They say you can never go home again, that no man steps in the same river twice. But you can go back.
It’s been nearly 11 years since last I was in Fallon, as best as I recall. I was CO of the Sh!t Hot World Famous Orange-Tailed Shrikes, with maybe a month or two left in command. The world was more or less at peace, with only the random response option against Iraqi air defense sites to add meaning to the training we were about to undergo. We’d had a long turnaround between deployments, so I had better than my fair share of raw nuggets to get ready for deployment. As we assembled on Day Zero of a three week detachment, I solemnly explained to them that perfect execution was the minimum standard for success, and then turned to leave the details of what that meant to the squadron operations officer.
As a Saint Crispin’s Day competitor, it didn’t much break the signal to noise ratio. But the boys gave the Taliban unholy hell a few months later, so perhaps brevity truly is the soul of wit. Much more likely that I, not for the first time, was graced to stand upon the shoulders of giants.
My first trip out here was as an advanced jet student. I rode in the trunk of a TA-4J Skyhawk flown by a tall and languorous Marine from Georgia. Our three-ship was led by another Marine captain, this one from Texas. His callsign was “Boots” for reasons never explained to we mere students. He was short and stocky, full of energy and aviation wisdom. Kind, too, in their own gruff way. They were the first of our instructors to treat us like future wingmen rather than hopeless cone heads. We were still several months away from getting winged, so we greeted their camaraderie with polite deference. There were still plenty of ways to screw it up. It wasn’t over until they tacked those Wings of Gold on, and – although we didn’t know it yet – until that happened, it really hadn’t started.
February, I think, and high desert cold. The base had not yet grown to be what it is today, a center of naval aviation strike and air warfare training excellence. In those days it was merely a place where novice attack pilots could hurl themselves down the wire to test their hands at manual bombing. The notion of a Strike University was still bubbling up from the fiasco over Lebanon, and TOPGUN was still safely ensconced at NAS Miramar. I remember that it was cold enough in the morning to be forewarned about the risks of slipping on ice-laden wings while performing preflights. I don’t remember anyone drawing the otherwise natural conclusion that perhaps the wings ought to have been de-iced prior to getting airborne. I also remember flying with Boots in my back seat on my safe-for-solo high angle bombing checkride. Coming off target I put a six-g pull on which grabbed his attention. With the nose above the horizon, I briefly unloaded the jet to roll more briskly and spot my bomb hit. As Boots strained also around to see where my practice bomb had hit, I snapped another high g turn on to climb back into the circular dive bombing pattern. Sufficient, in the event, to knock Boots out cold while he was looking over his shoulder to spot my hit for himself.
I think he woke up one or two dive runs later, the windscreen filling up with dirt. I put him back out again just as he was getting oriented. Having spent a good ten minutes or so of my 45 minute flight napping, he apparently drew the conclusion that I was safe to bomb by myself. Safer that way, maybe, for everyone concerned. I was pretty aggressive in those days.
The instructor pilots would bail for Reno when the weekend came, taking the rental cars with them and mostly leaving the students to their own devices. It would be more or less the same a year later, when I came back to Fallon, this time in the FA-18A. Its computed dive bombing software made a mockery of our manual bombing efforts. Put the constantly-computed impact point cross on a target and hit the bomb release pickle in unaccellerated flight, and the bomb would pretty much go where you’d aimed it. Out of twelve practice bombs, it wasn’t unusual to have three or four “shacks”, impacts within 20 feet of the bullseye. Anything outside of 100′ was considered a flyer. Fifty to seventy five foot circular errors probable (defined in those days by throwing out the best hit along with the worst, and averaging the remainder) were commonplace. This, in a weapon delivery whose effects had a 500′ kill radius. Depending, of course, on the type of target. Troops in the open being easier to “effect” than revetted armor.
I drove around the base, just to get my bearings. There are some newer buildings since last I was stationed here, but the layout has not much changed. Drove past the jogging path where I spent too few hours, and the office I sat in when I was the exec at TOPGUN, where I spent far too many. The air park has some new additions, including a MiG-29 Fulcrum come hither from God knows where. The A-6 Intruder has been relegated to the middle of the pack, while an FA-18 painted in Redcock colors has taken its pride of place in front of the main building at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. I even drove past the house we lived at on base, 1017 Arizona Court. Someone else’s kids now played in their Halloween costumes on the porch. It was, I think, one of the last places where I felt young, surrounded by my young family. Full of purpose and optimism, unknowingly wearing around me the rude presumption that since everything had always been right, everything always would be. I said a little prayer for those who lived there now: Let them hold on to this, I asked the household gods. Let them hold tight.
The town hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, there are some new commercial real estate properties. We even have a Wal-Mart Supercenter, now. But the Frontier Market still remains, still dedicated to the quaint notion that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ought to be a convenience store, rather than a government bureaucracy. The air is still crystal clear, the distant mountains startlingly close.
We kept coming back, year after year, cruise after cruise. Fallon is where squadrons went to sharpen their skills, and where air wings went to prepare for combat. The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war. Good targets, supersonic ranges, plentiful adversaries, simulated surface-to-air missile sites. All within a 50-100 NM radius of the field. Each time we came back the older heads would ruefully proclaim that it wasn’t like it used to be. Much more serious, a great deal more planning. Fewer trips to Reno over the weekends. They’re probably saying it still.
It’s good to be back. But you never step in the same river twice.