Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Rounds Holes - Square Pegs

A couple of readers have asked me what planes I have flown. A few, some of them small and nimble, some of them, not so much. Yet many of them, like my favorite side arms, are like old and dear friends.

In going through some old photos, there it was. The C-23A. It was stable, surprisingly fun to fly, given its ungainly appearance, almost like flying a REALLY big Super Cub, except in a crosswind. In a crosswind it was frankly a Son of a *#(#@. We didn't call it the flying billboard for nothing, and on gusty days it took a lot of muscle to keep the sort of pointy end forward.

It was where I first met Old NFO,.  It's a story I've told here before, when I flew him to a military assignment  in the Bay area. I was just a kid, mid 20's. He was older and handsome. I was too shy to say hello, he was smart enough to notice the red hair and take a seat way in the back. Years later we crossed paths more than once on the internet and in professional conversations, still remembering those flights long ago, becoming life long and fast friends in the process.

People made fun of the Sherpa. You couldn't help it. It just invited ridicule. It looked like a shoe box with wings stuck on as an afterthought. The cockpit was wide, the cabin was HUGE, yet it could haul an amazing amount of stuff at an incredibly slow speed. Awesome! But it was the first ship I was a Commander on.

But we still suffered the indignity of the remarks. . . ."hey - ya build that yourself"? "Ma'am, can you take a lower altitude, you're just kind of a speed bump for the tankers behind you".

One day, coming out of the Bay area, my copilot spotted a couple of F-4-s on our wing. We were in an area of low altitude training, and weren't too concerned, but they were close enough we figured we had better ask the controller if he was working all of us. I asked "uh. . ya know what these F-4's are doing?" to which he replied "Oh, they're just looking for something big, slow and square to use as a target".

But it was a new role for me. It was the first airplane, outside of a trainer, where I looked into the mirror one morning, in uniform, proud of what I was doing, and for whom. I earned my stripes in the copilots seat, and to this moment, I remember the day I got my qualification for that left seat.

The airplane looms into view. I breathe deep, gathering courage, as I walk across the ramp to start the preflight. I knew I was prepared, but I was nervous. I don't know a pilot that takes a checkride that isn't. I stood there on the ramp and closed my eyes, praying I'd open them and it would be over and I'd be home, lying beneath a cozy roof under the long, slow sound of rain. But I open my eyes, and there it is., looking bigger, as if it somehow grew in the night. The inside of it was as dark as space, as if marooned somewhere in the cosmos, waiting to simply swallow me up in the big black hole of failure. My hands were damp, my uniform shirt stiff, and I knew I had to make that decision, to stride forward now and show that aircraft who was boss, or remain forever still. I stood, the small, motionless form of a young woman, a hesitation in cooling space, across which blew the dense oily smell of jet fuel, laying like cold smoke against my tongue, so thick I could taste it.

Calm down now. It's just a big box with little wings on it. You know her, you've flown her a whole bunch from the right seat. She's familiar. There, I spot the few familiar scratches on the paint; she's been brushed by more than one piece of ground equipment, though not seriously, and the faint scuffs are like small laugh lines as she waits in eager anticipation of the flight. This isn't a duel, this is an old friend.

The Check pilot greets me planeside, tall, and stony faced, with a stern "well, are you ready?" to which I reply "Yes, Sir" in a voice that sounded too light, too trivial, for what we were about to do, like a leaf falling into silence , without any weight. As we board, there is no sound left, but my carefully controlled breathing and the steady drilling of insects as afternoon deepens. As I buckle in the six point seatbelt, he looks at me intently, hands at his side, an alert rapacity about his eyes, his countenance one of a great stone statue of Easter Island, but without the warmth.

Fear trickles up along my sleeve. Some of it is from the checkride itself. My advancement in the ranks is riding the line this afternoon and no matter how much my friends tell me to relax, part of me is picturing the job I'll get if I don't pass this ride.

But some of the fear is the normal fear I feel every time I crawl on board an airplane. It's not a fear that I can't handle it, but more of the feeling we all have when entering a realm that man originally wasn't intended for. I think about screwing up. I think about dying; the feeling of immortality that is the luxury of youth long having left me as I took on responsibilities not meant for children.

But I am not afraid of dying, and I know that with the training training and some of the best mechanics in service, I am not going to die today. The fuel truck drives away and I know that I will see him tomorrow, and the day after, as I am ready for my command

Being in command isn't about being a good "stick" as the pilots say. It's not about the uniform or a confident ego. Being in command is about responsibility. As good as you may be, it can't be found in those days spent in the right seat. There, the responsibility just haunts the edges of your subconscious. You think. . "Oh I could do it, no big deal". Then the day comes and you're in the left seat. And the weight of what's on your shoulders suddenly hits you. It's a different way of looking at things, just as the panel you've stared at for years looks completely different; how you look at everything around you looks different as well. Every mistake, every decision, every delay, it all boils down to you, and despite the best or the worst copilot in the world; make the wrong choice, and you'll be lucky to be alive to do the carpet dance in the office of someone with a lot more shiny stuff on their uniform than you do.

I was always told as a copilot that if I needed anything, if I needed to learn, to grow, or I simply needed help, then I had no further to look then to my left. Then suddenly, there I was in training in the left seat, and when I looked to my port side, when things were going to hell in a hand basket, all I saw was a reflection. Mine.

That visage stares back at me as we finished the last single engine approach into base. At this point, after two plus hours aloft, I knew that I had passed. The exhilaration was such as I had only experienced at one time in my life, when I was rafting down an Oregon river and my single man raft flipped and I was trapped underneath the rushing water, bumping against rocks much bigger than I was. Many things could panic me - bills, dirty diapers, the mystery burrito at the quickie mart; but being upside down, under water in the cold and fading light, did not. If there was panic there, it quickly trailed on behind me in the water and I simply pushed my little raft off of me, grabbed onto a rock and pulled myself up as hard as I could. To dancing light, to precious air, and water that calmed down to quiet pools further downstream, crickets chirping in encouragement.

Here then, years later, the same feeling of just being alive flowed through me as the the gear was lowered and we too headed down into the quiet pool that was the airport. Had the Pratt and Whitney's not been making so much noise, I might have heard the crickets hum alongside the runway as we headed into open sunlight.

I had not panicked, I had held my ground and my seat, mustered my strength and pulled myself back out into the light. As we exited the overcast, flaps going to full, I glanced at the reflection in the left window. All I could see in the brightness of sunlight was the smile of a new pilot in command, the voice of the controllers, the soundtrack of the best adventure I'd ever had.The airplane is just at the edge of my field of vision. . . . . where I leave her back on the flight line where we started, checkride over, battered flight bag in hand; sweat drying on the back of my neck. I've stepped out of one seat, one world, into another and as the Check Pilot finally grinned at me and other pilots stopped by to shake my hand, I felt it welcoming me.

People still made fun of it, but it served us well. I remember just cruising along over the Tahachapies on the way to the Los Angeles basin, gazing at the new fallen snow, not all that far below us, as we coaxed everything we could out of the engines to climb a wee bit higher, like salmon fighting their way upstream, then basking in the air as the whole of the lower state came into our huge windshield. I remember sliding open the big cockpit doors after a flight, and after a particular good landing, just to see the "deer in headlights" stunned look on the guys in the back when they realized their Captain was a young redhead with a ponytail. I remember those crews, and the friendships we formed from it.

When I left the airplane for the last time, as I was leaving to go train to fly a swept wing jet, it was a rare gully wash of a downpour, big drops that somehow were being blown down off afternoon thunderstorms. It was falling heavily enough that there was almost a cotton stuffed in my ears sense to my hearing, and I could barely hear the voices of those around me, I can barely see the visage of the "motor home with wings", through the rain. I was moving on to much bigger and better things, pressurization, speed, jet engines, the lack of people snickering and pointing.

But I was also leaving something that meant something to me, the place where I first realized that courage sometimes comes with a price and responsibility has to be earned. It was probably the slowest, ugliest airplane on the ramp, but it was reliable, honest, trustworthy. It had no artifice or hidden agendas, just like the best friend you would want to have. So I blinked hard that day I flew it for the last time, so no one would give me grief about "acting like a girl". I simply gave it a crisp salute and turned slowly away, one last look over my shoulder at the big square outline of it, and in it, all that were my first years of earning my stripes, the form and weight of it, through the heavy rain, soon to be memory.