I’m on the early page it seems, with the 0515 brief burned into my forehead. And the late go as well, so long as your definition of “late” is expansive enough to admit a 1215 brief, 1400 take-off, and 1500 land. With the debrief to follow. Well within the limits of crew day, mind. But a 0415 wake-up, day after day, is rough country for old men.
Especially when, as it was today, the whole thing seems to be for naught.
Used to be that Navy had an on-site meteorology staff at every major deployment site to do their weather guessing for them. People that had spent five, ten – even fifteen or twenty years – learning what secrets old Gaea had hidden up her sleeves to trap the unwary or ill-informed. For it’s a dead solid truth that you’d rather be on the ground, wishing you were in the air, than on the air wishing you were on the ground. The corollary to which is that every airplane which takes off will land eventually, in one fashion or another. Sometimes they taxi back to the line. Sometimes they are swept up.
The Sandy Eggo-based weather guessers were full of bad omens and fearful visions. A ninety-degree crosswind at 25 gusting to 35 knots, we were foretold. A situation utterly beyond our capabilities, for the drag chute loves to fair itself into the wind regardless of whether that wind is down the runway, and you only have so much rudder to keep her tracking true once the rubber meets the prepared surface.
And yet, when it came time to walk to our machines, the flags hung limply, with no hint of later vengeance. So too, after we started and taxied to the hold short. Sometimes weather phenomena do not materialize as they have been forecast. And sometimes they do, but only after you have committed to going flying. Mr. Murphy still gets his vote. As does Mr. Finagle.
There are old pilots and bold pilots, but the overlap is minimal. Yet were we aware that our customers would take off if ever a plausible reason presented itself, and it would not be well thought of if the oldest among us proved chary while the youngest checked the X in the block. So at the hold short my lead called the local metro agent, who has been here since Darius stood in ranks, and asked him what he thought: You should be good to go, quotha. The weather not coming in until after 0900.
And so go we did.
Of the mission itself, not much to report. We joined up, held until committed, pushed out bravely and died unmourned. We were rewarded by the fates for our intrepidity by good conditions upon return to base. Gave thanks for our deliverance, and headed over to debrief our observations.
Heading into the debrief, a strapping young lieutenant I did not know passed me at the door, saying, “Seriously? I read your blog every day.” And that was at a distance mind, too far to read my name patch. Some other man, I replied gamely, knowing it was a lost cause. And wanting to add, “and where are your comments, at all?”
Weather guessers are often accurate, but only occasionally precise. Crosswinds did indeed manifest themselves, albeit after their predicted window. We lost the middle sortie.
The afternoon go also had predicted weather. Down the runway, or very nearly, but at 35 knots gusting to 40. In the bandit brief afterwards, the question was asked of our Navy friends what winds they would suffer. Twenty-five sustained knots, the answer came. On account of the ejection risks.
We did a little hangar flying then. When I was leaving the squadron I had the honor to command, a Marine Harrier pilot had the misfortune to lose his only engine on a gusty day in the Owens Valley east of the Sierras. He successfully ejected and was dragged to his death by the surface winds. I was for a time warned that I would lead his Judge Advocat General Manual investigation. I was happy to have the burden lifted, for JAGMAN investigations – somewhat perversely written by line officers, rather than JAGs themselves – are publicly releasable, unlike mishap investigations. What evern I determined in the course of that investigation could have brought no solace to the man’s family. And there was other work for me to do.
Another pilot remarked that a former TOPGUN instructor and his wingman had suffered a similar fate a few years back after a midair collision over Kuwait. It made for a somewhat subdued conversation afterward, but this is how we remind ourselves that for all the larks that are in it, there are tigers in the grass as well.
It seems a strange irony that the egress system which would save your life in an emergency could snatch it away from you based on something so intangible as surface winds. But just imagine being dragged behind a pickup truck at 25-35 miles per hour while grappling with your harness release and you’ll get some sense of our trepidation. The odds of losing an engine on a gusty day are no better or worse than on any other day. The odds of survival, given the conditions, are much reduced. And there would be other days to fly.
We all of us volunteered for this business, but all of us want a chance, should some bad thing arise, especially in a peacetime training environment: You’ll probably never have to eject. But if you have a bad day and are forced to, you’d a whole lot rather have an even chance to explain why you did so later.
Not long after we’d made our decision the snow was falling sideways and the wind howled through every nook and cranny, piercing though our flight suits and forcing us to shoulder through the gusts. I made my way to the O’Club for a pint of Guinness (for strength) followed by a shot of Jameson’s (for courage). Grateful for the day I’d had.
Looking forward to the next.