first being a multi-generational affair with pops paying for Grampa Art to fly against his very own son, Amon y-clept and an ostensible 8th grader, the whole passle of them but recently ridden in from Tuscon. I say “ostensible,” for just like the carnival we have certain age and height limitations that are in effect, and if Amon was an 8th grader his grampa may have been named Art but Bob was his uncle.
Or maybe they don’t feed ‘em, much, in Tuscon.
But there are cushions and such, and phone books if it comes right down to it. Soon the young man was bundled in the trunk of the Mighty Varga (1200 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal), strapped down securely in four places and hooked into the intercom via the voice-activated head set. I did not have to warn him about not resting his feet atop the rudder pedals where the brakes are situated as we taxied or took off, for his feet couldna barely reach the deck, far less the rudders. Still, he could see over my shoulders for to fly and fight the machine if only as through a glass, and darkly.
I asked Amon, who was trembling like a bird dog on point with anticipation, whether this opportunity had been some class of birthday present, or maybe something under the tree?
“Academic honors,” he’d replied, and I thought to myself: what a jolly thing for his father to do.
Da hisself hovered around the machine as we made preparations for flight, more or less happily snapping away at Amon with a digital camera, his happiness visibly subsiding into thoughtfulness the closer we came to cranking engines, for this was his only son and it was clear that he was dearly treasured. The moment came to push off, and as it did, Amon’s father jumped on the wing, kissed the young man on the side of his head and told him quietly that he was loved.
Moments like that both warm my heart and strengthen my resolve, for machines may fail but men must not.
Once airborne, it became clear that Grampa Art either did not entirely grok my well-practiced air combat maneuvering pre-flight brief, or else he had contrived in his secret heart to let young Amon win, for he was, in the vernacular of the sky, summat of a grape:
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
It went like that, with the only complication that young Amon – a tiger in a very small package – remained convinced despite my oft-voiced protestations that the way to turn harder and finish the old man off was to roll the aircraft ever more fiercely with the ailerons vice pull a little more authoritatively on the elevator. We had us quite the little wrestling match there at the end, for aileron rolls in trail are all very well and good, cinematically speaking, but they do very little to refine a gun solution once you’re properly in the saddle and nothing at all for maintaining sight of an almost vanquished foe a few hundred feet ahead.
Round two was led by Earl the Pearl, and our paying guests were a pair of whitebread young college students from Provo, Utah, all smiles and gollies. They were newlyweds of seven months, and seemed eminently willing and even eager to go forth, be fruitful and multiply, just as soon as they’d finished their studies.
Earl briefed, so of course the lass went a-flying with him, that being the inevitable custom of these things, and let me help you with those shoulder straps. Once airborne, the lady transformed in to something of a she-devil (or perhaps her young man never forgot which side the bread was buttered on), for she coursed us through the sky like a hare on two out of three hacks, and we were well and fairly done to a golden brown there at the end of the third engagement: Pinned like an insect to the hard deck and quailing in anticipation of the blow; out of altitude, out of airspeed, and pretty much out of ideas.
Her zeal got the best of her however, and coming down on us from on high like an avenging angel of doom she utterly neglected her altitude, flushed through the hard deck for a rocks kill and let us off the hook.
Now, three was to be the number of our briefed engagements. No more. No less. Three is the number that we count, and the number of the counting is to be three. Four engagements we do not do, nor either engage twice, excepting that we then proceed to three, so long as all the paying passengers are feeling OK. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, is reached, then we knock it off, swap leads, and head back to the base.
Except that this time, uncharacteristically, Earl the Pearl – still being in the lead – called us on the radio after their hard deck bust to say, “One more quickie, take a turn away to the south, I’ll go north for separation.” Which I promptly did, him being the lead and all, and our time on earth to dance the skies on laughter silvered wings being but a finite thing, each moment to be treasured, and anyway the gas was paid for.
Now, here’s the thing you should know about Earl the Pearl: He is wonderful man, a credit to the Marine Corps, funny, warm and professional.
He is also a cheating b@stard in the air.
As am I, and as you would be, if you were a fighter pilot. For as everyone knows, in this gig, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. No points for second place. In fact, if there were a sliding scale that measured degrees of sportsmanship, you would find eagle scouts on one end, inveterate cheats in the middle, and fighter pilots on the other end. That’s just the way of it, or it least it was until HUD tapes were invented.
Now, usually we cheat small: A little climb above the briefed start altitude with a quick descent down just prior to the merge gives you an extra ten to fifteen knots and is considered cheating fair. Climbing in to the sun and then briskly changing plane of maneuver isn’t considered cheating at all.
Telling your gullible wingman to “take a turn away to the south” and then jumping on his tail instead of turning away yourself?
I wish I’d thought of it.
So, John and I reversed our turn back to the north in the expectation of a neutral, head on merge, only to find that Earl and Tina had climbed behind us at our six o’clock. In the little Varga, you can either climb or you can turn, but you can’t do both, at least not very well. We made a game show of it, met them more or less head on but with at least a 20 knot disadvantage in airspeed. Arced around across his tail nose low, trying desperately to get some speed up while still turning, for airspeed gives you g, and g gives you turn rate. Without which, you gonna get shot.
We held them off, and even achieved a kind of positional advantage, but getting our speed up had cost us altitude and there was no way of getting it back without leveling our wings and yielding angles. So we met the two of them more or less head on, a couple of hundred feet below and like Brave Sir Robin, bravely turned our tail and fled, bugging out to the north. Which, that’s the great thing about fighting guns, given a fair start and more or less evenly matched machines, eventually you can run out the range. Which is why God invented air-to-air missiles, to make the bad guys break back into a gun envelope.
It was good clean fun, take it for all in all.