TIP: Some of the links below are there just as a vehicle for you to discover the meaning behind the lingo without interrupting the flow of the story. Hover with the mouse and you’ll get an explanation. Some are actual links.
WARNING: This is not a short blog post, especially if you watch the 4.5 minute video, which you should. Twice. Once as you read this, another immediately after reading this. I wonder if your experience will have changed. Let me know in the comments.
I don’t think there’s a way to adequately explain how much I’m in love with this video. The first time I watched it was in a place of emotional backlog and I was torn apart. It left me sobbing, heaving wracking sobs for grief of things I’ve surrendered and some wrenched from my grasp. It took me close to a half hour just to be functional again. I still watch it almost once a day just to remind myself of the blue aviation blood cells in my veins and to regain some imperfect reflection of what I’ve given up.
You see, I had this experience once, when it all came together, and I mean ALL. Flying was what it was supposed to be. It wasn’t just perfect, it was PERFECT. I feel inclined to tell the story, so I will.
There was this day when I was in pilot training, fairly advanced in the second phase of training (the first actual airborne portion of the program, which was still in the days of the T-37 Tweet) and confident in my skills and “SA“. I had done very well with my flight scores – except for an abysmal formation checkride because I significantly sub-performed that day and was paired with a struggling student. This sealed my fate: I would not fly fighters. My dream of which I knew I was capable, but it eluded me. Truly, I know now that God knew far better than I what I should have. I was utterly depressed for 3 days and had to rely on my A-type resilience to decide to make the most of what I had been given. So, by the time of this particular experience my future “track” was already selected to go the heavy route and this T-37 air frame was the closest thing I was ever going to get to aviation nirvana. On one gorgeous big-sky day in Enid, Oklahoma, the Lt Cmdr (Navy O-5) that was my assigned instructor for this low-level flight – a point-to-point route at 500′ AGL to evaluate our navigation and timing skills – told me we had to hurry up because he had an engagement directly after the meeting. I rushed through the pre-flight and completed it perfectly.
One thing I’ll mention about the T-37: it had the highest G-force onset rate of the entire USAF inventory, and was limited to 7 G’s. It was a fun and maneuverable little jet, with the pilots shoulder-to-shoulder in a cockpit no bigger than a SMART car. Probably smaller. Somewhere I have a photo, but the ones below will have to suffice. The aircraft was so small that I’m standing on my own two feet in the photo; and am taller than the closed canopy; and I’m only 5′ 10″.
More photos of the T-37:
This one has the markings of Vance AFB, OK, my pilot training base, and is a good example of how close we flew to each other during formation flights. Notice the wingman’s attention is completely on the cockpit of the other Tweet:
This was the photo-op after the very last T-37 flight for the USAF, after 39 years as their primary trainer. My uncle trained in the same airframe in the 1960’s that I did in 2000:
A view of another Vance bird on the tarmac:
Anyhow, my instructor climbed in well after the checklists were complete and acknowledged I’d performed quickly and well. We secured our O2 masks, lowered our visors, lowered the canopy, started engines, and obtained clearance for taxi, takeoff, and departure. We were once again aloft in the skies above northwest Oklahoma. Due to our speed in getting off the ground we had 15 minutes to spare until our low-level entry time. We requested earlier, but were denied for reasons of traffic. This next part I remember quite clearly as my instructor “took the radios” and transmitted a request I’d not heard, “Center, <callsign> request the block 3 to 4 thousand, unrestricted”. A moments pause, then the radio buzzed, “Approved.” I had never heard this before and asked for an explanation: we were allowed to fly anywhere at any speed between altitudes 3000′ and 4000’!! The man shortly to become my favorite flight instructor of all time said, “You have the jet. Just don’t kill me.” It didn’t take me long to realize what I had just been given: a gift that I still recall with utter joy and gratitude. I was finally allowed to play with my little toy Tweet.
That wasn’t all. That altitude block had a layer of scattered to broken clouds with just the right amount of clear air in-between that had just morphed into the perfect playground. A playground I see and yearn for every time the like appears in the sky-box above. Anyone who knows me can report the number of times I stop mid-sentence or mid-step to stare skyward; or just gasp with the injustice of being once again earth-bound.
I will attempt to convey this day’s experience in words; poor, struggling, droll, inadequate words. I now realize I’ve never actually put this to written words before. Welp, here goes…
If you are an aviator, then you will be able to understand depending on the air frame(s) you flew (and some of you will exceed my minor, one-time story). If not, let your mind and heart rise above the chains of gravity and pause from reading to begin by remembering the movies you’ve seen; scenes of your screen filled with nothing but blue and white and light. Imagine your vision abundant with it. All of them moving about your fixed little world of dials, controls, indicators, instruments, and dashboard with the tiniest flick of your wrist as your speed reduces all detail to a blur at the edges of your vision, passing through a vaporous veil with the unknown beyond. Nothing but space above and below, all constraints gone from your mind and heart. Drift there for a while, see where your inner vision sends you.
Go ahead… I’ll be here when you return.
Back? Ok, now you’re ready. If you didn’t disappear for a while, go back and try again. I’m stubborn, and quite serious; I won’t start until you do.
NOW you’re ready.
Let me take you on a tour. A tour through the space between my ears, a tour through my heart and my dreams.
I PLAYED. I PLAYED like never before and never since. Think of what it was like to play as a child. Imagine a toddler running through the house naked because there simply is no concern. Imagine a dog chasing a ball through the surf at the beach with complete abandon. Imagine an eagle, master of the sky hovering on a thermal and surveying his domain.
Now, in retrospect, I have a special place in my heart for those formation flights where my world was the other plane and all I had to do was stay tucked in under his wing as Oklahoma passed on the other side in all attitudes and regimes, even through wispy clouds almost thick enough to obscure vision of the other craft. I also have a special place in my heart for those aerobatics training flights we had both solo and not, watching the world wheel and whorl as though I were the universe’s center: immelmans, cloverleafs, split-s’, barrel rolls, aileron rolls, and more. Shoot, in my heart, I really was the center of all things. Heck, I was a pilot, right? That’s what all of us pilots think naturally… I apologize, I digress. The only downer was those formation and aerobatics training missions all had constraints, goals, plans, checklists, borders, intent. This did not. This was freedom, this was carefree, this was peace, this was joy.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that moment of realization that I was given a gift. I don’t recall saying a word in reply to my instructor. For a moment, a beautiful moment in time, I was free while trapped in this body, on this earth, more free than ever before. I think I may have said that already. My body responded to the news with the aviator’s drug and started mass-producing that blessed adrenaline, heart hammering to keep up with my mind’s demand for enhanced senses, synapses firing at speeds to rival Hermes himself. Reflexes accelerated. Time slowed. This jet, my jet, me, were friends, were lovers, were united as one. One with each other, one with the universe, one with the heavens themselves. Nothing else remained.
I shoved the throttle to the firewall to MAX power. I caressed the control stick, loved it, and threw it about. My feet and the pedals were ballroom partners dancing close. They were all the means with which I controlled the world itself. My delighted Tweet was nimble and sure after 35 years in the hands of countless trainees and instructors. Blue became brown as gravity and I became best of friends, diving to maximize acceleration. I traded brown for blue, friendship for hostility and climbed to bled airspeed into altitude. I fought gravity, thrusting higher and higher until we could sustain no more and for a brief moment, simply hovered in the sky; then winged over to fill the canopy with brown once more until we were close to the Tweet’s max airspeed only to pull hard G’s and climb once again. Gravity and I had a love-hate relationship. I eagerly used him, his eagerness gave me flight. All the while dancing with suspended figures of vapor, kissing them with the canopy, tickling them with the wingtips, skating on the tops, sides and undersides; voraciously consuming them with the turbines’ hungry maws, spitting out heat and fire and traversing time and space. I heeded not the idea of up and down, nor of left and right. Their existence nullified by my desire.
The space around me was at my will, time my enemy and yet my lover; never enough of her sweet embrace. That 15 minutes became a hole in time as I stepped outside of the universe, unbound by all but air frame, speed, and altitude. I found secret, untrod passageways in the clouds that would never again grace this universe, gallivanted around pillars of cumulus straining skyward, dove toward brown portals through tunnels white, ascended the heavens blue, wheeled that beautiful, yellow sun through my vision; a ball to be caught, yet a feat impossible. My instructor remained silent, allowed me my nirvana until I flew straight through a small cloud, spoke only to remind me, “We’re VFR, you know.”; then fell silent once more. I grinned wildly where he could not see behind my oxygen mask and did it again anyways; albeit a smaller one to keep him placated.
I ran, my soul without dress, through the silver-lined halls.
I slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.
I sob now at the sheer …..
No words. No words suffice.
You may recognize some of these insufficient words in reference to the poem High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American Spitfire pilot in the 412 Squadron RCAF who was a far better writer and flyer than I. He died at the age of 19 in an air-collision over Lincolnshire, England, in 1941. I once had his poem memorized, something I’ll have to repeat. Reading it now brings tears, once again. Sheesh, I’m a sap for this stuff…
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
At least, I thought I had lived. But then, in late 2012, after 32 years of knowing God, I submitted my heart – truly submitted – to Christ, and I realize now with a startling clarity, free from doubt, that even that seemingly perfect flight doesn’t begin to compare to what lies in store for you and I once our spirits have been made alive again and slip these surly bonds of flesh.
1 Corinthians 2:9 (ESV)
But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”
Isaiah 40:31 (ESV)
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Finally, my last official USAF photo:
What I look like dressed for flight. This was actually from a T-38B ride I had while assigned to Edwards AFB, before pilot training:
Wow. I’m spent. It’s 2AM. I’ve worked on this for 5-6 hours. A labor of love and passion, indeed.