Chasing Clouds

by Steve on September 20, 2006

Today wouldn’t be a good day because there isn’t a cloud in the sky but there is nothing like the release that comes from strapping into an airplane and slipping away from the earth. I haven’t flown as a pilot in almost ten years. A rather astonishing fact when you consider that I spent almost eight years of my life training and flying both as a Naval Flight Officer and as a civilian-rated private pilot. The Lockheed S-3B Viking was a great airplane for a civilian pilot/NFO because it had dual flight controls and I took every opportunity given me to get “stick time.”

Immediately after graduating from college in the spring of 1985 I reported to NAS Pensacola for Aviation Officer Candidate School as a potential pilot but my first visit to NAMI for aeronautical screening dealt a devastating blow. In those days to continue as a pilot candidate you had to have 20-20 uncorrected vision and my right eye didn’t measure up. It was 20-25. The fact that my left was 20-15 and therefore my total sight picture averaged out to 20-20 didn’t impress anyone in a position of authority. Things didn’t work that way. I was given two options: return home as a civilian or continue as a NFO. I don’t remember anyone councelling me as to what an NFO did other than “it’s navigation and weapons.” If I couldn’t be the one driving I didn’t want it. I slumped back to the civilian world and a string of odd jobs unbecoming a recent college grad. (Yes, dad, I’ll admit it, I was wasting time.) Two years later I fell under the spell of a Navy recruiter after the vision requirements had been relaxed somewhat. He referred to something he called “the blind pilot program.” Don’t take that literally. The upshot was 20-40 correctable to 20-20 could get you a slot in props or helos but not carrier-based jets. I jumped at it.

Just prior to reporting to Pensacola for the second time, the recruiter informed me of a slight setback. He couldn’t resubmit me as a pilot since I had been medically dropped. He would have to submit me as an NFO and then I could switch when I got there. (I hear some chuckles from the peanut gallery.) Turns out that wasn’t possible, the bureaucracy wouldn’t allow such things. I was given the same choice: civilian or NFO. “You couldn’t hack it,” was still ringing in my ears from the last go-round so I stayed. It turned out to be a great career. As a long-time sailor, general water rat, and wanna-be aviator, Naval Aviation was a perfect marriage of sea and air. As a college graduate I finally learned how to be a student. The drifter learned the virtues of commitment and service. As a winged Naval Flight Officer I had more responsibility in my early twenties than most of my civilian counterparts would have ten years later.

And then there was the flying. Drug ops out of Gitmo and Key West. A seven month Med deployment. The incredible choreography of carrier operations. Flying at sea. There is nothing better. The Viking is not fast or sexy when compared to the Tomcat or Hornet but capable of 400 knots plus down at 200 feet above the waves and that feels pretty damn fast. During that deployment in 1991 we were still playing with the Soviets and at times spent days on end tracking their subs until the captain would give up, surface, and exit the area. Heady stuff indeed.


Returning home to the Clinton era of cutbacks and draw-downs, we found lack of funds and spare parts. Bases were closing, squadrons being disestablished, and just bagging enough flight hours to stay current was becoming a challenge. Careers of promising officers were being cut short if they were not politically connected with those sitting on promotion boards. I was facing several back-to-back sea tours to keep my career on track and riding a marriage that likely wouldn’t survive such separation (it ultimately crashed anyway). Then came the Navy’s answer to force reduction: the separation incentive. An early buy-out if you will. Substantial money for leaving the service. At the time I was an instructor at the east coast Fleet Replacement Squadron. My fleet squadron had been shut down and I was there until the bitter end. Then we got word that the east coast FRS was to be shut down followed shortly thereafter by the entire base. Those were depressing times and I tended to look at the glass as half empty. One of my best friends throughout training and the fleet was an eternally optimistic fellow who never failed to see it as half full. He had several call signs through his early days but those of us from the training command days called him “Happy Bob.” He tried to convince me that it would get better but I couldn’t see it.

Bob and I had flown together on several training hops in Pensacola, gone through the west coast FRS together but then reported to different fleet squadrons. We both managed to get assigned as instructors at the east coast FRS and continued down the same career path. Until I made the decision to get out. My last flight in the S-3 was a training hop up to the EW range off Charleston where the Navy simulated SAM sites. We used it to teach students how to operate the ESM system and survive in a hostile environment. The entry in my log book reads 9 May 1994, 4.3 hours as mission commander, 1.8 of which was as the co-pilot, up front chasing clouds. There are also three signatures: “Bones” who let me fly the return leg from take-off to landing, “Chia” the promising student, and “Happy Bob” who went on to become the first S-3 NFO to command a Super Hornet squadron and prove that the glass was indeed half full. He’s out there now on deployment, smiling no doubt, chasing bad guys and clouds in the newest jet in the fleet. Not bad, not bad at all.

As a footnote, the last entry in my civilian log book shows a local cross country to Gadsden Regional on 23 Feb 1997 in a Cessna 172. Little Cessnas just didn’t fill the void after carrier aviation. But these days the sky is starting to pull me back. Maybe a seaplane rating would do the trick.

{ 1 comment }

Steeljaw Scribe September 21, 2006 at 5:14

My ANAV on IKE was an S-3 NFO who was subsequently selected to transition and command a VAW squadron. Great guy and I think will be a great fit for VAW.

As one who took a squadron to decom as Co and whose last flight was also the squadron’s last flight (and trap) I definitely can relate to the pull you feel. Skip the Cessna and go find a Grumman/American AA-1. Small, fast (well, relatively spking), light on the controls and a sliding canopy to boot. 😉

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