Excerpts from Chapter One
"In the Beginning was the Jet..."
It was nearing sunset, and the first hints of deep gold and purple were beginning to etch the hills and mountains that surround the city of Missoula, Montana. I'd been in the vacant lot next to our house in my football cleats, throwing passes at a swinging tire for nearly two hours.
It was August now, and more and more of the passes found their mark no matter how I threw them: running left, right or backwards, tumbling toward the ground, or from a classic "dropback" stance. I was hot, sticky and grimy from rolling in the dust, but not nearly as sore and sweaty as I would be in a month, across town at the University practice field where I was the resident passer.
As I stood catching my breath, my ears began to ring with a strange sound that filled, not just my ears, but the whole wide valley floor on which Missoula sprawls. The source of the sound was a sleek tactical fighter jet, flying low and fast beside nearby Mount Sentinel. I stood transfixed as the pilot suddenly nosed his plane up, avoiding another oncoming mountain, and watched, agape, as he continued up and up, then paused, fell off on one wing, and nosed down to the same low altitude and raced back the way he came. The pilot reversed the process several times and did a number of acrobatic maneuvers for which I knew no names. Then, with a series of "victory rolls," he disappeared down the valley, headed north.
For several minutes after he had gone, I stood in the growing dusk lost in thought. It was the first fighter jet I'd ever seen airborne, and my sense of wonder was only exceeded by an envy I had never known for any man alive. I had just seen a man demonstrate complete maneuverability through 360 degrees, diving, soaring, rolling−free from the shackles of earth and even from the laws of gravity.
Most of all, there was a man experiencing something few humans ever could, in the cockpit of a vehicle that only a handful of men could ever qualify to fill. It was then I knew: some day, I must be a fighter pilot.
The next day, I learned much more about the pilot of the evening before. The front page of our daily paper said he had been a basketball star at the local county high school 10 years before. In his Marine fighter jet, he had flown over the city to say hello to his sister and brother-in-law, who still lived in our town.
The rest of the story was continued in the obituary section.
Fifteen minutes later and north of Missoula about 90 miles, his jet had blown up a few feet above Flathead Lake as he performed similar flying stunts for relatives on shore, killing in an instant all that joy he tried to share with relatives and friends.
But it was too late for me.
He had already taken me on my first step toward a love affair that lasted nearly nine years with those "sleek mistresses"−the trainers and fighter jets of the U.S. Air Force.
… Even now, occasionally, these many years after going on to other challenges, some friend or acquaintance or cocktail party stranger who has learned that I was once a fighter pilot will ask, as you might wonder as well, "What's it like, flying fighters?" You also might wonder.
Saying that these pages get closer to "a much fuller answer" may sound presumptuous, but I made a habit to check what I wrote with other F-100 pilots, because I wanted to capture accurately what they thought, felt and experienced in that highly dangerous profession and that plane nicknamed "the Widow Maker." Thus, much of the prose and poetry that follows is based on many very highly enthusiastic response from them.
I should stress that while it is perhaps underplayed in this book, there is a constant and very evident atmosphere around a fighter flying squadron building, and that is laughter, a universal and omnipresent joie de vivre. The humor comes out at any moment, even at the most tense and dangerous times. I have been at many squadron farewell banquets where the humor at the expense of the departing guest of honor would rival the best "banquet roasts" done by professional comedians.
Another key to better understanding should also be stressed. There is a huge difference between fear, which lurks and lingers, and terror, which comes and goes in unexpected moments. F-100 pilots in
Vietnam and throughout the world, and those who flew the F-84s, F-86s and all the other Air Force, Navy and Marine fighters in the Korean War, loved to fly and were addicted to the planes that transported them to moments of ecstasy−and yes, to moments of stark terror. That meant maintaining a "healthy respect" for the ability of those early jet fighters to kill us in an instant, just as it had killed so many of our "brother men who fly." And I well recall that many of us, when asked about what it
was like to "fly the Hun" would smile and say, "You can't get a ride like that in any circus," and leave it at that, because no truer words were ever spoken. And I would guess that same "healthy respect," and the joyful anticipation of the next "circus ride," are still very much evident in the hearts and minds of the men and women who fly the "fast movers" in our armed forces today.
So if it be only fair to say that not all fighter pilots write poetry, and that some from my era have urged me to write what follows as much on their behalf as mine, it should also be said those songs are now, for us, from long ago, and from a distant cockpit. And for me, the songs are only sporadic, a small part of what became a far larger, richer symphony, which blended 40 more years of challenges, adventures, unexpected honors and a wide variety of "job titles" completely unrelated to flying. Some of each were very much part of a life plan first conceived in my college years, and some were totally unplanned course changes that took me down paths, and up mountains that in earlier days were not on the road map I charted, or on my list of "things to do."
Songs From A Distant Cockpit
I walk with different sorrows now.
Ideas all get weighed,
and different, safer smiles are worn
by different, safer men.
But I’ve sung songs in cockpits far away,
Bent the wings and done it all.
And I’ve known a strange and special breed of men,
and lived with facts
that would appall me
now—but didn’t then.
And those songs and lessons give me pause to heed:
I long ago learned
Death is just a wingman,
his inevitably perfect chance
My new ʺassociatesʺ do not believe
that he will come at all,
or not, at least,
in times foreseeable....
I forget for many hours
or for days and even years
how the snarling of the cannons
and such speed
ran at headlong, crazy angles
just remotely within grasp.
And how all that awesome Power
roared and rumbled....
How the Vision
and the Creed
always blurred the awesome threats...
and the sorrows...
and the deaths.
how rough cut
were you all−
Men and planes
Sons of Icarus,
Men of Steel,
fly and fight and laugh!
forget to feel.
For me, now Earthbound,
ʺflyingʺ is all paid for,
flannel‐suited, stewardessed and ferried
when eʹre I travel cross the lands
to different challenges,
which all now have
a different smell,
and taste and sound...
But I’m told there is the Hawk−
or more−about me
that at times comes out in fun
or out of need.
ʺLook out for that guy over there...
a dangerous gentleman.
Used to fly, you know…
Back in ‘Nam
he flew the ‘Hun.’ʺ
But I walk with different sorrows now
and ʺrun‐upʺ doesn’t thrill me.
And though I’ve sung it all in distant cockpits,
Now, some other thing
− Tokyo, 1979