Friday, January 18, 2013

On Thunderbird Lead's Wing, Part I

Still not flying yet. Here's a story from long ago. It's too long for a single blog post so I'll continue it next time.

I always wanted to be a Thunderbird. That never panned out, but I did get a chance to fly wing on Thunderbird Lead. I needed to try and prove myself to him, seeing as how my reputation with him was somewhat less than stellar.

Col. Joe Moore
(click the photo for more about Joe)
It all started when I heard that Col. Joe Moore was coming to take command of our wing at Korat, Thailand. In the wake of the cessation of fighting in nearby Viet Nam, our unit was charged with being ready to go back north if the North Vietnamese violated the terms, and we constantly trained for that possibility. They did violate the peace terms, of course, but they waited until we redeployed back to the states. 

I was excited because I knew Col. Moore was a former Thunderbird team leader. I thought maybe I would get a chance to fly with him, but I knew we had about 80 pilots in the wing and the commander flew infrequently, and when he did, he usually picked a random choice for a wingman.

In the first meeting he had with is, in the base theater, he was terse. He made it clear that he would not tolerate any pilot taking off with an aircraft that had a known defect, no matter how trivial it may be. Afterwards I asked an older pilot why Moore was so intense about that order. We often flew with minor defects that we knew wouldn’t affect the flight. He told me that when Moore was Thunderbird Lead, he lost a team member who did just that—took off with a mechanical problem in order to do the show. So, it seemed that was Moore’s pet peeve. 

Furthermore, I found the older pilots weren’t so enthusiastic about Moore because he had a reputation of being a hard commander to work for. I was to discover this to be true in two ways, the second of which involved me personally.

The first was when an emergency meeting was called. We all filed into the theater and sat chatting and wondering what was up. We heard boots hitting the floor coming up the aisle. Somebody called the room to attention. I saw Moore and two staffers sweep past me heading to the podium. He told us to sit. He looked out across the room, silently and ice cold. Then he thrust his arm into the air, holding a piece of paper.

This is the PIF I put out last week!” he thundered. 

PIF stood for Pilot Information File. It was a bulletin put out by headquarters on a periodic basis that introduced a new rule, directive, or notice of any sort the commander thought his pilots needed to know. Each pilot had to sign a card verifying he had read the PIF. I don’t remember what the particular PIF Moore was ranting over was about. But I vividly remember what he said next.

“SOMEBODY SCRIBBLED ON HERE YGTBSM!”  He paused again and slowly swept his eyes across the room, as if being able to spot the perpetrator. Then he snarled, “If the man who wrote this is fighter pilot enough, let him STAND UP RIGHT NOW AND ADMIT IT!” He paused and scanned us. "But he'd better be ready for hell."

No one moved a muscle. I was sitting in a room full of seasoned combat veteran fighter pilots—some were even Mig killers—and no one dared challenge him. He stormed out the way he came in without another word. I followed the murmuring crowd out thinking, “There’s no way I ever want to tangle with that guy.” Yet I foolishly did.

It wasn’t long after, that I was assigned to a four-ship air-to-air combat training mission. A-7s didn’t do much of that, since we were an air-to-ground attack unit, but we had to maintain a basic proficiency in dog-fighting skills. And I loved it. So it’s no surprise that I was eager to fly that day.

As I added power to break out of the chocks I engaged the hydraulic nose wheel steering (NWS), done by pressing a button on the stick. It didn’t come on. I stopped. I motioned for the crew chief to hook back up. He did and I told him the problem. He checked for leaks and any other abnormalities and couldn’t find any. I cleared him to disconnect and powered up. This time it came on. But half way down the taxiway to the arming area, the NWS twice cycled off, then on, by itself. 

A-7D in arming pad at Korat
When I reached the arming area and pulled in beside the other three, I had a decision to make. Go back and give the plane to maintenance, in which case they may not find a problem (that happened a lot), making me look like a nervous nelly, or man-up and go. It didn’t take long to mull that over and decide, and Joe Moore never entered into the decision.

On take-off roll I felt the NWS cycle on and off again. I could have aborted. I didn’t.

We flew out and did some great air-to-air work, and I was glad I flew. However, on the way back to Korat, I got to thinking. Thinking is never a good thing for a raw wingman to do, so the song goes. Just fly and keep your mouth shut. 

I told the leader—another one of those seasoned, war weary fighter pilots—that I thought it would be best if I took the approach end barrier, in case the NWS decided to do something quirky, like a hard-over, sending me off the runway. He turned his head my way and asked a question in a manner that suggested he would recommend against my decision. "Are you sure you want to do that?"

On Initial at Korat
I told him I thought it was the safest and most prudent thing to do. “Okay,” he said. He radioed ahead and told the tower his Number Four was taking the barrier.

Approach end arresting cable
I broke out and let the other three land first because I would be closing the runway for a few minutes. I dropped the hook and took the cable. I had done it before for other reasons, so I wasn’t apprehensive about it. It’s kind of like landing on a carrier. You stop fast. It’s cool.

After the arrestment, the maintenance crew disengaged the cable and I raised the hook. I shut the jet down on the runway and climbed down. They immediately hooked up a tow tug.

My squadron commander, Col. Ryan sat waiting for me in his truck. When I got in he said, “That was one of the prettiest arrestments I’ve ever seen.” That made me feel good, but his next words didn’t. “Col. Moore is mad as hell. He knows you took that plane with that problem.” He looked sternly at me. “He wouldn't have known if you had'nt have declared an emergency." He started the truck and headed back to the squadron. "You did the right thing, though," he added, "taking the cable, but I’m afraid there’s trouble ahead.”

--continued next post--

1 comment:

S. J. Crown said...

Anxious to read about the "trouble ahead."