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Flight Passages


NOTE:  I like to think that most readers of my blog are thinking folks and don't need me to to tell them what a train wreck the current Washington scene is. There is a principle in law called "Res ipsa loquitur" which is Latin for "The thing speaks for itself." I believe it applies to the current political scene, so any further commentary on my part would be redundant. Consequently, I have decided to indulge other interests and write about some non-political subjects that appeal to me. They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but then it's my blog and I can write whatever I please. Give it a chance; you might find it refreshingly interesting, if a bit self-indulgent.

This piece is about flying from a personal viewpoint. Through the years, several people have asked me what it's like to fly in general and jet fighters in particular. (No slight intended towards private aviation, but high-performance military flying is a different world.) The question is a difficult one to answer, because this type of flying is more than just a physical event, it is an experience. There is an emotional aspect that is hard to describe. In this article I will venture to draw the reader into the world of aviation, partly through the words of others more articulate than I and partly by personal reminiscenses. I have thrown in a few pictures to break the monotony. I hope you enjoy this trip above the clouds.

First, the personal. Air Force flight training when I went through in the late 1950's was divided into three phases, each six months in length. The first six months was called Primary, which was administered by a civilian flight school using Air Force-supplied aircraft. I suppose this was because the Air Force did not want to waste their hot-shot pilots flying little Primary trainers.

The school to which I was assigned was at Spence Air Base in Moultrie, Georgia, actually a former WW II B-25 training base. The instructors were mostly crop dusters who were anything but daredevils. To survive in that business, you have to be careful. There's a saying most pilots know: "Aviation is not inherently dangerous but, like the sea, is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect." This was drummed into us by these intrepid flyers, who were very good pilots and surprisingly good instructors.

If any of you are familiar with the history of acrobatic flying, you may recognize the name of the owner of this civilian flight school: Bevo Howard, a famous acrobatic pilot. He entertained us with a private demonstration in his Becker-Jungmeister biplane when we graduated. He was killed shortly thereafter during an aerobatic competition.

Flight training was about half ground school, with subjects like aerodynamics, aircraft systems, meteorology, navigation and survival, and the other half flying. The planes we flew in Primary back in the mid-1950's were the T-34A Mentor, a militarized version of the Beechcraft Bonanza, and the North American T-28A Trojan, three months in each. (See photos.) We actually got to take off the little T-34 on the first flight.

The essential difference was the T-28 could perform acrobatic maneuvers while the T-34 could not. Here are photos of these fine aircraft. They were both honest aircraft that were a joy to fly. Both are no longer in service as trainers, but the T-28 in its more powerful Navy version and armed, acquitted itself quite well in Vietnam.

T-34A Mentor

T-28A Trojan

After Primary, we went into Basic training which was administered by Air Force personnel. I was assigned to Laredo AFB, Texas on the Mexican border. There we flew exclusively the T-33A Shooting Star (everyone just called it the T-Bird), a modification of the famous F-80, our first really effective jet fighter which saw service in Korea and Vietnam, where it was outclassed by the Russian MiG-15. In Basic we learned instrument flying ("on the gages"), formation flight and lots of acrobatics, basic fighter stuff. (See photo.)

T-33A Shooting Star/"T-Bird"

Upon completion of Basic flight training and passing of our final check ride, we got our wings and had a choice of Air Defense or Tactical fighters. (Prior to Basic, we had a choice of fighters or multi-engine. The multi guys went to a different training base and flew the B-25 Mitchell.) I chose Air Defense and the F-86D all-weather interceptor. This aircraft was a major revision of the famous F-86 Sabre of Korea and Vietnam fame. This was the fighter that was the equal of--some say superior to--the MiG-15 and MiG-17. The F-86D and upgraded F-86L incorporated the Hughes E-4 radar and fire control system, a 24-rocket drop-down pod and an afterburner for the J-47 engine to handle the extra weight. It had a distinctive black radome "nose" that clearly distinguished it from the F-86 tactical fighter. (See photos.)

F-86D Sabre

F-86L Sabre

The six-month advanced training in all-weather interceptors and the F-86D was at Moody AFB in Georgia.  We were the first class to fly the -86. The first three months were spent in the famous Air Force all-weather instrument school, the best in the world. Training was done in the T-Bird and prepared us for flying in all weather conditions, including zero visibility. Airline pilots today will not attempt a zero-visibility landing except at specially-equipped airports and with heavy computer assistance. We had no computer assistance, just GCA (ground-controlled approach) and standard ILS (instrument landing system). The GCA controllers--you're talked down by a controller observing radar--used to like to practice with us on zero-vis landings to test their skills. They'd always ask how close to the runway centerline they came. They probably had an office pool going.

After the instrument school, we checked out in the -86D. Since it was a single-seat aircraft, an instructor couldn't ride along. There was a sophisticated (for the time) F-86D flight simulator where we practiced normal and emergency procedures. After a number of hours of simulator time--I forget how many--we went through an 11-mission checkout in the aircraft. Initially, an instructor would fly "chase" to talk us through the flight. After a few dual missions, we were cleared to fly solo without mother along.

Here is one personal illustration of the hazards of training in a single-seat aircraft. Two of us, another student and I, were practicing GCA's. Although the weather was good, flying a GCA requires close attention to your instruments as very precise adjustments in airspeed, rate of descent and course direction are required in response to instructions from the controller. During the very precise final approach phase, the controller instructs the pilot to not transmit any acknowledgements and issues an almost steady stream of instructions and commentary.

For safety reasons, these practice approaches were always flown with another student flying behind and watching out for other aircraft. During this particular approach as we neared final, my aircraft was set up for landing--gear down, etc. Because of a temporary runway obstruction--a truck, we were asked to "do a 360," a large circle to allow time for the runway to be cleared. To conserve fuel, I "cleaned up" the aircraft, including raising the landing gear. The approach resumed and entered the final approach phase. About halfway through the descent to the runway, as the controller paused momentarily to take a breath, I heard a single word from my fellow student behind me: "GEAR!" I had forgotten to re-lower the landing gear after completing the "360" and resuming the approach!

I quickly slammed the gear lever down and sucessfully--and safely--completed the approach and landing. I don't remember the other student's name, but I bought him several drinks at the Officer's Club that night. In flying, distractions can be catastrophic, a valuable lesson I never forgot.

The final 11th mission was a bit of a reward, a flight just to try to break the sound barrier, i.e. exceed the speed of sound, Mach 1. The mission consisted of flying over the Okefenokee swamp at 40,000 feet and pointing her straight down at full power. The F-86D was transonic, that is it would just exceed the speed of sound. With the added drag of the underwing drop tanks, necessary to extend flight time to something reasonable like an hour, she would only "bust the Mach" in a screaming dive, and not every aircraft would make it before reaching the mandatory pull-out altitude of 5,000 feet. Mine did, achieving Mach 1.01. The only sensation when she went through was a tendency to roll gently to the right. The sonic boom only frightened a few alligators.

After after graduation in January of 1957, I was assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing, 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) based at Selfridge AFB, near Detroit. I was surprised to discover that this was the fabled second U.S. fighter squadron in World War I, the famous "Hat in Ring" squadron once led by Eddie Rickenbacker. (See emblem.) It was a good outfit, if a bit taken with themselves and their history. We were part of the Northern Air Defense Command (NORAD), which included Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) units up north across the border. We flew combined exercises with our sister RCAF unit in North Bay, Ontario, which was as far out of the country I ever got.


                                                    "Hat in Ring" 94th FIS Emblem

The "Fight'n 94th" still is active, although not at Selfridge which is now an Air National Guard base. The 1st Fighter Wing with its two flying squadrons has relocated to Langley AFB, VA. The 94th Fighter Squadron ("Interceptor" was dropped) is the first squadron to become operational with the F-22 Raptor.

Flying a single-seat fighter is a unique experience. Being alone with the aircraft creates a special man-machine bond. This marvelous machine is all that is between you and the lethal, hostile environment out there just beyond a thin plexiglass canopy. At rare moments when the practice mission is done and you have a few minutes to just fly around, you become one with the airplane. The F-86D was completely silent--no engine noise except a nearly inaudible hum and no wind noise. Especially at night at high altitude with a black sky and myriad stars, suddenly you aren't flying a machine, you are just flying alone in the silence. It is a strange and almost spiritual experience unique to high flight. It happened to me only a few times, but I feel privileged to have had it.

This is why I never had a desire to fly general aviation. I did spend another eight years in the Air Force Reserve flying first C-119 Flying Boxcars and then the C-130 Hercules. They were both fine airplanes, especially the -130, but there was no comparison with flying a single-seat jet fighter.

Others have had similar experiences and put them into words more articulate than mine. Following are two excerpts, one by World War I pilot Cecil Lewis (not C.S.). Lewis was a poet as well as an aviator, which uniquely qualified him to describe the wonder of flight, which he did quite effectively in his marvelous little gem of a book, "Farewell to Wings." The second is an excerpt from Brian Shul's beautiful coffee table book, "Sled Driver," about flying the SR-71 Blackbird, the highest performance aircraft ever built. Although retired in the 80's, it still holds altitude and speed records, a marvelous product of Lockheed's and Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works.

I. Cecil Lewis, from "Farewell to Wings" 

"There is an experience every pilot knows. It is a dreadful day, low clouds and rain, and when he takes off the pattern of trees and woods and fields is a dark, depressing tapestry of grey and blacks. The ceiling is down to perhaps 1,500 ft. He has hardly time to check his instruments and course before the clouds envelop him. In a second the sombre earth is gone and around him is a featureless cloak of vapour with no horizon, no top, bottom or sides to it. He is suddenly alone, in nothing!

"Settling down onto instruments he climbs steadily through it, knowing there must be a top, but ignorant of how high above him it may be. The clouds seem to come right into the cockpit, pressing in on him and there is nothing but the roar of the engine and the pointers on the dials. It is oppressive and sometimes terrifying, for curiously enough it requires courage for a pilot to trust his instruments. … (B)ut if all goes well, the clouds suddenly turn golden, the blue appears and a moment later he is through! 

"Through into another world of unimaginable serenity and clarity. The terrible clouds have turned to a level pavement of virgin snow; the heavens are a miraculous vault of blue, crystalline, dazzling and perfect. Such a fantastic change makes a man want to shout and sing at the glory of it. The sun shines. The shadows of the struts are on the wings. The warmth and light permeate his body. He is alone with the wonder. No other breed but his own can share these things he has seen and known."

II. Brian Shul, from "Sled Driver" 

"It happened during the early hours of the morning, while (RSO) Walt and I were over the Pacific, having passed the northwest coast of the United States. We were heading, in a round about way, back toward Beale (AFB). Our jet was running smoothly and we would soon be home resting our weary bodies after another training mission. With no moon above and no lights from the ocean below, the night was darker than usual. Out of habit, I peered outside through the glare of the cockpit lighting and noticed the faint glimmer of stars. To fully see the night sky, I would have to turn my lighting too far down because I didn't want to be in an awkward position if something were to go wrong with the airplane.

"Desire to see the stars overruled my caution and I began to turn the lights down one at a time, carefully leaving a few critical gauges well lit. My eyes adjusted to the lower level of light and I gradually saw more stars through the remaining reflections on the windows. On impulse, I flicked the remaining lights off, then quickly back on. … The jet reassured me as it purred rock solid, so I turned the remaining lights off. I was immediately startled; were those the lights of another aircraft out to my right? My disbelief soon turned to awe as I realized in the calm darkness, that what I saw was not the bright lights of any man-made vehicle, but the brilliant expanse of the Milky Way. Unlike the view from the ground, at 78,000 feet there were few spaces unlit in the sky. Shooting stars appeared and faded every few seconds. The spectacle was mesmerizing, but I knew I must bring my eyes back to the flight instruments. When I did, I discovered my entire cockpit bathed in starlight, bright enough to illuminate all the gauges. I needed no cockpit lighting and reveled in the ghostly sight of my space suit dimly lit in the starlight.

"… (T)his sight was a symphony of silence. I became very aware of the sound of my own breathing. For a brief moment I was part of something larger and more profound. I felt a joy to be at this place, at this time, looking at these stars."

Finally, I close with the pilot's poem, the classic High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., the son of missionaries who joined the RAF in WW II. He wrote this poem during flight training. Sadly, John Magee was killed in a mid-air collision when returning to his home field from his first mission in France, but he will live forever in this poem. 

High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

 Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

 And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

 Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

 Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred  things

 You have not dreamed of--wheeled and soared and swung

  High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,

  I've chased the shouting wind along,

 And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

 Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

 I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace

 Where never lark , or even eagle flew.

 And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

 Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

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