ONE MORE DANCE

It had been 28 years since I had danced the wild blue in a jet fighter—even the dream of ever doing it again had died. Civilian life has been good but I’ve never totally adapted to the dearth of airborne adrenalin. I did my duty and war is a terrible thing, but I confess to missing the camaraderie of passionate patriots who fly alone in fast airplanes, who willingly challenge the Grim Reaper for God, duty, honor and country. Truth be known I also miss that near psychotic love affair with an inanimate object, that single-engine, single-seat, sweptwing angel of death with soul of titaniumF-100D 4 ship and steel—an F-100 Super Sabre. (Picture from Bud Day’s collection) We were intimate so often (268 combat missions in 360 days) that when we slipped the surly bonds man mated with machine and the ailerons, elevator and rudder became extensions of the hands and feet. Complex maneuvers that seemed so hard to master in the beginning required no conscious thought in the heat of battle. And my lover never once let me down. (Neither did the Lover of my soul, which is the real reason I’m here to tell about it.)

Then, in His providence, in October of ’99, after addressing a graduating class of new fighter pilots at Luke Air Force F-16s threeBase near Phoenix, Arizona, I was offered a terrific honorarium—one more dance, a flight in the Pegasus of American airpower at the turn of the third millennium, the F-16 Viper. (Picture thanks to F-16.net)

Two hours prior to takeoff four highly disciplined, enthusiastic fighter pilots and one excited alumnus trying to suck it in and look cool began a pre-flight briefing as if it were the real thing. Sadly, in the ensuing 45 years since my last real thing, it has been real again tens of thousands of times for America’s fighter pilots. As Plato said, “Only dead men have seen an end to war.”

At the appointed hour we walked out to the flight line and the finest office an executive at Fearless Fighter Pilots, Inc. could ever want. I climbed the ladder, ducked under the canopy, shoe-horned my body into the back office of a two-seat F-16 and lay back in the same position I assume in my favorite recliner. It’s a mighty comfy way to go to war. If only technology could provide similar psychological comfort in the fur ball of air combat….

On takeoff roll it was immediately apparent this was neither your father’s aeroplane nor my beloved old F-100. In fact it put my Super Sabre in a class with Davy Crockett’s musket. We accelerated like a .44-magnum slug, and for the next hour I was Dirty Harry with ten thousand times the firepower. Unlike Harry’s weapon, this sophisticated heat does much of the thinking…and can outrun its own bullets.

Our target was a simulated missile site deep in the heart of southwest Arizona. We sneaked up on it at 500 knots and 500 feet, more or less, above the jackrabbits and mesquite, with a sultry, feminine voice reminding us when we were too low. As we approached a ragged ridgeline, Gordo, in the front seat, pulled up abruptly into a 30-degree climb and rocketed over the top of the ridge. From 12,000 feet up we spied the target at our nine o’clock low and dove on it, rolling into 135 degrees of bank and a five “g” turn while pulling the nose down through the horizon. When we were lined up on the target, the Viper pirouetted on its nose as Gordo rolled right side up in a nanosecond and pickled off the bomb.

Bomb away, followed by the anaconda squeeze of my g-suit inflating in a dive recovery that felt like a square corner. When pointed back toward heaven with the g’s unloaded, there ensued a reflexive rearward crank of the head to observe the fruit of our labors. That part hasn’t changed in all the years of air-to-ground gunnery—only the flexibility of the neck attests to the march of time.

For all its thrills, there were some key aspects of my wartime sorties thankfully missing. No Fourth of July fireworks here, just a puff of smoke as a small inert bomb hit the ground. And the mind was spared the remarkably focusing effect of flak in the face—the terror and ecstasy of being shot at and missed.

Arriving back at the base we flew initial approach 1000 feet above the runway in 4-plane echelon right formation, a spine tingling sight from any angle. Myriad memories came to mind—battle-damaged planes…adrenaline depleted and body exhausted…the grief of a missing wingman. Mostly I recalled the thrill of coming home victorious, of rescuing the grunts from the infidels, junking trucks and AAA sites,  and conquering my fear while jinking in the cross-hairs of enemy. At 3-second intervals each Viper snapped smartly into a 60-degree banked left-turn and all rolled out in single file pointed the opposite direction on the downwind leg to landing.

Then a descending 180-degree turn put us on final approach, and our Viper kissed the concrete with nose in the air at a haughty angle. My brief, intense, middle-aged fling with a supersonic angel was over. It had been a wondrous waltz around the wild blue in the company of gung-ho young men in their fabulous flying machines. God bless ‘em all. And as it turned out, that was not my last dance, but that’s a story of Amazing Grace for another day, or here:

Excerpt from Grace in the Growing Season

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One Response to “ONE MORE DANCE”

  1. jack mccormick Says:

    you still have the wordsmith touch

    Jack

    Like

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