Got in on Sunday afternoon. Flew once on Monday, twice Tuesday. Comfortable in the basic cranking of the machine, getting her flying, bringing her back again. More or less comfortable in the tactical phase; tallies at the merge, merge geometry, shot opportunities, kill calls and acknowledgements. Not so eager as once I was to hurl myself into a brawl. Not merely because we are restricted, as contractors, to “limited maneuvering”. But also because the fire is damped, the embers drowning.
I don’t mind shooting a man, should he turn his tail in front of me. Just don’t want to work all that hard for it, in a machine that is destined to lose, should he see me. And the Kfir, she is no Hornet. The Hornet, I could make her sing. With 50 hours of flight time, the best I can wring out of the Kfir is a groan.
Not complaining, mind. I had mine when the getting was good, I’ve tested my limits. Pushed as far as I ever want to go. You just mellow a bit. Resources are shepherded. No country for old men, nor the middle aged either.
Still, we provide a service.
Was in a cafe in town t’other day. A couple of a certain age had had their meal and coffee, and were checking out. Tall, lean and angular, the both of them. Western archetypes, like. Faces windburnt, faded jeans. But what caught my eye were their boots. Well worn, scuffed and dusty to the extent that you couldn’t imagine them having ever been new. They looked comfortable. The boots, the jeans, the couple.
They knew who they were.
We’re double-cycling the fighters in their two-ship training. Going after first, then another flight, who burn off their gas raging around in full grunt while we husband our stores, only putting the coals to her when necessary. It means carrying both a 1000 liter centerline and a 500 liter wing tank, to go with the other odds and ends that bring value to the brawl. The mornings are cool, cold even. Damned cold, actually.
She doesn’t mind the extra weight so much, when it’s cold. By mid-day the temperatures rise to the mid-60s, and the density altitude is still the better part of a mile high. She takes a little coaxing, a little patience, then. I have become accustomed by now to staring at the airspeed indicator, waiting for rotation speed to finally arrive even as the distance remaining markers flash by.
I have not become inured to it.
It’s hard tutelage, for these youngsters going through the course. Hard tutelage for their instructors, not so very far in front of them. There’s a reputation to make, a reputation to uphold. The standards of professionalism in preparation, brief, execution and debrief are almost impossibly high. The operating theory is – it always has been – to make things as perfect as possible. Knowing that not all of this can be exported to the fleet, who – for all the will in the world – have evals to write, ground jobs to attend, masters to please. But they know that the harder you push, the higher the standard of residual excellence. Even if it’s not quite so high as in this sterile world of asymptotic approach to perfection.
I can see it in their eyes, the harried students and their weary instructors. The knowledge that they’re playing a game with well-defined rules, rules that insist upon the One Right Way, even while knowing that it’s all a kind of theater. They play it anyway, according to the rules. You can’t play tennis without a net.
Bless them, every one.
In the debrief yesterday, I heard of a female fighter pilot working her way to the merge, and – having gotten slow in her endeavors – gotten savaged by one of the bandits that camped out in her six, getting beaten by a male. I felt sorry for her.
A few minutes later, I heard of a male fighter who’d gotten jumped by a female F-16 pilot on exchange, and suffered repeated gun attacks on his way down to the hard deck. I felt sorry for him too, getting gunned by a girl.
I haven’t quite worked through all that yet.
We had the day off today, the class having headed down to the electronic warfare range in China Lake. Insufficient fighters remaining behind to justify our contributions. It was a wild, gusty day. The winds howl outside my window still. There’s few men who love to fly as much as I. And I did not resent sitting on the bench, not this day.
It’s a small town, Fallon. Not quite 8000 people in the 2000 census. Chiefly agricultural – alfalfa – although how they grow anything worth harvesting here in the high desert remains to me an enduring mystery. People went west, back in the late 19th century, to seek their fortunes. Some, I suspect, got tired along the way. Too thin or fat to dare the Donner Pass, they eyed the Stillwater mountains, the Clan Alpines behind them, the rising waves of the Desatoyas and Shoshones and said to themselves, “Let us just rest here a while.”
And here they remain still. Or their grandchildren do.
The relative lack of population density and vast swathes of federal land make the place a joyous wilderness for those who admire booming around at supersonic speeds. Even if it renders them fractious and discontent once the mission is complete. It’s not Sandy Eggo.
They have, at least, their monastic devotions.
I’ve a 0500 brief tomorrow morning. A patent absurdity, requiring as it does a wake-up with zero-four-something on the clock.
Still: It beats wearing a suit.