Personal Website for TED HENRY

So You Want To Be A Navy Pilot?

Navy Wings


What follows is a description of USN flight school experienced in 1970. Our adventures in the south will be described elsewhere. Probably. As you read this, if you read this, try to keep in mind the context. Holly and I were freshly married, had driven across the country to a foreign culture, the Vietnam war and protests were raging, there was a cultural revolution going on, Holly was teaching high school biology in Pensacola, I was in flight school where the attrition rate was fearsome, I was playing soccer for the USN National Soccer Team, and we were hanging out with a local rock band and going to obscure barbecue joints with them in Alabama at 3 am after their gigs. We partied like the youngsters we were. It was intense, heady times. It was a lot to take in.

I realize parts might be a tad dry but it is part of the picture. Hopefully you get a feeling for what it was like.


So you want to be a Navy pilot?

Ha! Fat chance. What follows is a description of the continuous sequence of challenges, the terrible fallout along the way, what career choices were made, and my personal feelings about it all.

Let's assume you have already passed the physical and academic requirements for NROTC and you want to apply for flight training. First understand that training a navy pilot is extraordinarily expensive. The Navy quite rightly filters out those with little chance of succeeding by subjecting everyone to an aptitude test right off the bat. You have a good chance of passing the test if you have a firm grasp of algebra, geometry, physics, and mechanics. It's not completely academically oriented though. If you spent much of your youth building things that roll, fly, glide, shoot, and explode then you have probably built up enough knowledge to answer the more practical oriented questions. However if you spent your time watching Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club on TV, or in today's world, sitting on your butt playing computer games or living in social media, then you have not likely developed the aptitude to pass the test. Ground school comes fast and hard from the very start and if you are not ready your'e sunk (couldn't resist a nautical term).

What would you do if you were told that only 8% of those applying for flight school would end up receiving their wings? There's not much to lose by applying but are you still interested? All you have to do is get by the aptitude test and medical physical to get your application accepted. However what if you discovered that once committed to the program that you had a 2/3rds chance of failing somewhere along the way? What a wasted effort that would be and would leave your future hanging. Who knows where you would end up, but probably on a surface ship somewhere. OK, so your'e still ready to give it a go but then you find out that only half of the graduates become active pilots. Would you still want put in 18 months of very intense training with a fifty-fifty chance of ending up behind a desk at some naval air station? And here's the kicker. How about if you knew ahead of time that 20% of Navy pilots** die in their aircraft. One out of five!

Of course the Navy doesn't tell you any of this except the 2/3 failure rate (well after you have committed yourself). No, they pumped the glory of God and Country theme to the hilt and never hinted at the deplorable statistics.

Here's how it went for me.
I applied for flight school during my senior year. After my application was reviewed by unknown persons using equally opaque criteria, the application was either approved or denied. There was no appeal process. If approved then an aptitude test was administered that focused on one's grasp of mechanics, physics, aerodynamics, and higher math. I remember it taking all day but not having any trouble with it. Then a medical physical took place in Corvallis at the OSU ROTC unit. I was told that only about half of the applicants passed the test and physical.

Next I was flown up to Sandpoint WA in the morning dark for a rigorous flight physical that checked many things you might not think about, like night vision and resistance to epileptic seizures when subjected to extremely bright flashing lights. I can tell you after enduring that light 3 inches from my face I had a strong urge to rip it into pieces. I wondered if they could read that on the EEG. An unknown number of applicants fell out at this point but I passed.

After graduation I received my commission as an Ensign and orders to drive across the country and report in to Pensacola FL. We graduated on June 12th, received my commission on the 13th, and were married on the 14th. Finally. We were on our way to our really big adventure. We were halfway there in Colorado when I got my first big lesson in flying safely. While driving over the spine of the Rockies we came to a traffic jam. Up ahead was a smoking hole in the side of the mountain. A charter flight carrying a football team had gone sightseeing, lost an engine, did not have enough power to climb over the top and not enough space to reverse course down the canyon he had unwisely flown up. After that I always remembered to fly up ridges and not canyons when fooling around in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

At the welcoming meeting in Pensacola we were told to look at the person on our right and the one on our left. The speaker said neither of them would succeed in earning their wings and it turned out he was exactly correct. The thought that I would be one of the failures never entered my mind. My only concern was whether I could graduate with a high enough class standing to avoid Vietnam and carrier duty. I knew I had to keep that under my hat.

**= In 1979 Tom Wolfe wrote in his book "The Right Stuff" that 20 perent of Navy pilots who remain in the service for 20 years or longer die in aircraft related accidents during peacetime operations.


This was called "Pre-Flight Indoctrination" but really it was just boot camp by another name. It wasn't going to be a problem as we all had been through this BS before during the second Midshipman cruise. First though was another thorough flight physical. Enough already. Still, a few failed and those who had fooled previous examiners were caught out. Then we were run ragged half the day and for the other half endured highly technical ground school in brightly lit rooms where all the windows were painted flat black. We were screamed at, physically abused, and constantly treated as sub-human. This approach existed to some degree for the whole 18 month training program. The academic portion was as difficult as anything I experienced as a science major. We started learning aerodynamics, electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, power plant, weather, FAA regulations, and navigation. Written tests were frequent and if your scores fell behind you were out. What does "out" mean? It means that you would be reassigned to serve in the USN somewhere else, most likely on a ship as regular officer's crew. Those failing flight school were referred to as "washouts" in the regular Navy and there seemed to be a stigma attached to that even though there shouldn't be. Human motivation is a complicated thing and I can see where a "washout" could be bitter and less motivated than usual.

I don't generally stress out when faced with standardized tests but the flight school tests were nothing like I had ever seen. The questions were all multiple choice which sounds simple, but they weren't. Each question had a serial number so that results could be tracked over time. If a question was answered correctly to often, then it was thrown out or modified. As a result the questions became a test of picky reading comprehension, vagueness, or really obscure dimensions/capacities. Did I really need to know that the nose wheel would only turn 2 1/2 less on one side, or how many ounces of fluid the master cylinder held?

A number of physical tests also flunked out lots of students. Like swimming a mile in a flight suit and combat boots, swimming under a parachute stretched out on the waters surface, a cross country run in dry sand with a time limit, and completing the obstacle course, again with a time limit. No one could pass that course without practice. It required learning the technique and there were hidden hazards like certain rungs on ladders that would spin unexpectedly. But mostly it was the eight foot wall that was such a bugger. It alone failed many students. The course was in dry sand and the wall was late in the course and too thick to reach over the top to the other side. You had to be able to pull yourself up by your finger tips after already being gassed. After that wall came the 12 foot wall but at least it had a rope. Of course we had to perform a specific number of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, rope climb, etc. There was more but you get the idea.



In Primary Flight Training we started off with a cute little airplane called a T-34 that was easily mastered. Primary training took place in daytime in clear weather. Flying began soon enough and it was never pleasant. A stream of simulated emergencies were thrown at us non-stop, often with a screaming instructor who sometimes beat us on the helmet with a clipboard. It was stressful and I eventually figured out that was the point. Flight training was designed to ensure a certain minimum level of flying ability, but more importantly, to weed out those that cannot handle stressful or chaotic situations. I had one instructor who liked to rattle his students right after takeoff by opening the canopy and flying around inverted. On the first aerobatics flight he had students perform spins until they puked. I got to 13. He struck me as a sadist.

That part of the world is so confusingly flat that it was hard to know your location. We navigated using highways and Stuckey's Restaurants. In our area they all had bright blue roofs that were visible for many miles. The worst hazard was a radio tower near the operating area that was about 2,000 feet high and so skinny as to be nearly invisible in hazy weather.

Besides learning basic flying we practiced aerobatic maneuvers such as spins, loops, wing overs, stalls, hammerheads, and barrel rolls. Sounds like fun times, right? Let me describe just one simple maneuver, performing the Loop. You could be excused for thinking this sounds like a simple maneuver. But no, the Navy is persnickety about everything. One must enter at a precise altitude, heading and airspeed and finish at the same altitude and heading. Because a single engine prop aircraft causes the airflow to spiral over the tail, the vertical stabilizer is placed on the fuselage at an angle so that no trim is required to fly straight at cruise speed. Flying slower requires a trim adjustment in one direction and flying faster more trim in the other direction. So here's the challenge. When flying a loop one's airspeed is constantly changing significantly but there is no time for trim adjustments. Staying on course requires moving the rudder throughout in order to stay on course. One half of the loop is flown at 180 degrees from the original heading but there is not a lot of time to be staring at a compass. It's easy to get off course. Furthermore one must keep the wings level throughout to keep from drifting off course but when pointed straight up or straight down you cannot easily see the horizon to help with this. Lastly you must pull back on the stick to maintain a specific G load in order to finish the loop at your entry altitude. There is a lot going on simultaneously. It's like rubbing your stomach and patting your head simultaneously but while pulling G's and being upside down half the time.

One thing that made me angry as heck was the colossal waste of time. Flights were scheduled from sunrise to sunset. If there was a weather hold one had to sit until the weather cleared. OK, that's natural enough. However, if the hold for example lasted four hours, the first flights were not cancelled in order to maximize keeping as many students with later flights as possible on schedule. Nope, every flight no matter the time slot for the day had to slide those four hours. Eventually the last flights of the day would get cancelled but only near sunset. There would be a hundred of us sitting around in ready room plastic cafeteria chairs with nothing to do. We couldn't sleep or leave. We played a lot of cards and read paperbacks as much as we could stand. Four of us played a single continuing game of Hearts to 10,000 points. Remember this is all before smart phones and the internet. My peers didn't seem as put-out by this as I was. I felt they had lost their brains somewhere along the way. I tried, very gently and carefully, pointing out the inefficiency to a couple instructor pilots without effect.

But scheduling wise I had it better than most. Let me explain. One day I walked into operations to look at the status board and saw a red star next to my name. I asked what that was and they told me that it identified members of the USN National Soccer Team and those students had scheduling priority. Holy cow, and I didn't even know. It pretty much meant I didn't have to fly at times I found objectionable. Getting up at 3 am for a sunrise flight was now history. Flying on weekends. Nope. I had one or two games per weekend and soccer practice in the stadium under lights on Wednesday evenings. Also there were travel days to places like New Orleans. I got to dictate my schedule to a great extent and Operations had to bend over backwards to keep me on track for graduation. It was sweet I tell you. And our soccer team was really good since it contained several U.S. Olympic team members fulfilling their required military duty. It was a tremendously rewarding experience and Holly really enjoyed the trips to the Big Easy (New Orleans).

At the end of primary training students that had made it this far had to make a couple of decisions. First was whether to go Marine option or stay with the Navy. The Marines had fewer seats available but even fewer choosing that option, so the odds of getting to fly were higher. BUT, almost all of their missions were combat oriented. Not for me thanks. As time went on and class standing was posted every week, the Marine option students drifted to the bottom of class standing. Were they dumber, not motivated, or both? Anecdotally I could say that some were definitely not the sharpest tacks.

The second decision was choosing either multi-engine, combat jet, or helicopter. Well that was easy. Helicopters meant shipboard duty and being gone for months at a time, generally in SE Asia. Strike that option. Combat jets meant a direct pipeline to combat over Vietnam. Riiiight! That left multi-engine fixed wing which could mean flying P3's, a good stepping stone to flying commercial after the Navy. That was my obvious choice.

My choice was not popular with the brass however. There was a constant insidious push from day one for the best students to choose jets. They said over and over that it was "career enhancing" and those who did it well advanced faster and higher up the ranks. Call it brainwashing if you will. I didn't buy in. It didn't mesh with my objective of minimizing risk and getting out of the service as fast a possible. Holly was behind that all the way.

I remember this clearly because it was so unusal. My platoon went through it in the bleak days of winter that sometimes dipped below freezing. We were taken out into a brushy flat pine forest with no food accompanied by instructors. We learned there was an abundant vine that contained water like a section of hose. One could never die of thirst knowing that. But food was scarce. Most of our calories came from saw palmetto stems, a hazardous plant that would cut up the unwary and often hosted nasty critters like snakes and spiders. Still, we had to eat. Fortunately the many venomous snakes of Florida were hidden away for the winter. Unfortunately that left us less to eat.

Eventually we found an occupied raccoon nest high up in a tree. The instructor had a slingshot and ammo (there are no rocks in this part of the world). He had each of us make a club and surround the tree so that when he pelted the raccoon often enough it would come down where it could be turned into dinner. I looked at this group and thought that this could go very wrong. My peers were eager but not outdoors savvy. When the raccoon descended all hell broke loose with much shouting and flailing. There was as much clubbing each other as the raccoon and injuries were numerous. I stood back from it all looking where I thought it might emerge from the forest of legs and when it squirted out I whacked it good and dinner was procured. But one smallish raccoon for 16 mouths was not going to carry us very far. I sat down and started dressing it out when the instructor stopped me. He saw I knew what I was doing and apparently he wanted the others to be traumatized by the struggle. I wouldn't be surprised if that wasn't just for his amusement. So I moved off to the side and watched. It went poorly but it got done. The little pile of meat was diced up for a soup. Meanwhile, I was eyeballing the head that had been tossed aside. Carefully I asked the instructor if I could have it. My peers were reviled at the thought and said have at it. So I skinned and boiled it. With the jaw muscles that wrap all the way to the back of the skull and the tongue I had a decent size meal out of it. Even better was the resulting bone broth. The instructor asked if I was some kind of mountain man. I replied no but my grandfather was. I sat down with the instructor and diagramed out we could have eaten better by using a native American style fish trap in the nearby sand bottom stream. We could have set it up and driven a quarter or half mile of fish from upstream into the trap. But he knew a ton more about what plants could be utilized, which to avoid, and what game was available that time of year. There wasn't much. There were deer around but this group made so much noise that they weren't aware of their presence. Following the raccoon caper I had no desire to organise a deer hunt and set them loose racing around with spears.

We slept crammed together to stay warm under a poorly made lean-to with a damn smokey fire out front. It sucked and I would have been better off on my own. I got up in the night to use the latrine, and, more importantly, to eat snickers bars I had stuffed in my socks. I came prepared.

As I think back on this experience I question why resources and time were spent on this brief outing. It wasn't adequate training for missions in SE Asia. It did not help sort out the unqualified. I fail to see the point of it. Was it just some hair-brained scheme dreamed up by a senior officer?

After getting exhausted and hungry we were put through an escape and evasion routine where we were rounded up with guards accompanied by Dobermans and put into a POW camp that was as real as possible. Any fool could see that the escape part was a setup. I guess they wanted us to understand what it's like to be rounded up like that. At the appointed signal the students all took off running like hell. I took it a bit easier. After all, we did't know the lay of the land and there was not much chance of escaping. But I came across one. I spied a narrow gully leading to a creek that was full of dry leaves. I dove in and covered myself. Sure enough the guards proceeded right on by. With scent all over the place the dogs were operating visually. I was chortling thinking I can hike to the highway and hitch a ride home to sleep in a nice bed after a hot meal. As soon as I finished that though I realized next that they would just make me go through it again but single me out for "special treatment', so I stood up, raised my hands and hollered "Hey". One of the guards looked pissed and I figured I was in for it but the one next to him was my survival instructor and he said, "hey, it's the mountain man", and that he would take care of it. He came over and I offered if they came up a body short it would cause a shit storm and you all don't want that. He said "wise decision" so off to POW camp I went.

The best way to approach POW camp is to become invisible. Stand in the back row behind taller people. Do not be the highest nail. Don't challenge, don't take charge, don't make eye contact, just get through it. My platoon had this Marine option student that was the most senior due having service time as enlisted. And he was a disliked buffoon that was always trying to be the leader. So he stepped forward and stated that he would be the representative for the prisoners. For that he got the wind knocked out of him with a rifle butt to the gut and kicked hard several times while he lay on the ground. Okay, they had my attention with that realism. Somewhere down the lineup in another platoon something happened and a prisoner was drug out into the courtyard and stuffed into a perforated steel box. Holy cow! After we all got home I learned that the student in the box had died and heads were going to roll because of it. No matter how realistic it might have been, the box was taken out of service.

Next up was spending a winter day in the ocean. They took us out on a landing craft (small ship) with a 20 foot tall platform standing on the stern. One at a time we strapped into a parachute harness and jumped off with the ship going 15 knots. This was a simulation of what it is like to be drug by your parachute once you hit the water. We had to roll onto our back while being drug through the water or suck in lots of ocean. The procedure was to release the harness and then inflate the inner tube sized raft contained in the seat. Water and air temperature was in the 40's and we were wearing drysuits. I had plans to raft up with some buddies but I warned them to bring their own snacks because I wasn't sharing. I wasn't cheating exactly. Once I joined my squadron I never took off without emergency rations and a good pocket knife in addition to the official selection of survival gear that was stored in our life vest. We tied together and had a good time. I brought fish line and hooks to help pass the hours and proceeded to catch small fish, some of which we ate raw, along with ketchup packets I brought for the purpose. Life was good.

Remember the buffoon mentioned previously? Well he had a really bad day of it. Instead of pulling the harness release lever he first pulled down his drysuit zipper. No one knew. Like an idiot he didn't say anything or we could have sent up a flare. We were too busy cracking jokes and carrying on amongst ourselves. When the ship came back to pick us up he was so heavy with water they couldn't get him out. Holes were cut in his suit to lighten the load. He was unresponsive. A helo came out and picked him up and he spent some time in the hospital with severe hypothermia. I never saw him after that. Perhaps he was pushed back a week in the program, or he graduated to go off on his Marine option track, or got bounced from the program. However it worked out he was out of our hair. For the first time I felt a bit sorry for him.



Just when I thought I've got this, that I'm the master of this aircraft and finally comfortable, bam. They moved us on to a much higher performance T-28 for Secondary Flight Training that I found extremely intimidating. The T-34 was a toy. This was a serious machine. It was like starting over. It had no stability but was very maneuverable. It had so much power that if you applied full power on take-off the asymmetrical thrust would pull you right off the side of the runway. Even worse was the dreaded "approach turn stall". If you had the flaps down and allowed your airspeed to drop too low, applying full power to get out of the situation would cause the aircraft to roll inverted. If this happens in the landing pattern your end up six feet under, as in very dead. A student living down the hall in our apartment building died in this exact manner.

Besides enduring the constant stream of emergency drills, formation flying maneuvers, night flying, instrument flight training, and carrier landing and takeoff qualification were on the schedule. Instrument flight training was emphatically despised because it was performed flying "under the bag" in the hot Florida sun. A canvas hood was pulled over the head so that only the instruments could be seen. Since these flights occurred during daytime it was really hot under that hood. On a summer day I would lose 10 lbs. of sweat. This was not all straight and level flight either so getting disoriented was easy and motion sickness was common. In fact I think it was designed to get the students disoriented. I believe it was another of those tools used to weed out the unworthy. Trust in one's instruments was being drilled into us. Pilots over the ages have made fatal mistakes by not trusting their instruments during extreme weather. All students earn an FAA instrument flight rating during this phase. This makes sense because carrier operations take place anytime day or night in all kinds of weather and there are not usually alternate places to land. As Yoda famously stated "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

While I loved the stunning scenery of flying around giant thunderstorms, it had it's perils. One day performing formation flying maneuvers between cells we encountered uncommon and severe clear air turbulence. My G meter was pegged to its limits. My wingman reported having flight control issues so I leveled out. I looked over at him and I could see daylight through a vertical crack in the fuselage right behind the canopy. The tail was visibly bent down. Then he reported fuel fumes in the cockpit. Yowza! He carefully and gently flew back to the field where the runway had been foamed for his arrival while I followed loosely behind. Considering the situation I was also met and escorted with fire trucks. His aircraft was a total write-off while mine went in for a total tear-down and inspection before being put back into service.

But wait! There's more. One morning I got the bad news that I would be going out with the "weather pilot". When the weather was questionable a senior pilot would fly out into the operating area to see if students can fly between clouds and get some training in. Based on what I saw outside I expected the flight to be very rough and unpleasant. We got the plane started up just when a nasty cell settled over the field bringing it below minimums for anyone to take off. So my pilot said we would use the long taxiway to the twin field next door and see if we could launch there. Halfway there in pounding rain there was a huge flash of light with an explosion. That's right, it was lightning and it came to earth right on the nose of my aircraft. I was glad to have been wearing the usual helmet with it's sonic cups.

The engine was instantly killed by the lightning. Soon after thick smoke started billowing out below the instrument panel near my feet. I did not need an invitation to vacate the aircraft. I slammed the canopy open, slid down the wing, and moved a respectable distance away in the rain. Soon the fuel caught fire and the aircraft was totally engulfed. The fire trucks showed up but it was too late. Later the aircraft remains were scooped up and hauled away on a flatbed truck. I was sent off to see a flight surgeon to get my condition evaluated. You know, like my hearing and vision and quite possibly my frame of mind.

Despite all the stressful training it was exhilarating to go zipping around up and over the big puffy cumulous clouds in a manner that a typical civilian aircraft cannot. It was like a giant playground. Like powder skiing in the trees, or surfing waves in a kayak. Sometimes we played with the toys. There was an instructor pilot who lived down the hall and the couple times I flew with him he would have a ground crew member hold up rolls of toilet paper while the speed brake was closed on them. Then we would go out and look for a freight train to dive bomb with the paper rolls. That was excellent fun.


Landing the T-28

The last phase of Secondary involved becoming qualified for carrier landing and takeoff operations. There was an outlying field painted up like a carrier deck and had the optical landing system as well as an LSO (Landing Signal Officer) where we practiced simulated carrier landings in preparation for the real thing. Carrier landings are controlled crashes. It is a high power on, high sink rate landing that is very rough on equipment. An analogy would be sitting in your car, having it lifted 10 feet off the ground, and then dropped. Of course the aircraft has better shocks. I cannot think of a way to describe the lateral acceleration/deceleration forces involved. Try to imagine being snatched from 100 mph to zero by the arresting cable in just a few feet. Guess what your ten pound head and five pounds of helmet will try to do. The carrier out on the ocean looks impossibly tiny from the air. You had to rely on your training because looking at that tiny platform the idea seemed impossible. In any case, flying on and off the carrier at sea was one of the most exciting things I have ever done. To say I was keyed up before I took off for the carrier would be a huge understatement. Then add the giddiness of having done it well. What a rush! Anyone who has become adept at this process deserves serious respect. This is the ultimate no bullshit no excuses life event.


S-2 Touch and Go

Ted and Holly with S-2

So far the program had taken up a year of training. After finishing Secondary in the T-28, we packed up our meager belongings and headed off to Corpus Christi for Advanced Flight Training in the two engine S-2. A less sexy looking aircraft I could not imagine. It was a more complicated aircraft of course but not that difficult to fly. And fly I did. The program involved getting lots of flight time, much of it at night. Some of it involved cross country flights to California and back, or flying the perimeter of Texas. We crammed in so much flight time that I had a training flight the morning of a day when a hurricane came ashore in the afternoon. The six month training period flew by in a blur. Holly kept busy as a substitute teacher.

Few harrowing incidents were experienced. The most significant one occurred while flying in a thunderstorm an engine fire warning light lit up. That was concerning to say the least. There was no visible smoke however and the instrument readings were normal. Then a chip warning light (metal fragment in the oil) lit up but on the opposite engine. Oh my! Both indicate an engine about to fail. We needed to shut down an engine but which one? Eventually one of the engines started to show other signs of distress so we shut it down and everything worked out. It turned out that the chip detection warning light had been wired to the wrong engine causing confusion. Can you imagine if we had shut down the wrong engine? No cause for the fire warning light was ever found but we were flying through a torrential rain storm which possibly caused a temporary short. Meanwhile I had tightened up my straps in case we had to bail out and kept my altitude above 2,000 feet so that a parachute had time to open.

Since the aircraft had four seats, two students would go up with one instructor and switch seats halfway through the flight. It eliminated the wasted time of taxiing, takeoff and getting to the operating area. Of course each student wasted half their time twiddling their thumbs in the back seat. One day before we took off the instructor who I flew with quite a bit took me aside to explain a prank he was going to pull on the other student who I didn't know. It went like this. While I'm in the back seat, when he says to the student that he can fly the aircraft with voice commands and will tell it to turn right or left, then I'm to reach up to the top of the bulkhead and move the control rod that links the ailerons in the appropriate direction. The student was completely taken in by the con. I suspected the instructor knew the student wasn't too sharp. Having sat in the rear seat for so many hours I knew that rod was there and what it did. But even if I didn't I would have smelled a big stinky rat. Perhaps that student was one of those "by the numbers" types who could memorize well but perform poorly when faced with unique circumstances.

Sometimes I really enjoyed the long late night solo flights with another student tracing along the Texas border. These were IFR flights (instrument flight plans filed with the FAA) and often the air traffic controllers were bored and happy to chat. Sometimes there was a nice cloud layer with moonlight above and I would request an altitude that would put us right at the top of the clouds. Sure it was bumpy there but the increased lift was worth it. I could tilt the nose down, maintain altitude, and pick up considerable airspeed. But the best part was weaving among the higher clouds like some sort of giant slalom course. It gave a great sensation of speed. It was OK to blast through clouds which was fun too. We were obligated to stay within the confines of the air traffic routes so we couldn't wander too far from side to side.

On one of those night flights we ended up with a bit of a problem though. I was in the pilot seat when much of my instrument panel went dead, including the attitude gyro. The weather was starting to sock in and I might really need it. What a time for this to happen. But the copilot had his instruments so no problem, right? Well no! He had disconnected his flight controls to get them out of the way during the the last seat switch and now they wouldn't reconnect. We contacted ATC for a direct vector back to base. Approaching Corpus Christi I told them what was up and requested a GCA (ground controlled approach with a radar operator giving glide slope and heading corrections over the radio). With a developing emergency senior personel were called in to man the tower and a top flight instructor to supervise the proceedings. This was not a drill. All the way through the approach all I heard from the handler was "on glide slope, on heading". It was one of those times where I was completely in the groove. At the debrief the instructor said it was the best GCA he had ever observed, and without instruments. He gave me the highest score possible for the flight.

Each week the class standings were were compiled from the accumulated total of written test scores and flight grades and then posted on a large bulletin board. Class standings were hugely important because they largely determined your career path and whether you would receive orders to an aircraft squadron. At the time only the top half of students would get flying seats. The other half would be assigned other duties at places like Naval Air Stations and have to scrap hard to find enough flying hours to stay current. It was pretty much a career ending situation. The top of the list got what they wanted and those just above mid pack received the least desirable flying assignments that were available at the time. After the huge attrition rate along the way, only half of the small fraction who successfully completed flight school would become active pilots. I started off Advanced Training somewhere mid pack but climbed the standings each week. By the end I was tied for first with another student. Perfect, it looked like I had control over my destiny.

Prior to flight school each student fills out an official document referred to as a "Dream Sheet" It has several slots where one enters the location, or aircraft type, or mission type in descending order of preference. Usually one enters something very specific in the top slot and gets more general descending through the entries. It is a matter of playing the odds against one's desires. Dream sheet entries are then matched up against the openings currently available. The top student generally gets what he wants. The last student to get assigned actual flying duty receives whatever is left. When all of the open flying slots are assigned, whoever is left over receives non-flying assignments. This is about half of the students who graduate. The results are posted for all to see. Just think about being one of the one third that graduate only to be in the fifty percent that don't get to become active pilots. That's tragic.

Holly and I put our heads together, got out the maps and lists of Navy locations and started evaluating. We wanted to go overseas, someplace exotic, and someplace warm. We only wanted a posting that offered an "accompanied" tour which meant she could go along. Of course this ruled out ship deployment duty and we didn't want anyplace stateside. We would have accepted Hawaii but that was not our first choice. The Mediteranean had appeal. Eventually we found a small land based composite squadron (five types of aircraft) in Puerto Rico. We dug up what we could about the island and decided that was it. That would be my number one choice. Little did I know how much resistance this choice would generate.

Shortly after submitting my Dream Sheet I was summoned to meet with a high ranking officer ostensibly because there was an "error" on my Dream Sheet. He explained with much gravitas what was career enhancing and what was not and that I needed to fill out a new form. I listened respectfully, and then slid the blank form back to him and stated I was satisfied with my original. He was not happy. Maybe it was because he had failed to badger me with his superior position or for any number of other reasons. I had stood my ground but there was lingering worry over what assignment I would receive. Soon after I was summoned to meet with the commanding officer of the training command in Corpus Christi. It resulted in the same talk and same refusal, this time with a bit of a temper tantrum on his part. It got worse. Then I had to talk with the commanding officer of the whole of Naval Air Training. Nobody it seemed was very happy with me. And last, I got called in the speak over the phone with some muckety-muck at the Personnel Bureau in Washington D.C. At the end of that call he threatened that he was going to fix me, that my career would be dirt (a nicer word than he used), and that I would be forever sorry. The whole thing struck me as typical military hyperbole, but I did have lingering concerns. Mostly they just hated having a top student not being all rah-rah and buying into the brainwashing that flying off carriers to go find Russian subs was the thing to do, and that they could not badger me into doing what they wanted. But my Dream Sheet was an official document with my signature residing in my personnel file at the bureau and no one had the power to change it. Would my stubbornness get me in trouble?

When the assignments were posted I raced up the stairs to find that..........we were going to Puerto Rico. Woo hoo! The knot of gathered graduates offered sincere condolences and said how I got screwed. I understood their viewpoint. The top student had just received orders considered lower than the lowest ranked student in the class.

My good friend and frequent flying partner who tied with me for first also received what he wanted which was flying P-3's. And I soon lost him. While hundreds of miles off the coast on low level anti-submarine patrol his aircraft never returned. No cause was ever discovered. It is a mission with little latitude for withstanding emergencies.


We made good friends at the beginning and spent considerable time socializing with them. Watching the program whittling away at my bunch was disappointing. I spent time helping them study only to painfully watch as they did poorly. One was a trust fund kid with a bum knee that didn't need to be there, but he was so gung ho to fly combat jets. That's all he wanted. Alas he did not have the scores to make the cut to fly jets while I had the scores but chose to be on the same track he was forced into. I remember the day of his last flight. I was sitting on the taxiway waiting for clearance to enter the runway for takeoff when he landed right in front of me. The radio crackled and he said "boy I effed that one up" over the radio instead of the intercom. It was a cringeworthy moment. Soon after he was called in for the dreaded "Progress Review Meeting". He ended up flying a desk somewhere in D.C. I miss those friends.

I've tried to describe what it was like but written words can only go so far. The experience of wearing a helmet, oxygen mask, fireproof clothing and performing vigorous high G maneuvers in a powerful machine is hard to convey. If you read this far then at least you know more than you did. After these experiences most activities will pale in comparison. I don't know if it explains my behavior at times. Maybe a little bit. Let me know if you have questions about anything.

We would soon be off on our big tropical adventure where events significantly altered our future and at times were a lot of fun. That is a story for another time.