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What Do They Raise In Arizona, Doc?

“That guy can really land the airplane.” 
 

Midway through the Navy initial flight training syllabus at NAS Whiting Field I was “that guy,” and about as cocky as a man can get. When I overheard the runway duty officer (RDO) on the radio complimenting my touch-and-goes at the outlying field in the Florida panhandle, the exhilaration of the flying phase of my student naval flight surgeon program reached its peak. To be singled out as an “ace” by the guys who do it for real, well…priceless.
Pride goeth…  I wrote that here last month. 
I’m older and wiser now than in the spring of 1992, when much of my world revolved around the next flight, the next takeoff, the next landing, the next debrief; and ultimately the first solo flight in that most fun airplane, the T-34C Mentor. For a recycled middle-aged ER doc, my life was hot stuff.
“Do one more and then head back,” said my on-wing flight instructor from the back seat. He hadn’t spoken much during the seven prior touch-and-go landings, and I’d almost forgotten that he was in the airplane; more like a sack of potatoes in the rear than a veteran pilot mentoring the s**t-hot doc pilot in the front seat.

The single engine turboprop aircraft accelerated under full power to traffic pattern altitude, whereupon I cranked it into a 45-degree angle of bank turn per the standard Navy racetrack landing pattern.

Diagram from www.tpub.com

 

In my head I recited the mnemonic for the landing procedure: Flop, chop, check, drop.
1) Flop. Roll into a steep bank 180 degree turn.
2) Chop. Retard the throttle to landing pattern power setting.
3) Check. Monitor the airspeed bleed-down into the safe zone for lowering the gear and flaps.
4) Drop. Extend the landing gear and deploy the flaps, further slowing the aircraft to pattern standards. 
I executed a precise roll-out at 180 degrees of turn, and completed the landing checklist on my downwind leg parallel to the runway. At the abeam point, I flopped into another steep bank turn and set the throttle for the final approach. Past the 90 degree point, losing exactly the right amount of altitude, I rolled out to straight and level flight to see the runway in front of me. Then it was a simple matter of controlling airspeed with pitch, and altitude with power until I arrived over the runway threshhold, chopped the remaining power, and allowed the airplane to settle gently onto the asphalt.
He shoots, he scores! Touchdown! Grand Slam! (So what if it’s a mixed metaphor? This is flying, man!)
As soon as the tires kissed the pavement, I pushed the throttle full forward, gently eased back the stick, and lifted the airplane back into the air.
“Nice job,” the instructor said. “Let’s go home.”
I continued on the upwind to departure altitude, and then started a turn back toward Whiting Field. The airplane didn’t accelerate like I’d expected, but it was late June — hot and humid. Just the density altitude, I thought. (Airplanes don’t perform well on a hot, humid day when the atmosphere is similar to thinner air at higher altitudes.) My self-aggrandizing cockiness ignored a deep inner voice: Might be density altitude effect in a normally aspirated piston-engine single like your old 172, but in a turboprop? Think again, Hot Shot.
I leveled off at the prescribed cruise altitude. To maintain the desired airspeed, the engine required more throttle than usual. I still thought it was density altitude. Like flying back in Arizona, density altitude can sure diminish an aircraft’s performance.
Then I heard the instructor’s voice in my headset. “Hey, Doc. Where are you from?”
“Arizona,” I said. He must be thinking about density altitude as well.
“What do they raise in Arizona, Doc?”
“Cattle,” I said in a proud voice. I came from a ranching family.
“Do they raise anything else in Arizona, Doc?”
I thought for a moment. “Crops,” I said. “Cotton, citrus, that sort of thing.”
“What else do they raise in Arizona, Doc?”
“We have copper mines,” I said. “Tourism is big.”
“Do they raise anything else?”
I was at a loss. “Pretty much it,” I said.
“How about the landing gear?”
I shifted my gaze to the landing gear handle. Sure enough, it perched in the “down and locked” position from landing. Chagrined, I jerked it up, and felt the landing gear raise. The aircraft performance zipped up as well. No longer flying “dirty,” and relieved of the excess drag from the extended landing gear, it purred along like a contented cat. We completed the return to Whiting Field in silence. That landing approach may have been less than perfect. 
There was no density altitude problem in the aircraft that day. Just a dense student naval flight surgeon who still had a lot to learn — about flying, and about life.

For Bob, Once More

I’m putting money on the table to support military families, and I hope my friends will join me.

A few years ago, the nation lost an outstanding naval officer and emergency physician to a tragic accident. I had huge respect for Commander Bob Goodwin as a professional colleague and friend. His dedication to freedom took him to Afghanistan in support of a dangerous mission in a hostile land. Not very long after his joyful return, when he was about to transfer to the 7th Fleet flagship, he died on one of our own nation’s highways. Bob left behind a beautiful wife, two engaging young sons, loving parents and siblings, and an inspiring extended family.

Below is my original post on the day of Bob’s funeral, just over two years ago.

On October 28, I will run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. To honor Bob’s memory, I’ve established a donations webpage in support of Transition Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). This compassionate organization sets the high bar in service to families of deceased military members.


Please consider joining me in making a donation in Bob’s memory, whatever you can afford to give.

Whether or not you choose to donate, please take a moment out of your life to reflect upon and honor the memory of all deceased military members, and the faithful families who mourn them.

Click Here to Donate

FOR BOB
Original post July 8, 2010
By now anyone who has ears with which to hear or eyes with which to read knows that Bob Goodwin was a model naval officer, a stellar emergency physician, an enviable family man, and an exceptional human being. His untimely death represents a tragedy of a magnitude that defies mere human ken. Today as he is laid to rest, we all mourn the loss of him in our own way, and for our own reasons.

CDR Bob Goodwin, MC, USN (Deceased)


I had so looked forward to welcoming Bob aboard the 7th Fleet Flagship. 


I will miss working and collaborating with him as a fellow operational physician supporting our nation’s forward deployed mission. Kathy and I both will miss Bob’s and Bridget’s friendship. We were eager to once again enjoy the Japan experience with their young family. We will miss sharing a part of their lives, and we will surely regret not watching Christopher and Paul grow up.


But Bob’s life means so much more than the collegial friendship that this fellow naval officer and his spouse will miss. I cannot begin to fathom what Bob’s wife and children are feeling today. Our hearts and prayers reach out to them. No words in any language suffice to express our emotions and thoughts as we vainly try to conjure up some sense in all this grief.


Considering all the lives that Bob touched, his patients, co-workers, students, friends, and family, we should stand in awe of this one man’s tremendous impact on humanity. His was an exemplary life of service and love, truly a life to celebrate, even in death. 


The Navy describes itself as “a global force for good.” Bob was truly such a force. We are fortunate to have had him with us, however temporarily.


So even as we mourn the loss of that good force that was Bob Goodwin, we also optimistically anticipate his continued impact after death. Perhaps he was taken from fellow mortals early in life so that his soul could be released to an even higher calling. And perhaps we who grieve his loss still have him in our lives, only in a different and more enduring way. Perhaps he has “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to protect his beloved family and honored friends and nation in a fashion that a mere human cannot do. In that we must believe, and for that blessing we must be grateful. Thus we have hope, and in that hope we can truly celebrate his life.


I’m a better man for having known you, Bob. Fair winds and following seas, Shipmate.

A Most Dangerous Place

Imagine taking a stroll on a busy urban freeway during rush hour, wearing nothing more than a soft padded vest and flimsy helmet — and it’s your job to see and avoid all the traffic.


A more dangerous environment challenges the sailors who work the flight deck of an aircraft carrier for launch and recovery of jets. During high tempo operations, these men and women put in long hours in a tense and risky environment. The threats to their lives come from all directions, not the least of which are the jet engines spooling up all over the deck. “Head on a swivel,” they are told. Be on constant lookout, because your life could be in danger from even a split second distraction.

The event depicted in this video occurred about a year before I walked on board USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT as an air wing flight surgeon. It became a standard training video across the Navy, a chilling example of what can go wrong, and how quickly it can happen:

Man Sucked Into Jet Engine

Midway through our deployment, we suffered a more tragic flight deck mishap than the A-6 event. The A-6 sailor survived. Ours did not.

During day operations in the Red Sea, a sailor walked along the deck edge behind an F-14 Tomcat just as it spooled up its engines to taxi to the launch area. The jet blast blew the sailor off the flight deck for a 60-foot free-fall to the water’s surface.

“Man Overboard, Man Overboard,” sounded immediately over the carrier’s 1MC system. The medical teams mustered in the flight deck battle dressing station and in the main medical department, ready to do the trauma resuscitation for which all had trained. It was not going to happen.

The rescue helicopter located the sailor floating atop the water. A rescue swimmer dropped into the water, to hoist the unmoving body up to the helo. The swimmer could not tell if the victim was dead or just unconscious. Something went wrong in the process, so the crewman in the helo grabbed the sailor’s float coat by the back to pull him into the aircraft. The victim’s arms lifted up, and his body slid right out of the float coat and back into the sea, where it immediately sank. The aircrewman was left with the empty float coat in his hand.

The body was never recovered. We believed the sailor died on first impact with the water. Nevertheless–

On the brighter side — if there is such a side to accidental death —  this mishap resulted in a redesign of the standard float coat, which now includes groin straps to prevent a body from slipping out. Too late for our sailor, but quite possibly has saved other lives.

Not all who go into harm’s way risk death from bullets, IEDs, or missiles. Data shows that in all conflicts we lose more warriors from accidental injury than enemy action. Those victims are just as much our American heroes, losing life without warning or apparent reason. God bless them all.

Not With Guns Alone

Melodic interlude at the end, but first…

The primary mission of the forward deployed naval force — indeed any forward deployed force — is to win the peace in world places where potential troublemakers might prey on weaker neighbors.

We picture power projection as military hardware: ships, airplanes, missiles, guns; and as warriors — men and women prepared to fight for peace; and those who support them, such as doctors, lawyers, logisticians and chaplains.

While military might can deter aggression, that power alone will never win a lasting peace. Enduring peace and security are brokered by the men and women who win hearts and minds, one encounter at a time, over the long haul. Humanitarian missions such as Pacific Partnership earn media recognition for extending the hands of peace to people at risk of adopting terrorism or succumbing to totalitarian despots.

Less often hyped, but just as effective, are the professional musicians and singers who perform in fleet bands around the world. Sailors first, these dedicated artists also bring unique and varied musical talents to the cause of international peace. Music doth have charm, not only to soothe the most savage of beasts but also to touch the hearts and souls of diverse peoples. Music also motivates, and boosts the morale of entire armies and navies.

The Seventh Fleet Band plays a singular role in promoting international peace through music. These unsung American heroes work long and hard to perfect their art. They travel far and wide across the Western Pacific, sometimes under harsh conditions at short notice. Often they ride the flagship, not only to play their parts in its unique ambassadorial mission, but also to inspire the crew and staff on board.

Their repertoire extends well beyond martial music. Many Americans would gladly pay good money to hear these talented professionals perform. If I found myself overwhelmed or discouraged in my duties on the flagship, a chance to hear the band always buoyed me up.

As we move beyond another anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11, and we suffer the current world upheaval over despicable “art,” I invite you to take a moment, sit back, relax, and enjoy the special talents of the 7th Fleet Band in the following clips:

Navy Friendship Day

Navy Friendship Day 2

7th Fleet Band with Yokosuka Symphony

Band in Fukuoka

Band in Cambodia

Check out their website as well.

A Lot of Terror

A little knowledge…

…can lead to a lot of terror.
I came to naval aviation as a flight surgeon, but I held two civilian pilot certificates in my wallet: Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor. I was (somewhat) aeronautically adapted before I first donned a Navy flight suit. Because I had a fair knowledge of aerodynamics, navigation, and pilot radio jargon, F-14 Tomcat frontseaters liked to fly with me. Often I had more total flight hours than the “nugget” RIOs fresh from Naval Flight Officer training, and I seemed more casual in the flight environment — not such an advantage, as we shall describe. I had also earned a NATOPS (i.e., official) qualification as a backseater in the Tomcat. As I earned my pilots’ trust, some would turn control of the ejection system over to me — not their usual practice with a doc as their backup.

During my first deployment as an air wing flight surgeon, I bagged flight hours whenever I could get them. I often got low stress routine night flights that the pilots needed for currency but were not all that challenging for the RIO. One such flight occurred on a dark and stormy night over the Adriatic Sea. As I manned up the jet on the flight deck, I had no inkling that it would be my last night flight — in a jet — of that deployment.

We launched at dusk, but after a few minutes we flew in darkness. In theory, an actual potential enemy was out there, albeit an 84 pound weakling.  Closer to the coastline, we flew in and out of clouds as the weather turned worse than forecast. I divided my time between looking out of the canopy to double check my pilot’s separation in the flight of four jets, and monitoring my radar screen looking for bogeys. To my disappointment, after an hour no bogey appeared. The bad guys must have known that I was up there in charge of the weapons system, and they dared not test my mettle. Yeah right, Doc.

The weather continued to go down as we returned to “Mother.” We were now fully enveloped in darkness, with no outside visual references. I backed up the pilot on the dials as he flew the instrument approach to the carrier. It appeared normal and routine.

Looking forward from the back seat of an F-14, all you see is the back of the pilot’s helmet. On a night approach, I often didn’t pick up the ship’s lights until we crossed the ramp. Kind of scary the first time, but by now I had gotten used to it. On landing, I looked out at the deck as the jet hit it and the pilot advanced the throttle to full power, and — instead of the familiar pull of the arresting wire we accelerated off the deck.

“Bolter, bolter.” The tailhook had missed the wire. First time I had ever seen the carrier’s lights disappear behind me after a landing approach.

I won’t get overly technical about the reason for the bolter because a) I don’t remember it all, and b) I never understood it in the first place. (That Little Knowledge dude creeps into play.) The problem involved the system that gives the pilot finer motor control over the stick in the landing sequence. If the system malfunctions, as this one had, the jet behaves like an SUV without power steering. That makes it difficult to nimbly drop the tailhook onto one of the arresting cables stretched across the flight deck.

We went around for another pass. My pilot flew a near-perfect approach to the ramp, and then —

“Bolter, bolter.” Off into the darkness again.

The F-14 squadron rep in the carrier’s tower got on the radio and recommended pulling four circuit breakers before the next pass.

“Yipes. That would be my job.”

Just a few of those circuit breakers

Most of the 200+ circuit breakers in the F-14 were housed in panels behind and on either side of the RIO. Those nuggets with low flight hours would know the exact location of each breaker, without looking. Understanding the basic layout, I had a pretty good idea, but I could not be certain. I could not risk pulling the wrong one. While I might be in control of the ejection system, I had no desire to activate it that night.


As the jet went around the pattern, I held a penlight in my mouth and opened up my F-14 pocket checklist to validate the location of each breaker — without enough time to complete my research before —

“Bolter, bolter.”

The pilot’s usually calm, experienced voice became tense and edgy. “Doc, I really need you to pull those breakers on the next pass. We’re close to bingo.” Meaning we were getting low on fuel.

By the time we came around for the next pass, I had a veritable cheering section in the tower urging me to complete this simple (to them) task. I fumbled a bit, dropped the flashlight, retrieved it, contorted my body around to make eye contact with each circuit breaker, and somehow got ‘er done by the time we rolled into  final approach. With help from the LSO, we made it down and trapped an “OK Three” wire. Yay!

As we taxied out of the landing zone, I pushed my heart from my mouth back into my chest. But my night’s ordeal had not concluded. As we walked off the flight deck into the carrier superstructure, the squadron duty officer came up to me. “Doc, CAG wants to see you in his office right away.”

Did I mention that was my last night Tomcat flight off this carrier?

* * *

These videos demonstrate the challenge (and sometimes terror) of landing aboard an aircraft carrier. The second shows night operations:

My Flight of the Intruder

   An Attack squadron 36 (VA-36) A-6E Intruder aircraft lands on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) during Operation Deny Flight .

“Hey, Doc. Let’s you and me take an A-6 and fly over Bosnia tomorrow.”


I nearly choked on my slider (Navy cheeseburger). Had the CAG (Air Wing Commander) just invited me to fly with him over hostile territory? On a real mission? We were in USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT’s “dirty shirt” wardroom, where aviators dined without changing out of flight suits into the more formal wash khaki attire required in the main wardroom. I took my time finishing the burger morsel, trying to ascertain whether my boss had just made me the butt of one of his infamous pranks. (Aviators take extra pleasure in gigging the doc.) The dead serious look on his face, with just a hint of a smile on the corner of his mouth, told me he meant what he said.

The boyish thrill in my voice betrayed my effort to appear nonchalant. “Sure, CAG, I’ll fly with you.”

The year was 1993, and the mission was “Operation Deny Flight.” Our carrier air wing played a key role in enforcing the UN prohibition on flights over Bosnia and Herzegovina, where civil war raged among various ethnic groups. CAG had just invited me to be his BN (bombardier/navigator) for one of those enforcement missions. A seasoned naval aviator who had flown attacks over Vietnam, he knew that he could fly this recon mission with only a sack of potatoes in the right seat. With me on board, he would at least get another set of eyes and someone who could push a button or two when directed.

Prior to that day in the Adriatic Sea, I had logged some A-6 right seat time, mostly training flights at NAS Oceana, or tanker flights circling over the carrier as the airborne “Texaco” giving fuel to Hornets and Tomcats. So I tried to maintain a casual air the next morning when we manned up for the flight. I strapped on the offered 9mm pistol, just in case we went down and had to defend ourselves. (That happened to Air Force aviator several years later.) But I kept the pistol unloaded, stuffing the ammunition into a pocket on my flight suit. A flight surgeon accidentally discharging a pistol in the cockpit of an aircraft in flight over Bosnia would make the cover of NAVY TIMES in a way my family would not relish.

I lost all semblance of aviator swagger when I struggled on the ascent to my seat on the right side of the airplane. Because the fuselage curved outward, one had to be more nimble than a short stocky flight surgeon climbing up the side railing and stepping into the cockpit. A push in the rear from one of the enlisted plane captains finally got me over the top. CAG was already strapped into his seat, chuckling as I huffed and puffed into mine.

I handled the radio calls for the preflight, launch, and approach to our destination. When we went “feet dry” over Bosnia, we switched to our FAC, forward air controller, who was positioned somewhere in the former Olympic complex in Sarajevo. Flying low over the site of the 1984 winter games, I was aghast at the devastation that civil war had wrought on a place where the world’s finest athletes had once celebrated international fellowship and camaraderie. But the most sad-making sight came when we flew over villages and towns. Intact homes stood next to the wreckage of those destroyed by ethnic cleansing, as if some cruel fist had randomly squashed the lives of certain families, and preserved those of others.

Beyond that chilling site, the mission was uneventful. I never had to load my pistol — an altogether good thing. With the help of our FAC, we spotted a few hidden airplanes on the ground, but no signs that anyone intended to fly them. Two hours after we launched, we trapped back on board the TR. My one and only “green ink” flight was over — too soon. (Aviators record actual “combat” flights in green ink in their log books.)

A year later, I would have the honor of flying the right seat of the last A-6 from my air wing as it was delivered to NAS Norfolk for decomissioning. The Intruder was a fabulous airframe that played a stellar role in the grand history of naval aviation. It was also a great platform for a flight surgeon aviator wannabe to bag exciting flight time.
I close with a video that honors this venerable bird: 

Holes in the Cheese

Why would an airplane manned by five professional aviators (two pilots, three flight officers) fly directly into the water from 250 feet above the surface? That question vexed the aviation mishap investigation board (MIB), of which I was the flight surgeon member, for the two weeks following the E-2C Hawkeye mishap that I described in a prior post (http://www.mkmariner.blogspot.com/2012/02/mishap.html)


The E-2 executed a normal foul deck wave-off procedure from the aircraft carrier at night in marginal weather. As it climbed to 1/4 mile ahead of the ship, the Hawkeye nosed over and impacted the water at high speed. No one on board survived, nor were their bodies recovered.

A Navy aviation mishap board consists of five members. The board conducts a meticulous investigation of all factors that may have contributed to the mishap. The MIB does not assign blame, nor does it single out any individuals for disciplinary action. Its deliberations are held confidential, the sole raison d’etre being to identify correctable causal factors in hopes of preventing similar mishaps in the future.

One member of the board must be a designated naval flight surgeon. By virtue of our training in aviation medicine, and our direct familiarity with the aviation environment, we flight surgeons bring the tools and skill to identify human factors that may have been involved in the event. The board also looks for mechanical or structural issues with the airframe, training of air and ground crews, operational issues such as crew rest and readiness, and other factors.

Seldom does a single factor emerge as the sole cause. Most aviation mishaps — indeed most “accidents” in life — occur at the end of a chain of events, any one of which, if avoided, could have altered the outcome. A common analogy is that of Swiss cheese. If all the holes ever line up just right, the mouse can run straight through the cheese.

Our job on the MIB was to find the links in the chain, or holes in the cheese, that led to the tragic outcome. The evidence at hand consisted of the videotape that recorded the approach, waveoff, and descent of the aircraft (All carrier launches and landings are videotaped); assorted fragments of the aircraft, including a large chunk of the radome and several hundred other pieces no larger than a meter square; the crew’s service, aviation, training, and medical records; the aircraft’s maintenance records; and various other squadron documents. All that, and our collective expertise.

We found no suspect mechanical, operational, or training issues. The largest hole in the cheese came down to a human factor: spatial disorientation in an environment devoid of visual references. Several types of spatial disorientation exist, most of which involve either the visual or vestibular systems (eyes and inner ears). The specific condition that we believed initiated the mishap was the head-up somatogravic illusion:

Bodies in motion tend to head up or down with acceleration or deceleration. Think what happens if you put pedal to the metal in your automobile (We’ve all tried it at least once, right?). The front end lifts up. Conversely, tromp on the brakes, and the front end noses down. In the flight environment, the inner ear’s vestibular system acts like an accelerometer and interprets that sudden forward acceleration as an excessive head up motion, and sudden deceleration as an abrupt head down movement.

After four hours of flying oval patterns in a virtual milk bowl, the E-2 broke out of the overcast and made a normal descent to landing on the carrier’s deck. Just as it came over the ramp it was waved off for another aircraft still in the landing area. Per procedure, the pilot immediately applied full power and started a climb back toward the black night and the cloudy goo. We reasoned that the acceleration into total darkness caused the pilot to believe the nose of the aircraft was rising too fast, risking a stall. He pushed the yoke forward to compensate, and flew the airplane into the water.

“Yeah, DoK, but…”

Indeed, the explanation generated more questions than answers. There had to be more holes in that cheese. What were the other four crewmembers doing? The co-pilot could have grabbed the controls. The flight officers in the back could have raised an alarm. Why would they all sit there, unless they were distracted by something else? What?

And why would a seasoned aviator succumb to an illusion for which he’d been trained and experienced? Perhaps fatigue? We questioned the leadership judgment of conducting night flight operations in bad weather at the end of a long day following a difficult trans-Atlantic passage. Was the mission flown worth the lives of five men?

We could not prove our theory. The only ones who could say what happened in the aircraft that night did not survive to tell their stories. At the very least, we felt we succeeded in finding most of the holes in the cheese, and raised awareness of these human factors for future training — to possibly avert similar events in the future.

For the five men who died that night, it was perhaps a legacy.



Fam 1 – Learning to Fly Navy

To a man (and woman), Navy Flight Surgeon Class 92002 all yearned for one special day. It seemed to hover forever over the horizon as we marched (literally) through officer indoctrination. It appeared to recede into the clouds as we sat through tedious medical didactics on the physiology of flight and other dry topics. As Florida panhandle winter gave way to spring, we gazed out the windows of our stuffy NAS Pensacola classroom and indulged our fancies; not for graduation day, but for the day we would close the medical books and transition to nearby NAS Whiting Field for the final phase of flight surgeon education — flight training.

Future naval aviators undergo their primary flight training at Whiting Field. For the doctor students of Flight Surgeon Class 92002, Whiting Field was Mecca. Unlike the other services, the Navy put student flight surgeons through the exact initial flight curriculum as student naval aviators. Our pilgrimage to that sacred airfield was not to engage in additional medical training, but to realize our fantasies of soaring on mighty wings — a thrill our civilian medical counterparts could not fathom.
The gurus of Naval Air reasoned that flight surgeons, to be effective in their duties, must understand the rigors and challenges, and the thrill, of the flight environment. You just don’t get that sensitivity from reading about it. At Whiting Field, we would be dispersed among the three resident training squadrons, sharing classroom and flight time with Navy and Marine Corps future aviators — our future patients. Not only would we learn the fundamentals of aviation, we would also fly the Navy’s trainer — at that time the T-34C single engine turboprop. (Beyond familiarizing us with the stresses of flight, the T-34 would instill in some of us a career long quest for “stick time,” to get our hands on the controls and actually fly whatever Navy aircraft we happened to occupy at the time.) In primary training at Whiting, the curriculum consisted of a series of familiarization flights (“Fams”). Each fam progressed from basic to complex skills, culminating at the pinnacle: Fam 14 – Solo Flight. A fortunate few of us might get enough sorties (weather always a factor in Florida spring) and aviate well enough to demonstrate that we had the right stuff to fly Fam 14 – commanding the airplane without an instructor on board. With my civilian commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates tucked in my wallet, I felt certain to be one of the lucky few to execute Fam 14.
I soon learned that Navy flight training — in spite of my several hundred hours of civilian flight time — would be no walk in the park, much less a turn around the pattern at my former home airport in Scottsdale, AZ. Naval Air makes training and proficiency a serious challenge, unlike the civilian flight school (one of the best) that I had attended ten years previously. At Whiting, ground school gave us a more rigorous academic challenge than medical school. We memorized aircraft systems to greater detail than we’d ever devoted to human anatomy (except, perhaps, the reproductive systems). We could not expect to sit in the cockpit of a real T-34C until we demonstrated blindfolded knowledge of the location of all flight controls and gages in a series of “static” exercises in a mock-up cockpit. Before we could move on to the flight line, we must man the same simulator to demonstrate rote knowledge of the full preflight, engine start, pre-takeoff and post-landing procedures, including parroting the exact verbiage of the checklists.
By the time we went out to the tarmac for our first sortie in the real bird, we knew all there was about its anatomy and physiology. Or so we thought.
Finally, after three weeks of non-stop class and book study, we donned our flight suits and boots, checked out helmets and parachute harnesses, and headed (swaggered) to the flight line for our first escape from the “surly bonds of earth.”
I feel the need, for speed.
We were each assigned to an “on-wing” flight instructor. Mine did not like flight surgeons. He never said so. Didn’t have to. You just know.
After a tense preflight brief, I approached the airplane with my instructor close at hand. First I had to complete the preflight check that I had memorized in consummate detail during the ground instruction phase. It went well until the part that requires the pilot to open the cowling and inspect the engine and its components. I took my time as I made a show of meticulous attention to detail on each item. Then I turned to my on-wing, who I thought by now must have recognized that I was no rookie on a flight line. “Looks okay,” I said.
“Is it airworthy, Doc?”
“Looks good to me.”
“You sure about that, Doc?” A sneer barely showed on the corner of his mustachioed upper lip.
Oh-oh, what am I missing? All at once anxious, I took out my pocket checklist and reinspected the entire engine assemblage, this time verifying each step as written in the manual. I found nothing out of order. This arrogant aviator is just messing with me. “It’s airworthy,” I said.
“You’d risk your life to fly this airplane, Doc?”
Realizing that I needed to sound more confident than I felt, I replied in a strong voice. “It’s ready to fly.”
“Okay, Doc, let’s fly.” Then he reached into the engine compartment and, with a flourish that only a naval aviator could perfect, picked his watch off the engine block and strapped it back on his wrist.
Every flight begins with a thorough preflight. Lesson learned.
And yet another lesson re-learned: Pride goeth…

Author, Arriving

I’ve left the blog dormant, I know. I’ve been otherwise engaged in retiring from the Navy, moving back home to Norfolk, VA, and publishing my debut novel — Thanks to the wonderful folks at Purple Papaya. 

Available at Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Also on iTunes, and soon on Kobo.
A senior naval aviator/single mother at the pinnacle of her career deploys in a Navy flagship as director of operations for the U.S. 7th Fleet, where she confronts a cross-fire of military and personal challenges. A conniving superior seeks to discredit her, while an enigmatic yet alluring colleague cycles between nemesis and confidante.

As she struggles to defuse escalating military tension in the western Pacific, her rebellious teenage son — beguiled by a mysterious Internet predator — acts out and forces her to re-evaluate life choices and to face down personal demons from her past. As her self-assurance crumbles, she confronts and overcomes her own history of an abusive childhood and toxic marriage. When the unexpected specter of her destroyed marriage threatens to take her son, she brings to bear her aviator instincts and combat-honed courage in a desperate battle far more dangerous than a shooting war.

Note: Adult content.

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