Viewing Life Through A Skylight

I recently drove to a little town, several state lines away from home, for a distant cousin's wedding. Apparently I just wasn't clever enough to figure a way out of it. So, after seven or eight hours on the road, I was unpacking the car in a part of the country I hadn't seen in decades. Returning to that area and surveying the familiar southern countryside was somehow comforting. It still seemed to fit me as well as my old Air Force fatigue jacket. 

And speaking of fatigue - I was exhausted from driving all day. The road left me smelling a little like fast food fryer grease and a lot like a high school locker room. I opened the door to my hotel room, dropped the bags on a chair then stretched out across the bed; putting myself to sleep by recalling some of the many memories made nearby - over 45 years ago. They were still fresh as snowflakes and nearly as numerous. Early the next morning, one of them joined me for coffee.

I was sitting on a bench outside the hotel lobby, chatting with another guest, when a sudden, thunderous blast literally stopped our conversation mid-sentence. It was a familiar sound to me, almost like what you'd get by putting a couple bowling balls in the dryer to tumble a while. I listened; smiling inside at something I had not heard in decades. Back then, I wouldn't have paid much attention to it but on this warm, sunny morning, it was like hearing a song that was number one on the charts when I enlisted. It was a blast from my past.

Looking up when I heard an airplane was a reflex acquired through the years but there was nothing to see beyond a hazy morning sky. Still, the unmistakable sound persisted. My fellow early riser looked puzzled. Not me though. I recognized the sound as that of a jet fighter's afterburners - ripping through the serene morning air and echoing off every building between me and the airport. I could even feel the bench vibrating.

I wondered what the rest of this small, southern town though of the noise. There was no military base here - only a civil airport that hosted a dozen or so commercial flights each day. Still, a fighter jet had clearly come calling.

The noise evoked memories of the first time I watched a flight of F-100 "Super Sabers" taking off. It was at an Air Force Base about 75 miles from here. Flame from their after burners was immediately visible. Then, about a second later, the sound reached us in the tower and rattled the windows. It was deafening - even from behind all that glass. The jets rolled forward, slowly at first but rapidly gaining speed as those Pratt & Whitney engines inhaled the cool morning air and exhaled pure fire and thrust. Pilots referred to F-100s by their nickname; "Huns." The planes were also known, less fondly, as "lead sleds." This term was a wry reference to their engine-out glide ratio which, according to them, was slightly better than an anvil, dropped from 28,000 feet. 
In those days there was very little wear on my Air Force uniform and just one stripe on the sleeves. I'd only had the uniform since checking into basic training a few months earlier. Now, fresh out of tech school, I was beginning my career as an Air Force air traffic controller. It was incredible! Assigned to the tower, I worked with several other new recruits and a few senior enlisted men. Some of them had already been to Vietnam at least once. Their professional wisdom, wardship and war stories quickly made me realize this was no ordinary career field I'd gotten into. It was a career that would catapult me across several decades and land me here in this sultry southern town.

As I climbed the tower steps toward my first day in an Air Force air traffic control facility, my pulse rate climbed along with me. It wasn't so much from the exercise but from the increasing weight of insecurity and anxiety over what awaited me. There were three airmen working the control positions and one sergeant watching everything from the center of the cab. His name was Dunton and he seemed to have an angry expression on his face. I soon learned that was the way he always looked. It was rumored to be the after-effect of something that happened while he was stationed at Da Nang but Dunton never talked about it.

I scanned my new world. Below me, the ramp was crowded with jet fighters, transient cargo planes and a handful of helicopters. There were several planes in the traffic pattern and a couple more waiting to go. The atmosphere was nothing like I expected. Tech school left me believing controllers heard one voice at a time and made their uninterrupted response. The reality I had just climbed into was a cacophony of overlapping voices. Everyone worked with hand-held microphones rather than headsets. Each control position had its own speakers; one for each frequency they used. Even calls from the radar unit blared from speakers mounted in the consoles.

Across the airfield, an F-4's left wing dipped slightly just before touching down. It rolled about two thousand feet down the runway then lifted off again. Two of the 'Huns' began taxiing into takeoff position as another pilot called the tower from somewhere in the traffic pattern, I had no idea what was going on but, like other 'first time' experiences, it was memorable. Everyone in the cab was looking in different directions and talking. I stood in the back and took it all in. It seemed no one knew I was there; not even the angry looking sergeant. I was 'there' though and would be there for nearly 35 years.

I recognized Jimmy; one of the guys from my barracks. He was working the Ground Control position. Jimmy turned, gave me a smile of recognition and was about to say something when a flight of four on the ramp called ready to taxi. He turned and looked at me, held his mic out and said; "Do you want to give 'em taxi instructions?" I stared at his outstretched hand like it was a rattlesnake. Talk to a real airplane? I could already feel the rush of panic setting in. This was not tech school and these were not other students posing as pilots. They were real pilots seated in real airplanes and they were waiting for instructions. My throat was closing up. Talk? I couldn't even swallow. In an instant, everything they'd taught me back at Keesler was gone. I took the microphone, along with a very deep breath, and stammered through my first transmission. Dunton looked down at the floor and slowly shook his head. Jimmy grinned as the four jets began moving off the ramp in tandem.   

Moments later, I learned another lesson about ATC that no one ever mentioned in Tech School. Controllers will witness things they may never be able to forget. 

Standing to my left, the Local controller was responding to a call from a flight of F-100s. The tone and tempo of his voice changed abruptly. Moments earlier, they had checked in on a long 'initial' (explained below). They appeared as specks in the sky, some 10 miles from the runway and were instructed to "Report break." A few seconds later I heard one of them exclaim that his engine had just flamed out. Far too low to attempt an air start, the flight leader told his wing man to eject. The reply was that he thought he could glide his plane straight to the runway. "Negative! Eject, eject!" The flight leader's voice smacked of urgency. Both jets were clearly visible now. One was much lower than the other and was descending fairly rapidly. Every eye in the tower was fixed on it. I had no idea what would happen next but noticed Sergeant Dunton lunge toward a red phone on the console. He looked like he'd just bitten his tongue. I saw the plane's cockpit canopy tumble off into the sky, followed by an ejection seat. By the time its parachute deployed, the F-100 had disappeared below a distant treeline. No smoke, no fire; just a plume of dust about two miles from the runway. Above it all, a parachute settled slowly toward the ground; its cargo swinging gracefully below. Everything happened within a minute. 

An HH-43 Huskie helicopter, callsign "Pedro One," was soon airborne and heading toward the crash scene. I listened as the flight leader directed "Pedro" to the spot where his wing man had come down. Maybe 15 minutes later, the 'copter called for clearance to the base hospital. I watched it dart across the airfield; knowing they had the luckless pilot on board. It wasn't until the following day that we learned he'd died from injuries incurred during the ejection. 

Learning I had seen the last moments of this guy's life had a profound effect on me. I couldn't erase the voice that said he could make it to the runway. I couldn't forget the sight of his parachute against the powder blue sky. I was a kid in a grownup's world and had never been exposed to sudden tragedy. There would be more in the ensuing years but the first one made an indelible mark on my memory.

Looking around, I realized I'd spent 18 years knowing nothing of what was going on in the world around me. Even worse was that, at 19, I still didn't. It was as though I'd been viewing life through a small skylight - a sliver of reality where things moved across my narrow field of vision on their way to unseen and completely unimagined horizons. Who knows? An airplane might even have flown by. If so, I'm sure it was going somewhere. But me? I'd been going nowhere. My life, to date, had been self-centered, cloistered and meaningless. So much was happening in the world that I might never have experienced. That was changing though. 

Lost in the good old daze, I hadn't even noticed the guy I'd been talking to was gone. So was the sound of those afterburners; just as 'gone' as those long gone, guileless days of my life. 

"Three-Sixty Overhead" approaches are mainly used by the military. The aircraft makes its "initial ' approach to the runway, at least five miles out, remaining at traffic pattern altitude until over the threshold. At that point, the plane "breaks" left or right, beginning a 360 degree descending turn toward the runway. 

  © NLA Factor, 2013