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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.

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