A Mistress, the Mach, and the End of an Era

Soon I will rip velcroed patches off a dirty flight suit, probably in the morning and with enough force to wake at least some of the house…because it has always been so. They will come off in their normal order. Always the same. My Weapons School patch will be last. It will be the first to go onto a clean flight suit. I do so in deference to the idea that guided then molded my being as a fighter pilot, the idea that a great warrior is at first a great tactician. That patch was what I knew I wanted from the moment I was assigned to my first fighter unit. As a pilot training graduate but not yet assigned to the aircraft that would become for me like a second skin, I first rode in the back seat of a different jet. On a single sortie I flew near fifty thousand feet then down to three hundred. I went faster than sound going straight down, and I saw virtually the entire Naval Aviation inventory fly past my canopy during a test to discover the latest in advanced air-to-air tactics. That’s when I decided I wanted to fly fighters for as long as “they” would let me, and getting that grey patch became the goal. During my first meeting with my new squadron commander after I had achieved it, he asked me what my long-term goals were. I had to admit that I had never thought beyond that patch, becoming a weapons officer, and teaching others what I could from what I had been taught. I went on to have other goals—I wanted to command just like that man, and I often wonder if I lived up to his example. But I now realize there was a purity in my ignorance of anything that might be beyond a supreme grasp of the tactical art of flying a modern fighter. It is the reason that patch holds a special place in my ritual. I think about that purity every time I put it on. It will go on the left shoulder as it has done now for longer than the time between that first life-altering flight in a fighter unit and the day I earned it. I’ll step into my flight suit, right leg first, sit on the stool in my closet, and put my boots on…always left foot first. As I lace up and tie my right boot I will sit for just a moment and contemplate the gravity of the moment. It will be the last day I ever fly the F-16.

It’s hard to comprehend how it could be coming to an end so soon. I remember soloing in her like it was yesterday. My instructor flew in “chase” and filmed me, slowly humming over his microphone the Battle Hymn of the Republic. We both chuckled when he played the video in the debrief. I remember thinking as I stepped to the jet that day, “how is it they let me get away with this?!” I have had that thought almost every time I have ever strapped into her. How do they let me get away with it? I will have that thought on the last day for certain. And when I rotate the throttle up and aft to shut her down for the final time, I’ll begin to wonder off and on for the rest of my life why they won’t let me do it any longer.

I shouldn’t complain. I have over 2,700 hours in her. That’s well over three months of continuous flying time. Only 245 people have more than 3,000 hours in the F-16, and while it appears now I will never quite get there, I’m still in a small fraternity. There are 296 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many of them played to the cheers of hundreds of thousands and read accolades in the press day after day over the long courses of their careers. Those whose company I’m honored to share know no such fame. They’ve never practiced their craft under the bright lights and a fan’s adoring gaze, but they’ve known things very few ever have.

In the majestic F-16 I have flown so high that I could discern the curvature of the earth and so low that the only thing I could do was try not to hit the ground. Zipping along at only 100 feet, I have chased trains through Elgin and met Eagles 180 out over Worthington. I’ve flown 1.7 times faster than sound and climbed straight up from one thousand feet to over thirty thousand and experienced zero “knots” of airspeed. I’ve survived an opposed egress from the western Nellis ranges with less than a full gun as my only remaining simulated ordnance. I’ve dropped or shot almost every munition the Viper can carry. I’m well-exercised in the “simulated” minimum fuel recovery, have been engaged over “No Name” mountain (ironic, I know) and Mormon Mesa, flown up glaciers and around the tallest mountain in North America, been from the Yukon River to Guam, and flown a single-engine, single-seat airplane completely around the globe. I’ve run canyons and arroyos with one of the greatest Viper drivers to ever live…and I’ve raised a glass to his sacrifice after the earth finally caught up to him. I’ve witnessed my beloved jet take many others, some I knew and some I didn’t. But it was never really her. She is demanding, and second best is never good enough for her.

I’ve always known I have been the weakest component of our symbiotic relationship. She taught it to me early on in my training when I got too low and too slow—almost behind her ample power curve—while carrying four thousand pounds of high explosives over the hot, high desert of Arizona. She reminded me in the rolling mountains of interior Alaska in my first Flag-level exercise as I searched my “six” for the “bad guy” chasing me for far too long. I looked out front with just enough time to pull up and clear the ridge I was descending into. On three occasions I’ve passed so close to other jets that I heard the sound of their engines, I’ve seen my cockpit light up at night from the glow of position lights passing too close overhead, and I was once about eight seconds from pulling the yellow handle on the ejection seat and “leaving her to the taxpayers.” These things happen though you wish they didn’t. What we do has never been safe, but that’s not her fault.

She does only what you ask unless the laws of physics and theories of aerodynamics simply will not allow it. We have traveled that nebulous region too, she and I. It’s where we finally came to understand each other. In that fleeting, yet somehow eternal moment with no noise except the steady hum of her engine, she hangs there undecided about what you command and what the science says she ought to do. It’s almost as if she believes in you, like she recognizes the genius of what you ask. She gives what she can…and she never once let me down.

No rational being should love a piece of machinery, but unless you have walked in my boots you can never truly understand why I do. I somehow cannot see her as the inanimate object I know her to be, because I have to believe she has a soul. It’s the soul of a warrior. Or perhaps it is an apparition that only comes alive when mated with a pilot who knows her as I do, who knows what she truly is and so longs to be.

I will walk around her as I have done two thousand times before, my gloved hand testing static discharge probes, banging twice on the gear door and three times on her ventral fin, because it is what I have always done. The back of my hand will slide over the flares made to save her from infrared missiles. I’ll run my fingers down the leading edge of her stab, and I’ll check speedbrakes, pneumatic bottles, and the hook. Three more bangs on the left ventral, a shake of the AIM-9 missile on Station 1 and visual confirmation it is loaded and locked correctly. A peek at the wheel well, looking at hydraulic lines and filters. And then one final pull on the gun door and a last look at the true fighter pilot’s most favored weapon; the six-barrel, 20 mm Gatling gun that will decide as is only fitting and when all else fails, who the best pilot at the merge really is. It’s a final reminder that we play to win, because second place will no longer exist.

I’ll buckle my harness and climb the ladder. I’ll slide into the seat, famously tilted back at thirty degrees. It’s the most comfortable rocket-powered chair on or above the earth. Right survival kit buckle, then the left. Lap belt then the right shoulder harness. The crew chief will click the left one into place…because it has always been so. I’ll shake his hand and say, “I’ll see you back on the ground.” It’s reassuring to hear it come from within me. He’ll tell me to have a good flight, then he’ll take the ladder, and it’ll be just me and her.

I do this ritual the same way every time. I do it without words unless there is needed maintenance, almost never any small talk. No interruptions; no one getting “in my bubble.” I suppose it’s my conscious attempt to separate myself from normalcy and step into the small and fragile world of high performance fighter aircraft, those weapons of war and portents of death. It is a world that bears almost no resemblance to anything else I know. My god, how I will miss it.

It is the same in combat. I touch the fins and lay my hands on the warhead of each one. I want to feel connected to the fate it might bring with a single action of my right thumb. I check the fuses, mounts, and wires. I count cannon plug connections and covers. I shake missiles, move fins, and confirm arming handles are set appropriately, then I always say the same thing. “See you back on the ground.”

Before I leave on deployment I always tell my wife I’m fully trained, “and I’m good at what I do.” I hope one day to be judged that way by my peers, but for a fighter pilot it has to be true to him. I don’t know if it ever reassured her, but she knew there was no keeping me away. I married her…but she always knew the F-16 was my mistress and that I was drawn by an unquenchable desire to test my skills among the white hot and flying iron. I’ve been fortunate to do so many times—how I will miss that too. I know very few things with certainty, but I know without doubt that I was born to fly and fight. Aerial combat is my element. Like my grandfather before me, I’ve seen the sky light up with the black and gray smoke of anti-aircraft fire. I’ve felt what it is to know that someone is trying to kill you. I know what it is like to see other men come to the same realization. Those whose company I share play under a different kind of light, exceedingly more consequential and far more surreal. I’ve experienced the Zen-like state of knowing exactly what my flight members are doing without them reporting, of knowing they know exactly what I am doing at exactly the right time. I have experienced combat as an aesthetic dance, an art to be admired and revered. And like my grandfather, I’ve seen men die in the midst of excruciating strokes on a strangely beautiful but necessarily dark canvas. It’s hard to understand how men and machines experience war. But she has been there throughout; she understands. I’ve been blinded by the light of a rocket motor. I’ve walked away from an empty rail where a missile once was and into the silent awe of a hundred maintainers’ stares, just wanting to be a part of it all. I’ve seen them all time and again “back on the ground.”

As I taxi in for the last time, I know it will be hard to make the right radio calls. I know tears will well and fall from my eyes. I know my family will be there to share this seminal event with me, and I believe my wife will understand a small part of what I will go through. The crew chief will tell me the EPU is pinned. He will say, “clear forward, clear aft…ready for shut down.” But I won’t be. I won’t be ready to pull her throttle to “Off” knowing I will never throw the jet fuel starter switch again. I won’t be ready to hear her wind down one last time, the metallic sound of the compressor blades clattering to a stop. I won’t be ready to unstrap the same way I have done thousands of times, and climbing from the cockpit will be one of the hardest things I will ever do. I’ll pause after my last post-flight walk-around and kneel under her, looking again into the left wheel well. It was good while it lasted, I’ll think. Then I’ll glance once more at her gun, walk under her nose, and run my hand across her belly right behind the radar one last time. Farewell, mighty Viper. We were a great team.

And somehow…somehow I’ll want to believe that she—my jet—will feel the same way. That she’ll know it’s the end of an era. That she’ll think it really was good while it lasted. And that someday when she flies her last sortie, a part of that soulful apparition I have to believe inhabits her will think, “you know, there was this one guy…he was one hell of a fighter pilot.”