Once when I was up with my instructor, we started talking about our jobs. He’d always wondered what execs actually did and why they seemed to wield so much power around the squadrons. I’d always wondered if being a fighter pilot was as great as it seemed. So, we enlightened each other. “Execs”, I explained, “are only powerful due to our proximity to ‘god’.” This seemed to make perfect sense to him, so he proceeded with his commentary (paraphrased, of course): ‘Being a fighter pilot is great, but here’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow and 95% of the training missions that I fly the rest of the year’, and with that he leaned his head on the dash and went through the stick movements of all the maneuvers he’d have to do from takeoff to landing the next day. “It’s a great gig, but the thrill is gone.” It was an illuminating thing for someone who’d grown up around air shows to hear, but it, too, made perfect sense. Everyday isn’t an air show; most days are just simply ‘work’. While it can certainly be different during deployments for everyone involved, our conversation took place in the winter of 2000, so the prospect of danger still seemed remarkably elsewhere and it was easy for even those in the military to move into ho hum-ville.
And so I continued to fly, with the proficiency increasing ever more rapidly from flight to flight. It became very similar to driving a car and in some respects, even easier. Really, when you get the plane off the ground and on course, you just barely need to be there. The cross-country flights generally followed the same general patterns involving northern legs toward Mt. McKinley, then south to the Kenai peninsula and back. The weekends were the time to do them, although the ideal times were either early or late in the day. The Alaskan skies are like highways; everyone seems to fly up there. Flying in the summer is tricky because you spend most of your time trying not to run into anyone else. Thus did I often find myself braving the windswept tarmac on ridiculously cold mornings, walking into the hanger, opening the doors, pulling the plane out, taxiing it to the gas pumps, checklist checklist checklist, taxi, talk to the tower, take off. In the winter, I would always head south first so that I could catch the way the north face of McKinley looked later as the sun rose. Gradually, as the days grew longer, I’d start flying later in the afternoon and early evening, north first, then south to watch the water turn gold in the sunset around the peninsula.
My instructor moved on to another wing in another state and I gradually sunk deeper into the swamp of professional ambition. I flew off and on that spring and summer, then got my orders to England, set to leave on 9/11/01, if you can believe it (I still have the orders if you don’t). I took the written test, but never finished all the necessary check rides for the license, something I still regret to this day. To have finished then would’ve meant that I’d simply needed to do a few touch-and-gos every year to maintain proficiency. Now, however, I’m relatively certain that I’d have to start over with ground school and go through all of the baby steps toward soloing again in what’s already a severely cost-prohibitive endeavor. To have done what I did at an aero club, sadly a dying breed on USAF bases, may be simply all that I require in the world of aviation. Certainly there are few places I might fly that could hold a candle to Alaska’s scenery. I went up with a friend’s dad from high school a couple years ago. He flew in Vietnam and was the primary reason I ended up in the AF. We flew around NW Ohio from point A to point B, had breakfast, then came back. It was probably the most anti-climactic event involving air power in which I’ve ever been involved. No turbulence coming off of a mountain. No other aircraft seemingly playing chicken in the same pattern. No McKinley. And sweet Lord, if you think Ohio is boring from the ground…
The headset, the log book, the guide to Alaska’s runways (paved or otherwise), and the topographical maps all now sit on a bookshelf collecting dust. I may give them some use again, I’d certainly like to, but I can’t say that I’d feel cheated if I didn’t. It’s because when you take off from Elmendorf on a NW heading then turn south over foothills of the mountains bordering Anchorage, you fly with the city on your right and the Chugach mountains on your left. After a few minutes, you come to the mouth of the Turnigan Arm, which separates two mountain ranges moving east out of the city. You inform the Anchorage tower that you’re leaving the airspace, then gently bank left to fly over the Arm and between the mountains, staying on this course until the two ranges meet and the Arm becomes a finger, at which point you pull back on the controls and start a climbing bank to the right over the mountains, turning SW as the sunrise crosses the cockpit. Once you’re above the mountains, you can almost start to see Kenai in the distance and then you sit back and watch the them pass beneath, gradually descending into fields of fireweed. That’s pretty tough to replicate. It would be nice to imagine that this is how death works, descending in a climbing bank over mountains and into still air and clear skies. There may be some angst regarding my not finishing and others would probably yell louder than me about it, but I might be able to shut them up with the quality of the hours flown.
Sir @ August 11, 2009