Not a bad day for a rookie. Thanks to Maj Chad Van Someren (call sign “Smack”) for taking time to give me a tour of the flight simulator, ready room, “barn,” and the flight line of the VMFAT 101 Sharpshooters at MCAS Miramar.
This morning I strapped myself into an F-18 simulator for a 30 minute hop. With a lot of help from Chad I was able to take off. The realism is amazing. I can feel the plane move. The gear is up. Flaps up. I waggle the wings, complete a couple of 360 degree aileron rolls, an Immelman turn, and a Split-S maneuver. I (accidentally) break the sound barrier (Chad says: “We probably did some damage just now”) and after a little orientation, headed up the San Diego coast to simulate an attack (see Jim Huston’s novel, Fallout) on the San Onofre plant. Three direct hits from about a 1000 feet at 350 knots. Chad laughed (appropriately) at my rookie luck. After the attack run we “pickled” the rest of the rockets, took a heading of 120, and went home. The landing was a little long but we made it. The brakes held and we rolled to a stop before the end of the runway.
The next flight was a carrier landing. Everything you’ve heard about how difficult it is to land a jet on a carrier is true. From 3000 feet and a few miles out (in fair conditions) a carrier is barely visible. As the deck approaches it becomes more visible and more frightening. A jet that, at 10,000 feet and 500 knots, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee is now, at a 150 knots, heavy and needing constant adjustment to the throttle. That great big carrier is getting smaller by the second. The descent to the carrier deck was a little rocky. Think of the scene in Top Gun when the plane is pitching and heaving as it approaches the deck. Suddenly the we’re over the threshold of the deck. Too much speed. We bounced. I pushed the throttles forward to full mil power but the tailhook caught the last wire. Chad laughed out loud again. We were both sweating a little—I because I didn’t want to crash and look like a dope; he because it’s not a game for him and pilots don’t practice crashing.
After the 30 minute hop we went to lunch and discussed the Marine philosophy of servant leadership. After lunch toured the ready room (that flight vest weighs about 40lbs) and the “barn” where I saw actual F-18s being serviced including one painted to resemble a MiG29. In contrast to the cool, quiet, and calm of the sim, the flight line is a welter of noise and (today) heat rising from the pavement. We watched a flight of three F-18s streak into the sky and Chad showed me features of some of the aircraft. These are impressive machines.
As I sit here and the adrenaline begins to subside, it’s not machines that are most impressive; it’s the people. As amazing and powerful as the F-18 is, the people are even more amazing. All over the base there are dedicated, professional, people, many far from home, serving the country. They sacrifice a great deal to serve us. Chad is no exception and I’m one lucky rookie to have spent some time with them today.