12. Dreams of flying

Dreams of Flying

1969

My father was a navigator on a B24 in World War Two, but he began his military service as a student pilot in the Navy. Soon after the US got into the war, Daddy went down and signed up for the program. He was a college graduate working in the railroad yards in Macon, Georgia at the time. He wanted to go and serve his country; there was a desperate need for pilots, and quickly. I suppose he also felt flying was a glamorous way to serve. He never talked about it much, since he washed out of flight school in a few weeks.

 They trained in those lumbering old Stearmans, and they didn’t spend a lot of time at it before they shipped out. Some time fairly early in the training, Daddy lined up on the taxiway instead of the runway, maybe even set ‘er down on the taxiway. The instructor didn’t have a lot of patience, or much time to waste apparently. “Son, we could teach a monkey to fly this thing,” he said to my father, “but we just don’t have the time.”

Daddy walked straight from the airfield to the Army recruiting office and signed up for the Army Air Corps. He really wanted to fly. The Army posted him as a navigator. He trained in B17’s mostly, but his crew was split up after training and he got assigned to a Wing flying B24s out of England. Jimmy Stewart was his Wing Commander. Things were different during that war.

What all that meant for me was that my daddy was really happy and proud to see me go off to pilot training in the Air Force. Sort of fulfilling his dreams of flying. I guess we parents are prone to that sort of thing. It also put quite a bit of pressure on me to succeed in that endeavor, at least to complete the program.

But it was a struggle for me. They had something called SIE in Air Force UPT: self-initiated elimination. Which meant you could quit anytime. If you were scum of the earth, that is, you could quit. It was something that never to my knowledge happened. The story was, you’d end up in Thule, Greenland if you SIE’d. The way we talked about it, you’d probably never make it off the base if you did, ‘cuz you’d be covered in such slime you couldn’t manage to walk to your car or drive out the gate. So even if I had been of a mind to quit, I never would have been able to do it. Too much pressure.

So I was pretty much stuck in pilot training whether I liked it or not. Most of the time I was okay with it. The students and the instructors were a great bunch of guys. The program was really fascinating and usually great fun: they taught us everything about engines, aerodynamics, weather, flight planning, and much more, as well as teaching us to fly three different airplanes under all possible conditions. And the fact they were able to teach all this to me, who barely passed college algebra and found science mystifying, is a testimony to the sound design of the curriculum as well as the genius of the instructors. I was barely motivated and sometimes downright resistant, yet they managed to turn me into a competent pilot. It was amazing.

It was loads of work – we were booked solid every day – and we were under tremendous pressure all the time, but it was highly motivating. It was designed much like a good video game: an ascending level of intermediate rewards kept you hooked in. Plus you knew the assignment you would get out of UPT depended on your rank in the class. Top students went to the Fox-Fours  (F4 Phantoms) and other hot fighter jets. On down the ranking and you ended up in Bongos (B52 bombers) or Tanks (KC135 tankers).  At the bottom were various cargo planes, FACs and TEWS (forward air controllers and tactical electronics warfare squadrons).

I never wanted to make fighters – I guess I figured that further down the list made it less likely I’d end up in the war. I was pretty miserable much of the time, at least if I thought about the future very much. However, I had some of the most fun and most rewarding learning of my life there. Had I been training to fly in order to bring meals and improved lives to the starving children of the world, no doubt I would have been highly motivated and enjoyed the process even more. But the stultifying knowledge that this skill I was learning was to be used in bringing certain death to people engaged in a desperate struggle to free themselves from a century of foreign domination took all the fun out of it. There were times when I thought I could not go on another hour, and times when I thought I was on top of the world.

I was stationed at Williams Air Force Base, near Phoenix, Arizona in ‘The Valley of the Sun’, widely held to be the plum assignment for UPT, at least by my contemporaries. The only drawback was, you never got to fly in weather, because they never had any. Just boring old sunshine month after month. At least, there was sunshine once you got above the layer of pink haze that covered the valley most of the time. On early morning flights, you could see the red smoke pouring down into the valley from the copper smelting operations down south, and if a good temperature inversion set in, it would spread out over the valley, mixing with the city’s exhaust to form a blanket over the land. In late afternoon, breaking through that layer on climb out was like a second sunrise as you emerged into the bright sunlight and crystal clear air above it.

There were some spectacular moments. Solo flight in a supersonic jet is probably unmatched for sheer exultation of accomplishment. A full-burner climb-out is definitely the most amazing aeronautical experience short of space flight. We were treated to the demonstration once during our training. You just leave the throttle in afterburner after the takeoff, holding the aircraft in a shallow climb until the airspeed builds up, and then pull back on the stick. A T-38 will climb out at nearly vertical through 50,000 feet – in well under a minute. The earth drops away so fast below you that it takes your breath.

And flying a loop around a nice cumulus cloud – occasionally there were clouds – is otherworldly. Nothing stands out in my memory, however, like flying four-ship formation. You know, like the Blue Angels. Just flying so close to another airplane you can count the rivets in the airframe is amazing, (and seems totally impossible the first time you try it!) but a four-ship rejoin nearly defies belief. You and your three formation buddies take off one after the other, with a common area assigned. Lead arrives in the area, establishes a relatively low airspeed, constant altitude and heading, and radios the wingmen with that information. Two, three, and four then successively overtake lead and, with the aid of a speed brake and very delicate maneuvering, fall into position slightly behind each other. All this happens, ideally, within about five or ten minutes.  The four airplanes then go through a series of maneuvers as a unit. It’s pretty amazing.

We had our share of tragedy and comedy as well. The biggest tragedy was the guy in our class who flew into one of the Twin Buttes. Being basically kids, we all looked for fun and exciting stuff to do, even if it was dangerous. One of those things was flying between Twin Buttes when out solo in the T-37, which of course was totally illegal and stupid, but most of us did it. This guy decided to prove his accomplishment with the aid of a camera. They found the camera among the pieces of his airplane which were scattered across the desert around the buttes.

One of our instructors told a tale which provided us with great comedy for a while. He came in one day from a ride with Mohammed, one of several Iranian students in our Flight, – some kind of exchange program with the Iranian Air Force – obviously upset, cussing and storming and swearing that he would never fly with Mohammed again. Of course we all wanted to know what happened. “Hell, he kept getting low on the turn to final, and I kept telling him to get  it up, but finally I yelled at him. I told him if he kept getting low he was going to kill us both, and he just turned and looked at me – right in the middle of turning to final! – and says real calm, ‘Mohammed no afraid to die!’ So I took the airplane and landed it myself. I told him, Mohammed if you’re not afraid to die, I ain’t flying with you! Ever again!”

You could hardly blame the guy for being upset, but I don’t think he understood Muslim attitudes about death very well. It gave us some great comic relief, and Mohammed got assigned to another instructor.

I had a run-in with a coyote on take-off that seems comic but was a near-disaster. The desert is full of coyotes, and they often cross highways in front of you, showing that cool nonchalance for which they are justly famous. I guess to a coyote, a runway is just a wide highway. That error in judgment on the part of one coyote nearly cost both of us our lives.

A jet aircraft, unlike an automobile, accelerates very slowly at first and the rate of acceleration increases as its speed increases, at least up to a point, and obviously it keeps accelerating for much longer, reaching much higher speeds. None of that is part of coyote road-crossing protocol. This particular morning, I was solo in the T-38. About half-way to the go/no-go decision point in my takeoff roll – the point where you must either abort or you’re committed to the takeoff since there won’t be enough runway left to stop if you don’t – I saw a coyote looking at me from the left side of the runway. He gave me the typical coyote glance, and then began trotting with typical coyote nonchalance across the runway.

Oh shit, I thought, if he doesn’t speed up, he’s gonna get sucked right up my intake, and that will not be cool. I think about aborting, but I’ve got another few seconds, maybe he’ll make it. He gives me another glance and picks up his pace a bit, probably wondering what the hell I’m doing coming on so fast. But he’s not gonna make it, and we both realize that at about the same time. He kicks it in and is starting to run now, glancing nervously at me, but it’s too little too late – he has no previous experience with anything that accelerates as fast as this thing. Glancing at my airspeed, I see I’m nearly on the line, snatch back the throttles and get on the brakes hard, hoping I did the calculations right. The tires start to squeal and the speed drops off fast; by now the coyote is in a full, desperate run. I zip by him with only a few feet to spare. Had I still been in full burner, we’d have both been toast. I’m breathing so hard I start to feel dizzy, so I pop the lever up for 100% oxygen and hope I can stay conscious long enough to get the plane off the runway. I hear tower crackling in my ear, wondering what’s up, but no way I can respond now. I’m just holding my incipient skid and praying for runway. It seems ages, and my legs are trembling on the brake pedals, but finally I’m down to controllable speed, and I turn off at the last ramp. As I roll onto the taxiway, I punch the mike button and between rasping breaths, croak out, “Tower, … Skeeter 511… aborting takeoff, … over.”

“Roger that, 511 – have a little competition out there?”  They thought it was funny. I thought I was gonna throw up in my oxygen mask.

That little Vaudeville routine was a walk in the park, however, compared to my experience with wingtip vortex.

Wingtip vortices are produced when the high pressure air under a wing leaks around the end of the wind, creating a spinning cone of air that trails each wingtip. This wake turbulence requires the wide separation common between landing aircraft, and is especially problematic for delta-wing aircraft like the T-38 (which is essentially a Northrup F-5), which sacrifice aspect ratio for maneuverability. They taught us all about this phenomena in aeronautics. It was one of the few things we really needed to know for our safety, especially when there were several of us in the landing pattern flying touch-and-goes – practice in landing and taking off, where each pilot touches down, then takes off again without coming to a stop. Tower controllers kept us separated enough to avoid the worst effects of the turbulence, but then, they weren’t in the airplane.

It was one of those days, several of us round and round, touching down, taking off, getting complacent. There was a good strong crosswind keeping the windsock stiff and at nearly right angles to the runway that day. We needed practice in crosswind landing, plus it allowed tower to pack us in a little closer, get more planes into the pattern, as the crosswind blew the wingtip vortices off the runway quickly, making it safe for us to fly much closer to the plane in front than we normally did. So there we were, zooming around, getting the correction nailed, setting them down one after the other, having a great time. We were cool.

I was dropping right in on about my 47th touch-and-go, or so it seemed, watching the big wide yellow line down the center of the runway get closer, watching the guy in front touch down perfectly, push his nose wheel down, then the burners kick in and he’s off again, when suddenly the windsock goes flat, boom. Drops down like a limp, well, sock. Oh shit! Not good. I’m coming right up on flare speed, bad time to go around, and besides, if I go around he’ll be coming up right under me, won’t know I’m here, oh shit, maybe I’ll get it on the ground before his vortex hits me. So I’m cutting back on the power, pulling the nose up, trying to land a little quicker, so slow everything’s sloppy, wallowing like a bathtub, and suddenly, swish! I’m flying sideways, nothing out my right window but yellow line. I have spent so much time in this cockpit by now that the controls are like an extension of my body, so as the plane whips to the right, as naturally as you would raise your arm to keep your balance, I simultaneously slam the stick full left, smash the left rudder to the floor, and extend my left arm, pushing the throttles past the detent into afterburner, then flip the switch to retract the landing gear. And I’m just sitting there holding everything, straining for more, staring out that right window. My whole world is that yellow concrete. I could count the bubbles in the paint. Hell, I could repaint the whole damn thing, because I’m just hanging here and time has stopped.

Vaguely I’m aware of the sound of the engines, the slow whoop-whoop-whoop as the turbines start to wind up, and it seems like they’re never going to go any faster, it seems like I’ve been listening to them for hours and it’s still just whoop-whoop-whoop, nothing happening, but gradually they’re turning faster and my control surfaces start to take effect and slowly, slowly, like a slalom coming out of the water behind a slow boat, the aircraft begins to dish out, the nose begins to come up and I am flying again.

Ah! The joy of flying! This is the real joy of flying. It’s got nothing to do with feelings of freedom and floating carefree through the clouds in happy abandon. The joy of flying is in not falling, as in not being a rock, a hunk of metal in the grips of gravity. The joy of flying is that feeling of airflow across your wings, that lightness in your gut like some big strong hand just reached underneath you and gently lifted you up, intervened between you and a concrete lunch. The joy of flying is when you can stop to realize that your heart is pounding and your breath is pumping and that you just really actually almost died but you didn’t.

And then you can coolly push the button despite the trembling and say, “Tower, Skeeter 29, going around.” As if nothing happened. And out there in front of you is Skeeter 27 and he has no idea what just happened and probably never will. All you do is run the downwind leg a little farther next time around, quite a bit farther in fact, and casually mention to tower that the crosswind is variable.

—-

We had some pretty good times on weekends off, too. Phoenix was a fairly large city then, and there were a number of hot clubs with bands and chicks to pick up. Our favorite was DJ’s with its rock-and-roll upstairs and country downstairs. There was always action one floor or the other. I saw Linda Ronstadt perform there, sat so close to the stage I could see her toenails and – when her short silver sequined dress rode up a bit – the bruise on her thigh where she beat the tambourine. Also George Carlin, of ‘hippie-dippie weatherman’ fame.

One of my most interesting life experiences, though, occurred in the Red Dog Saloon. Four or five of us guys dropped in at the Red Dog late one night, and it was crowded. We were standing around the railing on the balcony scanning for loose women and an open table when the lone guy sitting at a table near us got up and left, apparently to go to the bathroom, as he left his glass on the table.

Some bold person in our group, Dennis probably, suggests, ‘Hey, let’s grab that table!’ so we do, and someone moves his glass over to a small table back against the wall. We all sit down, happy to have a table on the edge of the balcony so we can see the dance floor. Several minutes later, we’re chilling and drinking when the former occupant of the table returns. He looks at us with a scowl and motions with his thumb for us to leave. Something about the expression on his face and the forceful quality of his gesture leaves little room in our minds for question, though we could clearly take him if it came to that, and we look at each other, shrug and begin moving to the small tables back by the wall, returning his glass to his table.

Without a word, the guy sits down, leans back and spreads out at the large table, his back to us. We grouse among ourselves about it, but we’ve moved now and there’s not a lot to say.  A few more minutes go by, and the guy turns around and looks at us. I’m sitting in the chair closest to him, and he motions with his head, looks and me and says, “Hey, you guys wanta move over here … sit at my table?”

I’m stunned, speechless for a moment, just staring at him. He’s a fairly big guy, long combed-back dark hair, wearing a shiny suit, black shirt, and white tie. “Ah, sure,” I venture, looking back at the other guys. They didn’t quite hear. “Hey, guys, want to move over to the big table? He’s inviting us over…” They’re surprised and a little hesitant, but begin to move. We pull a couple of extra chairs over and crowd around the table, with a few mumbling “Thanks, man!”.

There’s not a lot of conversation, but I’m sitting next to the guy, trying to be friendly, making small talk. I tell him we’re a bunch of student pilots from Williams, and he tells me his name is Steve, Steve Bonanno.

The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t push it. During a lull in the music, he looks at me seriously and says, “Good thing you guys didn’t make a beef about moving.”

“Oh yeah?” I say. “Why’s that?”

“There’s people watching me. They would’a hurt you.” I don’t quite know what to say to this odd comment, so I just nod and look amused.

“I’m serious man. You see that guy over there?” He points across the room to the far corner. “See the guy standing against the wall, the guy in sunglasses?” I look.

“Yeah, I think so.” The guy does stand out, since he’s wearing a suit and tie, nearly unheard of here in the valley. And sunglasses, at night, inside.

Then he points to the other corner, to our left. “See the other guy down there, sittin’ by himself?” Another overdressed guy. In sunglasses.

“Yeah, so who are they?”

“My father sends ‘em to watch me. To protect me. They won’t let anybody mess with me.” I take another look at the two. Could be…

“Really! So who is your father… and why’s he having you watched?” I’m not sure I should ask any of this – in fact, after it’s too late, I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have, but it’s out now.

“My old man is Joe Bonanno. You heard’a him?”

“Ah, yeah…  Joe Bonanno… I think so. Yeah, wasn’t he on TV or something the other day? Lives down in Tucson?” I remember now why the name is familiar. I recently saw Joe Bonanno of Tucson on the news, telling reporters that he is definitely not the same Joe Bonanno who is being charged with racketeering and other mafia-related crimes in New York and Chicago. Different Joe, he says.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Steve is saying. “He’s my old man. We just moved out here last year. He’s afraid somebody’ll try to kidnap me to get to him. Won’t let me go anywhere by myself. It really sux.” He shakes his head and looks at me, a doleful expression souring his face. “You don’t know what it’s like, being the son of a big-time wise-guy like him. People think, hey, great, lots of money, no problem, nice clothes, big car, fancy women. Hey, I can’t even go on a date without those goons with me. Who d’ya thinks gonna go out with me?” He looks at me pointedly. “I mean, it sux!”

—-

The Phoenix metro area includes Tempe, home to Arizona State University. We called the Tempe apartment district ‘Sin City,’ and as soon as we were allowed to move off base, near the end of our year there, my buddy Doug and I moved into a pool-side apartment right in the middle of it. There were keg parties and live bands around the pool nearly every weekend, and lots of girls from ASU. Life was good. We were having fun. I didn’t think too much about the war or any of that. I fell in love about every other month. I still wanted a future. So I stuck it out, swallowing my guilt.

My whole family – Mom and Dad and four kids – drove from Georgia to Phoenix to see me get my wings. After the big mass ceremony, all the moms came out and pinned them on us. I still tear up thinking about it.

Once again, everyone was so proud. Even me.