The First One

He was good at it, and he made it look easy. And for a middle of the bell curve kind of guy like myself, I was equal parts awed and jealous. He never seemed as worried about things as the rest of us. Maybe he studied more. Maybe he was just better at masking his nervousness. Maybe he was just a natural. Regardless, he was someone I looked up to and wanted to be more like while we were moving through Intermediate and Advanced Jet training in Meridian, Mississippi.

Paula Merritt / Meridian Star

What makes this reflection peculiar is that he and I weren’t close friends. It’s not that we didn’t like each other. We just traveled in different social circles. Those circles formed around clusters of students who were grouped together in training, and he was several classes ahead of me. We knew each other, we said hello, maybe hung out at a few of the same parties, but really we were more acquaintances than friends. But I was acquainted well enough to know that he was good, and from where I stood, he had the program licked. Flight school, especially “jet school” is full of insecurity, with juniors looking ahead to seniors for hope and motivation. He, unwittingly, was that guy for me.

See, in pop culture there is a myth that Naval Aviators are full of confidence and bravado, and though there may be shreds of truth to that once we have a few years of experience under our belts, it is most definitely not the case when we’re students. Looking at the guys who were ahead of us in the pipeline was a bit like being a JV freshman looking at the senior football players. Sure, you’re technically playing the same game, but they’re just better. And much like the freshman, the junior student pilot doesn’t realize that just a short time ago the “seniors” were standing in the same place, wondering how in the world they’d ever make the cut.

We’d both eventually “make the cut.” We earned our Wings of Gold — he well ahead of me. He went on to fly F-18s for the Marine Corps in Miramar, and I went on to fly Prowlers for the Navy in Washington. While I was very happy and satisfied with my lot in life, he was flying fighters, and it made sense — he was good!

During the few years after he and I left flight school there were mishaps (how pilots antiseptically refer to crashes). We would get a phone call (texts were a few years away), an email, or hear hushed whispers in the ready room. We’d always ask, “who” and then usually feel a sense of relief followed by guilt; relief that it wasn’t one of our friends, but guilt in being relieved that it wasn’t one of our friends — knowing that it meant it was someone else’s. My peers and I rode this emotional roller coaster time and again between 2002 and early 2005. Thankfully, and here comes that guilt again, it was never someone I knew personally. Then in the spring of 2005 as I was beginning pre-deployment training for my turn at war, it happened.

Over lunch another young pilot casually asked if I’d heard about the mid-air collision between two F-18s over Iraq. I had not. I asked what else he knew, but it wasn’t much. The pilots had launched from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and then something about bad weather, and of course it was at night. I asked if he knew the squadron, and he told me it was the Death Rattlers of VMFA-323. A day or two went by, and honestly I didn’t give it much more thought, assuming it was, once again, a glad I don’t know them, but sorry for those who do kind of thing. Then the San Diego Union Tribune ran an article on May 6th titled, “Second Marine Pilot Killed in Crash Identified.” I had missed the release of the first pilot’s name, but I did not miss this one, and it shook me. Captain Kelly C. Hinz of Woodbury, Minnesota was dead.

Over the next several months I finished training for my own deployment and I often wondered what it would be like: crap weather, at night, over bad guys, knowing the show wouldn’t be over until getting back aboard the ship. I wondered what happened to Kelly and his wingman. I wondered how something like that could even happen to him. And if it happened to Kelly, what kind of odds did I have? My recollection was that he was always better at everything than just about everybody else.

For a guy I wasn’t close with, I spent a lot of time thinking about Kelly. This was the first time I could clearly put a face and a name to a mishap, and it happened to be the guy I spent the better part of 15 months of flight school looking up to and admiring. But then that guilt peddling voice crept back in, why are you torn up over this, you guys weren’t even that close? To be honest, it was a fair question. My sense of confusion and disbelief paled in comparison to that of his family. In a cruel twist of exceptionally poor timing, Kelly’s father, a former Naval Aviator himself, was killed just the year prior when the WWII era airplane he was flying at an airshow crash-landed. Kelly’s wife, the mother to a seven-month old daughter, was certainly left with a lot more grief, questions, and confusion than some random guy in Washington.

In the years since, there have been more. Too many actually. Some much closer than others. Each evokes different reactions and feelings, and with each you learn a little more about yourself. With one recent passing, I decided to lead the missing man fly-over because I couldn’t bring myself to sit and watch one of my best friends eulogize another. Some died in spectacular crashes, others drank themselves to death, some had their stories memorialized in cinema, and some we’ll never really know. It never gets easier, it just becomes familiar. But still, there’s something significant about the first. The first one makes the abstract real, it shakes the it can’t happen to me out of you. The first one grabs you by the collar and gets your attention. Kelly was my first and I think that’s the answer to Why? You weren’t that close.

Life is strange and in death things often get stranger. Since his passing I’ve felt a bond with Kelly that I never did while we were ripping up those warm Mississippi skies. Some day we’ll chat about it.

Farva