I didn’t want to write this.
Not because my last flight in the F/A-18 was bad or I was embarrassed by it, but simply because I knew that writing a blog post would serve as an acknowledgment that things have changed.
Whether it’s voluntary or we’re dragged kicking and screaming, change isn’t always easy. It’s scary. It’s sad. But sometimes, it’s simply necessary.
Just over a year ago, I thought I would never get the opportunity to fly again period, much less be afforded the opportunity of a final flight in a fighter. I had just been diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease, and the outlook was bleak. That was a long seven months.
But with a little patience, perseverance, and a lot of luck, I was able to return to the cockpit. I felt like I had dodged a bullet, and in the sixty flight hours that followed, I felt like I was on borrowed time, trying to make the most out of the second chance I had been given.
The relief, however, was short-lived. Despite receiving a full-up clearance by the Naval Aviation Medical Institute, the non-flying bureaucrats in other parts of the Navy Reserve independently determined that, although requiring no treatment or medicine, and remaining asymptomatic, my condition prevented me from deploying outside of the Continental U.S. And because I couldn’t deploy, I could no longer participate in a squadron that had the off chance of deploying.
I had until the end of the fiscal year (Sept 30th) to figure it out, at which time I would be moved to the Inactive Ready Reserve if I didn’t seek out another billet. Despite no clear avenue of appeal, I tried anyway. My condition was discovered only by chance, I argued. NAMI had cleared me to go back flying and there was no reason I couldn’t fly in combat in the unlikely event our 1986-era birds were needed – although, let’s be honest, it would take a Will-Smith-Fighting-Aliens level event for those birds to ever see combat again.
Once more, I tried to make them tell me no. Only this time, I just ran out of time.
My last flight was September 29th. As last flights went, it was awesome.
I briefed with my wingman, callsign Simple Jack, just before 8 AM on a beautiful fall morning. A front had just rolled through, and the forecast called for clear skies, unlimited visibility and light winds. We were scheduled to each take two live MK-83 1000 lb bombs to the live range near Fort Polk, LA (REDLEG).
“This is it,” I said with a nervous sigh as we walked into the briefing room. I had done this song and dance once before in the F-16, only then I knew I was transitioning from one capable, badass fighter to another. This time was different. This time I knew I would likely never strap into a fighter cockpit again. It was a tough pill to swallow.
I briefed the flight as I had done hundreds of times before. The plan was to fly up to REDLEG, check in with the JTAC, callsign BLACKCAT 20, and drop our MK-83s. Then we’d do a quick set of Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) training (dogfighting), come back via the Northshore return, and land. My friends from the Sheriff’s Office that I volunteer with planned to meet me as I landed to celebrate my last flight.
“Questions?” I asked as I finished going through the plan.
“Nope,” SJ said quickly.
“Alright,” I replied. “Last flight – as long as we drop our bombs on the right target, don’t get violated by ATC, or run into each other, I’ll consider it a success.”
“Sounds good to me,” SJ laughed.
We went downstairs to put on our flight gear. I won’t miss having to step into the harness or wearing the 40 lbs worth of flight gear. I’ll never understand the Navy’s approach to flight gear. Two $5 buckles from Home Depot would fix everything – no waddling to the jet or fighting with a twisted harness as you step in and out. But I digress.
“Have a good flight, sir,” the Petty Officer working in flight equipment said as I walked out.
We walked down the hall to Maintenance Control where I flipped through the aircraft’s maintenance logs. I had to laugh as the annoying OOMA program warned that my password would be expiring in six days and pushed me to change it. “Nope!” I said as I clicked through and signed out the jet.
“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure,” I said to the sailors in maintenance control before SJ and I walked outside to the pickup waiting to take us to our jets. They were parked in the CALA, an area on the other side of the field designated for jets with live ordnance.
The truck dropped us off in front of our aircraft. I exchanged a salute with my plane captain and began my walk around. One of the maintainers asked me if it was really my last flight in the Hornet.
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re sorry to see you go, sir,” he replied.
With the walk around complete, I strapped into the airplane and started up. The sentimental nature of the flight was temporarily pushed aside as I went through the startup checklist for a final time. That’s the funny thing about being a fighter pilot – once you get busy doing the mission, it’s easy to compartmentalize everything else and focus on the task at hand.
That was, at least, until I taxied out. Like the true professionals I had known them to be for the four years I had spent in the squadron, the sailors working the flight line made my last flight something special.
As I saluted my plane captain for the final time, I looked forward out the canopy to see everyone standing in formation just off to the left. They saluted in unison as I taxied by. Wow. Right in the feels. Is someone chopping onions in here?
I returned their salute as I choked back tears. Such a simple gesture but it meant so much to me. It was a sign of mutual respect, something I could never begin to repay. A class act all the way.
After a lengthy delay waiting for the 8-ship of Eagles to return and finish their patterns, we took off and headed northwest toward Fort Polk. It was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed taking in the scenery as we made our transit to the area.
I had flown a similar route hundreds of times before in my Glasair I RG in college, but much slower and lower. We flew over Baton Rouge and the Mississippi River and then crossed Opelousas where I first learned to fly before entering the Warrior Military Operations Area airspace.
Once checked into the airspace, I coordinated the frequencies we’d be using to give us advisories of civilian traffic on our way home, and then switched to BLACKCAT to check in.
After a quick authentication, I gave the Joint Terminal Attack Controller the “Fighter to FAC” brief. We were two F/A-18s with four thousand pounds of hate and just under twenty minutes of playtime (due to fuel constraints for the alternate mission after). BLACKCAT 20 copied the brief and then replied with his own situation update.
I copied down the targeting information in the standard 9-Line format, and we went to work. We did a clearing pass over the live range to ensure no people or animals had wandered into the impact area, and then spun back around to set up for our attacks.
On the second lap around the orbit over the target, I rolled in, finding the 30-degree “wire” as the jet hurtled toward the ground. “River 11 in.”
“Cleared hot!” came the reply.
I centered the steering cue and refined the diamond on the cratered impact area. I watched the release cue tick down as I heard the altitude warning go off, indicating I had reached the planned release altitude. I pressed the pickle button and felt the jet rock as the two 1000 lb bombs fell from the jet.
“Off safe, two away,” I called, as I started a 5-G climbing safe escape maneuver to ensure the jet wouldn’t get fragged.
Looking over my shoulder as I climbed away, I watched the two bombs seemingly fly in formation toward the target. They impacted with a brilliant explosion right on target. “Boom!” I yelled.
“Good hits!” the JTAC called.
“River 12 contact lead’s hits,” SJ called out from his jet, indicating he had seen the impacts.
I reached up and flipped the MASTER ARM switch to Safe as I re-entered the orbit over the target and watched SJ drop his bombs. He also shacked the target.
After confirming we were both switches safe and had no more bombs, the JTAC asked for a show of force over their position. We rejoined into a tac-wing formation and descended toward the JTAC’s observation point, simulating that we were flying over a group of bad guys to let them know we were overhead and ready to make it rain if they kept doing terrorist things.
We flew above the treetops at just over 500’ and 550kts, then made a climbing left turn as we flew past the observation tower. With no more playtime, the JTAC declared the mission a success and gave us a simulated debrief. I thanked him for his help and working with me on my last flight. Then we checked out, heading southeast toward home.
Once clear of the range, we set up for our BFM set. We each only had around a thousand pounds of fuel to play with before BINGO, but I wanted to do it anyway just to say I had one more chance to bend the jet around before hanging it up.
We climbed up to 12,000 ft, 350 kts, and a mile and a half abeam. When we were both set, I called “3…2…1… fight’s on!” and we turned toward each other and started fighting.
We made it through just over two and a half merges before having to knock it off, but it was fun. I always loved BFM, and the quick set was just what I needed to say goodbye to the awesome handling characteristics of the Hornet.
We knocked it off and headed back home, cancelling our flight plan and proceeding VFR. We flew east over Baton Rouge and then to Covington, turning right over the Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Center where I spend a lot of time volunteering. I just wanted to say hi one more time. I would often fly over on my way back from missions and land to a flurry of text messages asking, “Was that you?”
Well, for the last time, it was me.
Heading south, we dropped down to 500’ and each took a side of the Causeway Bridge back toward the city. The skyline of New Orleans was clearly visible off in the distance. I sure did love flying over my home city.
As we cleared the Causeway, SJ rejoined into a closer, “Cruise formation” and we did a lap around downtown for the “City tour.”
I grew up watching the Saints. I went to Tulane. Flying over the Superdome in a fighter was a dream come true for me. It was awesome to be able to take a two-ship over the Dome one more time before heading back to base.
After radioing back to base that we were on our way home, we flew to the initial for the carrier break. I was hoping all of my friends would be out waiting for us to watch my last few laps around the pattern.
SJ did a great job hanging on as I made the turn toward initial and lined up down the runway. We descended to 800’ for the carrier break. As we passed mid-field, I gave him the signal to follow and I made the turn to downwind.
I did a touch and go while SJ did a full-stop behind me. After takeoff, I raised the gear and headed back to the initial for one more carrier break, this time solo.
I came back around, knowing it was my last time, dreading the inevitable as I watched the fuel tick down. I made a 7.2G break and called for the full stop as Tower asked for my intentions.
But as the controller cleared me to land, I just couldn’t let go. “Just one more,” I said, dropping all etiquette. “I’ll be closed full stop after.”
“River 11 roger cleared low approach.”
I came around for the low approach and then raised the gear, climbing to downwind as I raised the nose.
“River 11 Closed Full stop,” I said as the “FUEL LO” caution sounded. I had run out of quarters. The ride was over.
The controller cleared me to land. My hands were trembling ever so slightly as I landed and cleared the runway. I didn’t expect the ride to be over so soon. It had been a challenging but fun four years.
I taxied in and shut down. My friends…my family in blue… met me at the jet and hosed me down. I shook everyone’s hand as I tried to hide the sadness of it all. Having my brothers and sisters in blue there made it so much easier. I wore a thin blue line American flag on my shoulder to honor them.
But there was still something missing. You see, I had originally transferred to the squadron to be closer to my family. My dad, brother, and stepmother were in Louisiana, and I wanted to be closer to them after being gone for so long.
Just eighteen short months after moving back to New Orleans, and only a year into my time with my new squadron, my dad passed away from complications after a back surgery. It was the worst day of my life, and it cast a shadow over the rest of my time with the squadron.
I had been lucky in my career to be able to fly F-16s and F/A-18s to airports near him to see him, and I know he would have been there. I will never stop missing that man.
We took pictures and walked back in, leaving behind four years of flying the Hornet and 10 years of flying fighters.
The Way Forward
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get another chance to fly a fighter that can kill people and break their things again, but that doesn’t mean the story ends there.
I’m in the middle of an inter-service transfer back to the Air Force Reserve, this time to fly T-38A Adversary Air for the F-22. The squadron also helps groom young aviators selected for the F-22 to give them more airmanship before flying the 5th Gen fighter.
The mission is important and the guys in the squadron are awesome. Yes, I’m sad that my time as a trigger-puller on the pointy end of the spear is coming to an end, but flying a jet built in the 60s without a HUD or any avionics will make me a better pilot and pose its own challenges to a HUD-baby like me.
And while the transfer works itself out, I’ll also be training on heavier iron. Last month, I received a conditional job offer with a Legacy Airline. So when I’m not harassing Raptors at the merge, I’ll be turning on the fasten seatbelt light and flying people all over the world.
It’s a change that will hopefully give me plenty of time to write. I might be done, but Spectre is far from it!