When I got to Carrier Air Wing 14, one of the first things I asked my CAG (Commander Air Group) was when I could ride a jet. (I have longed to do so since I was a sophomore in high school.) Sixteen months later I was being strapped into the rear seat of a F/A-18E Super Hornet.
Seven months before I took a two-day training where I was taught how to "hick" in order to be able to take the g-forces at slightly subsonic speed turns, was launched in the ejection seat trainer, and required to swim the length and back of a pool in flight suit and boots. By the time I was done I felt prepared to meet the challenge ahead - actually not.
The day before the "hop" I was oriented to the aircraft by a PR3 (Aircrew Survival Equipmentman Third Class) less than half my age whose knowledge of the jet put master degreed me to shame. After answering almost everyone of his questions incorrectly he gave me some advise, "Sir, don't touch anything and enjoy your flight!"
At the appointed time I walked out on the flight deck with my pilot. If I tell you his call sign was Job do you get a sense of where this is going? (Real Navy Aviation call signs are not cool like in Top Gun, they are insulting. Being a chaplain I was spared.)
The Plane Captain, who looked younger than the PR3 (she turned out to be slightly more than a third of my age) greeted us. While I sat in the back she completed the final inspection with Job, prepped the jet to launch, and headed toward the “cat.”
You may not be aware but when a jet leaves an aircraft carrier it is flung off by a catapult at about 165 mph. The process happens in seconds and once you are off the deck you slow down so dramatically it feels as if you stop.
We were flying a tanker hop, which means we had extra fuel tanks mounted on our jet from which other planes could refuel mid-air. As such, we flew "lazy" circles to 14,000 feet where we could perform our task when called.
Have you ever read the poem High Flight? Surrounded by a clear canopy with a 270-degree view I felt like I could put out my hand and touch the face of G-d.
Then the comms crackled. I did not understand what the operator said but Job told me to hold on since we had to go check out a ship that was not responding to the carrier's call. We made an inverted dive from 14,000 to 1000 feet in seconds, hitting about seven Gs. Unfortunately, despite massive hicking on my part my stomach stayed at 14,000 feet.
I would like to tell you we identified a spy ship and radioed to another jet to dust it. No, it was just a research vessel that could not be troubled to worry about being run down by an aircraft carrier.
Back up top we went. I was ready to land, but we had to be the last plane down in case another needed fuel. Around and around we flew waiting for the other planes to finish their missions and enter the flight path for recovery on the carrier. Sick as a dog, the only thing I could think of was maintaining my dignity by not giving back the breakfast I had not eaten.
My torture would have ended sooner but one plane was missing from the group so around we kept going. On the fourth or fifth diversion from landing (do you expect I would remember as sick as I was?) the bag came out. This, despite Job's Herculean effort to fly smoothly.
Fortunately my CAG had warned me that when you line up to land you look like you are going to overshoot the flight deck because at the last minute the wind sweeping over the rear of the deck pulls you down. When the tailhook caught the arresting wire, dropping our speed from 100+ mph to 0, I had never been so happy to be on that ship.
I crawled out of the cockpit and down the ladder to the deck, falling to my knees in relief. That was when the young Plane Captain called to me, "Sir, sir, I am required to salute you and you must salute me back." Discipline uber alles.
On rubbery legs I made my way down to the ready room for debriefing. Then, using the bulkhead (wall) for support made my way down the passageway to my stateroom. On the way there my DCAG (Deputy CAG) saw me and asked how the flight went. I am sure he knew by the pallor of my face but ever the former Blue Angels CO he handed me a bottle of water and told me to hit my rack (go to bed).
A few hours later I had the opportunity to thank G-d I survived when I led Sabbath evening services. Why do these things always seem to happen on Friday?
I took away so many lessons from this adventure, among them: the amazing skill and youth of the sailors that ensure flights happen safely; how far you can go, even to the point of sickness, to help others; although disappointed by a dream coming true, the result may propel greater personal growth than if it had gone well.
Question – What have you learned from a dream coming true?
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