Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Canyon Tour

I finished a busy 4-day trip that started Sunday morning. It had a lot of flying packed into it, but I didn’t go anywhere exciting except John Wayne-Orange County Airport, tucked back in the Los Angeles suburbs with a postage stamp masquerading as a runway. You need to make a firm landing to get stopped in less than a mile, and buddy I did. I hope I didn’t send anybody to the dentist to replace lost fillings. Lane (see last post) would have been proud of me. But one remarkable thing happened; I took the folks on a Grand Canyon tour.

We were passing near it and, seeing the weather was clear, I requested a “Canyon Tour” from the LAX Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). They knew what it meant. They cleared us to turn toward the Canyon, maneuver over it as desired, and then proceed direct to Needles. I got on the PA, apologized for pausing the movie, and advised them to grab their cameras.

We turned left and right, again and again the entire length of the canyon—a hundred miles or more. Even flight attendants flattened themselves against their tiny door windows. Tiny white puffy clouds lay scattered between us and the awesome sight that lay below. Even the mighty Colorado River, usually muddy, snaked thought the Canyon glowing and sparkling with a clear green tint. What a sight!

Every time I do the Canyon tour I remember my first one many years ago. Very different. It could have ruined my career—or worse.
It started with a simple radio call: “Buddha, you missed the turn point back there.”

I could see Buddha's jet ahead, but from a mile behind him it was easier to spot its shadow zipping across the flat Kaibab Plateau. “Keep quite and hang tight,” Buddha's voice crackled.

I checked my chart again. I was sure we had reached our northernmost point on the low level navigation training route and needed to head west. Buddha was up to something, and it wasn't like him to deviate from the game plan.

Found outside his hooch in Thailand sitting under a tree with his legs crossed and belly hanging out, somebody laughed and said he looked like Buddha, and so the name stuck. With his jutting jaw, linebacker neck, cocky swagger, and a fresh combat tour under his belt, Buddha was a model fighter pilot. His name was a fixture on the monthly Top Gun board, and his skills as a flight lead were respected across the base.

But his time was approaching for his obligatory desk job. Back then the USAF couldn't help but ground its best pilots; couldn't stand seeing them mature into capable, dependable combat leaders. Buddha was heading for an ROTC unit to become a teacher of college kids, and after that, possibly a return to a flying assignment, but no promises.

Yet Buddha would not leave his cockpit kicking and screaming; he would depart leaving a single colossal mark of disobedience, which would remain known only to himself and a certain wingman who was expected to hang tight and keep his mouth shut.

Clipping along at 475 knots, by the time I figured out Buddha's destination, we were there. We were so low on the flat plateau I couldn't see the gouge in the Earth ahead of us but knew it was there. I thought maybe he planned to fly over the Canyon, perhaps buzz it from rim to rim, maybe zoom up high and roll inverted, looking up at it through the top of his canopy. Yeah, I thought, that's what Buddha planned. That would be a kick. I got ready to pull back on the stick for rocket zoom.

Suddenly, his wings snapped 135 degrees right and Buddha flew down into the Kaibab Plateau—gone in a flash. I swallowed hard, felt my adrenalin pick up to about the pressure of the A-7's hydraulic system, 3,000 psi, and in a few heartbeats I was across the rim looking at the Vishnu Schist a mile below. I snapped my wings almost inverted and followed Buddha into the Earth's butt crack.

The canyon's tight bends forced us up over the rim a few times, but we plunged back into it and followed its sinuous kinks, our senses buzzing, eyeballs dancing left and right, riding rip-roaring sky fighting machines not designed for underground work, fiery death only seconds on each side of us. As suddenly as it came it was over when Buddha pulled back on his stick and left the Canyon shrinking beneath his tail, and somewhere behind him—I'm sure he hoped—a wingman still hanging tight.

Buddha left a mark on the world—a mark in the mind and the memory, the best place for marks, the only appropriate place sometimes. We were among the few who had flown through the Grand Canyon, flew fast and made a hell of a lot of noise doing it. Had our tour become known to the powers-that-be, that would have been our last flight, and if done today it would probably get us into the federal penitentiary.

Buddha hung up his G-suit and helmet and went to his school room to teach frat rats air power doctrine, and after that he quit and got into computers. Now, when I look down at the Canyon from 31,000 feet, it's Buddha I remember—Buddha and his trust in me to keep my mouth shut and hang tight.

When we reached the west end of the Canyon we proceeded direct to Needles and I thanked the ARTCC for their cooperation. I told the passengers the tour was at no extra charge. The movie went back on. Many of them lingered near the cockpit after the flight to tell me what a fantastic view they had. I just smiled and remembered Buddha.

His other call sign is Larry Mills and he’s somewhere in the Dallas area. I hope some day he discovers this post.