The Fighter Pilots’ Guide to Living
As the daughter of a naval aviator, I was raised in the constant company of some of the hardest-living people in the world: the brash ilk of fighter pilots.
Because I grew up around Naval Air Station Oceana, I also overheard ground-pounders’ and civilians’ complaints about naval aviators: that they’re too raucous and cocksure; that their egos are overgrown and their bravado is off-putting.
They aren’t wrong.
The truth of the matter is that there is a purpose for the fighter pilot’s unbridled confidence. It’s a job requirement, in fact, when your job involves climbing into a sleek, seventy-thousand-pound metal jet, strapping on an oxygen mask, and catapulting from the deck of a floating nuclear-powered village. It takes real guts to operate a finicky multi-million-dollar aircraft while acknowledging that any of its thousands of mechanical and electronic parts could malfunction at any time; that ejecting into the earth, water, or great blue sky is a possibility never more than seconds away; that you’ll have to land the hulking jet back on the boat, maybe in utter inky blackness, or maybe as the sea pitches so roughly that your landing surface is nowhere approaching flat and level.
To be a naval aviator, you’ve got to have a steel-trap mind and a taste for danger. And the zealous style of living they’re renowned for — as fast, loud, and impressive to watch as a sonic boom over calm waters — is a product of their existing so close to the edge of disaster.
My father, Glen Wheless, became friends with Michael Galpin when they were Midshipmen at the Naval Academy. During their Academy days, the men had similar musical tastes, but differing extracurricular interests: Michael played football for the school’s team, while Glen pulled dastardly, oftentimes explosive pranks and occasionally snuck off campus, either by winding through the underground steam tunnels or taking prayerful leaps over the tall perimeter walls.
After graduating, Glen and Michael went to flight school in Pensacola, where they became radar intercept officers, RIOs, in the F-14. Sent off to separate squadrons, they would lord over the cutting-edge array of weapons and radar systems that made the Tomcat such a formidable adversary.
My dad’s flying career took off on a steep trajectory. But just as Glen Wheless, call sign ‘Wheels,’ earned the first RIO training slot at Topgun for a class of ’78 grad, his flying days came to an unexpected end. His call sign, however, remained ironically applicable; for longer than I’ve been around, Wheels has piloted a manual Quickie wheelchair.
Michael ‘Flex’ Galpin, on the other hand, flew, and then flew some more.
In spite of diverging career paths, Flex and Wheels stayed close. They sustained their friendship across time and long distances through their love of music, periodically sending each other cassette tapes — and, eventually, CDs and DVDs — of whatever tunes they happened to be jamming to at the time. Just about once a year, Flex would swing by the Wheless house for a day-long visit to catch up on everything else.
During my childhood, Flex’s visits were fairly similar. He ate with my family around our long oak dining room table, engaging with his contagious enthusiasm in our discussions of homework, softball, and the school play. After dinner, Flex and Wheels had the table to themselves. Late into the night, they’d hunch over the vast blonde surface, shooting the shit about their Academy days and swallowing their laughter as they told stories about flying in hushed voices.
These days, Flex still comes to visit every year. Although he and Wheels sit at that same dining room table, nearly everything else is different: my sister and I are grown and out of the house, my parents have split, and both men have retired from the working world. Now, the alcohol can flow without concerns about schedules and setting a good example. Wheels and Flex can tell their old stories with the booming gusto and the liberal dose of obscenities they deserve. And always, as the storytelling continues late into the night, Wheels keeps his speakers at the proverbial eleven.
In my dad’s house, every door jamb, each plastered wall, and even the Christmas tree, decked in red, white, and blue lights, is rocking. The noise flows in tsunami waves from the living room, where Wheels has wired several music- and video-streaming services, and the months of music in his iTunes library, to play through powerful speakers hooked up to his television.
The clock above the dining room table reads eight. In just nine hours, my husband Evan and I will begin our twelve-hour drive back to our home in Michigan. My friend Emily and her boyfriend Steve have to work in the morning. But now, the four of us are sitting in front of an empty plate of appetizers, communicating not over, but through the music. My anxiety about the early morning mounting, I pluck up the courage to enter Wheels’ inner sanctum.
The cheery light that floods the kitchen and dining room drops off entirely after the kitchen peninsula. In the darkened living room, the television glows. A trippy neon light show pulses to the beat as Phish plays a live cover of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless.”
Flex sits on our old orange couch, entranced by the multisensory experience. My dad’s wheelchair is pulled diagonally beside the couch’s wooden arm rests. Blue and purple lights shine off the glass balanced on his lap. This is a fresh martini. Martini number two. I no longer wonder why the minutiae of life — things like dinner, which my dad promised for seven thirty — has gone by the wayside.
After loitering unnoticed in the shadows, I shout over Trey Anastasio’s wavering voice. “It’s eight o’clock, Dad. What’s going on with dinner?”
Open-mouthed, wide-eyed, my dad twists his head over his shoulder. He gawks at me blankly for a few beats, the way a five-year-old might, if you had asked him to solve an equation for x.
“You said dinner was at 7:30,” I elaborate.
Over Flex’s slim, squared shoulders, the breakdown begins. Wheels swivels his neck back around and locks his attention on the screen.
“Facts just twist the truth around / Facts are living turned inside out / Facts are getting the best of them / Facts are nothing on the face of things”
Glancing somewhere over his shoulder, my dad barks through the complex layers of sound as lyrics give way to a jam session. “There are two bags of frozen chicken outside. Can you defrost them and make the salad?”
“Sure thing,” I say, and I set about to restore order to the evening.
Another twenty minutes pass. I’m putting the finishing touches on the salad when my dad rolls into the kitchen. His vodka-martini-voice is as penetrating as a foghorn. He’s talking to Flex about death.
“Man, you’re only on the river for a little while, and eventually, you know you’re going to hit the fucking waterfall. I know I’m headed off that river, brother. The waterfall is coming, and I’m planning on enjoying the ride ’til it gets here.”
The simple statement hits like a crowbar upside my head. The easy talk about the inevitability of death validates the featured anxiety of my many sleepless nights: the fact that everyone I dearly love will someday be gone. On my final evening in my childhood home for at least six more months, I do not want to hear these words.
I know that this speech isn’t meant for me; the voice isn’t even my dad’s. The harsh barking belongs to Wheels: the man who was given a lifetime ban from a popular local establishment after brazenly lighting a mouthful of Bacardi 151 aflame inside the bar. This fun fighter pilot party trick is called ‘blowing an afterburner.’ Sometime after my twenty-first birthday, my dad led me to our back patio, where he’d decided to demonstrate the technique in a controlled setting. “This is really dangerous, honey,” he said, cautious even as he prepared to gulp the last dregs of a dusty bottle of 151. “Promise me you’ll never try it.” Then, he lit the match, and spat out a ball of fire. That was the phoenix moment; trouble-making Wheels, eyes glowing with excitement, was resurrected in those flames.
Hot-cheeked and distressed, I speed toward the dining room with my bowl of pretty lettuce ribbons, symmetrical vegetables, tiny squares of Gouda. The faster I walk, the better I can avoid overhearing whatever other disconcerting wisdom Wheels may have to share.
I nearly run my husband over. Standing beside the table, Evan also holds a second martini. Made by my dad, the concoction is sure to be powerful. My concerns shift abruptly. “Are you serious?” I ask.
Evan responds with a shit-eating martini grin. “Want a sip?” he offers, raising an eyebrow.
You bet I do. I grab the glass, down a mouthful of the vodka jet fuel and gnaw half an olive from its bamboo skewer. Even as I drink, I know it’s useless; I won’t save Evan from a hangover, and I’d never let myself consume the amount of alcohol required to drown my need for control.
Half-sitting, half-hovering over my chair, I try to reenter the conversation. In my absence, I’ve lost where it’s gone.
Meanwhile, Flex and my dad have transferred the chicken to the grill. Once more, they are calmly ensconced in the living room. A Widespread Panic show now plays on the television. It’s an older concert, so the video quality isn’t HD-clear, but that means nothing to my dad. He’s the man who taught me that, once you’ve experienced a song, it becomes your personal time machine. Through music, you can relive the past and transport yourself into the mindset of the people you once were. When life isn’t what you want it to be, the right songs can take you to a time when things were better, when things made sense. And sometimes, a song can have the opposite effect.
Within the hour, dinner is served. Flex, my dad, and Steve are having a jovial discussion of the edgier rock bands of the seventies and eighties. Emily and Evan are chowing down, enjoying the lively banter from the sidelines. My brain is struggling with concerns about the fractional hours of sleep in my immediate future, but my heart is waiting with great anticipation for Flex and Wheels to start telling fighter pilot stories.
For me, listening to an aviator talk about flying has always been a life-affirming and immersive experience. The way fighter pilots tell their stories — in the perpetual present, with a healthy seasoning of salty language and vivid detail — makes you feel as if you are in the jet with them: the explosive burst of the CAT launch* catches in your chest; the aroma of jet fuel fills your nose; a great big world becomes minuscule, toy-sized as you peer out through the bubble canopy. If you’re lucky enough to be present for an aviator’s storytelling, then for a few beautiful seconds, you can also be a fearless, ego-swamped fighter pilot; you can conquer anything.
The conversational switch is inevitable, and it never takes much when Wheels is around his fighter pilot friends. The smallest of details might remind one of them of a person they flew with, a funny call sign, a place they flew over, a complex flying maneuver. After spending so many hours training for his profession, a fighter pilot’s brain is hard-wired for any transition that could lead him back to a discussion of his undying love affair with flying jets.
Before long, Wheels kicks off the flying talk. His tale is about ‘Puke,’ the call sign for my Uncle Bob, who, like so many of my ‘uncles,’ is not a blood relative. My memories of my Uncle Bob are of mild-mannered man, not exceedingly tall, with round, red-tinged cheeks and a hacking laugh. Most of them involve the loving relationship he shared with his dynamo of a wife, my late Aunt Pat. All of them are incompatible with the stories I’ve been told about Puke and his antics.
“This was one of my first times flying in the squadron,” my dad begins, “And I’ve got Puke as my pilot. He looks back and says, ‘Now watch this!’” My dad opens his eyes wide for emphasis as he delivers a quick aside: “I learned very quickly that, whenever Puke said, ‘Now watch this,’ things were about to get interesting. So, we’re flying over the desert, and he takes the jet down way below the training ceiling, to maybe thirty feet from the ground over this long, two-lane highway. And as we’re going along, there’s a semi coming the opposite way, and we’re so low to the ground that we are buzzing right over the top of the guy’s truck.”
My dad starts laughing hard. His mouth is wide, but with each gasp, he makes no noise. “I wonder what that guy thought, seeing this jet coming right at him, right over his truck. He must have shit himself.” Still silently laughing, my dad’s last few words are croaked through gulps of air.
Flex wears a thin smile, but he looks serious. He seems to be struggling with his inner commanding officer. “You have to be good to do that,” he clarifies. “You’re thirty feet from the ground, but your wingspan is over sixty feet, so any sideways movement,” he says, waggling his palm on a central axis, “And you’re dead.”
“Yeah,” my dad agrees. Since Wheels is stuck in the mindset of the contrarian, trouble-making junior officer, he provides a counterpoint. “But Puke got his start flying RF-8s, and those guys were good fucking pilots. They were used to flying low and fast to get recon shots of whatever was below them. He knew what he was doing.”
From here, Wheels and Flex exchange a half-dozen stories about other times when the men at the Tomcat’s controls broke the rules and came out with nothing but a good story. In something of a gentleman’s agreement, breaking the rules is what Navy pilots do often, and do well. They test the limits they’re given to learn just what kinds of forces and speeds their jet can withstand. Knowing exactly how far you could afford to push the Tomcat might help you pull off a last-ditch evasive maneuver, or gain superiority in a life-or-death dogfight. Understanding your jet’s true limits could be the thing that saves your life in case of emergency.
All of the sudden, my dad takes a serious turn. Looking thoughtful, he’s adopted a nostalgic tone, low and level, slow on the transition from one point to the next. “You remember ‘Walking on the Moon?’ The Police? There was this RIO in my training class, John Graham, ‘Yogi.’ They’d just released the song, and Yogi loved it. He sang it all the time. On our Key West detachments, he’d get wasted, do this weird dance, and sing that song.”
My dad looks away, shaking his head. “After training ended, Yogi and I were assigned to different squadrons. While he was on the Nimitz with VF-84, Yogi’s jet had a single-engine failure right after the CAT launch while the jet was in afterburner.** Yogi’s pilot had flown the F-4 Phantom, and so when he realized what was going on, he pulled back on the stick. That was the maneuver they’d used to compensate for the same situation in the F-4. But with the F-14, it’s a big jet, and the engines are further apart, so it’s not the right fix. Pulling back with just one good engine off the launch while you’re in ‘burner basically turns the jet into a boomerang.” My dad makes his flattened hand into an airplane, pulls it up and away to demonstrate his point. “But nobody knew that at the time. It had never happened before. They both punched out right before the jet crashed into the ocean. After it happened, they sent out the takeoff video to all the squadrons. I was out on cruise on the Kennedy at the time, and they called a stand down for all the VF-14 pilots and RIOs. They sat us down in the ready room and made us watch the film. We watched Yogi’s jet go right off the deck, and then there was this flutter of white. One of the guys in the ready room called out, ‘What’s that white shit?’ It was Yogi’s fucking kneeboard cards.” My dad shakes his head again. “They were flying all over the place. Yogi took so many notes; he had more fucking kneeboard cards that anyone I knew, and they were going everywhere. That’s all you saw: just white stuff flying through the air.”
Pearl Jam filters in from the living room speakers as the rest of us silently take the same mental leap.
Steve is first to broach the subject of the story’s conspicuous missing piece. “Don’t people who survive an ejection get some kind of special tie?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Flex says, nodding. “Martin Baker — they make the ejection seats — they give a tie to anyone who survives a punch out. I know plenty of guys who are in the tie club.”
“That’s a lot to go through to get a tie,” I say, wincing at the thought of all that force, the terror of leaving your cockpit for sky, water, and uncertainty. But I know my dad’s style and manner of story-telling. Shaking my head, I ask, “Did they…?”
“Oh, no,” my dad says. He’s very matter-of-fact as he adds, “They both morted. It was completely unsurvivable. No one had any idea how to handle that situation with an F-14.” He says something else, and then shakes his head. “Yogi fucking loved that song.”
With that, I felt a reverence, a tugging ache in my belly. All at once, I realized the pointlessness of my litany of worries, my attempts to puppeteer fate, my kneeboard cards. Right then and there, I decided to enjoy whatever time I had left.
My dad’s story about John Graham was so compelling that I soon needed to hear it for a second time. During a phone call, I asked him to tell me again about what had happened to Yogi.
He happily relayed the story. At the end, he paused thoughtfully. “I would have said this the other night, but we got distracted. You know, if those guys hadn’t died, it would have been me.”
My heart caught inside my chest. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe.
My dad continued. “It was just a few weeks after the accident. I was flying with our skipper, ‘Quail’ Dantone, and we were in afterburner during the CAT launch when we had an engine go down. After Yogi’s accident, they’d done a lot of testing to determine how to handle the situation. We’d just gotten a safety brief on what to do — not to pull back, but to take it straight and keep the nose down. I remember them exactly, those next few seconds. Quail and I got the warning from Air Boss over the radio that one of our engines had failed, and then all these lights started going off. I knew that Quail had flown the F-4, just like Yogi’s pilot. So, from the backseat, I talked through our safety checklist. I said, ‘Keep the nose low. Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back.’ And Quail told me, ‘I’ve got it. Don’t eject. I’ve got it.’ I had my hand on the ejection handle the whole time — I always did during a CAT shot, just in case. But Quail didn’t pull back, and I didn’t eject, and we just kept going. We shot left because only the right engine was running, and then we settled like a rock. I never knew how low we got. When we recovered and landed, they had us go to the ready room to watch the footage. We had dropped so low after that launch that you couldn’t even see the fucking jet. It was below the flight deck.”
In that moment, my body went numb. For the rest of the conversation, I pretended I wasn’t solidly shaken.
Meanwhile, my dad shared other stories. He told me about how, while training with blacked out goggles, he lost track of his planned escape route in the simulated airplane cockpit, the Dilbert Dunker, which was fully submerged underwater. He told me how he’d shoved the goggles off to find his way to the surface before he ran out of oxygen. How the instructors made him perform the exercise again, to prove that he could survive in the event his jet crashed into the ocean and he couldn’t see to locate his escape.
The Police’s “Reggatta de Blanc” is one of several hundred albums my dad owns. With its bopping beat and tantalizing lyrics about defying the cold limits of reality, “Walking on the Moon,” has always been my favorite song on the disc.
After a second repetition of the story of Yogi and the punch-out and his beloved song, and after hearing the new tale of my dad’s near demise, I knew that I would never listen to “Walking on the Moon” the same way again. I also knew that I had to listen. For John.
It took me several days, but I finally assembled the nerve to queue the song up. For nearly half an hour, I listened to it on a loop. It trapped me at a point of speechlessness; a point just flush to the border of tears. Rocking back and forth at my desk in heavy silence, I was mired in thoughts about the significance of this song, and about Yogi.
Again and again over the following months, I played “Walking on the Moon,” always in the stillness of afternoon in my butter yellow writing room. Its initial sadness wore away, but the song retained its power. Listening became my small act of memory.
I never met John Graham, but in a picture my dad found from their days training on the F-14, Yogi is the classic 1970s fighter pilot: tall and handsome, with short, puffed-up hair and a killer smile. Whenever I listen to his song I like to imagine John at some sweaty bar in Key West. In my mind, he is carefree, laughing, drinking to embarrassing excess, trying to seduce all the good-looking women in his vicinity. I picture him dancing in a too-much-liquor way as he wails along to the syncopated reggae rhythm of the portentous chorus, “Some may say / I’m wishing my days away / No way / And if it’s the price I pay / Some say / Tomorrow’s another day / You stay / I may as well play.”
What I don’t like to think of are the hours John spent hunched over his kneeboard pad, taking all the careful notes that were supposed to prevent disasters. I don’t want to picture those pages full of accident-mitigation techniques flying out like confetti as he and his ejection seat shot out after the Tomcat’s canopy, but sometimes, I do. What gets me through is knowing that, if Yogi was anything like my dad and all of my ‘uncles,’ then any advance warning of his fate would only have made him drink and dance and sing and screw with even more reckless abandon.
Whatever my stage of life, I have always found appeal in fighter pilot stories. They contain tremendous life lessons in strength, bravery, and courage, though those lessons may be hidden beneath a truckload of ego and tomfoolery. The older I get, the stronger I’m pulled to the deepest message within the fighter pilot lore: that, for each of us, there is an unknowable distance between life and death. But the stalwart aviator also has the solution; it’s written all over his every action. By living fast and loud and shamelessly, he ensures that, when his waterfall arrives, he’ll be coming off one hell of a river ride.
And that, I’ve decided, is just how I want to do it.
*The CAT, or catapult, provides the power that propels a jet from the aircraft carrier’s shortened runway, allowing it to become airborne.
**When the CAT launch is underpowered, or when the jet is heavy with extra fuel or weapons, the afterburners, powered through fuel fed into hot exhaust, provide the thrust the jet needs to get off the deck and into the air.