Well…it was magic.
After 3-4 days of rain and overcast I went to work with clear skies and a post cold front north breeze that cleared the vis to 50+ miles…
Drove in alone in my truck. Had a lot of time to think about what the day would bring…
First stop was the briefing room to put up boards for an ACM coordination brief. Standard Eagle guy–4 colors, sharp boards…why get lazy now? Usually I leave the door open when I’m prepping the room but had to shut it and paused several times while writing on the boards.
Best SA of the day was bringing in some dark sunglasses. I never wear them flying or have them unless I’m jetskiing on the water, but I brought them in today. and put them on my podium. Started the brief with a standard atomic clock timehack, then told my 2100 Eagle hour # 2 man (low time new kid in the flight), my #3200 hour # 3, and my 2600 hour # 4 man how we were going to do everything SAFE, STANDARD, and the same way we did them every day. Motherhood was all standard except we would do 4 AB quick climbs to FL 210-230. Several times during brief decided that wearing my shades was appropriate–hard for your bros to follow a dude who’s tearing up in the briefing into a fight. They chuckled when I reached for them a couple times… Cleared off 3 and 4 and then spent about 2 minutes discussing our VID intercept tactics with my #2 man… For what its worth–the # 3 guy is an O-6 and my ANG boss. Dudes 2 & 4 are fellow part timers…both activated now…that were furloughed United guys. We’ve shared more than Eagle flying together…
After the short brief my wife and daughters rolled in to watch the launch and stepped to the jets with us. Got pictures of my wingman with me as well as with my family. My oldest two did the walk around with me and got to see the might Eagle up close and inspect the captive Aim 9, Aim 120, and gun system..as well as the chaff and flares. I climbed up the ladder into the jet (put glasses on again). While waiting to start, my four year old floored me by yelling at me to “…say “Clear prop”…” She’s barely four–but she’s already flown enough with me in the Navion to “get” this aviation thing. She was also quite pissy with her mother about not being able to go along and fly with her daddy (like she normally does…)
Started up and the 10,000 plus hours of experience in the four ship were evident. My bros honored me sounding as crisp and professional on the check ins and radio drills as they always have. The EOR crew told me I had 2 bad engines, an oil leak, and a flat…but only because the bros in front of me had told them to pass that on when we were arming. The EOR crew laughed when I told them I was going anyway and they informed me that in fact I had a great jet and was ready to go.
If anyone cares…you can taxi with tears in your eyes. Nobody will know… I kept looking down at the instruments, the radar, my panel, and my ejection seat trying to SOAK as much of it in as I could and remember what it felt like. I taxied much slower than I normally do…
Takeoff and departure were awesome. Thanks to the help of some great guys in the squadron my family was now in the departure end EOR hammerhead with a front row seat to 4 might Eagles doing their best airshow climbs. I did my best to lean over and look between the tails at the scene behind me and again–soak it up one last time. By the time I turned at 3 DME I was basically over the runway’s perch point at 21,000 watching my 3 wingman take the same rocket ride. What a blast!
Now–time to regain my composure and sound “cool” for the ops check and radio calls to follow. I kept telling myself this wasn’t my last flight over these skies–I’d be there again very soon in my Navion and every once in a while in a 727…so the skies were still going to be mine. However–again–tried to absorb as much of the magic of a perfect day with 3 other Eagles on my wing as I could. Rolled into the airspace for some quick pre-fight G-awareness turns and fence check items, then set up to fight.
Fighting has always been the best part of flying the Eagle–hard to explain to someone who flys for fun or transportation and not to deliver death. Its the ultimate 3 dimensional wrestling match, airshow routine, chess game, rollercoaster ride all wrapped up into some of the most intense seconds of your existence. ACM is where you work as a combat pair to tackle a bandit in a visual environment, and it takes every bit of your ability and concentration to not only fight the bandit but work as a coordinated element during the engagement. It has always been my favorite facet of air to air. So–we started the fight with my #3 man 2 miles behind us, and the melee started. Both Eagles broke at 7.5-8.5 Gs, then swirled into a high/low beer can with the bandit sandwiched between us. # 2 made a timely kill, I directed the separation, and we then rolled out downhill, accelerating back to 500+ knots, ready for subsequent attacks from our (now unknown location) #4 man. At this point, adrenaline, excitement, and pride took all sentiment away and for the next 10 minutes it was about protecting my # 2 man and killing bandits–but only after we had merged and positively identified them as an F-15. The resulting fights were incredible. I can usually get a kill in less than 60 seconds after merging with the bandit when we do things “right”, but the experience and ability of #3 and #4 made it a much tougher fight than the “average” bro I’ve fought the last 8 years at Tyndall. However–we got it done–and I got to gun one of the bandits during an engagement before we were finally out of gas. Since we had a bit more gas than our bandits, I sent them off to do a quick 1 v 1 BFM engagement while #2 and I did some formation wing work with me on his wing. I’ll never be a Thunderbird, but riding his wing as he did whiffer-dills to 90 degrees of bank look down at Appalachicola Bay will be burned into my memory for a lifetime.
Next I took the lead back, rallied all four Eagles together, and proceeded back down the Emerald Coast back to Tyndall. Watching the sun over the water about :60 minutes from its sundown position was both a beautiful and fitting way to end the mission, the day, and an absolutely awesome career. Up initial in close fingertip, and everyone did one low approach with a closed pull up over our squadron and my waiting friends and family. One more time around the patch–this time 2, 3, and 4 did a full stop, and I did my final closed pull up. There was a LOT of talking to myself on that last pattern…..”you’ve done this a thousand plus times…make this landing a sweet one…and for God’s sake don’t F____ it up now… GEAR FLAPS PRESSURE all check good….GEAR FLAPS PRESSURE…yep 3 green better check one more time don’t screw this up GEAR FLAPS PRESSURE…holy cow this really is the last time…what do you think about this…hold the nose up…power off now….this should work….perfect day you might hit 500 down but let’s make this soft accept 700-1000 don’t bounce ease it on c’mon baby thanks for taking care of me all these years don’t let me bounce you now……oh yeah…wow…this jet makes you look good sometimes….”
Taxied back slowly to EOR….and then to the chocks. Saw a huge crowd waiting at my parking spot…damn…where are those shades….
Shut down, and the obligatory hose down followed. I was grateful I had an excuse for the dampness on my eyes and my face. Got to hug all my girls–although the 4 year old balked at getting too close her very wet daddy. Old friends who are DOs and Commanders were there that were my peers when we were all captains flying in all corners of the globe together, adding a a special bonus to what was already a wonderful day. Another interesting wrinkle that was special to me is my oldest immediately zoned in on an F-15 student pilot I had been helping–a female. I could see my own daughter’s gears turning as she realized here was a young woman maybe 12 years older than herself, learning to fly the Eagle. They instantly became inseparable and my daughter found a new friend and hero…and in addition to all the hero shots of me, my flight, and my family I also have a few of them together as well.
And then we ate…and drank…and laughed…and I got a nice plaque…and some people said some very nice words. My words of thanks were not only to my wonderful leadership and my friends in the business, but to my family which has always supported me and allowed the the complete freedom to serve and chase my dreams without ever once complaining–despite the separations, the risk, and the demands that such a life places on the family.
So–its time for another chapter. Those were some great times, however–and as I’ve said so many times–God has blessed me more than I can ever express.