Image from http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/15/thousands-amass-in-jordan-for-major-military-exercise/
Each year millions of eager young people graduate from the halls of collegiate academia and race to the desks that will be their lot in life for decades.
Some few lucky ones escape the desk and find themselves in jobs pacing factory floors ensuring on-time quality production, or donning a white coat and experimenting in labs, or even tending to sick people or animals and at times cutting them open and patching them up.
But the really lucky bastards get to fly jet aircraft.
I say “bastards” of course, from the third dictionary definition meaning “male”.
Much of my young personal history took place in the late 1970’s. In that time, I had attended the Air Force Academy from 1972 to 1976, graduated, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force and moved on to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.
That is, Jet pilot training. JET. PILOT. TRAINING.
And all of this occurred in a completely male-dominated environment. That’s the way it was. So this story is not coed because it didn’t happen that way.
So to repeat, I was a really lucky bastard in the mix with a whole bunch of other lucky bastards. And, of course, the entire scenario was steeped in testosterone.
USAF Pilot Training is not just a matter of ground school and then punching supersonic holes in the sky. There are also side treats such as water survival training and parachute training. All of this is perfect for the young man who is just at that age where, if sufficient risky behavior is not forthcoming, we will somehow create it.
Frankly the thought of having women around during these years is alien to me to the point of scariness. I was barely able to do the things I did with sufficient machismo in front of my fellow cadets or young officers with them being male. I suspect this awesomeness would have been quite impossible in front of women, all of who have a knack for seeing the goofy little boy in all of us awesome bastards.
So, by this point in time I had piloted a little Cessna, parachuted many times, graduated from pilot’s water survival training, and many other things the typical young man does not get a chance to do.
To give an example, water survival was uniquely tailored to the pilot’s need to disentangle from all his parachute, oxygen mask, and other gear before it drags him down to an early, watery death. And, of course, we practiced this by doing it. Finding yourself underneath what seems like an endless canopy of death, you float on your back and find a seam. You follow that seam to the end of the parachute and find sunshine and air. You throw away your aircraft oxygen mask so that you don’t try to breath trapped water. And you do your best to avoid the barracuda swimming with you in the Florida training site. Simple.
But back to this story. This is the story, if I forgot to tell you, of parasailing at an empty field near the runway at Columbus Air Force Base just before actual jet pilot training started.
The field was dusty. Here and there a few weeds and wildflowers struggled to survive and reproduce. At one end were all of us goofy young second lieutenants strutting about like proud roosters in our brand spanking new green nomex flight suits. At the other end were our spouses and girlfriends. In the middle was a truck with a tow rope. The idea was to strap into a parachute harness (complete with parachute), get pulled by the rope, and spring up into the sky. Then we would disconnect from the rope and, by successfully finding the ground, prove somehow that we were ready to eject and land safely from our jet aircraft, if necessary.
In that moment, it occurred to me that I had a great advantage in that I had graduated from free fall parachuting at the Air Force Academy just recently. Most of the rest of the guys, if they had parachuted, had done so running out the back of a C-130 with static lines like a bunch of Army troops. There is a lot of air confidence that gets instilled if you hurl yourself from an aircraft, enjoy the view, and then pull your own ripcord. I thought to myself that it sure would be nice to come off as the top rooster in this “fraternity initiation” so early on in pilot training.
First impressions are important. But actually more important was my wife, Nita, over there on the other side. I knew she was nervous and would not enjoy the day until I had landed safely.
Well, after all, there were a lot of ways to look stupid or get hurt, maybe badly hurt. You might trip at the outset and be drug by the pickup through the dry, powdery dirt. I was quite sure the driver had been instructed not to stop too soon under this scenario. Or, you might panic in the air and forget to detach. Maybe you just land in a big ball of dust instead of a perfectly executed parachute landing fall (PLF).
A great idea occurred to me. A fantastic idea. The sort of idea you usually have to be drunk to think of!
Decision made. I put my plan into action. It was fairly easy to make sure I was first in line since the crowd of macho young men were acting like penguins on an iceberg, not wanting to seem like they didn’t want to go first, but all the while pushing forward in such a way that they would not be the first to go. Neat trick!
So I just strode to the front and made eye contact with the instructor.
First up, I made a quick adjustment to my gear and soon the pickup was off with a ROAR! And I sprung into the air.
Almost in the time it takes for me to write these words, it was time for me to disconnect and descend into the waiting bevy of nervous women below. My aim was true. I landed just in front of Nita. My PLF was fantastic, but modified. On purpose, I did a little bit of a forward somersault, dust bouncing up and blowing off quickly, pulling out from behind my back, stuffed between my harness and flight suit, a bouquet of wildflowers to deliver to my sweetie on one knee!
My wife was very happy. The other ladies were swooning over such a romantic man, and so jealous of Nita.
And, as it turns out, the other guys were not at all pleased I had set the bar that high in the first go.
No matter. Drama over, Nita and I enjoyed the spectacle of young bodies splashing dirt for the rest of the afternoon.
Next time, more about USAF parachutes and their harnesses.
Photo from http://www.aeromiltech.com/Portals/6/Parachute/1.jpg. I added the captions.