Friday, July 12, 2013

The Last Chapter

As I look back, there are many memories that rise to the surface, but somehow one innocuous, forgettable flight keeps coming to mind. It was 2001, in the summer. Before September. I was a new pilot in the KC-130 flying a day helicopter refueling mission over the shimmering waters off of North Carolina. Jacksonville and Wilmington were off our right wing. Cherry Point was on the tail. And somewhere over my left shoulder was the fishhook of Cape Lookout anchored by the iconic black and white pole of a lighthouse. I was entirely focused on the dials in front of me: airspeed, altitude, vertical velocity. Trying to keep all the needles pointed in the right direction, as motionless as possible in order to steady the hose bouncing in the airstream some hundred feet behind me, where I could hear the rotors of a CH-53E beating the air in an effort to claw its way into the basket for a good plug and drink of fuel. At 120 knots in a wallowing, heavy Herc, keeping steady requires concentration. I’d flown this mission before and I would fly many afterward, but this one sticks out. My sweaty hand squeezed the yoke and my brow furrowed in concentration. Then, for some reason, it dawned on me just how amazing my job was. My brow unfurrowed, my hand relaxed a bit on the yoke, and I took in the beautiful day and the Carolina blue skies above us through the arc of greenhouse windows that open the cockpit of a KC-130 to the world. I wish there were more such simple moments that I’d taken in over the years, but that is life. We are often too busy to appreciate the everyday things that make it truly exceptional.

My brow would rarely be unfurrowed over the years that followed. One of greatest compliments I received while in the Marine Corps was when an officer in my detachment in Afghanistan observed that I was never truly happy in until things started going wrong—mission changes, aircraft malfunctions, communications challenges. Then I was in my element. I guess it is no surprise that I didn’t stop to smell the roses.

My retirement ceremony was today and I go on terminal leave on Monday. My aim is to unfurrow my brow a bit more often and to enjoy life as best I can before my kids leave the house and I wonder where the time went. I look forward to what is yet to come, but I know that some of the most amazing moments of my life will always lie in this experience that now lies in the past.

Some time ago, I had the idea of writing a weighty valedictory email to the Marines that I’d worked with. I pared that down to just a simple thank you and sent it out earlier this week. Also, I had grandiose plans for this blog post, but the words just aren’t there. My heart isn’t in it. I have no wise words to offer, no profundities to close with. As I come to the end, the cloud seems to be clearing, the nonsense vanishing from my memory, and only the good things are left to dwell on.

If I could have made this enough of a blog post it would have had everything in it. The cool, smooth nose of the plane as you pat it during preflight. The sense of anticipation as you climb up to the seat. The crisp rapidity of running the checklist with a seasoned crew. It would bring back that feeling of oneness as you threw the words back and forth: “Clear 3.” “Three’s clear.” “Starting 3.” “Rotation 3.” You would hear the igniters ticking and the turbine climb the scale and then the prop. You once knew it was good when you heard the satisfying growl as you brought 3 up to high speed. Now, it is the sound of the prop coming out of feather. Either gives you just another amp of adrenaline in anticipation.

It should make clear the sensation as the crew door closes. That unforgettable sound as the brassy overtones of the motors outside are shut out by that small rectangle that closes you away. The crew is aboard, the door is closed and checked. It should make clear the change in pitch as all four come high speed and you take the runway, release the brakes, and lumber down the concrete until the wings lift you away. “Two positive rates, gear up.” “Gear up.” Committed to flight.

It should have the smell of jet fuel, the feeling of superiority as you take off with four planes and 16 engines like Hell's Angels, and the sight of the California hills in the sun. It should have, if it were enough of a post, the steep climbs out of Kandahar and long takeoff rolls out of Isa bagged out in the summer heat. It should have the low transition out of Jacobabad and the goats running off below, terrified, the patched craters and bombed out aircraft bulldozed into heaps at Kandahar, Bagram, and Kabul; the awful heat and stink at Djibouti; and flying low over the Club Med in Dakar on morning departures down to Liberia until the French guests asked us to stop. It should have the K-span at Isa, the drunk monks at Lemonier, that night in Reykjavik before they closed Kef, and Sagres, Mythos, Cruzcampo, and a dozen others; the Sig Inn and the little town in the hills above, before you get to Etna; it would have Rota and all the patches in the club there, the train we took to Sevilla and how the bells sounded when the horses dragged the bulls away, how I stood on Paseo de Cristobal Colon about to get into a taxi for the train station as the sun was going down and it made me feel very badly that I had to leave and how I thought about ducking back into the alleys for a few more hours but didn’t. It would have the condemned barracks at Souda and the way the ridge at Lajes changes the wind on short final and how a good landing in strong crosswinds there makes you feel something more than you are and how you look forward to heading up the hill to get an egg burger and a beer; the feeling when you landed at Brunswick—when Brunswick was still open—after a summer in the desert and the way the air feels and how it feels to be back in the US; and to head to Freeport where we always stopped at the Jameson Tavern across from LL Bean for lobster and steak year after year. There really were such years, but this is not enough of a post.

It should have the feeling of exhilarating terror as you descend below the pines in a world glowing green through your goggles and know that an error of a few feet or a few knots could destroy your fragile aircraft, the feeling of balancing a dozen spinning plates—especially if you’re instructing someone for their first landing on a patch of dirt 3000 by 60 feet—until the mains plant firmly and the throttles come back—after the student’s hesitation that seems like forever—and you hear the props roar and the brakes bite pushing you forward in the shoulder harness until the calls come from the back “Brown out, brown out, brown out” and you wrest the throttles from the student’s death grip back to idle and you’ve done it once again without breaking anything and you wonder how you ever did this in moonless dark without goggles, the tiny lights of the box-and-one swimming in the darkness ahead of you and the sweat. It should have the feeling at the top of descent in the Afghan night as the ramp and door come open and you feel the familiar buffet and your heart rate climbs as you plummet toward the earth at 6 degrees nose down and 240 knots, leveling and slowing a minute and 15 seconds from the drop. “Flaps on speed to 50… 1 minute warning.” “One minute checks.” “One minute checklist acknowledged.” And you run through them as you try to stabilize the aircraft at 140 knots with your heart in your throat and usually, if you have a well-oiled crew that you’ve trained to excel and that you’ve pushed just to the edge between maximum tactical efficiency and unsafe, you’ll hear “One minute checklist complete” just in time to call “Ten seconds… five, four, three, two, one, greenlight.” And the nose comes up and you feel viscerally 26,000 pounds of food and water roll heavily off the ramp. Then, as you use both hands to push the nose back down to comfortable territory, you hear the master warning whoop, which raises your blood pressure even more, although you knew it was coming and that it is only the fire detectors fooled again by Afghan moon dust shaken from the bundles that sat all day in the yard. “Load’s clear.” “Completion of drop checklist.” And you climb away into the night, waiting for the strike report and then telling the quiet voice on the other side of the encryption to “stay safe” with a sincerity that is not found elsewhere in the world today.

What else should it contain about a job you love very much? Friends say things are changed and that you could no longer do the things that you did when we started this journey. I found that if you took a drink that it was very much the same as it was always. I know things change now and I do not care. It’s all been changed for me. Let it all change. We’ll all be gone before it’s changed too much and if no deluge comes when we are gone it still will rain in summer at the Pit and the Jolly will still stand, where we gathered in the afternoon sun. We will never ride back from El Pesebre in the dark, washing the dust out with Fundador, nor will there be that week in Bahrain, nor the night of the Ball in Jeddah, nor that early morning in Paris, when the shadows were long as the city woke. We’ve seen it all go and we’ll watch it all go again. The great thing is to last and get your work done and to see and hear and learn and understand. And after the flight, after the crackle and static of the HFs has set off the anticipation in your head, the anticipation of the new and the unknown and the familiar and the known. You descend and you alight, you roll out and you park, and you shut them down, all at once. And the growls whine away so quickly. The door cracks again, and the outside world leaks in. You fold yourself up and step down the ladder onto the earth once again. They shut the APU down, with that sound that only we know the way we know it. And we stretch in the humid air of runways near the sea, always near the sea, and we think excitedly about what comes next.

No. It is not enough of a post, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.

(With apologies to Hemingway...)


  1. Bravo."My sweaty hand squeezed the yoke and my brow furrowed in concentration." and then did you mention Pit and reading this! Congratulations Munson.

  2. Congrats Pete!

  3. This strikes so deep in my soul I'm without further comment. Only those that know, know ...