Part XI: Descent
Chapter Fifty-Five -- Traction
I awoke aboard the hospital ship Sgt. Carlos Vicente in excruciating agony, noting wryly that it had been named for a man killed by friendly fire. My head and nose ached terribly. As I tried to lift my hands to my face I discovered that, just as they had been so long ago, my arms were in restraints. It is a standard procedure for patients coming out of surgery for obvious reasons. The instinctive human reaction to pain is to touch it, and one can only guess how many hours of delicate surgery has been undone by a patient reaching up and poking around after regaining consciousness. I did not yet know what had happened to me, but I could tell by the way my body felt that it was serious. My knee, back, nose, and jaws were throbbing, screaming madly for my attention. This must be how a Valkyrie feels just before it comes apart. I needed something for the pain--something to make it stop. I tried to call out, but my throat was jammed full of tubes to help me breathe and eat. I forgot about the pain. Instead, my mind focused on the realization that my breathing was not under my control. I could feel myself beginning to panic. The cool, fearless, larger-than-life air warrior disappeared, replaced by a scared, paranoid, utterly helpless collection of bruises and broken bones. My racing heart quickly garnered the attention of the duty nurse who rushed into my room to check on me. I could see her mousy little face in the light--not a beauty queen, but awfully cute, with sandy hair pulled back in a single pony tail. "Don't worry about a thing. You're going to be all right. This will help you relax," she said, motioning her head toward the fluid she was injecting into my IV. "I'm going to take good care of you." Those words, coming from such an attractive lady, sounded rather heavenly. Oh, gawd, I hope you will. I really hope you will. The drugs were clearly taking effect! The room began to blur somewhat, and then it went dark. Think I'll take a nap and dream about blondes with big bustlines.
Between dreams of big-breasted blondes and visits from the doctor, came hours of sheer boredom. I was pretty worn out, not to mention wounded. The results of my silk parachute ride were not what one looks for when he signs up to fly jets: two vertebrae in my back had been fused together, my knee was almost totally reconstructed have been all-but destroyed by shrapnel and fifteen days' hiking on it afterwards, a dislocated shoulder, fractured elbow, a nice fat scar on the right side of my hairline, just above the forehead, and mild radiation poisoning, the damage from which could take years to manifest itself. Some medals and citations rested on my bed stand, as did a letter from my squadron mates urging me to get well. The doctors are saying I should recover fully, but their eyes betray the belief that my flying career is over. I am low. Lower than I have been in some time. Flying is all I know. It is who I am. Without flying, what will I do, sack groceries? It is a thought I dare not consider again. I must find a way, somehow. I had been lucky. The fire that I had found was started by refugees, survivors of a Zentraedi attack. They were friendly to us, and managed to carry me on an improvised stretcher to medical help. I was transferred by helicopter to the hospital ship, and in two weeks' time, would be back in the United States. My squadron was due to stand down shortly as well to resupply and regroup for more strikes. A third of the men that were with me on the day I was shot down were no longer with us. Dead. Their bodies nothing now but bits of flesh, meat, and bone scattered among the jungle. Lizard food or plant food, it didn't matter. They existed now only as memories. Their sacrifice was not entirely in vain, however. The operation was indeed costly, and it was bleeding the Navy of its flight crews faster than they could be replaced. It was believed we were on the verge of breaking the enemy, but it remained to be seen if we would break ourselves first. I missed my squadron. It doesn't matter who they are, the men you go to war with become as close as any family. When they suffer a part of you suffers, too. A man will walk through fire for one of his comrades, no matter his skin color, religious background, or accent. People who might otherwise never speak when passing on a street will lay their lives down for each other in the blink of an eye. It is an amazing thing to behold. I think of my family and smile. In two weeks I will be with them again, and my spirit lifts joyfully. I miss my kids now more than I ever believed possible. Casey mouthing out words in that babbling way that kids do, and Lisa, trying so hard to sound like a grown up, using words she doesn't even understand. I missed that so much. Well, if I truly am finished flying, perhaps it is for good reason. My family needs me. I will just be a full-time dad, and that's a pretty darned good career. Though I am miserable physically, spiritually I am much happier. Right now my life is nothing but options. I can do whatever I choose, and I pass my time making plans for the future, remembering the past, keeping a positive attitude. If this is my last hurrah, perhaps it is a good thing. I have ejected from jet fighters three times now, have crashed at least three times more. Close calls have been avoided more often than I care to even think about. I have been hit by enemy fire more than two dozen times. I have survived more than seven hundred combat missions totaling a few thousand hours' flight time. I have fought in space, on the ground, in the air, and lived far longer than nearly all my peers. Is this truly the best use of my life? Will my family grow up father-less if I continue down this path? Is there anything left to prove? What exactly am I proving, any way? That I'm good at this nonsense? Or am I merely re-emphasizing that I'm just another dumb-lucky bastard? They are questions I examine in great detail, recalling events from earlier in my career. My most recent ejection was just one of many aerial misadventures that began on a blustery April day, the day of my sixteenth birthday, a day that was by far the most terrifying birthday of my life--most terrifying day of my life for that matter. My mind was full of anxiety and tension--not to mention fear. Everything I had ever learned about flying an airplane was about to be put to the test, and I realized that if I screwed up, it could be fatal. As my mother drove me to the airport I realized that I couldn't even drive a car! Who was I to think that I could fly a plane??!!! We arrived at the airport and I went inside to see my instructor, George Mejeur (pronounced "major"). He was worried about the wind, which was gusting a little too much for his comfort. The single-most satisfying accomplishment for an American pilot is to solo on his sixteenth birthday--the earliest day allowed by the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). After hearing George's report, I began to worry that I wouldn't be able to solo on my birthday as I had so dearly hoped to. The tension I felt could have been cut with a knife. I was so scared. The day before, George had taken me up to concentrate on landings. I had done well, and he admonished me to get some sleep that evening. "Go to bed tonight, early, and rest. No screwing off." I was sixteen years old. Is there any doubt what I did? I went to the local skating rink with Elsa, the girl I loved more than any other. She was so beautiful, with tight blue jeans and a bright smile, and she made me the envy of everyone there. If those that saw us had only known the truth... As I skated around on the wood floor I pretended I was in that high wing Cessna "Skybug." Practicing checklists and calling out airspeeds in my mind, I rehearsed what would transpire the next day. I was scared to death and wanted so desperately to tell Elsa what I felt. I could die tomorrow. In the movies the courageous hero bears his soul to the pretty girl and she falls madly in love with him. It didn't happen that way for me. I stammered and stuttered. Elsa hardly noticed the fear that welled up in me. "You'll be fine." Sometimes I wonder why I even bothered. Still, adolescent fumbling aside, it was a good thing that I went skating instead of to bed. It helped me unwind and helped me get some sleep. I received my aircraft assignment from George and went out to the ramp to look over the airplane, Cessna Model 152, N94290. I saw my physician, Dr. Joe McDonald, pre-flighting his airplane and decided to go talk to him about my apprehension. He said my fear was normal and that he had felt the same way the day he soloed. He said I would be fine, and I welcomed the encouragement. I was also glad he was there in case anything bad happened, for I knew he would take care of me. I walked back over to "290" and realized that this monster would cost more money than anything I could ever afford, and if I screwed up, how would I pay for it? Before I could answer myself, George came out of the office. "Come on, Jeff. We've got about thirty minutes of favorable wind conditions so let's not waste any time." I gave my mom a hug and climbed into the airplane. With a thump I slammed the door shut. George taxied the airplane out to the taxiway and performed the runup with practiced precision. Before I even realized what had happened, we were climbing out over the airport. I saw Dr. Joe's plane take off below us, and a feeling of assurance washed over me. Everything would be okay. George said to make a few practice landings with him to be sure I'm ready. The fear I had felt before was banished for the moment, replaced by a sort of detachment difficult to explain. "Left aileron, right rudder...Left aileron, right rudder," he reminded me as we flew around the traffic pattern. After a couple of landings my seasoned instructor decided that everything looked okay and that I was ready. I heard George explaining to the tower that this would be my first solo flight and, when I was ready to go, I'd call them up. After signing my logbook he stepped out of the plane. It was at this point that I began to feel very scared--more so than anything I had felt in the days leading up to this moment. I tried to tell him to get back into the damn plane, but no sound came from my mouth! As I taxied to the end of the runway, my heart stuck in my throat. I debated whether or not to taxi back to the ramp and say, "I'm sorry, George. I just can't hack it." Then, with a sudden burst of boldness I decided to myself, "Well, I've come this far...What the Hell!!" With a final Hail Mary--or two, or ten--I pushed the throttle forward and soared through the wild blue. This is what Magee meant when he wrote that "High Flight" poem! I thought of George's instructions to me before he hopped out of the plane... "Give me two touch-and-goes and one full stop." No problem. On my first time around the pattern, everything was fine and I felt pretty good. I was flying the airplane well, and there were no bumps in the air. But then, all hell broke loose. My final approach was smooth and on the money, but as I flared, my left wing dropped suddenly. I yelped to myself, "Oh shit!" and wrenched the yoke hard to the right. Screech! My left wheel touched the runway and then my right, as I bounded down the runway. Thanking God for preventing me from making a crater in the ground, I added power and went around for another one. On my second try, I noticed a tall pillar of smoke rising into the sky on my right. What an omen to have on my first solo flight, I thought to myself. Then the tower told me to extend my pattern downwind of the airport for three minutes so they could release a Continental Airlines 727. One would think he would have gotten the hell out of my way since he knew how to fly a bit better than I did! No doubt the controller was more concerned with how much gas the other guy would burn while waiting for me to land my squirrely airplane. Perhaps he was afraid I'd land on the 727 instead of the runway! "Better to kill one little student pilot than kill one student pilot and one hundred fifty passengers." I grudgingly complied with his directive. I buzzed along for three minutes, wondering to myself if I would ever find the airport again. A student pilot suffers from a strange form of myopia where everything beyond about a quarter of a mile from the airplane is basically non-existent. Somehow, I managed to find the runway and head for it, the 727 leaving a dark smoke trail in the sky ahead. After taking this abuse, I didn't feel things could get any worse, but they did. The tower instructed me to execute a right 360 to maintain traffic separation and to allow for wake turbulence. I banked the Cessna into a gentle right hand turn. It seemed to take forever. Below me I saw a cemetery and realized that God was playing tricks on me--first my doctor, then a pillar of smoke, and now this! It was almost too much. But God had some more tricks up His sleeve, and during my 360, the wind shifted 180 degrees. Nobody in the tower bothered to tell me, but I found out soon enough on my own. As I descended on final, it became painfully apparent that I was not getting any closer to the runway. I tried everything I had been taught to lose altitude--pull the power, dump the flaps, slip the airplane sideways to increase the descent rate--and still no luck. I declared a missed approach and went around again. The tower informed me of the wind change and asked, "Would you prefer to take another runway, sir?" Duh! What do you think, pal?! "Yes, please," I replied sheepishly. "Very well, execute a right 180, cleared for the option runway one-three." On this approach I informed the tower of my intention to make this landing a full stop. (I discovered later that Dr. Joe was on his way back to the airport to give me a hand because the tower was giving me such a hard time. I also found out that George was out on the tarmac, jumping up and down, waving and screaming at the guys in the tower in a futile attempt to get their attention. He wanted me to come down. One of his former students came out and gave him a hand-held radio. He told the tower to get me down. They in turn told him that I had already decided thus.) I made a nice landing on that pass, settling to the runway without even the slightest jolt. It was a real greaser, and I taxied back to where George was waiting. He hopped in and we taxied back to the ramp, a smile plastered on his round face. We shut down the airplane and George ran inside. He came out with my mom and a camera, and I posed beside my beloved 290. It was a happy moment in my life, and a truly memorable way to celebrate a birthday! Was it a foretelling of events to come? I'm sure it wasn't the most inauspicious beginning for a fighter pilot, after all, General Robert Lee Scott, the famed P-40 ace who wrote "God is my Co-Pilot" started out flying (crashing) homemade airplanes off the roofs of barns. By comparison it was pretty dull, no doubt, but then, no first solo is dull to the pilot doing it! There were other misadventures along the way. A blown tire in a Tomahawk that shut down part of the airport until we could tow it off comes to mind... Dogfighting with a fellow student named Tasdemeer on a cross-country flight... Getting stuck in the cockpit of an F4U Corsair when my second instructor ("Barrth Vader" we called him) offered to let me shut the canopy. "Go ahead and close it up if you want." I did. He walked off. I couldn't get the thing open. I knew he was laughing at me as bullets of sweat gushed from my pores in the old warbird. Somehow I managed to get it open and ran over to my instructor, doing my best to pretend nothing had happened. I thought for sure I'd detected a slight smirk on his face. Then there was the day I nearly killed myself. I decided to myself that the day was going to be fine. Armed with the weather report, I worked out the details of my flight--with some difficulty--and filed my flight plan. As a student at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, I welcomed the opportunity to fly my first solo cross-country flight on a Saturday--not only did I get to fly during the cool part of the day, but I was able to miss drill practice. The weather was clear with broken clouds east of my route. This gave me confidence, as I would be able to see my check points fairly easily, though I was a bit nervous. Barrth Vader looked over my flight plan and warned me, "Come back if you run into any clouds. Stay away from clouds. Period. Do not cross the Rio Grande River either. Stay out of Mexican Airspace." Equipped with this information I set out to the airplane. After going through the check list and situating the cockpit, I started the Tomahawk's engine. Once the engine warmed up I adjusted the Heading Indicator. Butterflies were dancing in my stomach as I taxied out to runway 17L and performed my run up. It was here that I missed one of the crucial aspects of the check list--re-situating the Heading Indicator. During the taxi, the gyro had precessed, giving me a false reading which I failed to correct. I requested a north departure--this would take me right over the Academy. I advanced the throttle and was airborne after a short roll. Turning right as I climbed, I flew over the parade field and saw my buddies marching. I wagged my wings in a salute, thinking how lucky I was to be flying that day. I established my heading of 310 degrees and activated my flight plan. I picked up the outbound radial from the Harlingen VOR and leveled off at my cruising altitude. It was a beautiful day and I took a moment to gaze around. Ahead of me was a broken layer of clouds--this should have been my first warning that something was amiss, but I failed to notice. The clouds were broken after all, and if I wanted to come down, I could easily find a hole. With this faulty reasoning came a renewed sense of confidence, and so I settled into flying the airplane. My VOR needle was centered, I was on course, and the engine was running smoothly. It was a great day to fly. Soon I was out of range of the Harlingen VOR and switched over to the Laredo VOR. Since it too was out of range, I relied on my Heading Indicator to keep course until it did. This set the stage for what was to follow. I don't know if it was my preoccupation with what was happening in the cockpit or just a lack of situational awareness, but the cloud layer solidified beneath me. This, coupled with the fact that the Laredo VOR had not yet come on, made me a bit nervous. I decided to be patient and continued on--in the wrong direction. It was not until several minutes had passed that I realized I was on top of the cloud layer. Looking behind me I saw the clouds extend to the horizon--there was no way to go back. I was stuck. Letting my pride get the best of me I decided to get out of the situation myself. This was in direct violation of a cardinal rule for pilots--never allow emotion and pride to override intelligence and judgment. I picked up the Laredo VOR and found I had strayed off course. Adjusting my H.I., I turned to intercept the inbound radial and then began looking for a way down. I searched for a hole in the clouds, and much to my relief, I found one. I pulled back on the throttle and descended. As I neared the hole, it seemed to rush up at me. I lowered the flaps to increase my rate of descent so as not to overshoot the hole, but it didn't work. As I passed between two towering cumulus clouds the airplane began to buffet. I slammed the throttle forward and climbed again, visions of turbulence ripping my airplane to shreds dancing in my head. Circling around again, I looked for the hole and decided I couldn't make it through. I continued on above the clouds, disoriented, but heading the right way--so I thought. Laredo was long since past me. It was then that I committed my next error. Thinking I was on a course to the VOR, I decided I had to get down somehow. Since there were no holes, my only choice was to go through the clouds. Thinking that my experience under the hood--albeit limited--would be sufficient, I descended through the clouds. I felt so completely disoriented that it was an effort to keep the turn-bank indicator level. Needless to say I was lucky to get down without stalling or spinning the airplane. I popped out of the clouds at 1,200 feet. The sky was gray, and visibility was poor. I looked at the VOR needle and realized things were not good for me--it had turned off. I cursed my stupidity and decided that I had to go back up again, for I was too low to pick up the VOR. For some reason the thought of my instructor's warning about staying north of the Rio Grande River popped into my head, and I searched to be sure I hadn't crossed it. Peering to my left I spotted a short runway, the STOL markings on the approach ends standing out clearly even in the grayness. Had I used better judgment I would have landed and determined exactly where I was, but my pride told me I could get back above the clouds without any problems. I added power and began to climb. Once again I failed to avoid a situation that placed me in grave peril. Inexperienced as a pilot--much less an instrument pilot--I relied on what limited knowledge I possessed to get me through the clouds safely. The plane pitched and rolled as I repeatedly over corrected. As my airspeed fell, so did my rate of climb, and what should have been a short, thirty second climb turned into four minutes of unimaginable hell. I felt a great deal of pressure in my head--I was undoubtedly pulling some G's--and became nauseous. The stall warning horn blurped sporadically adding to the urgency of the situation. All the sensory inputs I was feeling began to overload me. I was terrified, but I urged the Tomahawk upward, relying completely upon the Attitude Indicator and a few cursory glances at the VSI and Airspeed Indicator to keep myself alive. At 2,500 feet I popped out of the clouds and picked up the VOR once again. Though it was now clear that I had no idea where I was, I just followed the radial from the VOR, my pride dictating what I was doing. I simply could not bring myself to admit it to the world that I was lost. After several minutes the VOR needle swung to the off position. I remembered something about how that happened when you passed over a VOR, and I decided that I was over Laredo. I contacted Laredo Tower and told the controller I was descending through the clouds over the Laredo VOR to land. Once again I failed to use discretion and ask for help, opting to descend through the cloud layer. I broke through the overcast at 1,500 feet again and found myself over a bunch of tiny lakes. Checking my map I discovered that I could have been anywhere east of Laredo. I tried to adjust my bearings by using the lakes, but they all looked the same. I was beside myself. I flew around for several minutes wondering what to do next, thinking I could still figure things out. The tower came on the radio and asked me to reply. I did so--several times. Finally, I was able to get through. The controller said they had been calling me for several minutes and asked me to report my position. I was unable to do so and so I was told to Squawk 1277. Houston Center, working through the Laredo Controller, toiled at vectoring me to Laredo. I was going the wrong way again, and after several minutes trying to figure out where I was--during which time I was told to adjust my Heading Indicator--Houston was able to get me to the airport. I landed without incident and taxied to the ramp where I was met by the controller who had helped save me. He asked me to come inside and we talked for a few minutes. It turned out that he was an FAA Safety Advisor and we discussed the day's dilemma. Apparently, he figured out where I was when I mentioned clouds. The entire area was clear except for some broken clouds to the northeast. I discovered that my second descent through the clouds was done at extreme peril, for he informed me that I had come down through an instrument approach path. I was lucky I didn't collide with a Learjet, he said. The controller told me to explain what had happened to my instructor when I returned home, and I agreed. Consumed with pride--or perhaps raw fear--I never breathed a word to my instructor about the incident, though I'm sure he figured it out when I got lost on a subsequent flight--again failing to adjust the Heading Indicator. I learned some valuable lessons that day, some of which I was forced to relearn time and time again. First, had I followed my checklist properly I could have caught the error with the Heading Indicator and not have been placed in a situation of peril. Secondly, had I been more aware of my situation and kept on top of things in the cockpit, I would have noticed the many warnings I received. Lastly, had I ignored my pride and instead used good judgment--i.e. asked for help--I would have been spared a great deal of misery while avoiding potential disaster. Clearly this last lesson is the hardest one for a pilot to learn. We're taught to be self-reliant, and being proficient and competent are things we judge--and are judged--by. Admitting one needs help is seen as a tarnish on the reputation by many, and the result is often a broken airplane and a dead pilot. It is not a weakness for a pilot to admit he is wrong and ask for help, but this is one of the hardest things to get pilots to believe. If only we championed the fact that the ability to admit one's mistakes is perhaps the greatest quality a pilot can have, there would be fewer broken airplanes. None of this escaped my instructor, either. On a subsequent flight I received the biggest ass-chewing of my life when Vader had me track the VOR. I didn't know what I was doing and he said as much. "You don't have a gawdamned clue what the hell you are doing, do you?!!" For some reason, navigation would prove the bane of my existence for many years. It wasn't until my stint in Corpus as an instructor that I finally began to actually understand it enough to be confident about it. As my ground school instructor noted, "The best way to learn something is to teach it." This proved to be completely true. I recalled how scared I had been on my first flight in the Valkyrie, and how my first combat mission seemed, in hindsight, anti-climatic by comparison. The many months on SDF-1 and how they were just a blur of short naps, occasional meals, and non-stop flying, flying, flying. The fatigue from those days running off the scale of human comprehension. The empty racks, especially those guys in Two-One-Five who had that damned "unlucky bunk." Every man who slept in it ended up getting killed. The last guy who slept in it actually lived through three weeks of combat, only to fall off the deck of Prometheus and drown after SDF-1 landed safely in the ocean. I think they burned it in effigy on the flight deck after that, warding off all the evil spirits that had lurked among them for so long. The hurried atmospheric flight training that qualified the space-only trained for combat. The mock dogfights, the strangeness of pulling nine Gs in a turn as opposed to two, three, or even four in space at the most. Then came Dolza, turning our planet into a great ball of charred earth and desolation. Those missions afterward when the atmosphere was full of smoke and ash. The first instrument flights where the only thing keeping us from killing ourselves was a trusty full-axis auto pilot. Losing everything in the clouds one day and having to hand fly the ship to the ground with only a magnetic compass and a few small standby instruments for guidance. The dogfights. Watching the rounds from my cannon rip a Raulon've into shreds. The were powerful as all hell, and the Zentraedi seemed to have them in droves, but they couldn't turn worth a damn. They were so bent on fighting that we'd force them to do it on our terms. Up high we couldn't turn very well either, so we forced them to come down to the medium altitudes and duke it out. It was almost always one-sided. We couldn't outrun them, and we never outnumbered them, but we always found a way to outfight them. If they had only tweaked their tactics (used one group to get us in a turning fight and another to slash us to pieces) things may have been different. Strike missions. How we had to fly the plane, navigate, watch for good guys, watch for bad guys, watch for SAMs, watch for fighters, watch for the target, listen to the radios, and try to do all of it without going completely bananas. That horrible tone of a radar lock that made the hair on your neck stand at attention. The thump in the seat when you ejected. Any of it--all...of it--a rush. I would miss this life tremendously, the camaraderie, the knowledge that you were making a difference in the grand scheme of things. Could anything else in the world top it? Surely not. Besides, it sure beat the hell out of sitting immobile in a hospital bed or plodding door to door selling insurance policies. Didn't it?
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995-2000 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
Copyright © 1996 Robert Morgenstern
Version Last Updated: 02 October 2000