Light & Shadow #15

Silenced Thunder — Boise, ID  Circa 1984

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved airplanes. It’s a funny thing too, since as a very young child — too young to know of such things — I claimed to have been killed in an airplane crash.

Stranger still, mom’s youngest brother — my Uncle Jim — did die in a plane crash on the island of Corregidor at the end of WWII. He survived the war and the Bataan Death March, but not the trip home. As if that’s not enough, in my early 50’s, I was in a relationship with a woman who claimed we were on that flight together.

Weird, but maybe. There’s no way to know on this side of the veil, but I hope to get the whole story one day. If there is one to tell, that is.

Anyway, back to airplanes. I grew up planning to fly. Fighters in the Air Force first, then the airlines. On occasion, I wonder ‘what if’ — had I not decided to bail on ROTC and flying in favor of being a photographer.

Media affiliations can open doors closed to everyone else. The newspaper I worked for through the ’80s was an hour from an Air Force Base and 20-minutes from an Army/Air National Guard base. One day, I was making phone calls to see what it would take to score a ride in one of their airplanes.

The city editor had the desk next to mine and overheard my queries. He was a captain in the Army Guard — just the ‘in’ I needed.

It wasn’t long before I was notified the Pentagon approved a ride in an RF4C Phantom jet with the Idaho Air National Guard. I was stoked!

I spent an afternoon or two around the base — one taking pictures and another for training and other pre-flight requirements. For one thing, I needed to know how to get out of the airplane if something were to go wrong. It’s crazy — you’re strapped into the thing every way from Sunday, but can be free of it all in a second if things go south on the ground. They were blunt about the consequences of ejecting in flight. Broken bones are a given.

On a rainy spring morning, I got the call that I’d be flying that afternoon. My pilot was a grey-haired officer with steely blue eyes — obviously a veteran of many sorties. As we huddled over giant maps, he described our low-level flight that would include another aircraft. I’ll never forget his final words to me. ‘If we take a bird-strike and you know I’m not flying the aircraft, put the nose up and punch us both out.’

Gulp. I’m gonna make that decision?!

To me, there is nothing like the sound of afterburner power unless you’re along for the ride. The acceleration was incredible, but the big shock came when we throttled out of afterburner. The deceleration was like jamming on the brakes as hard as you can at 300 miles an hour. It’s a good thing there’s a restraint system. I was given control of the stick for a time and felt the crush of G-forces at the slightest adjustment. Though we didn’t exceed the sound barrier, approaching it had interesting effects —  I could feel the pressure wave building against the airplane. I watched a big white bird float lazily up ahead and suddenly shoot past like a bullet. I then understood the danger — it’s not pretty when a bird goes through the canopy. In fact, some weeks after our flight I would visit my pilot friend and see the aftermath of such an event to his body.

It was a glorious hour-and-a-half, even with the threat of losing my lunch!

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