I read the Aviators recently. It's been a while since I've been fired up by a book like I was with this one. The last century began the age of powered manned flight. The question is, will the age endure much of this century? The book just brought home how flight has progressed since 1903. One of the items emphasized in the book was the development of the capability for pilots to fly in instrument conditions, and to survive the experience on a fairly regular basis.
The book features Rickenbacker, Doolittle, and Lindberg. The roles these famous guys played, I didn't know a tenth of all they did. Amazing personal stories, and amazing insights into some lesser known snippets of world history, not just aviation history.
It brought to mind a slice of aviation history, and a significant capability development, I was privileged to witness and live. I got my wings in 1969, and went to an A-4 squadron. A-4s were basic airplanes. Standard instruments arranged in a panel in front of the pilot. Occasionally the arrangement of the instruments made sense, with the dials and gauges you needed for carrier approaches arranged closely together. But then someone would ask you for your fuel state, and that gauge was off to the right side. Some nights, flying instruments was harder than other nights. One story has a navy guy fighting to hold it together one night in bad weather, and the radar controller asked him for his fuel state. "Ask me something on the left side," the stressed pilot replied. The A-4 was a bomber and the aiming mechanism was a bomb sight, not too much improved over World War II days. We had a primitive bombing computer, but it wasn't reliable. Most of us didn't trust it. We bombed manual. My last flying job, I got to fly the F-18 in the first navy squadrons to get them. We'd fly commercial back to St. Louis and pick the planes up from the factory. An airplane with new car smell. Booyah, Baby! There was much about the airplane that was an amazing leap in technology. Lots of computers and other electronics, but the electronics worked. They lasted hundreds of hours between repairs, as opposed to two or three hours on older planes. The cockpit design was the most amazing feature though. Shortly after we got the planes, I was flying lead in a four plane, and we were playing in a major exercise. We were getting close to our bombing target, so the plane was set up to drop bombs. A minute before popping up to deliver the bombs, I got a radar hit on a bad guy fighter plane. I punched one button on the control stick, and the plane stepped into fighter mode by switching the radar to automatically lock on the bad guy, select an air to air missile. In a second I was ready to shoot a missile, and I squeezed the trigger. It was a good shot. I got credit for killing the bad guy. I pushed one more button, stepping the airplane back into bombing mode, climbed up and rolled left, and there was the computer generated aiming diamond right next to the bombing target, an old truck, I hit the truck with the bombs, pulled off, and in front of me, was another bad guy airplane. I pushed one button on the stick, stepping the plane back into fighter mode, squeezed the trigger and got credit for the second bad guy kill. Me, a basic bomb guy, after a bit of time in simulators and a few months training, got two kills easy as pie. But of course, it was really the guy who envisioned the cockpit, who arranged the switches and tied the weapons and computers together in such an incredible way. Tonight, there was a story on the news about the F-35, which is a leap beyond F-18 as dramatic as the one from A-4 to F-18.
May you live in interesting times. Thanks, God,
John Zerr is the author of four novels, The Ensign Locker, Sundown Town Duty Station, Noble Deeds, and The Happy Life of Preston Katt.
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