Sunday, April 05, 2009

Thanks to Donald Douglas

Welcome to new friends who're stopping by via American Power Blog, and thanks to Donald Douglas for linking to me. (Please click on the title of this post and pay him a visit if you're not coming from his site.)

I'm nearly finished with another painting, but in the mean time, I'd like to repost something I wrote during my first deployment. Several people have thanked me for serving in the military lately, and I think this sums up why I feel lucky to be able to do so.

Fear of Fueling

Since the start of the war our crew has logged over 100 hours in Iraqi airspace. We've flown enough miles to circle the globe several times. While nothing is routine, we are a little more adjusted now to being in hostile airspace. The things that previously caused us a burst of adrenaline (friendly missile launches that looked like surface to air fire, random tracers reaching skyward, the moon) are now more or less commonplace. We keep an eye on them, but a less anxious eye than before. Some of the comforting signs of normalcy (an occasional Hawaiian shirt worn over a flight suit, pushup contests on the floor of the jet) are seen again.

That could be why the pilot called me forward during the second in-air refueling yesterday. I've always been uncomfortable with what our pilot calls the "ballet of elephants." I am a firm believer in vertical and horizontal separation of aircraft, and he's taken it upon himself to show me there's nothing to fear.

We'd been in the air since evening, and unbeknownst to me, at work in the back with my window covered tightly, the sun had risen and was already filling the cockpit and burning the endless desert below us. Blinking, I felt my way to the observer's seat and buckled myself in.

After I'd plugged my headset into the comm system the pilot explained the plan for meeting the tanker. We would continue describing a small circle in the sky as the tanker finished a larger orbit, fueling its current customers. The navigator would adapt our speed and the size of our circle so that when the tanker finished it would be just ahead of us. We would simply roll out of our turn and find ourselves positioned to take fuel. As he explained I heard the nav and the copilot in the background, mentioning the tanker, "chicks in tow," and discussing its current position.

I looked in the direction they indicated and picked a small speck out of the sunshine. I squinted at it until it resolved itself into the distinct shape of the tanker accompanied by two fighters, one on the boom, and one off its wingtip. The perigee of our orbits brought us within a few miles of each other - close enough to see the fighter pilots in their cockpits, and bring the air-superiority-gray of the aircraft into sharp relief against the flat light reflecting off the desert. It was a breathtaking sight, but not the last I'd see that morning.

We held our gentle turn long enough for me to begin recognizing features on the ground. Through binoculars I watched black rivers of basalt - ancient lava flows - roll in and out of view. An occasional lonely road stretched from horizon to horizon, and in one place (a route of our advance?) countless sets of vehicle tracks left shadows across the undulating dunes.

Then it was our turn for gas. Our navigator brought us out of our turn about 5 miles behind and a little below the tanker. I watched over the pilot's left shoulder as the big jet got closer and closer - until it filled the little window above our heads, and my fingers left grooves in the armrests of my chair. The boom projected toward us, creeping forward until I was looking straight up into it; a nozzle about 8 inches in diameter bobbing gently in the wind blasting between our aircraft. The copilot began calling out the position of the boom, (over the nose... over the throttles...) allowing the pilot to know its location while keeping his larger perspective and monitoring our position with respect to the tanker. I watched the face of the boom operator peering at us from his tiny portal in the back of his jet. I found I could gauge the closeness of his nozzle to the receptacle above and behind our heads by the expression of concentration on his face. There was a loud thump-clunk, and we were connected.

The connection of the boom completes a comm circuit allowing the boom operator to talk to our flight deck without broadcasting over a radio. The operator asked us our tail number and base of origin - accounting for the destination of the several-score thousand gallons of gas he was already flowing into our tanks. That brief exchange, and an occasional, "Up four..." or “Down two..." were the only words exchanged. The flight engineer in his swivel seat to my right distributed the arriving weight evenly across our jet, helping the pilot maintain level flight.

And he had plenty to do in that regard. A set of lights on the belly of the jet above us, activated by the boom operator, allowed our pilot to know whether to advance or retard our position with respect to the tanker. I watched, waiting for the pilot to use throttles to adjust our position, but he relied on far more subtle means. This is something those of us who live in the back of the jet always appreciate. A pilot who accomplishes refueling without constantly speeding up and slowing down goes a long way toward preventing what flight surgeons like to refer to as "stomach awareness" on the part of the mission crew. With hours of mission to perform before landing, the last thing anyone wants is airsickness. Even for those without the problematic connection between stomach and inner ear, being on the same fight as someone who is sick can be very unpleasant. Little things like this give us confidence in our pilot.

It's always the little things that add up to significant impressions. Rarely are our opinions formed as the result of grand gestures or big statements. Our pilot formed a favorable impression of the tanker crew on just such a small detail. "This is an experienced guy," he commented via intercom. He explained that the tanker had canted the refueling orbit slightly, causing his plane to block the sun from our eyes. The copilot, who'd folded a chart and was ready to use it as a sun block for the pilot, registered his approval with a grunt.

This tiny gesture was greatly appreciated by all of us in the cockpit, but perhaps by me most of all. Aside from not having to squint painfully into the sun, which was nice, I was comforted by the fact that in spite of everything that was required to support this monstrous imposition on all the physical laws (It still surprises me that these ponderous machines fly, let alone can be maneuvered so precisely, and under such difficult conditions) someone had the presence of mind to consider something so insignificant.

And when we had received the last of the fuel required to complete our mission and we broke right, I watched the giant that had fueled us slew away to the left. Within seconds it had dwindled to a speck. In a second more it was gone, swallowed by the immensity of sky and desert. With it went my fear of aerial refueling.

As always, and in constantly renewed ways, I am amazed to find myself a part of the finest Air Force the world has ever known.



Anonymous said...

Major Givler, you may consider me a troll, if you like. I'm sure Donald Douglas does.

Anyway, I want to say how much I enjoyed your account of the re-fueling. I was in the USAF for four years, but was only a supply clerk. Thus, didn't fly much. After reading your account, I'm probably grateful for that. Also enjoyed your photos and watercolors. The orange sky is incredible. And, I thought the camels in the back of the toyota was a lark until I read the caption. Very cool.

I have no idea what your politics are. They may be to the right of mine, though I certainly consider myself to be Conservative in some areas. Doesn't really matter anyway. Like certain body parts, we all have an opinion. But, I do want to point out a comment that appeared under the post mentioning you at American Power:

I wish to ask the Major a question, given the damage that Barry and his sycophantic adherants in the Congress/Senate have done in less than 3 months in office, what does he believe the choices are for America?

Our next shot at the Ballot is 2 years out. How much of our constitution will be left after that? Already, Socialism is being forced down our throats in our private industries. If anyone thinks the banks and the auto makers are the only ones getting this treatment, think again. Very soon the Medical industry and other sectors will feel the cold touch of Socialism.

So what is our recourse? Someone will snap off and either "try" to kill Obama, or actually get it accomplished and it would be a defacto race war from one side to the other of this nation.

Or someone will twist off and start blowing up elected officials and then what? What if it's bigger than one person? What happens if it is a coordinated attempt at re-instatement of the Declaration of Independance?

What will the Military do?

As you may guess, I was never a big fan of George Bush. On the other hand, I never actively fantasized about his assassination or of members of Congress with whom I disagreed. I can only hope that you are of the same mind.

I would say that I hope your service is rewarding, but I can already see that it is so. Thank you for your time.

Steven Givler said...

Dear DLB,
Thanks for your kind words, and for your service. When I read the comment you quoted I didn't interpret it as the author expressing a desire for assassinations. Rather, it seemed to me that he was afraid someone might "snap" or "twist off". If I am correct in that interpretation, then the author, you, and I at least have that much in common.

My answer to his question should come as no surprise to you, having taken the same oath I did when you joined the Air Force. We all swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Thanks for visiting my blog and for writing. Stop by again soon.

Anonymous said...

Major Givler, I'll join you in wishing for the safety of our elected officials and for the survival of our Republic. The country has enough problems now without any added distress. Best of luck in your career and with your art. Much appreciation for the job you are doing.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Just showing some love to a fellow writer. You wrote on my blog last night (sheikhdown).

My dad flew KC135's from 80-89 part of SAC in NY

Anonymous said...

awesome posts by the way