It’s already well into a beautiful late-summer afternoon as Fetus and I taxi Ripper 211 onto Runway 5 Right at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. Only a low scattered layer of puffy white clouds and a high crisscross of contrails interrupt the transparent blue sky.
Our lead’s jet went down for mechanical problems in the flight line, leaving the two of us alone to challenge the emptiness over the Atlantic Ocean. I advance the throttles and wipe out the controls before taking a last glance at our engine instruments, then release the brakes.
Despite the warm August day, our airplane accelerates quickly down the long runway, lifting into the air with thousands of feet to spare. I hold us at a hundred feet for the fun of it as we pick up speed before snapping our Tomcat into a steep climbing right turn towards the control tower. Fetus checks us through departure control and we’re cleared to proceed directly to an unremarkable point in the sky named KNOTS, the gateway to our aerial playground today. We roar three thousand feet over the hotels and t-shirt shops and seafood restaurants and putt-putt golf courses that line Virginia Beach. A mile offshore I light the afterburners for our climb to seventeen thousand feet.
A perfect day for a 1 v 0.
I smile at the fortune that has given us an aircraft, a working area and the next hour and a half all to ourselves. Even its name is full of possibilities:
1 v 0… One versus nobody… One versus the world…
Unlike some other fighter communities, it’s perfectly legitimate to think of myself and Fetus as a “1”. We fly an F-14B Tomcat. It takes two aircrew working as a team to fight this hulking beast, and ninety percent of the switches live in only one of our tandem cockpits. There are no flight controls in the back seat for Fetus to save us if I fly into danger. I have no way of entering waypoints into our state-of-the-art (for a Tomcat anyway) Embedded GPS/INS navigation system. There are only the most rudimentary of radar controls with me up front. So today, like every day, it’s Fetus and I… one together against the world.
The afterburners give their familiar pause, then surge as I move the throttles past the MIL-stops. Raw fuel explodes into supersonic blue fire in our tailpipes. Passing through four hundred knots in a forty-five degree climb we enjoy the tangible weight of the acceleration, and I roll us inverted, pulling our jet down to peak fifteen thousand feet above the puffy cloud floor and seventeen thousand above the harder blue ocean.
Our working area radar controllers speak to us under the heroic but unlikely callsign “Giant Killer”. They assure us that our playground – over eleven thousand cubic miles of airspace listed on our chart as “AIR-2A/B” – is clear of known traffic and exclusively ours, “surface to unlimited.”
Surface to UNLIMITED. That’s about how I feel today. UNLIMITED.
Fetus pretends to sound disappointed as he explains to Giant Killer that our flight lead won’t be joining us today, then switches our radios to the area frequency, leaving us in silence.
We cross an invisible sky-boundary into a world of unlimited possibilities.
”You ready dude?” I ask, half in jest.
”Yup,” is the short and similarly serious reply. I once again roll inverted and feel the refreshing crush of five times normal gravity as we speed toward the white puffy castles that fill my windscreen. “I think that counts as a g-warm, don’t you?”
”Definitely…” is his reply, and I can hear the smile on his face as he says it.
We roll our jet up again and charge like Don Quixote and Sancho at the misty, ethereal windmills below.
I can say our jet, because it is. Aircraft 211 has my name stenciled on its left pilot canopy rail, and Fetus’s name on the right side RIO’s rail. It’s a common misperception (fueled by a popular Hollywood movie that shall forever go unnamed) that you get a jet with your name on the side and fly it exclusively for your whole squadron career. Thankfully that’s not the case, for if it broke or went into the shop, you and your compatriot would be answering phones at the duty desk waiting for it to return to service.
We fly whichever jet is available, but it’s always a pleasant surprise to fly 211.
Fetus doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood stereotype either. Tall and thin with glasses and an intense look, Fetus is a self proclaimed computer geek whose favorite t-shirt reads:
“There are 10 kinds of people in this world. Those that understand binary, and those that don’t.”
In a community where partying, drinking and general rowdiness aren’t just celebrated, but elevated to new and olympian levels, Fetus exists quietly as a non-drinker, non-smoker, and non-hellraiser. And yet, against all conventional wisdom, Fetus is one of the most respected RIOs in the squadron. This isn’t much of a stretch, because one thing Naval Aviators prize above all else – even partying – is skill. And Fetus, despite his short tenure, is one of the best RIOs in the squadron.
When he got to the Rippers just over a year ago, the technophobe carousers in the squadron ready room greeted him with cries of, “We’ll change him! Give us a year and he’ll be a rowdy drunk just like the rest of us!” Twelve short months later, you can see Rippers arcing around the Ready Room jotting notes frantically into their Palm Pilots and talking with eager anticipation about the new laptops they’re getting for cruise. Fetus slides by with a smile, beer bottle, cigarette and dip cup noticeably absent. The revolution is over… the geeks won.
If there is anyone in the Rippers who I can call “my” RIO, it’s Fetus. We joined the squadron within months of each other, became fast friends, and despite our inexperience we were allowed by a trusting front office (the squadron commander and executive officer) to fly together. Junior pilots are almost exclusively paired with senior RIOs and vice versa, to evenly distribute the aviation wisdom in the cockpit. Somehow, through the grace of a few individuals (and the machinations of Fetus, who is also our squadron schedule writer) we’ve been crewed together for most of the last six months.
Yet another misperception (only slightly less untrue) is that pilots and RIOs are paired when they get to the squadron and fly together for most of their tour. In reality, while there are assigned crew pairings according to our squadron’s “TACORG” or Tactical Organization Order, they’re usually temporary in nature, and often disregarded in favor of a smooth flight schedule. Fetus and I have been the exception, and we’re happy about it. We’ve learned to work together closely in the cockpit and have a great time doing it.
I terminate my mock strafing attack with a climbing barrel roll around a towering ball of cotton and return for a second run. With the briefest glance at the fuel and acceleration gauges I call “sixteen-eight, tapes, g’s” and return to my attack. We brush the side of the intangible mountain and reef our jet into a descending left spiral. Through the mirrors at the corner of my eye I catch the reflection of our wings sweeping out and watch as they’re enveloped in sheets of white fog. Our wings’ lift is tearing the water from the air.
“Today’s a nice day for vapes, isn’t it?”
Fetus enjoys our mock attacks in silence, and I level us out, just barely skimming the tops of the increasingly broken cloud deck below.
“Wanna get some shots?” I ask. “The sun is perfect for it.”
“Oh yeah, good call,” he replies casually, as if he wasn’t already breaking out his video camera as I ask. Fetus has also established himself as one of our squadron’s most talented videographers, with an excellent eye for light and shadow, and an almost machine-like memory for which shots he has and hasn’t already taken. His growing video archive is sure to come in handy during the boredom of our upcoming cruise, as motivation and a creative diversion from the daily grind of the boat.
The waning afternoon sun puts our shadow just forward and right on the uneven tapestry of cloud, surrounded on all sides by a rainbow-like glory that the video camera can’t even begin to capture.
It’s worth a try.
Popping past the shelf of clouds and over a spotless blue ocean, I realize we’ve outrun the advancing weather and turn our Tomcat around for another round of shadow filming. “Fourteen-two, tapes g’s, and I’m bringing us back west for another run at those clouds,”.
“Roj, I’ve got thirteen-eight back here, and we were just about to the eastern edge of the area.”
“Sweet,” I reply, as we arc in a tight turn to the north, plugging in the blowers just for the fun of it. I smile as I enjoy the crush of six times my normal weight, and my g-suit squeezes away the stars twinkling against the edges of my sight. We roll out into the sun for a minute, then mimic our turn again eight miles to the west. This time, our shadow hops over the cloud tops and I try to keep us from getting too near or too far. Fetus films in silence.
Occasionally we flash through a wisp of cloud and our shadow grows a third dimension, throwing deep columns of light and dark – a glimmering Tomcat-shaped cathedral stretching away from the jet and the sun. Again over open ocean I turn us around, again we are squeezed into our seats with reassuring force, and again we set up for another run.
This time I flick the wing-sweep switch at my thumb and move them back to their fullest sixty-eight degree position as I watch our shadow match our configuration second by second. I move the switch back to its AUTO position and our shadow diligently puts its wings back out – almost of its own volition.
“How’d it look?” I ask.
“Real nice,” Fetus responds with his typical understatement.
“How about beneath the deck for a while?”
“Sounds good,” is his reply, and I twist the knob on the radar altimeter so its white triangle bug rests on the “300”. We pop over the edge of the cloud deck for the third time and I roll us nearly inverted before pulling down in a sweeping oblique Split-S. Twin trails of vapor follow our wingtips and sheets of white cloud roll off our wing gloves as our Tomcat shudders through the 5g diving turn. We come out of the turn just beneath the layer at two thousand feet and spot a blue fishing trawler wallowing helplessly in international waters.
He hasn’t got a chance…
Taking care not to operate my aircraft “in a manner seen as threatening to body or property,” I sweep my wings and make an afterburner-enhanced, vapor-laced turn a thousand feet over her bow. I’ve done nothing illegal, but I’m secretly glad we’re not in Ripper 200, with its bright squadron tail markings. You never know who might complain.
We make a few more passes near the trawler, and notice some waves from its occupants. With a wing waggle we leave them to fish in peace and climb back up towards the broken cloud deck.
“Eleven-five, tapes, g’s,” with another quick glance at our instruments to make sure our Tomcat is still enjoying the ride as much as we are.
“I’ve got eleven-oh back here, Burnsy, what’s next?”
“How about a climb?”
“Good enough,” is his reply. I light the cans as we pop through the overcast to the flawless blue above.
I wish that every flight could be this fun… Hell, I think I’ve found the solution to the Navy’s retention problem… Just guarantee everybody one 1 v 0 every month, on the time and day of their choosing, and people would be fighting to stay in! They couldn’t get me out if they bribed me! THIS is real flight. THIS is real freedom!
And freedom is a rare and precious commodity in the staid world of modern Naval Aviation.
Unlike many light civil pilots, military aviators rarely fly just to fly. Almost exclusively there are missions to be flown, training to be done, checkrides to complete. Training missions are challenging and rewarding in their own way, but they can’t capture the spirit and freedom of aviation like a good 1 v 0. There are always agencies to check with, procedures to follow, tactics to perfect, rules to be obeyed, assets to support and so on. We all get a great amount of satisfaction in doing the more difficult and intricate parts of our job as perfectly as we can, but everyone – even a Naval Aviator – needs to let their (closely shorn) hair down every once in a while.
And this we do, on a fairly regular basis. There’s an anecdote that’s been repeated a hundred too many times, but it’s not any less true. The Air Force hands its pilots a big book to memorize of things they’re allowed to do. They follow the book to the letter, and if something’s not in the book, they can’t do it. The Navy hands its aviators a much thinner book that lists all the things they can’t do, and then puts a caveat in the front noting:
These restrictions and procedures are not a substitute for sound judgement, and circumstances may warrant the modification of the instructions herein.
Within certain boundaries, the Navy allows its aviators a remarkable amount of flexibility in exercising their “good judgement”. Tomcat aircrews push those boundaries farther than anyone else in the air or on the ground, and we do it in pursuit of an intangible called “fighter spirit”.
We continue our zoom climb until running out of airspeed around thirty-five thousand feet. Skirting the eastern border of our area we turn back to the west, the twin blue flames of our afterburners near-invisible in the afternoon light. Maintenance was kind enough to lend us a fairly “slick” jet today, with only our wing stations, two Phoenix rails in the belly, and our two auxiliary tanks to slow us down. Our steed responds to the thin air and light load by hurrying through the transonic regime, giving only a slight pause and a jump on the altimeter as we slide through the speed of sound. Supersonic working areas are another benefit of flying off the Atlantic coast, but we’ve got to be sure we don’t run out of space. Our acceleration slows just above Mach 1.6. We’re covering over twelve miles every minute.
“I think that’s about all we’re going to get today,” I add, and Fetus replies,
“1.6 isn’t too bad.”
“Not at all.” Satisfied at our high speed dash I smoothly pull the nose into the darkening sky. Our ears pop as the pressurization system fights the thinning air passing forty thousand feet.
Both Fetus and I have wanted to be astronauts all our lives. We both chose to fly Navy jets because we love the job, but partly because it got us one step closer to our dream. The odds are against us. Fetus is a RIO, and as the Tomcat is retired, openings for Naval Flight Officers in the Navy’s Test Pilot School are more and more scarce. I will never escape my bachelor’s degree in International Politics, making me significantly less competitive against peers with engineering and science degrees.
NASA doesn’t let diplomats fly the shuttle.
I look into the deep blue emptiness as we top out at fifty-four thousand feet, and stare for a moment at the silver half-moon hanging distantly above us.
“Wouldn’t it be a shame if this is as close as we get?” I ask to Fetus… and to no one.
“Yeah…” is his quiet reply, as I arc back to the thicker air below. Looking back over my shoulder I can see the eighty mile white shoelace of our contrail as it hangs in the high stillness.
Maybe not a total shame, really…
A glance at our fuel tapes confirms that we’ve burned most of our twenty thousand pounds of fun and it’s time to return home. We spiral down towards the clouds and glassy blue ocean, heading back to the invisible gateway named KNOTS. Fetus keys his radio and returns us to the real world.
“Giant Killer, Ripper 32.”
“Ripper 32, Giant Killer go ahead”
“Ripper 32 is complete in AIR-2, passing 260, RTB.”
“Ripper 32 you’re radar contact, one-five miles southeast of KNOTS descending through flight level 230, cleared to Oceana via KNOTS direct, descend and maintain eight thousand, Oceana altimeter 29.85.”
“Passing two-one-zero for eight thousand, two-nine-eight-five, Ripper 32.”
And as quickly as that we’re thrust back into the structured, Air Traffic Controlled world. I follow their directions without a thought and turn northwest, dialing 29.85 into my altimeter’s glass window. It unwinds quickly at first, then slows and dutifully stops at eight thousand feet.
“Have you got any gripes?” I ask Fetus. “Nope, I’m up back here.” The knob on my radio clicks under my fingers until a glowing green 20 hovers in its window.
“Base, 211, back in ten, jet’s up.” Today’s Squadron Duty Officer is one of our newest RIOs, and his radioed Alabama drawl replies.
“Base copies 211, straight back.”
We pass through KNOTS and Giant Killer switches us to Approach Control, who tell us the winds have shifted and Oceana is now working Runways 23 Left and Right. We are cleared to the initial and reluctantly approach the Virginia Beach skyline we left so happily just an hour ago. I glance down at the fuel totalizer as its numbered wheels rock back and forth at 3,000. The stretched tic-tac-toe of the runways at NAS Oceana appear through the afternoon haze, and I tell Fetus I see it.
“Arrival, Ripper 32’s field in sight.”
“Copy 32, squawk standby, contact tower have a good flight.”
“Squawk’s off,” says Fetus over the ICS, and in reply to our silent code I sweep the wings back and accelerate to near five hundred knots for the break - not exactly legal, but not unusual either. Another rule bent in the name of Fighter Spirit. At two thousand eight hundred twenty feet and four hundred ninety six knots we speed over the summer’s last tourists, and even though we can’t see them, we know they’re watching us. Fetus calls Oceana Tower for the initial and they reply,
“Ripper 32 break at the numbers, your interval is a Hornet at the ninety.”
“Got him,” as I catch a small gray shape rolling out to land.
“32 traffic in sight.” Fetus adds.
I bottom out my descent at fifteen hundred feet, and hold my break until mid-field so our maintainers can see the fruits of their labor. Another jet airborne, and another jet back fully mission capable.
A stately roll left (Tomcats don’t “snap” into the break – we’re a Cadillac, not a Porsche) followed by a six-g pull. We are again refreshingly pressed into our seats.
I roll out on downwind, put the wings out and dirty the aircraft, blazing through the landing checks on the intercom as we prepare for landing.
“Wings-are-20-and-auto, gear’s-three-down-and-locked, SAS-is-on, flaps-are-full, DLC’s-on, hook’s-up, harness-is-locked, boards-are-out, brakes-are-good, we’ve-got-two-point-eight-on-the-gas.”
Fetus acknowledges my staccato landing checks and lets the tower know we’re ready to land in similarly terse language.
“Ripper 32’s abeam, gear, stop.”
“32 you’re cleared to land, runway two-three left.”
“32, cleared to land on the left.”
“Cleared on the left,” I echo, making sure I’m not the next aviator to land on the wrong runway by mistake. I’d definitely not be the first.
We roll out fast and high, but we work ourselves on-speed by touchdown, just a bit above glideslope. My inner Landing Signal Officer can’t help but critique.
Not a bad correction.
The jet touches down with an authoritative force only a carrier aviator could love. Over the next 8,000 feet our Tomcat coasts to walking speed.
With a brisk turn we leave the concrete and asphalt strip we departed 64 minutes and hundreds of air-miles ago and taxi to the flight line.
I can’t suppress a smile as I flip off my mask.
“Fun flight, huh?”
High above and unregarded, the moon slips behind a summer cloud.