Last year a guy named Jack and I were enroute from Dulles to O'Hare under a clear and abundantly starry sky. We saw a brilliant object coming out of the west, obviously high overhead. We shook our heads in amazement. It was far too big to be an ordinary satellite, yet had no characteristic flashing strobes a plane would have. And it was in the wrong part of the sky to be Venus, which had hoodwinked me before. (Read This Time of Night.)
As the object sailed overhead, the thought hit me. It had to be the International Space Station. The solar panels on that thing were huge—the size of a football field if memory serves. Jack perked up. “Yeah! That's got to be it!” Jack ought to know; he's been to the edge of space himself.
Months later I was on a longer trip with Jack and got to know him better. He's not the usual F/O. He is a smart dresser, even on layover. No jeans or tennis shoes. His uniform is immaculate. He has let his hair grow out since Uncle Sam employed him, but it stays neat—not a strand out of place. So as to keep it that way, Jack goes hatless.
He articulates softly and clearly, sans profanity, and likes to shake hands with everybody he meets—bartenders, waiters, mechanics, bums on the street. Despite being older than most of the guys I fly with (late 50s) he sports boyish looks, smacking of shyness but hinting of slyness. I suspect he never goes bingo fuel on the tank of on female companionship. He's a retired USAF colonel. A nicer gentleman, you'll never meet.
Oh yeah. Almost forgot. He flew the SR-71 Blackbird.
“How high you been in that thing, Jack?” I asked, adding, “If you can say.”
He smiled. “Over 85,000.”
That was almost twice as high as I had ever been at the controls of an aircraft. I grinned back. “Can you see the earth's curvature up there?”
“Oh yeah!” Another, even wider grin.
“What's it like?”
Jack just shook his head. “Beautiful.”
“What about the sky color? Blue or black?”
He seemed to meditate, then looked over and smiled. “Very dark blue—directly overhead. Almost black.”
A minute or two later, after I pondered going that high and seeing that, I posed the next, inevitable question. “How fast have you had that puppy?”
I wondered why I had to pull these things out of Jack. He seemed glad to answer but didn’t volunteer much. I eventually realized that Jack's holding back was simply modesty about his achievements. He didn't want to convey the impression he was boasting about piloting the Blackbird.
How fast? The grin re-appeared, bigger than ever, like a teenage boy who had just dated the most train-stopping gorgeous girl in the school, and I was his eager buddy trying to find out what happened.
“Mach 3.3.” Then he added with a loud cackle, “But I wasn't supposed to push it that fast!”
That was exactly three times as fast as I had ever flown an aircraft.
When we got to the Las Vegas layover, Jack—a professional bachelor—told me how he and his fiance met. They were shortly to be married. It was the stuff of Hollywood. He had dated her for a while back when he was pushin' the Blackbird. She worked for a contractor. Then they drifted apart.
Later years found him buying drinks for some young pilots at a unit reunion when he spotted her across the room. His jaw fell agape amid a Blackbird tale. The group watched him put his drink down and go to her. He said he knew the first ten seconds would decide if they had a future together. (10 seconds = 3.7 miles at mach 3.3.) Jack knew the answer when he saw the sparkle in her eyes. He had soared into space at last.
As to the remainder of his career, he lamented that he will probably never be a captain. He got started in the airline business too late. One of the regrettable downsides of the seniority system is the loss of potential cockpit leaders like Jack. He harbors no regrets, though. He seemed one of the most contented people I've ever flown with. He even whistles while he's making a landing.
Lucky too. The hotel gave us each a $5 credit at the tables. One hand took my five. Jack left with $45 after only one hand. Blackjack/Blackbird. Close enough. Jack was the man.
You've read about many different personality types and backgrounds in this blog of the people I fly with. Not many of them have a logbook like Jack's, but most of them are pilots I'm proud to share my cockpit with. I'll accept that as a suitable substitute to seeing the Earth's curvature.
North Florida: Here's what the X-band showed.
Here's what the Mark-1 Eyeball showed.
Viva la X-band!