Some days I wake up and have a lot to say. Today is one of those days. With an eye on poignancy, here goes.
One article collected and laid out the tragic history of sports figures and fatal aviation mishaps. Hmm. Who would we expect to be buzzing around Earth’s sky in heavier than air machines? The homeless? The destitute? Flying is and always will be an activity for the wealthy. There’s nothing surprising about aviation mishap victims having wealth or being renowned personalities.
The real catalyst for this post, however, is the report/advertisement that some Super Bowl commercial (please consider these words in their fullness–the “news” is about “advertising decisions”) has removed a scene with a helicopter from its Sunday ad. This has been done out of respect, they say. I say that they didn’t go far enough. I say that we all haven’t gone far enough.
Why not re-shoot all Super Bowl commercials involving helicopters in their productions? In fact, I do not think we should see an overhead shot of anything. Truly, we should just advertise using cartoons. But no sky shots! And for God’s sake, no clouds!
Additionally, the opening and closing of those super respectful commercials (they should be silent, since helicopters are noisy), should include the disclaimer, “No helicopters were used in the images, filming, or travel methods of any of the humans who had anything to do with this advertisement.” And I want a time stamp, too, like, “The last time a helicopter was used by anyone, including me, who had anything to do with this commercial was _______.” Let’s find out who really respects the victims of the tragedy.
My aim here is to give you the good stuff, the thoughts of a professional helicopter pilot who had to go to work the next day. Most of the following is criticism of your reporting of the crash, not my speculation about the crash. Listen up. You’ll learn a lot.
To begin, you journalists are doing a great disservice to language and how it works (not to mention your reputation) during your reporting. For example, the word “special” in, “He was on a special VFR clearance,” is nothing like “special” in, “Kobe was a special basketball superstar.” In other words, on any given day, every pilot in the sky could simultaneously be on a “special VFR clearance”.
Secondly, after completing every paragraph, reread it and ask yourself, “Is there anything in here which betrays that I have a complete misunderstanding of all things aviation?” If you answer affirmatively on any level, rewrite it. Specifically, pilots don’t ask for “flight following” because they are worried. When I’m worried, I hold my breath, I pace, I shake my head, I purse my lips, I mutter to myself, and I probably do a few other things of which I’m not even aware, too–no different than you. “Flight following” is meaningfully on the same level of flight safety as learning how to fly from someone else before flying solo. It’s absolutely unremarkable.
Thirdly, flying has so much drama inherent to it, or so much “organic” drama, that if you find yourself needing to add some, then you’re clearly not writing about flying. For instance, “Too low for flight following,” (Oooh!) has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the capabilities of the sending and receiving technologies which have been tasked with “following” the flight. In other words, in Iraq, we routinely flew at 100 ft above the ground. This is much lower than Kobe’s flight, and yet our Operations Centers knew exactly where we were every second we were there.
Fourthly, reread your articles for general common sense blunders. Particularly ridiculous are your claims about the differences between IFR and VFR flying. To be clear, whether flying under “Instrument Flight Rules” or “Visual Flight Rules”, whether flying in clouds (fog is just a cloud at the Earth’s surface), whether flying under clouds, whether flying over clouds, or whether flying in skies totally free of clouds, all pilots fly by eyesight.
Do you copy? You’re not doing your job responsibly when you’re not doing your research or using your brain. Admit when you don’t know what you’re writing about. You’re embarrassing yourself.
What caused the crash? Poor judgement. Bad decision making. At some level, once removed, the weather can be called a factor. But clouds are merely invisible gaseous water vapor that has condensed into visible liquid water. They cause daydreams; they are the outward cause of lightning and its thunder. The condensation can occur strongly enough to cause itself to fall to the earth as precipitation. But clouds do not cause pilots to crash.
Pilots cause pilots to crash.
We know that.
That’s why we’re so special.
“Okay crew, coming down.”
“Clear down right.”
“Come down four, down three, down two, down one.”
“Collective’s full down, cyclic’s neutral. Pilot has controls.”
“Pilot has controls.”
“Pilot has controls.”
Though they joked that at night it was pointless to go through the motions of holding up your hands to prove you’ve transferred the flight controls, the truth was there was always enough light to see the other pilot’s gloved hands being held up as if waiting to catch a ball. Plus, these men knew the score. They were the best at what they did because they executed their job with a studied eloquence. And so when Pete raised his hands to prove he had released control of the aircraft to his pilot, he knew it did not go unnoticed and served the greater purpose.
Two minutes later, never sooner, the aircrew began the post-flight routine of collecting their gear and buttoning up the aircraft. His plastic sleeve pad thing on the seat-belt-like strap never remained in place on the helmet bag. After adjusting it, he realized he’d put his kneeboard in the wrong pocket. Or had he? Dropping the bag to check, he discovered it was in the right pocket after all. Good. Everything was where it should be. Sliding the plastic comfort thing into place once again, he hoisted the bag up. His helmet bag now over his shoulder, he bent down to grab his go bag. Containing enough ammunition to scare away at least the Iraqi wildlife, he also kept some energy bars, and a good first aid kit within the pockets on the bag whose original purpose was to house a water bladder. He always regretted that he didn’t know the contents of that kit better. As he went to sling the bag over his other shoulder, he almost fell over. While he had un-carabineered the go-bag from the helicopter, he hadn’t noticed his M4 was still attached to both his bag and the helo.
“What took so long, man?”
“Oh, nothing. Just saw life through Beetle Bailey’s eyes for a second there.”
“I cannot wait to get back to the trailers tonight.”
“Yeah, I got a package today from the wife. If it’s what I think it is, I’ve got some good reading for the night.”
“What do you think she sent?”
“Well, she told me the other day that some stuff I ordered from this company that sells dome home’s arrived back in the States. She said she knew I was waiting for it, so she packed it up right away and sent it here.”
“I didn’t tell you about it? Are you sure? I feel like I’ve told everyone.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure you haven’t told me.”
“In a nutshell, this guy name Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome. It’s essentially a perfect structure. Much stronger than a box home, it’s cheaper, has more space, and is more efficient.”
“But it’s a dome.”
“Well, where are you going to put this dome?”
“That’s the genius of it. Her dad has eight acres in West Virginia. He’s held on to them all these years, and would basically love to give them to us to use. We’re thinking about taking him up on the offer after I get out of the Air Force. We hope to start a little farm on it. It’s going to be perfect.”
“Oh yeah? Do you know anything about farming?”
“No. But I know how to read. And there are books about it.”
“Ha. Okay man. If you say so.”
Neither man would ever voice such things, but the truth was that they loved their little chats after a mission.
Closing the white Dodge pickup truck’s door had the effect of launching the men into space where they experienced weightlessness for the first time. No more pressure to perform, no more lives at stake, and no more straining to decipher unreadable radio calls. Unlike the helicopter, the truck always started, had good climate control, and there was a cd player. The truck, which was only needed to drive laughably short distances, was only fueled at great intervals at a full service station by a third country national straight from the set of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. This TCN wore a raincoat with a hand-written “COL” above the right breast pocket and gloves and safety glasses and all. The truck was the envy of many. The truck, like everything in that place, was a symbol. And it symbolized mobility. Who needs to be especially mobile in a combat zone? Important people. Aircrew. It was good to be king.
The life support sergeant was nearly asleep when the crews returned from their missions. The endorphins were contagious as the men returned each piece of their equipment to its proper place. Night vision goggles, already in protective cases, had a place on a padded table. Helmets and helmet bags went into cubbies, along with body armor. Some pilots removed the back plate of armor in favor of lighter travels, but Pete and his aircraft commander simply chose the path of least resistance. Plus, it would just be silly to get hurt in a way that was preventable. Either way, they hoisted the guardian vests into the beat-up plywood cubbies by their elastic shoulder straps turned handles. Next up, the walk to debrief, and hope that the POC crew had done their job correctly and had dinner ready. And some cookies.
Pete stopped off in the social trailer to grab a soda from his personal stash. Sure, the variety of free sodas was enough to please any fan of the beverage, but there was nothing like a Mountain Dew Code Red after a mission. And part of him just enjoyed being able to have something that was his. Something he bought. Something that no one could take without offending the property gods. Given that everything else was communal, he treasured his soda.
“If nobody has anything else to add, debrief complete.”
The first time he saw it, it was leaning against a corner in the basement. The carpet on the stairs leading down to the basement had a plaid pattern. Red with black lines. The kind of pattern that would make a great shirt or wool jacket. What was it doing on the ground? The wall was on the left and wasn’t so much a wall as a bulletin board. It was a mosaic of all sorts of framed pictures. Baseball was the theme, but a few Polish novelties could be found hanging as well. And some scales. Jerry had worked for Toledo Scales after the war.
Jerry lived with his mother still. A five year old doesn’t have any reason to think this odd. Instead, Pete just liked being over there. Jerry would give him pop. And cookies. And if they ever went into the front room, there was always hard candy in a dish. The dish was porcelain. It was a slippery white bird. Slippery, despite being textured with tiny bumps. Being portable, the cookies came from a round tin that Jerry opened by pressing it against his large belly, where he seemed to struggle just for a moment until the lid came free. Jerry loved watching Pete eat cookies. Pete loved eating cookies. But he loved seeing the sword more.
The sheath was brown. It almost looked rusty. There was a ring where a belt or some such thing could be threaded through. The handle was a very hard textured plastic. A real katana would have had a handle that was hand sewn. This clearly mass produced weapon kept up appearances, but also gave off the feel of uncertainty. Jerry had a kind of hesitation every time he brought out the sword. Who was he to deny a child happiness? And yet, Jerry brought the sword back from his time overseas where he had engaged in World War Two. Pete could tell that Jerry was great for other reasons, but for most, it was because of what men like him did during and after the war that put Jerry in the greatest generation.
Jerry would laugh off Pete’s attempts to get him to divulge the sword’s secrets. Had Jerry killed the previous owner? Had Jerry used the sword to kill? For Pete, war and guns and swords and bombs were fascinating. Everyone that was involved with such things seemed to be viewed as special, he might go so far to say they were viewed as other worldly.
“You ready to go back to the trailers, or do you need to use the computers for something?”
“I could go either way. There’s always something to read on the internet, but like I said, I’ve got dome home research to do, too.”
“Oh, right. Dome homes. For your farm.”
“Hey! Don’t laugh. In a few years, I’ll be living the good life. And what’ll you be doing? Probably be out here for the 15th time in as many years, fighting somebody else’s fight. If those are my options, I choose farming.”
“You know that those aren’t your only options, right?”
“So are you going to make me walk, or are we taking the truck back to the trailers?”
“Alright. Alright. We’ll go back now.”
Back at the trailers, the routine continued as normal. Boots were taken off, and flight suits removed in favor of almost comfortable PT gear. Every time their fingers touched their ridiculously poor fitting, lined PT shorts, each man wondered why the Air Force didn’t just contract Nike to develop the uniform.
Then, some went to work out, while others headed to the showers. Pete just wanted to read. And after reading, he wanted to talk. He was so excited about the future. About West Virginia, about farming, but most importantly he was excited for the chance to invite people on to his off-the-beaten-path property, and in to his dome home.
“Alright Tail, give the team the one-minute call.”
He knew those exact same words were said in flight lead’s aircraft. But what flight lead radioed next was not what anyone expected.
“Mongoose 01 flight, abort. Abort, abort, abort.”
“Mongoose 01 flight, go-around, go-around, go-around.”
“Mongoose 02 going around.”
Quickly scanning the ground for enemy combatants, all Pete could think was, “They’d be so small. How am I supposed to see anything from up here?”
“Mongoose 01. Confirm the tail of your aircraft has been hit?”
“Negative. My tail gunner’s been hit. Standby.”
“What the hell is Mongoose 03 doing? It looks like they landed and are unloading their guys!”
“Mongoose 01. Mongoose 02. It looks like 03 missed the go-around call. They’ve landed and are completing the infil.”
“Mongoose 01 copies. BREAK BREAK. Mongoose 03. Mongoose 01. Abort the mission. I repeat. Mission abort. Mongoose 01’s tail’s been hit, Mongoose 01 and 02 are headed to the Baghdad CASH.”
“Mongoose 01. Mongoose 02. If you’re good with it, you keep the lead, and we’ll cover you since you don’t have your tail manned right now. We can make the radio calls if you want.”
“Sounds good. We’re going direct. Try to get us clearance, I’ll listen up, but we’re going direct no matter what.”
“Mongoose 02 copies.”
The before and after black and white photos were stored loose in an old shoe box. Those pictures imprinted themselves on Pete as what should be listed next to the word “war” in the dictionary. Having no standard size or border, each photo was meaningless without its pair. A grey building, against a grey sky, along a grey street could have been anywhere and meant anything. A pile of grey rubble, against a grey sky, along a broken grey street could have been anywhere and meant anything. But when viewed side-by-side, against a backdrop of a shoebox full of photographs balanced on top of a man’s knees while he sat in his mother’s basement, the pictures contained a story. Pete interpreted the story to mean that if you need to win, this is what it takes to win.
“I know. I can’t believe it either.”
A gunner washed the blood out of the back of the helicopter with his water from his camelback as everyone else searched for bullet holes.
“It was friendly fire.”
“Apparently the team’s translator was given a rifle instead of handgun, and a rifle with a round in the chamber no less.”
Uncontrollably turning to see the culprit, Pete saw him. He was bawling. They wanted to hate him, but his genuine remorse couldn’t have insisted itself upon them with greater ferocity.
“That still doesn’t explain why he pulled the trigger.”
“I know. I know! But it sounds like when he stood up at the one-minute out call, he carelessly did.”
“Then what happened. How did you know he was hit?”
“He told us over the intercom. He said, ‘I’m hit. Tail’s hit.’”
“Yeah, no kidding. Luckily we had the Doc on board. It’s a head shot for sure, but it seems to have missed his brain.”
“What’d you get today?”
“A book on gardening.”
“Oh yeah? For the farm? You’re pretty serious about this, then.”
“When am I not serious about something that interests me? Sheesh. Why is it that I always have to be your entertainment? I am planning on buying a dome home. Yes, I will assemble it myself. Yes, I know that sounds bizarre. Yes, I plan on living off the land. Happy?”
“Touchy, touchy. Take it easy man. I’m just giving you shit.”
“Well, sometimes, maybe once, it’d be nice if you just respected that I get to live my life how I want.”
“Of course you do. You know you bring this on yourself, right? If you just talked about what everyone talks about, nobody would bother you. You see that, right?”
“Oh, I see it. I don’t think it makes any sense, but I see it.”
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’ll have a ginger ale.”
Jerry had died many years earlier. On this, Pete’s first paid-for-by-the-Air-Force commercial flight he decided to toast Jerry’s memory with a glass of ginger ale just like Jerry used to drink. It was Jerry’s parting gift that afforded Pete the opportunity to pursue his dream of gaining the kind of respect that men like Jerry received.
“For real. What are we doing over here?”
“I don’t know. I kind of like it.”
“Like it? How can you like it? We invaded a foreign country on questionable logic and evidence and we know there is never going to be a clear cut victory, no matter how hard we try. Hell, there’s not even a clear cut enemy.”
“Pete, I get it. Really I do. Don’t you think you might be focused in a bit too tight? A democracy in the Middle East will be a good thing. That’s as zoomed-in as I get. How we do that, if we are able to provide enough temporary stability to actually let the people here accomplish that, those are questions that are above my pay grade—and yours.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says. I just refuse to tow that line. I’m responsible for what’s happening here. Even if only on a miniscule level, I’m responsible. What’s worse is the manner in which I became responsible. I volunteered.”
The two men, two warriors, two friends, laid on separate bottom-bunks in silence. The conversation ceased being valuable. Each other’s prolonged silence said as much. Two men to a room, three rooms to a trailer, each trailer housed an entire crew. Besides the metal-framed bunk beds, the rooms were furnished with two tall metal wardrobes most commonly used as partitions to create privacy, and a desk, and a heating/ac unit. The windows were immediately blacked-out with any material that would do the trick, whether cardboard, foil, or fabric.
The Air Force, for all its greatness, severely lacked instruction regarding what to think about war and death. For some reason, it was just assumed that the men knew. The Bushido-type list of warrior attributes that he had packed and hung on the wall next to his bunk spoke volumes. Bushido—the Samurai code. He knew the Samurai were an unmatched group of warrior-poets. Their swords were said to contain their souls. And the swords were unbreakable and could cut through anything. He’d seen the videos.
Jerry’s faux-samurai sword would probably have broken if put to task. Was it even sharp? Did it ever need to be? All these years later the memory of the brown sheathed, brown handled, silver bladed sword loudly resting in the corner began to fade. Yet, in his own way, its memory still provided him with the strength necessary to do his job.
“Courage is living when it’s right to live and dying when it’s right to die,” he recited silently.
No matter what other thoughts filled his head, he knew it was not right to die. And he knew the others he served with agreed.
“So I think I found the one I want. It’s a double-dome.”
“Double-dome, eh? What’s that mean?”
“Well, you know I’ve got that piano, right?”
“The thing is, it is loud. It really should have a place of its own. So they have this home that is essentially two domes connected by a little walkway. Over three thousand square feet in all. The main dome is around two thousand, if you count the second floor, while the smaller dome is about a thousand square feet. It’s be the perfect piano room, library, study, parlor-type thing.”
“Sounds pretty good. Having a separate place to go from the main house would be nice.”
“Nice? It’d be perfect. During fights, everyone could retreat to their separate places until they cool down. I can’t wait to get back and visit the property.”
“So you’ve never seen the eight acres?”
“Nope. But I can just picture it. I know there’s already a house on it now. But it doesn’t have running water or electricity or anything. I’d probably knock it down and go from there. It’s on a bit of a slope, but nothing extreme. There is a huge shade tree, I know that. And the winters are brutal, but there’s nothing I can’t handle. All you have to do is be prepared for it, and you’re good.”
“What about the summers? I imagine they’re not exactly pleasant. What kind of work would you do?”
“The summers? They’re hot and sweaty. But the dome home stays cool. See, the air circulates perfectly because it never runs into a dead end. Its course is just constantly redirected. As far as work, I’ll be fine. Always have been. There’s a small town nearby. I already own most everything I want. And we’ll be farming, so food won’t be a huge expense.”
“If you say so.”
“You know, one thing I can’t picture though, is how to hang things on the walls. Tons of people have dome homes, but I can’t say I’ve seen enough pictures of the interiors to know if people still hang portraits and stuff. I only ask because we have this awesome framed set of Samurai swords. You know, with the three swords. The two pretty big ones, and then the smaller blade they used as a back-up, or when fighting in very close quarters.”