The Price You Pay

There’s the price you pay, the price you thought you paid, the price you told your wife you  paid and the price you eventually pay.  Or it costs some people $ 200 to make a tandem skydive and it costs others the use of their right leg for 6 weeks, or a hip surgery 6 years later.  Last Saturday I was at home recovering from my hip resurfacing surgery, chillin on the couch drinking coffee and enjoying a slight pain pill buzz.  All was good until I got the call that one of my instructors, Smilee, had broken his leg.  “What the hell were you guys doing jumping in winds like this?” I thought, and maybe said loudly.  Earlier I’d looked at the forecast and it was supposed to be WINDY.  Now normally I call every morning and go over the forecast with my staff and decide weather or not, get it ?  we should jump that day, but seeing that I was on the mind I figured they could handle it by themselves just this once. I guess I was wrong.  Apparently when Smilee landed with his tandem the air was very turbulent and his passenger ended up sitting on his leg and broke it.  It’s not really serious but it will keep him on the ground for six to eight weeks.  If you’re going to jump out of planes for a living you’re going to get banged up every once in a while.

Good thing his friends took care his reading needs.        Smilee having a better day.                             DCIM114GOPRO

Your Weekly Lex, For Strength

Hot Gun

It may be hard to imagine today, but when I was a lad an entire generation of naval aviators had grown up to fill middle and even upper leadership roles in line squadrons without ever having “seen the wolf.” The long peace between Vietnam and Desert Storm meant that nearly 20 years had gone by with little more than the occasional drive by shooting.

My first CO was a Vietnam vet, as was his XO. After that were a long succession of folks who’d never been in actual combat. It was all too possible in that environment to get a “blue bomb” mentality.

A blue bomb is a MK76 (low drag) or a BDU-48 (high drag). These were twenty-five pound practice bombs with phosphorous marker cartridges in their nose. Their ballistic profile was very similar to that of a general purpose bomb like the 500 pound MK82, but they were vastly cheaper to expend in training and there was next to no danger in doing so – the marker charge sent up a lovely little column of smoke but had no “frag envelope” to avoid.

In the days before precision guided ordnance became the norm, hitting small targets like tanks, arty tubes and trucks often meant getting down low and groveling with them. It’s great fun in training, but hard work in combat – being in gun range works both ways. But, it’s hard to hit what you can’t see, so we trained extensively in the low altitude environment.

We always trained to fight in two-ship pairs (at a minimum) for mutual support – it was good to have someone to watch your six for AAA or SAMs when you were on government time in the final attack. To make a low altitude simultaneous attack on a target required that both strikers be off target within 5 seconds of each other, or else the trailing attacker would end up flying through the frag pattern of his leader’s bombs. That could lead to dash 2 taking engine or airframe damage and potentially going for a walk in the proximity of some fairly agitated bad guys. Alternate deconfliction schemes were also devised to put greater than 30 seconds of time (and a multi-axis attack) between detonations using relatively simple spacing patterns.

Practicing these drills at low altitude was great fun, but it wasn’t until you’d tried them carrying live ordnance that the real importance of flawless execution became apparent. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve been in a 15 degree dive on final attack at 1500 feet or so above the ground in a low altitude run and realized suddenly that the timing had gotten gooned and lead’s bombs – heading towards the same target you were approaching at 500 knots – hadn’t gone off yet.

It’s very exciting.

Another example of the benefits of experience and the blue bombing mentality was driven home for me when a new change came out to our weapons computer software in the late 80′s. Someone had spent good government money to enable a “hot gun” capability during ground attack with bombs.

Now, the 20mm cannon on the FA-18 is, when selected as the primary ground attack weapon, an incredibly accurate and lethal weapon. Relatively simple ballistics and short times of flight combined with accurate air-to-ground radar ranging meant that the bullets would go exactly where the aiming dot was placed. The hot gun cross had none of that however – it was necessarily austere, since most of the processing power of the weapons computer in a dive bombing attack was dedicated towards displaying either a release point or an impact point. The hot gun cross was little more than a selectable option on the weapons display and a static cross hair drawn on the HUD.

“This software change is useless,” I told my CO one day in the ready room at sea. “You’ll never hit anything with a static gun cross, and anyway your attention will be focused on the bomb run. Why on earth did we pay good money for this software change?”

The CO, a compact, taciturn man with extensive combat experience on Yankee Station, gave one of the longest speeches I ever heard him make: “You’re not supposed to hit anything with it. You just use it to hose the target area down when you’re on the wire. Fire a long burst and rudder her around a little bit. Gives the bad guys something else to think about besides tracking you in their gunsights.”

“Oh,” I replied. Feeling – not for the last time – simultaneously better educated and a great deal more stupid.

Routine Maintenance Update

Boy, that was one ugly hip!  That is a quote from the surgeon who worked on me yesterday.  He went on and on about how big the bone spurs were that he had to grind down to enable him to put the new Cobalt ball and socket in me.  I’ve been through two physical therapy sessions so far, not fun, and they say I’m doing better than most of their patients.  Not much praise in my opinion due to the fact that most people who get hip resurfacing surgery are fifteen years or more older that me, but I’ll take it because Cory from CB Aviation called me not too long ago about doing a trip for him.  Apparently Hector from Uruguay has a nice 2005 Beech Baron that needs to be ferried to the US and he wants me to do it.  I guess he trusts me because Super Girl and I managed to fly his Bonanza along the same route last winter without any major mishaps.  Of course as usual both Hector and Cory want me to do the trip ASAP but that is going to depend on how fast I can get my hip in good working/flying order.  The Doc. says three weeks but I’m thinking I should be ready to fly in two.  I never was much of a rule follower.

And So It Starts

When I started filming for Dangerous Flights I really had no idea what would happen.  We could film one episode, one season or get as big as Deadliest Catch, it was all up in the air, so to speak.  As of now we have two seasons in the can with a pretty good chance of a season three and now season one is going to be showing in the US on the Smithsonian Channel so things are looking up.  With the show now airing in the US one of the local afternoon TV shows wanted to do a short story about me and Dangerous Flights so they came out and interviewed me and I took them for a ride in the Caravan.  I think it came out well check it out by clicking the link thingy here.  Twin Cities Live.

Routine Maintenance

Seven or eight years ago I had a semi rough parachute landing, hey one out of thirteen thousand isn’t too bad.  Apparently I damaged my labrum..labirum..laybrum…I hurt my hip.  Of course I was too stubborn to go to the hospital so my injury went UN-diagnosed.  After seven years of soccer, skiing and skydiving I developed a pretty nasty bone spur and had worn all the cartilage off of my hip and the pain and loss of movement has finally gotten so bad that I need to get it fixed.  At 51 I’m a little young to be having hip surgery but I’m also too  young to be crippled.  So tomorrow I go under the knife to fix the hitch I’ve got in my my get along.   Wish me luck!


The Boys of Fall

Number One Son after a better game.con n kerr aug 23It’s fall in America and that means many things to me, deer hunting, Musky fishing, the skydiving season coming to a close but most importantly, Football.  Now I’m not really a big sports fan, I don’t follow many teams, I don’t know much about the players or statistics.  I love playing sports but I don’t spend much time watching them. That is except for the teams my kids play on and right now number one son is playing football.  He’s a starting tight end and the high school team and is having the time of his life.  Up until last Friday his team was undefeated and NOS had caught a lot of passes and fulfilled every fathers dream by scoring a touchdown in a high school football game.  He’s beat up but having a great season.  Friday night his team played their arch rivals for the conference championship.  They’re was a big buildup to the game, both teams were undefeated but the other team had beaten us the last five years in a row and it looked like this year might the year we had a chance to win.  The game was hard fought and at half time we were up 10-7.  The emotions were running high in the stands and I thought I was going to have a heart attack as they battled in the second half and the other team took the lead.  We fought hard but in the end it was the other team’s fans who were celebrating.  After the game my wife and I joined the other parents out on the field to console the boys on their loss.  It was quite a scene, sad sweaty boys covered in mud limping off the field in utter dejection.  NOS came up to me sobbing.  He took the loss hard, saying that he’d let his team down.  I tried to point out that he’d had a great game catching three passes for 45 yards and had done a great job blocking.  My words didn’t seem to make difference, they’d lost and were devastated.   I’ll give him a few days before talking to him about just how lucky he is to be part of something so wonderful and caring so deeply about it that losing seems like the end of the world.  I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.  Their season isn’t over, even though they lost the conference championship they are still in the playoffs and their first game is this Friday.  They won’t have to face the school that beat them because they are a division one school and we are in division two.  I think going on to win a state championship would really help ease the sting of last Friday’s loss.  I don’t think I’ve done a very good job explaining just what it means to the kids to play football but the video below says it all.

Your Weekly Lex, For Strength

Fear of flying, II

It is often said in mult-seat aviation that you should never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than yourself. A pilot should be a little bit afraid. We are but soft and vulernerable creatures: Our evolution has not kept pace with our technology, we were never meant to move through space at such enormous speeds. Our craft are fragile things, each added ounce resented by the engineers who create them, and the whole construct cobbled together built by the lowest qualified bidder. We routinely operate our machines at the borders of our understanding of physics and aerodynamics. And the earth is so unyielding.

My friend had lost his fear. He was a very good stick, although perhaps a better pilot than he was an officer. His professional life was sound, but he had contrived to make a horrible coil of his personal life. I guess you could say that he loved rather more well than he did wisely. Things fell apart.

If it weren’t for the faith that he’d been raised in, he told me later – a faith he no longer truly believed in, but one that nevertheless impressed him with its doctrine that self-murder was the only unpardonable sin – he might not have survived to share his story with me, over one too many beers at the end of a hot day in a very foreign land. The story of how a kind of uncaring darkness had fallen over him. How, rather than courting death, or even tempting it, he decided to simply ignore it entirely.

Those of us that knew him sensed that something had changed, but there was nothing you could put your finger on. There were no overtly dangerous acts which might compel a peer to notify a flight surgeon or human factors council. His tactical flying and work around the ship was still razor sharp. He still smiled and laughed with the rest of us in the ready room and wardroom. I don’t know if any of us realized at the time that the neither the smiles nor the laughter ever quite made it all the way up to his eyes.

We do dangerous things as matter of course. We land high performance aircraft on the pitching decks of ships at night, in bad weather. We hurl our fragile craft towards the ground to release deadly weapons whose effects we must escape, even as we dodge the earth’s embrace. We fly at low altitude in mountainous terrain at over 500 mile per hour. At night. Looking through the soda-straw lenses of night vision devices. We fling our craft into complex aerial ballets under massive forces in the presence of numerous adversaries equally engaged. Not all of whom we see. Not all of whom see us. And that’s just in training.

It’s right in such circumstances to be a little bit afraid. To know fear is to know doubt, and to doubt is merely to acknowledge our human imperfection. We cannot know everything, cannot always sense the full environment, can not everywhere and in all things coalesce a coherent picture from a screaming chorus of sometimes conflicting inputs. To doubt a little is to check the math, to make allowances, to leave some in reserve. A doubter places a buffer around the margins when he can. Just in case.

The fearless man, the one who really doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, has no need of such luxuries. And if he is to survive in our business, he must be very, very good. Perfect, in fact. And no one can sustain perfect.

My friend went on in this dark place for several months. A tribute, if nothing else, to his abilities and some lingering sense of professional responsibility. You were expected to return the jet when you were done with it. Smashing it into the sea or flinging it into the turf was considered poor form.

My friend’s epiphany came to him, he said, on a post-maintenance functional check flight. Something or other had been removed and replaced, meaning a senior pilot had to wring it out before the plane might be flown by the less experienced. His checklist complete, he had sufficient fuel for some heavy “1v0″ maneuvering. Flying up against the edge of the envelope. Exploring the jet’s utmost capabilities in full afterburner, at max angle of attack. Looking for an advantage he might later use in a fight.

He got right up to the envelope’s edge. And then he pushed right through.

Now, the Hornet is a forgiving jet. She will take a fair amount of mishandling without protest. But like any machine she has limits. Cross over them in a sufficiently aggressive manner and she will quickly and remorselessly try to kill you and then spit on your grave.

The jet departed controlled flight violently and my friend was thrown bodily from side to side within the cockpit, his helmet smashing against the canopy. Warning tones sounded in his headset even as the familiar sibilant hiss of the airstream changed to the mad shout of a maelstrom. In moments of transition from one gyration to the next he would see kaleidoscope images of the sky and sun above, or the whitecapped sea below. The sea drawing closer with each breath. Waiting. Patient.

He fought to push himself back into the seat, lock his harness. Wrestled with the flight controls, trying to break the angle of attack, trying to regain control. Conflicting spin indicators on his digital data displays told him that he was in a “falling leaf” departure even as the altimeter unwound madly. He told himself that he would not eject, not suffer the embarrassment of being rescued and having to explain how he had pooched it. He would not go through the humiliation of a mishap investigation, and all of the professional psychological prying that would go with it. He decided that he would save the airplane from the destructive spiral he had put them in. Or else die with it.

“And that’s when I realized it,” he said to me blearily. I nodded silently: Go on.

“Upside down, hanging in the straps, fighting with the jet. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to die. I was afraid.”

In the end he saved the jet. Or who knows?

Maybe they saved each other.