Jets

October, 1992

I was no more than 4 years old when I stood with my father and my brother on the roof of Dad's '49 Ford coupe. It was parked just off the end of the runway of Wheelus AFB (Tripoli, Libya), in the final approach of F-100 Super Sabres. There was a gaggle of them practicing landings that day. We watched them from a point which was so close to their touchdowns the the Air Police eventually came to visit us. They told us that they had received a radio report from the pilots stating that our proximity to the end of the runway was quite distracting from the delicate and dangerous manuever of landing, and they would quite appreciate it if we would retreat from the field of play. I don't know if Dad knew (I certainly didn't have a clue) that the F-100, first of the "Century Series" of Air Force fighters and later known affectionately to its pilots as "The Hun", was characteristically heavy and squashy in its handling during final approach to landing. This fact demanded the utmost in second-to-second focus on precise control of events portentious to the very life of the man in the cockpit. In any case, we withdrew. But...before we did...

It seemed that they were barely out of my Dad's reach. Looking back, I imagine that they were no more than 100 ft. off the deck as they passed over our heads at, perhaps, 160-165 mph. I could very clearly see all of the grimy, yet somehow gleaming, aluminum panels of the underside of each jet. The unbelievable shriek of those engines (landing a jet fighter is a very power intensive affair) was terribly frightening at first. Then, it became exciting as I examined, to the best of my small ability, what was going on here. I knew that these things (the jets) did not occur in nature. They were man-made. I think that Dad explained that there was a man in each one of them, and that he was causing the jet to do what it did. Each one followed the same course, banking through the bright sunshine in a measured turn to final approach. I noticed the same sequence of events in each flight; the turns took place at the same distance away from me every time; the clean shape of the wings was repeatedly presented in the same aspect; and the turns rolled out onto the same course which brought big, fast, chunks of really loud metal directly over my little head, falling to earth in the same spot every time. I was utterly fascinated.

All of my life I have been an avid student of military aviation. If I could choose from history the time and life I could live, it would quite possibly be during the late '40's and early '50's. I might fly an F-86 Sabre over the mountains of Korea, where I might engage aerial combat with guns, jet to jet, against the MiG 15. The reasons for this run to admiration of military aviation for the sheer performance imperative of man and machine.

There are very few other human endeavors in which realizing absolutely awesome performance potential is so finely balanced against complete and virtually instant personal disaster. Added to this is the element of combat, which becomes something transcendental when taking place in the air. On the ground, issues of military conflict may be directed at a strategy conference over a map, but sooner or later they will be resolved by the brute force of firepower. In the air, however, the spirit and intellect prevail in setting the tone and determining the outcome of the encounter. A supremely capable mind is required to understand the nature of the operation, and a courageous heart is instrumental in exploiting that understanding to the end of victory. It is no accident that the annals of military aviation are filled with accounts of the deep respect accorded by victorious pilots to the enemies which they vanquished during duels in the air. There is a special flavor of chivalry attached to these events. They sometimes looked into each others' eyes, each one knowing exactly what they were doing and that they had flung themselves into the clear and present danger in the light of that understanding. Now that they were there, there was no other mandate except that the best should win.

I would have flown in Korea because of a very special circumstance of aviation history unique to that period: Until relatively recently, it was the only (but first!) time when the personal, "look 'em in the eyes" character of fighter combat with guns was wedded to the amazing performance of jets. The performance of earlier propellor driven aircraft simply could not compete. However, the early days of jet fighters had not seen the advent of heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles. These later weapons would facilitate kills from distances so great that, often, it would not be necessary to even see the "target" with the eyes of the pilot. Radar could see well enough. This technical "detachment" stripped air-to-air combat of much of its unique heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind romance. The word "romance" is not misapplied here. It implies a demand for the very best of the men in the game. This is reflected in the fact that most aviation experts of the period rate the Soviet built MiG 15 as a superior aircraft to its main adversary, the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. In spite of this difference in technology, Sabres killed MiGs at an extremely favorable ratio. This difference is often attributed in cold terms to the training of Sabre pilots. I submit that the difference is actually found in the hearts and minds of those men. It is also found in the heart and mind of the single MiG driver who managed to overcome barriers of doctrine and a repressive command structure, and bring down a single F-86 for every one of his 15 brothers who fell through the same chilling skies.

It should be understood that this fascination of mine is not, in any way, an endorsement of the aptly identified "military-industrial complex". I certainly understand the importance of national defense, and regard it as one of the very few ethically defensible functions of government. However, I believe that the vast preponderance of American military activity in this century was founded on defective premises of ethics and politics, foreign and domestic. There is, in my view, no justification for the monstrosity of the Pentagon and all that it represents.

It is worth noting that I once aspired to my own cockpit. It was not my lack of a natural affinity for mathematics (and my subsequent academic shortcomings in this field) which prevented my enlistement. If I could make the Pentagon, with its global "projections of power" and all of its coercive mechanisms of existence, go away, I would glady set fire to my A-2 leather jacket adorned with service insignia of B-52 units which saw combat in Vietnam. I make no political statement of endorsement of that conflict in wearing that jacket. That is a separate discussion to me, and I will state for the record my belief that Vietnam, in terms of ethics and politics, represents perhaps the most sordid, disgraceful, and shameful event in American history.

I wear that A-2 as testimony of my admiration for that particular valor of human will exemplified in dedication to the task of battle in the air.

The closest I ever got to flight operations was when I lived on base at the headquarters of 2nd Air Force, Strategic Air Command. The aircraft du jour was the Boeing B-52.

Last year I walked around the grounds of the Oklahoma State Fair. I came across a display of old USAF aircraft. They were relics of one of the golden ages of American military aviation: the Fifties and early Sixties. This is the period which gave birth to the famous Century Series of fighter aircraft. It was also the heyday of the B-52 Stratofortress, the last of a long and distinguished line of Boeing bombers. The most heralded of these was the B-17 Flying Fortress. During WW II that aircraft moved strong men to tears and made poets of warriors. Boeing went on to apply its signature flair for grace of line and a stout airframe to the world's first nuclear capable jet bomber; the B-47 Stratojet. Regardless of its terrible purpose, it is, arguably, the most beautiful warplane ever built. There is one on display at the fairgrounds. It would be beyond the scope of this article to render, in words, the aesthetic impact of this machine. It must be left to the individual eye whether to agree with my contention that the B-47, as a work of design, crystallizes a period of American culture.

There is also a B-52 on display, dwarfing its (older) little brother. The impression that seeing one of these monsters leaves on me is difficult to describe. As long as I live, I'll never forget the sound of those eight engines running up on the flight line at Barksdale AFB, Shreveport, La....Or the sight of an entire wing blasting off on an alert launch - over 30 aircraft thundering down the runway 30 seconds apart while the earth shook and I stood cheering...Or, the the lumbering sillouhette of one in the landing pattern, low against the sunset over Westover AFB, Springfield, Mass.

Who could forget the quiet on the base in November 1972 when 2nd Air Force '52's left the haven of Barksdale on their way to to Guam to begin the Linebacker series of raids on North Viet Nam? As a high school junior enrolled in AFROTC, I knew that the '52's were about to enter a serious air defense arena for the first time in their long service careers. At the time, I didn't realize that they were flying into the teeth of the most determined and capable air defenses in the history of aerial combat. I imagined, however, that the men and machines which I had admired in direct personal experience would get shot at, and that some of them might never come home again.

I thought about the B-17 raids over Europe during WW II, and how the Flying Forts had taken good care of their men. I recalled how many of them swore that they would not have survived if not for that particular miracle of the Seattle design shops.

The B-52 lived up to its heritage. Declassified and published accounts of air battles over the North have a very familiar ring to a student of air war history. The courage of men and machines was evenly matched: When the initial point of the bomb run was reached, pilots ceased their evasive dancing an steadied their wings in order to let the bombing computer gyros "spin up". They knew that the SAM's were locking up their radars for the kill, but they could not be concerned. Professionals to the end, they had a job to do.

The B-52's took their lumps. Some of them simply could not withstand the ferocious intensity of mulitple SAM strikes, and bowed their heads. Many more, however, turned valiantly for home, oblivious to their own doom: engines blown off or on fire; gaping holes howling 400 knot winds at dead and dying men 35,000 ft. over the moonlit jungles; control surfaces shot away; hydraulics and electrics damaged and destroyed; streaming tons of burning jet fuel a half-mile aft in the slipstream...The B-52's carried on, desperately wounded. It seemed as if they somehow knew, even though made only of metal, what the flesh and blood inside them knew: Home.

These things happened in my liftime. The raid on the Schwienfurt ball bearing factories in 1943, which took 60 B-17's and 600 men out of thin air in the length of a few hours, was an account out of the pages of history. It served to fire the imagination of a boy, inspiring admiration for the strength, courage, and sheer effort of will required to achieve the biggest things that had ever been attempted in aviation. But it was an abstract admiration.

Standing on the flight line at Barksdale, the scale of it all was concrete and riveting: The B-52D rolled out, 200 feet from my eyes; its giant vertical stabilizer looming 6 stories over my head. The hot breath of JP-4 fuel exhaust stung my eyes and nose. The noise of those jets seemed powerful enough to rearrange the very molecules of my body. The Ace of Spades painted on the nose was vividly set against the sinister forest green camouflage scheme. There were men in that thing.

I realized that the Ace represented a tradition which reached back more than 50 years. Those men were so proud of their capability and their dedication that they wanted everyone to know it, even their enemies. And now they were going off to war. It might not have been the war of their choosing, but that did not matter. Their chosen task was to fling themselves and their mounts into the clear and present danger. There was nothing even slightly hokey about that Ace. No matter if that painted aluminum skin were fated to be torn off by a missile blast, to fall on some lost and jungled mountainside, those men wanted everyone to know who they were and what they were doing.

I was present to watch them go.

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