Part IX: Cruise
Chapter 47 -- In Transit
Inverted, I pulled out of burner at nine thousand feet, and began to pitch for level flight. "Macross Departure, Navy Jet Three Nine Zero with you out of nine point five for twelve thousand."
A short pause. "Navy Three Niner Zero, Macross Departure, ident."
I pressed the "IDENT" button on my transponder and called back, "Three Niner Zero is identing." Upon reaching 12,000 feet, I rolled upright and pulled my power back to keep my speed below 250 knots.
"Navy Three Niner Zero, Macross Departure. Radar contact. Turn right heading one-six-five, maintain twelve thousand. Expect higher shortly," the deep voice of the controller called into the night.
I banked to the right. "One-six-five and twelve thousand for Three Niner Zero."
I rolled out on my southerly heading and cruised steadily toward my destination. The lights of New Macross cast a beautiful yellow-orange glow as they slid beneath my right wing. At the city's center, in the middle of a water-filled crater, a lonely, tired warrior sat shimmering in the light of the now vast metropolis. I could see her clearly against the glowing backdrop, this giant hunk of steel that had been my home for so long. At one time I found myself hating that ship, wanting nothing more than to be off it, but now...as she shrank slowly behind me, I felt a twinge of sadness. I would miss the old girl. She had been a good, faithful ship.
I turned away, intent on shifting my attention back to flying my airplane. Try as I might, I couldn't help but take one last glance at the SDF-1 fading in the distance. When I took my eyes off of her for the last time, she was replaced by memories that emerged out of the blackness. My wife's smile. In every way she was a beautiful woman, that Rebeckah...and I missed her terribly. The first time I ever flew a combat mission. I was so inept that day, staring at the HUD and pushing buttons on the stick when it said to. How I ever survived that first mission--let alone hit anything--is nothing short of miraculous. Waylan, Josh, and Max grab assing at the restaurant, as they were wont to do. Those guys were characters, then. But things had changed so dramatically. Waylan was dead...Josh was a changed man in many ways--married, soon to be a squadron commander, a two child parent now...husband. Max...he wasn't even speaking to me any longer.
Before I had left I made one last try to see Max and apologize in person to him and Miriya, but I wasn't able to find them. I would have made it an hourly ritual if I could, but I had to be there for Josh in his time of need and couldn't spare the time to go off in a selfishly vain attempt to ease my own guilty conscience. I wasn't sure how, but I vowed to one day right that particular wrong. Until then, I would have to be satisfied with the short hand written note I had left on Max's door, and simply carry with me the burden of knowing I had hurt a good friend, surely one of the most painful of all crosses to bear.
In time, self-criticism gave way to other thoughts...thoughts of the things I had seen and done...the memory of a particular mission I had flown with Josh and Waylan, the date now fuzzy in my mind, the details as fresh as if they had just happened. To save us fuel, the SDF-1 pointed Prometheus in the direction of our patrol area and we launched. Our first patrol of the day was always done in burner to insure it would function correctly, and the blue fire spewing from our engines was surely spectacular. It had been a slow week, and vigilance often waned when combat lulls descended upon us. Before we arrived on station to relieve the Valks on patrol there, a force of Zentraedi Queadlun Rau battle suits pounced them mercilessly. It was a slaughter.
I arrived on the scene just in time to witness three Veritechs erupt before my eyes. I searched the sky frantically for friendly fighters, and couldn't see a single one. Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a lone Valk being herded by a trio of Quadronos as they made attack runs from all directions.
"Husky, Don. Let's drive them off the Valk at left ten o'clock! Slash 'em and clover."
We fought those Quadronos--at least a dozen of them--tooth and nail, just the three of us, and succeeded in killing nine while driving the survivors off. Waylan and Josh were flat out amazing that day, and I don't think there was a single Quadrono that returned home without a dozen 55mm holes stitched in its side.
I thought of Waylan's brutal death and its effect on those of us who knew him. I thought of my children--or perhaps "our" children, seeing as how the kids, Josh, Kristy, and I had all become a sort of "super family." I thought of my parents. My father, growing tired of his job after so many years, had contemplated retirement. My mother, classy and supportive, standing behind his decision, whatever it might be. My brother, always a problem child, now considering an enlistment--a sign that he was becoming a responsible individual. Max "Igloo" Sterling, "Wild Bill" Brubaker, Nathan Morris, Jacien Carr, Joe Burkett. Faces and memories flashed before my eyes for an instant, lifelong reminders of events that had forced us all to grow up a little bit faster than we would have liked.
Was it worth it? Would I do it all again? After careful deliberation I decided that it was, and that I would.
"Navy Three Niner Zero, Macross Departure. Climb and maintain Flight Level Two Three Zero."
"Three Niner Zero leaving fourteen point oh for two three zero."
I eased the throttle forward and started a climb to 23,000 feet, the lights of New Macross fading slowly in my mirrors.
"Navy Three Niner Zero, Macross Departure."
"Three Niner Zero, go ahead Departure."
"Three Niner Zero, Departure. Spacy One Zero One is at your seven o'clock, one zero miles, says he would like to form up on you if you have no objections."
I wondered who could possibly want to join up on me. "Uh, Three Niner Zero, roger. Negative contact on the traffic. Have him form up on my right wing."
"Three Niner Zero, understand. Break. Spacy One Zero One, Three Niner Zero requests you join up on his right side. He's at your two o'clock, nine miles."
The controller was working split frequencies tonight, as I did not hear the other pilot reply.
It didn't take long for me to reach 23,000 feet, but once I did, I eased off on the power to allow the other jet to close on me. I wasn't sure who it was, but part of me was hopeful that it would prove to be a certain well-known ace. I peered over my right shoulder and caught sight of the other plane's navigation lights, glowing in their familiar red and green. As he continued to close, the nav lights went dark, and this prompted me to turn mine off as well, knowing the other pilot would now concentrate on the faint green formation light strips located at various positions on my aircraft.
I took a quick glance to the right and saw the other jet sitting off my right wingtip, bobbing in the night air like some kind of high-tech vampire. He flashed his formation lights on and off three times and I called the controller.
"Macross Departure, Navy Three Niner Zero would like to go off frequency for a few minutes, if that's okay with you."
"Three Niner Zero, Departure, roger. Frequency change approved."
"Three Niner Zero."
I flipped to Button Three and called, "Three Niner Zero up, Button Three."
"How you doin' ol' boy? I hear you're moving down south for the winter." It was indeed, Max.
I glanced over to the right and recognized my old friend, bathed in the red cockpit lights of his dark blue fighter. "Hey, Max! It's good to see you again my friend."
"Ditto for, me, Jake. I got your note, and I just wanted to catch you before you left so I could let you know that I hold no ill feelings for you whatsoever. Sometimes we say things we don't really mean...and that aside...I understand how you felt. I mean, I've never really lost anyone that close to me so I have no idea what it's like--and I pray I never have to find out...but...it's hard to blame anyone in your situation for feeling that way. I am sorry things got so strained between us, and I take a large part of the blame. I should have swallowed some foolish pride and shook your hand. Please, please, please remember...that you will always be my friend, and that wherever you go, you go with Miriya's and my blessing."
Max's comments struck a chord inside my gut that are difficult to describe. A giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and what a tremendous relief it was finally be rid of it. "Well thank you, my friend. You will never know what you have said means to me. I really never meant what I said, I hope you know that."
"I know it. Hell, it probably got exaggerated in the grape vine any way. I should have come to you first thing, and I realize that now."
I nodded. "We've had a lot of fun, haven't we?"
I saw him nod his head in the glowing red cockpit. "We sure have. And we'll have more someday, soon. Just do a good job down there and see if you can't finagle a way back up here."
"I will..." I paused. "You'd better get back before they find out you're talking to me and ship you off to Angola or something."
Max erupted into his trademark laugh. "Yeah, I suppose." There was a long silence as the two of us--warriors, colleagues, and friends--coasted lazily southward at 23,000 feet. It would have been a nice painting. "Take care, friend," he said with a salute.
With that typical Sterling flair, Max ignited his afterburners and broke smartly out of formation, knifing away and down, his nav lights winking on in the darkness. I watched him as he disappeared in the distance, a melancholy silence in his wake. After a few reflective moments, I called the controller up and headed south toward my destination, happier now than I had been in some time. Perhaps things weren't so bad after all.
One could hope, couldn't he?
As I proceeded southward I was handed off from one controller to the next. Each had his/her own voice, personality, and peeves. One particular controller stands out clearly in my mind, even to this day. He was the Kansas-area controller and I referred to him as "Grumpy." It didn't matter what a pilot did or said, it seemed that Grumpy would find an excuse to read him the riot act, or else, just be plain rude.
On that night, Grumpy made a call to an airplane at the same time another airplane was calling him. Instead of a nice clear communication the frequency erupted into a ton of static and squealing. Not sure what the call had been about, and fearing it may have been intended for him, an Express Air captain called out "Blocked" on the radio. This would let the controller know that his instructions hadn't been heard and needed to be repeated.
"Who just called 'blocked?'" Grumpy questioned in a huff.
"Express Air Thirteen Oh One."
"Yeah, Express Air 1301, use more discretion when calling out blocked," he hissed into the radio. "Just because you didn't hear it doesn't mean the other guy didn't."
I couldn't believe my ears! What a jerk! I keyed the mike and noted, nonchalantly, "Someone needs to get laid."
"Who the hell said that?!" Grumpy roared back.
"Heh, I might be crazy but I'm not stupid," I replied.
The airwaves erupted with a ton of short lived, "Attaboy's" and guffaws as pilots keyed their mikes one by one in agreement. I had started a small mutiny, and though it didn't make Grumpy act any nicer, it sure made us all feel better to cut him down a notch.
As I crossed into Oklahoma I began humming the notes to the classic George Strait tunes, "All My Exes Live in Texas" ("...and Texas is a place, I'd dearly love to be...") and "I Can't See Texas From Here," my excitement inversely proportional to the distance from my home state. When I crossed the Red River I couldn't help but cheer, and when I called up the Dallas Approach controller I did it with an unusual greeting.
"Dallas Approach, Navy Three Niner Zero, with you at Flight Level Two Three Zero. Remember the Alamo! It's been a long time."
The controller shared my enthusiasm, and his cheerful "Welcome home, Tex!" greeting made me smile with pride.
From Dallas down to Corpus Christi, the weather in the skies over Texas went to hell in a hurry. A huge line of Level Four and greater Thunderstorms had sprung up earlier in the evening, but instead of remaining over the Hill Country to the west of my flight path, they made their way eastward, forcing me to make a huge detour to get around them. I'd seen and heard too many tales of pilots trying to go through thunderstorms only to end up as millions of pieces of steel strewn over a fifty square mile area, and I didn't intend to become a statistic.
Thunderstorms are a brutal force of nature, and their influence is not limited to the area that immediately surrounds them. They have been known to hurl softball-sized hail fifty miles and churn the air into an impenetrable maelstrom no airplane can survive. Going below them isn't much of an option, as this can subject you to all sorts of other hazards, including low-level wind shear and microbursts. Climbing over them is a sure-fire way to die, too, as they can climb upwards at rates that exceed the capabilities of most modern aircraft. When one encounters a thunderstorm the only way to insure survival is to give them a very wide berth.
As lightning flared in the distance I turned up the red cockpit lights to their highest intensity, pulled my seat belt as tight as I could comfortably stand it, and held on as I was slammed up and down by the turbulence in the night air. My engines hummed faithfully in the background as rain drops thudded on the canopy like cannon rounds. After twenty minutes or so I broke clear and was able to head toward Corpus.
The weather there was far better, but visibility was pretty poor at the surface, thanks to a fog layer that had moved in from the coast. How fitting, I thought, to be heading for an assignment as an instrument instructor and have to shoot a real deal instrument approach.
I went through the familiar "ASAP MICE ATM" (ATIS, NAV/Radio Stack Check, Approach Brief: Marker Beacon/Magnetic Compass, Identify NAV aids and approach plates, Course for the approach, Entry Full/Vectored, Altitudes for the approach, Time for missed approach, Missed Approach Point; Pre-Landing Checklist) ritual in preparation for the ILS Approach to Runway 8L at Navy Corpus Christi. The GAPS satellite network was a shambles, and until it could be stabilized we would use conventional precision approaches.
"I have the ATIS. Radios are set," I said to myself, consulting the approach plate on my kneeboard and ensuring that I had the ILS dialed into my number one NAV radio, NAV 2 to the GAPS for positional awareness, the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) slaved to NAV 1, and my other frequencies dialed into my COM radios. "Approach Brief: marker beacons are on, mag compass and heading indicator are set. Approach plate is," I looked at it, "ILS Runway 8 Left, Navy Corpus. Identify NAV Aid," I pressed the IDENT button on my radio stack and listened for the three letter Morse Code identifier--cross-referencing it with the code box on my approach plate--that told me I had the proper frequency dialed in. "Course is 080, entry is vectored, altitude is 1700 feet until glide slope then down to Decision Height of 225 feet. Time for missed approach is a minute and six seconds at 150 knots. MAP is at 225 feet."
"Navy Three Niner Zero, Corpus Christi Approach. Descend and maintain six thousand, turn left heading zero-one-zero, vectors for the ILS Runway 8 Left at Navy Corpus Christi. Navy Corpus ATIS Information Charlie is current. Reporting visibility three quarters of a mile with rain, ceiling three hundred overcast," the controller called.
"Zero-one-zero and six thousand for Three Niner Zero," I radioed into the darkness.
I popped out of the clouds and looked around me. The blackness was total, with not a single light to be seen below whatsoever...not one. This area of the great state of Texas was as lifeless as the moon.
"Pre-landing checklist. Fuel to both, gear is stand-by, fuel pumps are on. Landing light is on. Boards checked. Checklist complete except for boards, flaps, spoilers, slats, and gear."
"Three Niner Zero, descend and maintain two thousand."
"Three Niner Zero, leaving six for two."
I pulled more power off and descended down to two thousand feet, punching through several cloud tops.
Five minutes later the controller called again. "Three Niner Zero, vectors for the ILS: you are eight miles from 'Dolphin' [the outer marker], turn right heading zero-six-zero, maintain two thousand until established, cleared for ILS Runway 8 Left Corpus Christi."
"Zero-six-zero and two thousand, cleared for the approach, Navy Three Niner Zero."
I banked gently to the right, completely surrounded by clouds once more, and concentrated on my instruments. My Valk rocked and bumped in the turbulence as I headed toward the final approach corridor. The localizer needle--which displayed course information--on my Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) came alive and began to center up. When it did, I turned to my 080 degree heading and tracked it inbound, waiting for the glideslope indicators to come alive. When they did, I held my altitude and airspeed and waited until I had intercepted the glide slope.
The Outer Marker Beacon began its familiar "Beeeeep-beeeeep-beeeeep-beeeeep" telling me I was over the final approach fix. "Boards, flaps, spoilers slats," I called out, toggling switches to configure my airplane for the descent. "Gear down, in transit." I flipped the gear handle to the DOWN position and waited for the three green lights to come on showing my gear were safe. "Three green, no red, gear down and locked." Now a dot high on the glide slope I began to descend toward the runway, holding the glideslope indicator in place with an 800 foot per minute descent rate.
"Three Niner Zero, contact Navy Corpus Tower 118.3, good night."
"Three Niner Zero to Tower, so long."
I pushed a button on the throttle and toggled my radio to the tower frequency. "Navy Corpus, Navy Jet Three Niner Zero is with you on the ILS 8 Left, just inside Dolphin."
"Three Niner Zero, Navy Corpus, cleared to land. Wind zero-niner-zero at one-five, altimeter 30.01."
"Cleared to land, Navy Three Niner Zero."
I continued to come down, watching my HUD as I flew the approach. I couldn't see a thing as I made my altitude calls. "A thousand above decision height...five hundred above decision height...two hundred above decision height..." If I reached the DH without the runway environment in sight I would have to "go missed" and try again." At twenty feet above DH I saw the approach lights. "Approach lights!" I called out. Pilots can't help but get excited when they see those beautiful "rabbit lights" pointing you to the runway.
"Gear down, three green, no red. Boards, flaps, spoilers, slats," I called out peering at my plane's various control surfaces to insure they were in the proper position.
I descended down to one hundred feet above the field elevation and continued toward the runway. The Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) lights on the left side of the runway cast a familiar red over white indication, showing I was on the glide slope. As I reached the threshold I pulled the power off so that by the 500 foot marker I was at idle thrust. I held the nose attitude just slight above the horizon and waited for the familiar bump that signaled touchdown as the runway lights whizzed past me on either side.
Bump, bump. Soft and beautiful as ever. The boards and spoilers, armed to deploy when the main struts compressed, popped fully open to add drag and kill lift, and I held the nose wheel off the runway as long as I could to aerodynamically brake my fighter and save wear and tear on the brakes.
"Three Niner Zero exit when able, contact Ground point three five."
I gently pressed the brakes and turned off at taxiway Lima. "Three Niner Zero, off at Lima, to Ground, see ya'."
I stopped, did my After Landing Checklist, and was given directions to the parking ramp where I would be met by a member of my new squadron. He would take me to my new home and fill me in on the details of what was to come in the next few weeks--namely "Instructor Standardization Class" or "Stands" as it was known, a three week process intended to bring all instructors up to speed and onto the same page. This insured that each instructor taught things the same way, and provided that those who graduated from training were endowed with similar knowledge and skills.
My room proved to be small--twelve feet by eighteen feet--with a bed, a small closet, and a desk/dresser. Thankfully I was an officer, which meant I had the room to myself. Enlisted pilots didn't have this luxury and were packed like sardines two to a room of the same size. I laughed when I saw it, but thought to myself, "What the hell...it's only for three weeks."
I sat on my bed and spied the box that Philo had given me on the desk. I leaned over and grabbed it, opening it carefully. Inside, sitting on top of a jumble of white tissue paper was a card. I opened it and nearly passed out from all the signatures inside it. There were at least a hundred names signed on that card, many of them from people I had never known, each with a short wish of good luck, or a thank you for some deed I had not even remembered.
"Thanks for saving my life," one of them wrote. "You don't know me, but I will never forget you, 'Sand Pebble One.' God bless you, sir! -- SSGT Phillip 'Groove' Pacelli, SVF-2"
I smiled and read each and every comment, then laid the card down. I pulled the tissue paper away and found a beautiful, hand made replica of Jim Bowie's famed "Bowie Knife." Attached to the handle by a string was a note signed by Josh, Plog, and other members of my squadron.
"Jim Bowie had one of these at the Alamo didn't he? Since you're going back down toward those parts we thought a Texan like you might find this thing handy. Best of luck to you from your comrades in arms."
I pulled the knife out of its sheeth. The knife, its blade shiny and sharp, was a true masterpiece of craftsmanship, and I sat there staring at it from every angle. I couldn't think of a better, more fitting gift than this one, and I would cherish it for the rest of my life.
I glanced around the small room. My gear, the knife, and the farewells served as proofs that my journey into a new world had truly begun... I would prove to be wrong about the three weeks, too.
Chapter 48 -- Fundamentals of Instruction
My little brother and I decided to hop on an airliner back to Texas from Canada. The first leg would end in Oklahoma, then on to Dallas. We bought our tickets and I sent him ahead so that I could take care of pick up arrangements. It took far longer than I expected. With ticket in hand--my gate number, an "18" surrounded by a circle, is stamped on it--I charged toward the "tran." An electric mini-subway train that traveled back and forth between the gates and the terminal, the tran was the only way to get over to my plane. I had only a few precious moments to get to the plane as the tran sped across the ramp toward the gates on the other side. Once it stopped, I leapt out of the car and charged toward the gate. There were turnstiles in front of a dozen different jetways, and I glanced at my ticket to see which gate my flight would leave from. The stamp was replaced by a thousand others, each a different number.
My blood ran cold. I searched frantically at the departure board overhead, looking for a flight to Texas via Oklahoma. I saw two. One through Tulsa, one through Oklahoma City. I panicked. I couldn't remember which way my flight was going!
I grabbed one of the blue-skirted ticket agents, her hair in a bun beneath her brim-less "fore-aft" cap, and asked her to help me, not caring whether or not I sounded calm. "Ma'am, can you help me find my plane?!" I offered the ticket to her and she took it.
"I...I don't see a gate number on here," she says.
"Damnit! My brother is on one of those airplanes and he will be stranded if I don't get to him!" I charged past her toward the gates. I took a guess that he would be going through Oklahoma City and headed up the jetway at a dead run. The gate agents were beginning to shut the airplane's door and I shouted at them from a distance, "Wait! Wait! I'm coming! Wait!" But they shut it any way as I rushed up to them. There are four of agents, all dressed in the same blue uniform, with the same hair bun, and the same hat.
The four female gate agents turn toward me like robots and begin chanting in unison, "You have to leave now, sir. You have to leave now, sir."
I turn to leave and I see the bodies--the girl I killed in her apartment and the leg-less torso with its blood trail. "You killed us... You killed us." It was a horrifying mantra, and I turned in terror to run back toward the gate agents, but they were driving the jetway away! The floor gave way beneath one of my feet as it departed from the gate ramp. The dead people moved toward me, I lost my balance, and fell.
"Ahhhh!" I jerk upright in my bed, sweat covering my entire body. I am breathing heavily and I grope in the darkness for my glasses. It's 0550. "Jesus...what a nightmare." Troubled by this recurring theme, I turn over and try to get some sleep--I have a busy day ahead--but slumber is a luxury I will not find this night.
The alarm blared in my ear--0800 hours. Exhausted, I dragged myself out of my rack, showered, shaved, dressed, and headed out of my quarters toward the Staff Duty Office. Red-roofed, and of architecture that seemed all to familiar, the SDO was the information center for the base--anything a new arrival needed to know could be found here. The Commander of the Guard, the senior enlisted man on guard duty that day, offered me a ride to the Mess Hall so I could grab some chow.
I hopped into the jeep and grasped the front window frame as the Commander of the Guard drove swiftly out of his parking space and onto Battalion Street. As we motored toward the Mess Hall I couldn't help but notice how dark the horizon looked. Newly planted trees, surrounded by water rings, abounded, and I could see that a lot of effort had gone into landscaping this base. But in the distance, between the buildings, I could see that the earth was still scorched, and from my lowly perch in the jeep I could see for miles across the barren, flat Texas land. Other than those on the base, there was not a tree in sight. It was a stark contrast to how I remembered this area of the state.
The Mess Hall was a huge, red-roofed building with lots of glass all around it. The food served there was quite good, much to my surprise, and I ate slowly, savoring the flavor of bacon, eggs, toast, and fresh orange juice. Setting my tray in the clean-up cart, I headed out the door and made my way over to the Fleet Training Command Operations building to find out where I was supposed to go for ground school. My "stands" class would be held in the Academic Building up the road. I was issued a jeep to drive while on the base, and since class wasn't scheduled to start until 1300 (lasting until 2200) I decided to kill time exploring the base.
My love of flying was still all-consuming, and more than anything else at that moment, I wanted to go see the airplanes. As I steered my jeep down a road that ran perpendicular to the approach path for one of the runways, a two-seat primary trainer, looking much like the old Beechcraft Mk. II JPATS trainer, hummed overhead, its gear and flaps hanging out as it settled toward the runway. It was a far cry from the Valk in all areas, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the small red on white trainer.
Beechcraft Mk. II JPATS, similar to the T-35 "Seagull"
I flashed my I.D. to the gate guard and zoomed out toward the ramp. Lined up meticulously were over a hundred airplanes of different types. The turboprop trainer proved to be a Beechcraft Mk. III (T-35A "Seagull"), an improved version of the Mk. II. Also on the ramp were several dozen T-45J "Goshawk II" jet trainers, and eight VF-1D's. As I looked at the airplanes on the ramp, I realized that things were going to be quite different around here, and that, come what may, I would do well to make the best of the situation.
My stands ground school class was taught by a short, dark-haired, twenty-something Lieutenant Commander of Puerto Rican decent. Knowledgeable and thorough, he had a chip on his shoulder that he didn't try to hide. Perhaps it was immaturity, but, being an experienced, highly decorated combat pilot, I expected to be revered--almost worshipped (or at the very least, respected)--by those around me. Reality couldn't have been further removed from my romantic vision.
The ground instructor began asking me questions about the T-35 and T-45 I couldn't even begin to answer--and he never let up. "Being an ace doesn't cut it here!" the instructor snarled. By the time I walked out of the classroom I was more embarrassed than I had ever been before in my life. When I got back to my quarters, I pulled out my Flight Standards Manuals and pored over them with an intensity I didn't know I had. I knew he would continue to pound on me until he could stump me no more, and I began to commit every page of those manuals to heart.
The next day, the instructor hit me with everything he had, but he could not get me to miss a single answer. I could see I had earned his respect. He never picked on me again.
Ground school was rather boring, if the truth be known, and learning all the regulations, procedures, and vagaries of how to be an effective instructor--teaching through example, positive reinforcement, ad nauseum--was an instant cure for insomnia. If I'd found a way to get people so afflicted to attend a seminar in "The Fundamentals of Instruction" for fifty bucks a pop I could have retired long ago!
Our airborne sessions over the next three weeks were spent bringing us up to speed on both the T-35 and the T-45, with two flights a day for the first ten days in the T-35, and three flights a day in the T-45 for the remainder of our training. My first flight in the T-35 proved memorable, but not for the reasons one might have hoped for. It presented me with a picture so horrific--and etched it in my mind so indelibly--that it causes a shudder even now, more than three decades later.
McDonnell Douglas T-45 "Goshawk" trainer, similar to the T-45J
We taxied out to the runway and I advanced the throttle to full power. The little turboprop accelerated more rapidly than I had expected as its giant prop blades bit into the humid sea air, and in only a few short moments, we were airborne. We climbed out of the Naval Air Station at 110 knots, going upward at about 3000 feet a minute--not bad, especially considering the high density altitude that day. As we turned toward the practice area, I looked around and realized that the beauty that was Texas existed now only in my mind--Dolza's "Final Solution" had turned it into a wasteland. The ground was charred and littered with the wreckage of giant alien cruisers, jutting out of the blackened, crusted, rock hard ground like grotesquely swollen spears. The bleakness stretched as far as one could see and from altitude looked like a giant piece of asphalt. The seaside city of Corpus Christi, once the home of more than 100,000 people, was scarcely more than a village--a mere shell of its former self, having surrendered to the hell that had rained upon it.
Our Sectional Navigation Charts were almost completely devoid of detail--the only real landmarks we had were the crashed Zentraedi ships, and the occasional river or coastline feature--and now I could see why. I looked over my shoulder at the Air Station, a literal oasis in a desert of despair. I was deeply saddened by what I had seen, and it caused a strange feeling of defeat to well up inside me. We had fought so hard and for so long... This was our reward. It made me sick. If the cockpit layouts of my new mounts seemed familiar, they were light years removed from the Valkyrie--particularly the T-35. Things seemed to go in slow motion in that airplane, and I found myself fighting boredom in it. I had a stick, throttle, and rudder pedals. That was it. In other words, I had a lot less to do. Although boring and loud--props make prodigious amounts of noise--the T-35 was quite aerobatic, and I never passed up the opportunity to go wild with it, a startling contrast to my early days when even the slightest unusual attitude was followed promptly by puking.
After about my third flight in the T-35, the days flew by. Christmas came and went without fanfare--I couldn't even call my family as telephone service was still intermittent at best--and on 13 January, 2012, my three weeks came to an end and I was considered fully qualified to instruct the latest crop of candidates for the coveted wings of a Naval Aviator. I transferred to Training Squadron Six at NAS Kingsville--my quarters there were just as small as those at Navy Corpus had been (so much for the three weeks theory)--and for the next ten months I instructed dozens of student pilots in instrument training. My hours were long, but I spent a lot of time flying, and I could never get enough of that, no matter what the airplane.
Training proved a daunting challenge, and the standards set for us were extremely stringent. Our students had to meet certain standards and our "Check Aviators" could pull any student at any point in his training and evaluate his performance. If the check aviator thought the student was lacking in any area he would receive an "UNSAT" grade. If we didn't maintain a 90% pass rate for these checks, our squadron could be put on a probationary status, and that meant bad things for all of us, no matter who was at fault--poor fitness reports, reassignment to even more undesirable duty stations, or worse. There would be no Picasso-esque paint bombing runs in training command.
That fact notwithstanding, my life as an instructor was highly entertaining at times. An interesting event involved one of my fellow instructors, a brash young Marine Lieutenant named Warren Ross. One night, while shepherding a group of pilots through a night gunnery training flight things got ugly. As they proceeded to the gunnery range, one of Ross' students failed to realize his leader was turning and the two T-45s collided, chopping the horizontal stabilizer off of Ross' airplane, which plunged out of control toward the ground and exploded. The three student pilots, having not seen any sign of Ross ejecting, returned to their base thinking he had been killed.
In fact, Ross had survived, and after unsuccessfully battling to regain control of his stricken plane, he decided it was time to eject. "This is Banjo One Oh One, I'm ejecting!" he called out before pulling the yellow and black lanyard. His call did not leave his face mask, however, as the collision had also destroyed both COM antennae. The canopy blew away cleanly but his ejection seat refused to fire. With only seconds between himself and the charred earth below, Ross released his harness and dove out of the tumbling T-45.
Thankfully, Ross' parachute was working fine, and he floated lazily toward the ground, none the worse for his accident. Still, the gods were not through with the lanky Marine: he landed in the middle of a creek--undoubtedly the only creek within fifty miles--and, after nearly drowning, managed to clamber out on its western bank. Assessing his situation, Ross quickly deduced that in order to get home he needed to be on the eastern side of the creek, and after a few choice curse words directed at the T-45s overhead, he again jumped into the cold water and swam to the opposite end, profanities pouring forth with each stroke.
The three pilots in Ross' flight returned to the Air Station and reported the events to their superiors, then headed off to the Officer's Club to have a drink. Ross, meanwhile, was marching not-so-quietly across the barren Texas countryside, his parachute dragging behind as a thunderstorm dumped buckets of water on him. "That no good son of a bitch! When I get back I'm gonna'...." In time, Ross made it to the newly constructed highway that ran between San Antonio and Kingsville, and managed to flag down a passing car.
Back at the O-Club, the three pilots from his flight had attracted quite a crowd, as instructors coming off duty made their way into the bar only to hear that, "Hey, did you hear? Ross bought it today."
The response was almost always a, "Oh, poor Ross. That's a damned shame. Bartender, I'll have some bourbon straight up," then, lifting the glass into the air, "To Warren Ross. God rest his soul."
Ross had the lady in the car drop him off at the O-Club so he could get himself a drink. Cold, wet, and still dragging his now tattered parachute behind him, Ross marched up to the bar and ordered a stiff one. The young pilot who had collided with him, not realizing who it was, walked up to Ross and said solemnly, "Did you hear the news? Ross bought it today."
Swinging slowly around on his barstool, Ross looked the young cadet in the eyes, his face red as a hot coal. The look of fear on the young trainee's face was priceless. "Sir! You're alive! I am so sorry, sir!"
"Alive? You're gawdamned right I'm alive!" he roared, shortly before knocking the daylights out of the young pilot with a right cross to the jaw. "Now get out of my face before I hurt somebody!"
As morbid as it sounds, the exchange was incredibly hilarious, and the pilots in the O-Club went to hootin' and hollerin' in a manner not often seen, as the trainee's fellow students, tripping over barstools and slipping on spilled liquor, dragged him off before Ross could get at him again.
One of the advantages to my job as an Instrument Instructor was the requirement for long, cross-country flights. Trainees had to demonstrate competency in navigation over long routes both with and without the use of navigational aids. As one might expect, I did the majority of my cross countries to New Macross, taking the opportunity to see my loved ones. Depending on our arrival time these cross country flights would require an overnight stay in New Macross, and I took advantage of the situation. The girls were growing like weeds, and it seemed that every time I came into town they were two inches taller. The city itself was growing by leaps and bounds, too, and every time I caught sight of it there seemed to be new buildings everywhere. New Macross was beginning to give new meaning to the term "urban sprawl."
Changes on the home front weren't limited to just my kids. In March, my father had finally decided to retire, and for the first time in recent memory, he seemed truly happy. He had grown increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy within the UEG, and the difficulties encountered in developing what was supposed to be the next generation Veritech Fighter, the VF-X-2. The project was constantly hampered from above, with ever changing requirements and demands. In time, delays began to compound each other, and when it became clear that the VF-X-2 would never fly, my father decided to "hang it up."
I am certain that it was a great relief to be free of the long hours at the office, and for once, be able to spend more of his life with his family than with his job. Josh, too, seemed to be in better spirits, and the rumor mill had it that he was on the short list to become the C.O. of a fighter squadron. He was still suffering over the loss of his young friend, but time had helped soothe the wounds at least a little bit.
In fact, things were changing in every area. Micronized Zentraedi were now a large portion of the population, diligently striving to become educated, productive citizens. The UEG was slowly, but surely, consolidating forces that had been strewn throughout the globe. Economies were beginning to grow and the world was beginning to heal. A new battle fortress was rumored to be under construction as well, and it seemed that Earth was finally making some noticeable progress. There were still problems, of course, but things were getting better.
The most important fact, however, was that my friends and family were safe. I couldn't have asked for more peace of mind than what I found in that one simple fact.
During the middle of May, while returning from one of my cross country flights, I saw firsthand that, while things were getting better, we were not out of the woods. I was sitting comfortably in the back seat of our unarmed T-45, monitoring my student's progress as we began our letdown into Kingsville, RDFNAS. I tuned the number two COM radio to the ATIS frequency, but for some reason, didn't get anything but static on it. "How odd," I thought, trying again with the other radio and an equal lack of success. My student didn't hear anything on his end either. Lulled into that false sense of confidence that comes from a prolonged lack of exposure to combat, I presumed it to be a minor problem. I couldn't have been further from the truth.
In the distance, just below the horizon, I spied wispy column of black smoke and my antennae immediately went up, searching for anything that might be a threat. As we descended out of ten thousand feet, spoilers dumping lift to bring us down without speeding us up, I saw a small explosion on the base and knew at that moment that things were indeed bad.
"I have the flight controls, Lieutenant," I told the pilot in the front seat, shifting my weight forward.
"Your flight controls, sir," he responded.
Banking to the left, then back to the right, I looked over both shoulders and scanned the area around us. We were twenty miles out and down to three thousand feet when I caught sight of some movement against the black ground at my ten o'clock position. I immediately began a rapid scan of the area and spotted a Nousjaedul Ger battle suit streaking away from the base at high speed. Unarmed, it would be suicide for me to continue toward the base, and I made a quick four-G turn to the right, scanning for bad guys as I did so.
Nousjaedul Ger Powered Battle Suit
"Lieutenant, the base appears to have come under attack. I have a bandit down low, heading northeast. I'm going to orbit here and try to keep us from getting killed. Keep your eyes open for enemy fighters," I said into my mask, trying to sound like I was in control of the situation.
"Aye aye, sir."
I rolled wings level and then reversed my turn back toward the left. Another Nousjaedul Ger flashed beneath us, heading toward the coast. Either he didn't see us or he didn't care, but he passed us up without even the slightest course change. So far, so good.
A brief glint of sunlight tipped my student off to the presence of a trio of Raulon'ves heading toward us from right to left. "Bandits, two o'clock Lieutenant!" he shrieked into the radio.
"I've got 'em! Hang on!" I called, yanking the stick to the right, then pulling on it for all I was worth. The three Zentraedi fighters were providing cover for the battle suits and we had blundered right into their escape path.
I dove for the ground as the Raulon'ves reversed their course to pursue me, hoping that being at a lower altitude would foil the RVs' attempts to get a firing solution on me. I had the advantage of maneuverability but the RV's had the upper hand in total speed and energy. If I didn't lose them relatively soon--within a couple of hard turns or so--I would be a sitting duck.
The ground rushed up at us as our airspeed crept up toward 500 knots. I managed a quick glance over my shoulder and saw the Raulon'ves on my tail, though at a considerable distance. I shoved the throttles to the stops as I pulled the stick back once more, leveling off at only fifty feet above the cracked, ebony landscape. The T-45 bounced in the thick air as we flew through the turbulence created by uneven heating of the Earth's surface. As the RVs closed into firing range, tracers whizzed over the top of my canopy. I yanked my fighter to the left, then back to the right and weaved toward the base, hoping like hell I could get there before the RVs blasted me to pieces.
I clicked over to the Tower Frequency and made a quick call, "Navy Kingsville Tower, Shavetail Three Zero Five is ten east of the field at fifty feet! I've got three Yard Darts on my ass and I need assistance!"
I stomped on the right rudder and yanked the stick hard to the right, corkscrewing over to the side as cannon shells tore into the poor trainer's left wing. The Goshawk shuddered, and I heard a series of extremely loud thumps as the rounds hit. I continued my roll, knowing that this maneuvering was costing me energy. My airspeed was decaying steadily, and I knew I had to do something drastic--I was going to have to try and scare them off.
The RVs were closing on me quickly now, and in a desperate move to get out of the trap I was in, I pulled us around in a six-G right turn. Their lack of maneuverability and higher speed forced the RV's to the outside of the turn, and I quickly reversed mine, slashing right through the middle of the three green fighters. Doubtless shocked by the move, the three fighters broke in different directions to avoid colliding with me, and I immediately headed for the base. The pilots of the three Zentraedi fighters decided not to press their luck any longer, and I watched them join up slowly and disappear behind me to the east.
At about that moment a single Valkyrie streaked in from the west and formed up on my wing. I began a slow climb, my eyes searching the sky for more fighters. The pilot of the Valk held up five fingers and I clicked over to Button Five.
"Better late than never," I called, my voice shaky with adrenaline.
"You okay? You're losing fuel," he said, dropping down and beneath my fighter. "Looks pretty bad, Three Oh Five."
I glanced at my gauges. "We're okay. We'll make it."
"How's your short field landing technique?"
"Fine, why? Did they get the runways?" I asked.
"They got everything. There were only six of us that managed to engage them, and that's because we were working over the gunnery range when they attacked. You might have to just eject and float down," he commented a bit too nonchalantly for my tastes.
"I'll take it under advisement," I said, thinking something along the lines of, "Yeah right. Like hell."
"I'll stay above you and to the right. Let me know before you do so if you plan to eject."
The Valk pilot pulled smartly up and away, maintaining a safe distance from me. At three miles and a thousand feet I ran through the pre-landing checklist and verified everything was in place. "Fuel to both. Fuel pumps on. Boards, flaps, spoilers, slats. Hook is up. Three green, no red, gear down and locked."
"I've got three green, no red here," the student called, verifying that our gear were down.
I made a slow pass over the field through billowing clouds of black smoke, searching for the best section of runway I could find. My fuel gauges were hovering on empty, and I had to make a fast decision. The longest section of useable concrete ran between the displaced threshold and the five hundred foot markers on runway 13. Everything after that was a cratered mess. With a sigh I pulled my shoulder harness in as tight as I could stand it and ordered my student to do the same. "Stand by for canopy jett," I called, closing my visor, before pulling the emergency release handle. The canopy flew off the little trainer and a cool wind smacked me in the face. "We're probably going to end up without wheels, Lieutenant. When this thing stops get out and run like hell," I told him, turning left toward the runway.
"Yes, sir," he said.
"Don't forget to unhook your mask before you jump out."
I put the flaps full down and slowed to 100 knots, the nose high in the air, the stall horn bleating on and off as gusts loaded and unloaded the wing. I prayed the displaced threshold, reserved for use on takeoff and taxi only, could handle the impact of my trainer. Using the edge of the concrete as my aim point, I jockeyed the throttle to adjust my angle of descent, then, with a precision that only comes from endless practice, I touched down on the first inch of the displaced threshold. I shut the engine off the moment we hit and stood by to stand on the brakes--I wouldn't need to. As expected, the impact was more than the poor threshold could take and the main gear mounts broke right through the cement. I felt a slight rumble as the tires tore off their rims and tried to roll, then the mains collapsed and we slammed onto asphalt. The nose gear broke loose shortly thereafter, thudding loudly against the right intake, mere inches from my head--I flinched at that.
We skidded down the runway, sparks flying, and came to a stop in a crater just beyond the five hundred foot marker. I immediately unstrapped myself from the ejection seat as the fuel leaking from the damaged fuel tank began to burn, then clambered clumsily out of the airplane, calling on my student to get going. He had trouble with his mask, but finally got loose and ran for cover. I stumbled toward the crater wall and managed to scramble up and out, making a mad dash for the safety only distance can provide in this situation.
My student and I braced for an explosion that never came, and in time, summoned up the courage to walk over to where the poor T-45 rested. It was a sad sight. The nose was broken just ahead of the canopy, and the little red and white trainer wore the scars of flames and cannon holes. I felt bad for the airplane in some strange, child-like way, as if it had feelings.
"Good work, sir," my student said, patting me on the back. He really meant it.
"Thanks," I managed. "It wasn't a stabilized approach, but I did hit my spot," I said smiling. The number one rule in carrier aviation is to "never land short." At least in that category I had succeeded. "Any landing you can walk away from...or something."
With fire and smoke swirling about from their exhaust, the five Valks that survived the attack hovered in for a landing on the rubble-strewn runway. A coastal breeze blew the smoke toward us, though not directly at us, and in time, seven pilots gathered to assess the damage. All around was nothing but devastation and destruction, and I couldn't help but laugh. There was something incredibly humorous about this grand theme of build-and-rebuild that permeated my life. I was glad to be alive, but began to wonder if I was like "The Little Boy Blue" from the first grade book "Blue Dilly Dilly." The only notable difference I could discern being that the rain cloud that followed me everywhere didn't contain rain--just destruction.
As I looked around me I noted casually that it was going to take a long time to clean up this mess. A long time indeed.
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 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.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
Copyright © 1996 Robert Morgenstern
Version Last Updated: 27 November 1998