Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Pilot's Two Worst Days

I lost 2% of my hearing today. That’s my best guess. Not since that KISS concert in ‘76 have my ears sang to me this way. Both times, the loss was worth it.
Warm water was running in the shower when I heard Bair at the door. His thick Black Lab tail wags into everything he approaches. “Whop, whop, whop” went the sound as I yelled, “HOLD ON.” It stopped.
As I walked toward the kitchen, the sound returned, this time from another direction. Whop whop whop. That’s not Bair! Grabbing phone and radio, I ran to the door. Outside, to the west, a Chinook flew north. Cool to see but not what I was hoping for. I turned to retreat inside, and the helimonster turned, too.
Trotting to the end of the house, I captured a horrible photo. Sans glasses and time, I’m lucky to have caught it at all. There, a mile away, the smoky black ship was skimming the runway. “So cool,” I thought. Then it made a brisk 360 and landed.
I post this to prove my words about the quality of the image.  See it?
This time, I ran. In the door I went and out the door I came with keys, no jacket, no camera, and the first shoes I had found. Waiting for the car’s glow plug light to extinguish seemed like minutes.
Backwards out the driveway, the car slid onto the road. First gear hit hard and I flew down the road. Up the airport entrance, I skated onto the grass. Patchy snow hindered the execution of an otherwise perfect drive. As I feared, approaching the ship, 150’ away, it began to lift. As it tilted forward, I thought I had missed them. NO, they saw me, and returned gently to the grass.
I had to laugh at myself – appearing there in the chilly swirl as a homeless man in random clothes. If it was my friend in that beast, he most certainly was having a laugh at my expense. Engines hot and rotors turning, the pilots waved me over.
Face down, the image of flailing grass and tumbling snow struck me hard. Leaning into the wind to stay upright, I couldn’t help but think of warriors doing the same under the heavy blanket of combat, dust blowing, men bleeding. I jumped onboard, and one soldier handed me a jacket; another, earplugs. I shook the hands of both men and saw the youth in their faces. Walking forward, I wondered who was working the tendons, giving this thing life. A few steps later there was my friend grinning widely.
Struggling to insert the earplugs and gather my wits from the hurricane of noise, I leaned in to say hello. Were you to silence the machine at that moment, neighbors down the road would have thought someone was being gutted, “HEY, WHAT ARE YOU GUYS UP TO?” I screamed so hard my voice cracked. The words drowned to a whisper. Adapted to it, and wearing a helmet, my friend somehow heard me and gave an answer. Amazingly, when he asked if Ginger was home, too, I was able to read his lips and respond. I was in the process of putting the homeless man away so I could pick her up from town when I heard them arrive. Still yelling as if it were a decibel contest, I then asked, “WHAT’S NEW?”
His demeanor changed as he looked me in the eye. With smile degraded, he shrugged and spoke these words, “It’s my last flight.” From that point on, nothing more needed said.
It’s a well-worn aviation truism that the two worst days in a pilot’s life are the day he walks out to the aircraft KNOWING it is his last flight, and the day he walks out to the airplane NOT KNOWING it is. My friend was experiencing the first and, were it not for his wonderful wife and kids I’d be unsure which he’d prefer. Either way, it always helps to shed some load on a friend who understands rare sentiment.
I may have forgotten my camera, but I’ll never forget that moment. On paper, it was a flight from A to B. To a man it was the end of something horrifying and exceptional. A part of life to remember with pride and forget for the sake of sanity. Something special to have experienced and hope your sons never have to. It was soaring through valleys of fire like a God and cruising among cool towering clouds easily capable of demonstrating man's insignificance. It was the last flight. It was every flight.
How do you respond to that? Having no ability to overcome the machine's howl, I put my arm around his shoulder and gave him the same hug every family member gets in times like that. Without a word it says I’m sorry, congratulations, that sucks, that’s great, and every other possible thing that needs to be said but there’s no time for. Ultimately, though, for me it said, “That’s great, now get off my lawn. You’re blowing the cones and filling my gutters with grass.” That’s how friends are.
Shaking the other pilot’s hand, I looked to make sure he was sharp enough to understand the significance of this day. Then I said goodbye to all, retreated to the relative quiet of anywhere but in that beast, and watched them lift off. Driving toward home, a shadow crossed my path and flew toward the sun.
Thanks, Mike. I am honored to have had a small walk-on part in that journey.
NOTE: In the interest of clarity and further understanding, I must point out my friend’s last flight was last in type and theatre. He is moving through a major transition in his career (and life) but will still be flying. From here on out, though, the machines will be different and will not be carrying him into the line of fire. After 26 years as a warrior, he’s earned it.
As for the young guys in the back who supplied me a jacket and earplugs, it turns out one of them is in his early twenties and set to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire in Afghanistan. I wish for him, and the others, peace of mind and restful nights. They already have my greatest respect.

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