No Fast Hands in the Cockpit…

Critical decisions make the difference between life and death.

By T.R. Matson

            It was one of those dark nights that only aviators who fly off of aircraft carriers have experienced.  Darker than a moonless night with no ambient light from land and just miles and miles of pitch black.  Inching across the flight deck of the USS Stennis aircraft carrier, I searched my path with my flashlight in hopes that I would not trip and fall or run into anything.  Without that light I could barely see past the nose on my face.  Typical operations at this point as the Stennis and Airwing Nine were on deployment and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean making our way to the Persian Gulf.  Blue water ops had become the norm, and while I had been here before, I took some comfort in the fact that tonight I was flying the F/A-18C Hornet aircraft that had the ability to conduct air to air refueling if for some reason I could not land back on the flight deck.  On all of my previous deployments in the E-2C Hawkeye this was never an option.  The fuel we launched with was all we had until we wrestled the plane back onto the relative safety of the carrier.

            After conducting a thorough exterior preflight, I climbed into the cockpit of aircraft 301 for another routine flight…or so I thought.  While the F/A-18C is a single seat aircraft, I guess Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, had climbed aboard while I wasn’t looking.  He had plans to make this flight anything but routine.  I really enjoyed flying aircraft 301 and had spent quite a bit of time with it the previous few weeks.  While some may think that we only flew the aircraft with our name on the side, that was not the case.  In fact, it was normal to fly a different aircraft in the squadron almost every day based on the maintenance requirements, which seemed endless.  That being said, I had spent significant time with 301 and when I strapped in that night, I felt like the aircraft was an extension of my body.  Man and machine were one, and I was ready for my training mission.  Any thoughts of blue water operations and launching off an aircraft carrier with no divert airfields available were quickly replaced with doing my job and getting all the systems online and ready to launch.  Within minutes the engines were started, the weapons systems were up and running, and the aircraft was ready to go.  I signaled the enlisted plane captain and immediately the flight deck personnel were unchaining the aircraft from the flight deck.   I was in go mode now following the directions of my taxi director, and before long I was sitting on catapult two waiting for the launch to begin.

            Aircraft carriers operate in cyclic operations where they launch and recover planes on certain time intervals, and they allow the time in between for squadrons to work on the flight deck in relative safety.  As I sat on catapult two on the bow of the USS Stennis, my mind had a minute to take in all the sights and smells that come with carrier operations.  The mix of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, sweat, and grease combined with dozens of young men and women working at a level of exertion that would cripple most people made for an interesting work environment.  It was a work environment that I would not trade for anything.  While I could not see very far in front of my aircraft due to the darkness, every other sense in my body was in hyperdrive, and I was eager to go fly. 

Before long I would get my wish as I was told to taxi forward slightly so that the aircraft could be hooked up to the catapult for launch.  A lot happens very quickly at a moment like this.  I was busy doing my final checks of the aircraft systems and acknowledging the aircraft weight so that the catapult would be set to the correct force, all while the enlisted members of the squadron did final checks outside.  To say that I was busy would be an understatement, which is why I didn’t see Mr. Murphy sitting behind me with a grin waiting to see how I would deal with what was coming.  Time slows down as I was given the run-up signal, and I pushed the throttles to max power and cycled the flight controls to ensure the aircraft would fly when I reached the end of the flight deck.  Since it was dark, and no one could see me in the cockpit, my signal to the outside world that I was ready was turning on my exterior lights.  With the flick of my left pinky the lights came on and my fate was sealed.  Seconds later I was rocketing down the catapult reaching a speed of about 150 mph in a couple hundred feet.  With the hard thump of the end of the catapult I was flying, but tonight was different.   As soon as I felt that thump everything went dark.

            When I say dark, I mean completely black.  All of my flight instruments went completely blank.  All of the lights in the cockpit went out and for a moment I had zero idea of whether or not the engines were even running.  Now that would be a hazardous situation in any aircraft, but on this particular night the danger of the situation was amplified by the fact that I was only 70 feet off of the Pacific Ocean and had very little time to assess the situation and react.  That reaction would be the difference between life and death.  It is funny how the brain works because in my two decades of aviation I have found that during the times when you would imagine that you would be the most stressed, I’ve actually found that time slows down to help. It was at this moment, 70 feet off of the water, that my mind slowed down, and I remembered a key term that was taught to us in flight school many years before.  “No fast hands in the cockpit.” The instructors would tell us this over and over again, and that night in the middle of nowhere it had never been so true.  I had no idea of the actual state of my aircraft, but I knew one thing:  I needed to get away from the water and buy myself some time to figure it out.  Consciously I had no idea of whether or not I would have to eject, but I wanted to be further away from the water, and the ship, if I had to do it.  Without really thinking, I pushed my left hand as far forward as the throttles would let me, and I pulled back on the stick.  I selected the landing gear handle to the up position in hopes to get rid of excess drag and then just focused on getting my bearings outside.

            I was pleasantly surprised to see that the engines were still working, and I continued an unrestricted climb to an altitude that made me feel more comfortable to troubleshoot my problem.  Once I felt that I was not going to fly into the water, I started to look around the cockpit to see what was working, and more importantly what was not working.  None of my displays, including my HUD, were working.  Cockpit lighting had also quit working, but my standby instruments looked ok.  Just as I was trying to see if I could use my radios and actually communicate outside of the aircraft, the ship’s tower called me and asked me how I was doing.  In my haste to climb away from the water and to relative safety, I realized that I had not spoken to anyone, and I was not following normal procedures for flying around the ship.  After realizing I could communicate outside of the ship, I began troubleshooting to try to regain some of my displays before heading back to the ship.  My wingman had joined up on me, and I was speaking on the radio to our squadron representative to try to figure out what I would and would not have available to me for trying to land on board the ship.

            After we exhausted all possible troubleshooting, it became clear that I was going to have to fly an approach on the wing of the other F/A-18C that was airborne, and he would drop me off three-quarters of a mile behind the ship where I would take over visually and try to land.  While we had practiced this in the past, it was not easy.  I would only get one display back and my HUD still wasn’t working.  This was going to be a tricky landing, but I had the faith in the Landing Signals Officers (LSOs) to help me get back aboard the ship.  Luckily for me, I had spent four years flying the E-2C Hawkeye which also did not have a HUD.  While that didn’t make this approach and landing particularly easy, it did allow me to have a skill set that could help a little.  After the other F/A-18C Hornet broke away from formation, and I looked out through where my HUD display used to be, the level of concentration I had was immense.  My instrument scan was completely foreign to me, but with concentration and very good LSO control I was able to get my aircraft back on board safely. 

            It wasn’t until after I had taxied my aircraft to parking and shut down that I really had time to reflect on what I had just been through and how closely I came to having to eject right after the catapult shot.  I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for those dedicated instructors back in flight school who put in the extra effort to ensure that we were as prepared as possible, I would have made the wrong decision which would have resulted in a vastly different outcome to this flight.  A large focus of our training was how to handle complex situations and adapt when things didn’t go as planned.  That training more than paid off that dark night over the Pacific Ocean, alone in an F/A-18C Hornet with mere seconds to react.  Later in my career I became an instructor myself, and one of the fundamental cornerstones that I would always emphasize was “no fast hands in the cockpit.”

Wake for Warriors

Riding with Wolves in a World Full of Sheep

By T.R. Matson

The sun breaks over the horizon and sheds light on the calm of the scene.  Temperatures soar as the light from the sun warms the land.  The light brings with it the beginning of a new day.  Movement starts and time begins to tick.  Pain from the previous day begins to make itself known as the warriors wake up one by one.  Each one has his or her own ritual in the morning that is often very different from yours and mine.  Some days are harder than others, but today there is a familiar feeling. It’s a driving force that many have not felt in a long time.  A feeling that once was their sole motivation to wake up is now back, and it’s immediately at war with the feeling of pain.  This internal war might cripple some, but to these warriors this internal war is a welcome and familiar feeling.  They feel pain, but that also means they are alive.  While this scene is repeated all over the world in some of the most unfriendly places, today is different.  Today the warriors are met with a different goal.  Today they must put aside everything they dealt with yesterday, and everything else going on in their life, and focus on the job at hand…to learn how to surf.

            Wake for Warriors was founded on the simple principle of connecting with injured military veterans through sharing a passion for wake and water sports.  Through this connection they provide these warriors some worry-free days on the lake to learn how to wakeboard and wake surf.  During these lake days, they believe the healing process from the scars of war can occur.  By focusing on developing a skill, connecting with others, and sharing their stories, these warriors can take one step toward remembering where they came from and who they truly are.

            Down by the water the boats begin to arrive.  Glistening machines outfitted with powerful engines and technology that allow them to create amazing endless waves.  These machines will carry each warrior today as they move forward to try to conquer the next challenge in front of them. While that accomplishment may be the main thing in their sights, there are many more gifts the boats will bring with them.  These warriors are very different from most people walking around.  They have been to the ugliest places in the world, at the worst times, and have seen the worst in people.  Those experiences have allowed them to truly appreciate what they have back home.  Many come back broken, and while all the injuries are not visible, they affect each one differently.  Coming back from war-torn lands to a place you used to call home is not easy, and it is often difficult to find others who understand what you are feeling, but today is different.  Each warrior comes from a different background, but as they sit together over coffee and breakfast, they are one.  They relive their experiences from the previous day, speaking of wipeouts and triumphs.  They speak of different equipment, wave settings, and music choices that helped them conquer the wave.  They are “spreading the shred.”

            In a world where warriors, men and women alike, are often sent home and seemingly discarded back to “normal” life, Wake for Warriors gives them hope.  These men and women, while very different on the surface, have a genetic makeup that is similar.  They all answered the phone when their country was calling for help.  Each one ran into the chaos when others were running away.  Each one put his or her own safety aside to protect the brothers and sisters around them and, because of that, each one has scars.  Whether it is a missing limb or something less obvious, it is there.  The interesting thing, though, is while it seems everything about them has changed through these trials and tribulations, their genetic makeup has stayed the same.  They still run towards a challenge, help their brothers and sisters, and never stop telling the best stories when around their new family.  I have watched these men and women show up at the dock battered and beaten by injuries and internal struggles and leave three days later prouder and happier than ever.  There is something in the water that gives these men and women their lives back.  It is the sound of the engines, the cool water, the camaraderie, or a combination of all three that gives these warriors their power and freedom back. 

            Dropping the rope is often the cumulation of many hours behind the boat and many falls.  Gallons of lake water in their lungs doesn’t deter these warriors because they will overcome and conquer this, as they have many things before.  While none of them would compare this to battle, this challenge brings them back to life.  On Sunday when the goodbyes are said, the hugs are shared, and the tears of joy begin, the feelings are all the same.  While these warriors have developed a new skill, it is far more important what they remembered about themselves.  They are not broken.  They are the same person inside they have always been.  They are the heroes to their husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers.  They are brothers and sisters in a family that very few will actually be a part of, and when this world seems to be changing faster than you can keep up with, the internal fire of drive has been ignited once again.  That internal determination is what has allowed them to accomplish so much, and although for many that fire was down to embers when they returned home, it was rekindled somewhere on the lake.  That internal fire makes each and every one of these warriors unstoppable, and it’s what causes them to be wolves in a world full of sheep. 

My First Solo

Life Lessons Learned Alone

By T.R. Matson

            Both military and civilian flight training follows a similar concept for new pilots.  The milestone of soloing for the first time is something that is not forgotten.  At Vance Air Force Base in 2002 the process was fairly simple.  I would go through ground school instruction to understand the basic systems of the T-37, followed by procedure trainers and then flights with an instructor.  After reaching a certain level of proficiency and proving that I could essentially climb into the jet, start the engines, taxi to the runway and takeoff without damaging anything, I would be cleared to do my pattern solo.  This pattern solo was the first time we would be flying the T-37 without an instructor next to us.  We were only permitted to stay in the landing pattern close to base with the thought that such a flight would increase our confidence while minimizing the risk of solo students flying around the area unsupervised.

            I was unlike most other students at Vance AFB at the time because I had exactly zero hours of flight time prior to checking in.  Most student pilots had done some form of training prior to primary, but I had not.  My first time at the controls of an airplane was my first flight in the T-37.  The training was intense but extremely fun as well.  It took long days and nights of studying, but in the end it was worth it to go fly the T-37 in various maneuvers.  At the end of each training flight we would come back to the landing pattern and practice as many landings as we could prior to reaching our minimum fuel.  The more landings the better since the only way to get better was repetition.  After completing the required training flights, my pattern solo check ride was next.

            This flight would be slightly different since it was my first real check ride in my career.  The way it would work is I would go to the jet with an instructor.  I would do the preflight checks and get the jet started. Then I would taxi to the runway and ultimately take off into the landing pattern.  I had to complete three touch and go landings and, if they looked safe to my instructor, my next landing would be to a full stop.  I would then taxi the aircraft back to the squadron where the instructor would get out of the plane and clear me to do it all over again by myself.  Whatever fuel was left in the jet was mine to practice landings on my own.  For this flight things could not have been better.  The sky was clear and the air crisp.  My excitement increased as I walked out to the jet that day knowing what was at stake.  Time seemed to go into fast forward and before I knew it we were airborne flying around the landing pattern.  I knew that safety was the most important thing the instructor was looking for, and I did everything I could to be by the book.  While my landings were not perfect by any means, they were safe. After my third touch and go the instructor told me to make the next one a full stop.

            After landing and taxiing into the squadron, the instructor looked at me and congratulated me for passing my check ride.  He gave me a few more tips and climbed out of the plane.  Before walking away, he took off his name tag from his flight suit and stuck it onto mine.  The tradition back then was that no plane should go flying without a set of wings in it.  Since I had not yet received my navy wings, he loaned me his Air Force ones.  I swelled with pride as I lowered the canopy and called for taxi as a solo student.  While we tried to do everything the exact same way procedurally, being solo was immediately different in the T-37.  As aircrew we sat side by side so when I was sitting at the hold short to the runway looking to the right and not seeing anyone else there it was very distracting.  I tried my best to ignore the differences, but ultimately the feeling of being solely responsible for this jet was hard to overcome.

            Before I knew it, I was cleared for takeoff into the pattern and this is where my training kicked in.  I went through the engine runup and takeoff procedures just like I had been taught and eased the mighty T-37 into the sky.  So far, so good is what I thought as I began my turn to the pattern downwind to attempt my first touch and go without an instructor next to me making sure I didn’t crash.  Military landing patterns are very precise with certain checkpoints that need to be reached to ensure the maximum level of safety.  Unlike most civilian airports, the amount of aircraft in a military landing pattern at any one time, especially on a training base, can be staggering.  Everyone has to fly exactly the same to keep it all safe.  As I got to the downwind heading, the emptiness of the seat to my right once again gained my attention.  I couldn’t believe I was doing it.  A kid from New Jersey who had never flown before was the only reason this plane was flying, and I was extremely proud of how far I had come.  It wasn’t until the turn to final that I would realize how important focus and attention to detail is in aviation.

            The T-37 is a twin-engine jet trainer but would never be called an overpowered aircraft.  The engines are small and the time it took to get the engine to accelerate from idle to maximum power could be awhile and could be very different between the left and right motor.  If this happened, it could cause the plane to experience an asymmetrical situation which could be very dangerous.  During the approach turn my eyes looked out to the runway, and I was focused on making sure I was hitting all my checkpoints.  It was about this time that I realized the flight controls felt less responsive than I was used to.  I looked down at my flight instruments to see if anything was wrong, and I immediately noticed that I was dangerously slow.  They had taught us about the threat of getting slow in the approach turn and how it could lead to an approach turn stall which was very difficult to recover from.  A Navy student pilot had actually had this happen just before I checked into the squadron and was not able to recover and crashed the plane. 

            As soon as I noticed what was wrong, my body seemed to do the opposite of what I would expect.  Instead of tensing up and overreacting, my body almost relaxed as if it was trying to get a better feel for the aircraft.  I was just on the edge of a stall in the aircraft and any fast-abrupt movement could have been catastrophic.  I immediately pushed both engines to max power and lowered the nose of the aircraft just a little.  I fought the tendency to pull back to stay away from the ground.  At this low of an airspeed pulling back on the stick would have ultimately stalled the aircraft, and I would have crashed.  As the engine spooled up, my airspeed slowly increased too.  I was no longer concerned with my landing but with keeping the plane flying.  I aborted that landing attempt and slowly and smoothly got the jet back up to pattern altitude.  I was now safe, but I was still flying so it was time to learn from my mistake and bring the plane around for a landing.

            The rest of the flight was uneventful in comparison and, after doing a few touch and go’s, I ultimately landed the plane. I taxied back to the squadron with no one the wiser about what I had experienced on my first landing.  Looking back, I learned two important lessons that day that have stuck with me.  First, when flying an airplane there are very few times when you have to react quickly without first processing what is going on.  There is a saying, “no fast hands in the cockpit,” and I learned that day that if you just react without thinking, you can very quickly make things worse.  Second, I learned that compartmentalization is critical in aviation.  While that first landing attempt shocked and scared me, I had to put it behind me and keep flying the plane.  If I had let my mind focus on that it would not be focused on my task at hand which was flying and landing the plane.  While these lessons were taught to us in ground school and early flights, sometimes the most important lessons you learn cannot be taught but have to be experienced.  I am just happy that so far all the lessons I had to learn myself have been successful ones.  I guess when they say it’s better to be lucky than good, this is what they’re talking about. 

Cameron “Gazer” Hall

Still Flying on Wings of Gold

By: T.R. Matson

It was the end of 2004 when, after 48 hours of travel, I arrived at my first fleet squadron, the Wallbangers of VAW-117, that had just pulled into port the night prior in Perth, Australia.  I was exhausted from the travel but also very excited to meet my new family with whom I would be for the next three years.  After three years of flight school and moving all around the country I was finally in the fleet as a “nugget” or new pilot, and I fully expected to be treated as such.  We all heard stories of “FNGs” (new guys) coming to a squadron and not making a good first impression, so I decided to try my best to keep my mouth shut (not an easy task) and my ears open.

            The junior officers had rented a condo while in port, which I learned was called the “Admin” and was a tradition.  It was a place to get away from the squadron, have fun, and unwind.  I entered the Perth Admin as most members of the squadron were recovering from a hard night.  I did not know it at the time, but the morning after the first night in port tended to be a rough one as everyone had let loose the night prior after being at sea for a long time.  It was like walking into the lion’s den, and I was fresh meat.  I took it all in stride knowing it was all part of Naval Aviation, and I was just happy to be there.  While most of my fellow squadron mates were nice, only a few stood out to really enjoy giving me a hard time.  On the other hand, one stood out as exceptionally friendly.  LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall came down the stairs looking for a bottle of water and saw me.  He immediately shook my hand and welcomed me to the Wallbangers.  I could tell right away that something was different.  He seemed to genuinely care about me.  He asked about my trip and if I had any questions about squadron life or needed anything. 

            Over the time that I served with Gazer I realized that was just the person he was.  It didn’t matter if you were a Pilot or Naval Flight Officer (NFO), he looked out for those around him. Whether he knew it consciously or not he was always trying to make you a better person.  One unique quality I learned about Gazer was that while he was the life of any party, he was also an absolute professional in the back of the Hawkeye.  I would see him control large groups of aircraft with a degraded Hawkeye radar, all while mentoring the junior NFOs, and never break a sweat.  I learned a lot from Gazer, but the most important thing that I learned was that those around you, those closest to you, are the most important thing.  He once told me, “It is one thing to possess the skills needed to do this job, but if you cannot pass those skills on to others then it doesn’t mean a thing.”

            After serving together, Gazer went on to the Greyhawks of VAW-120 to be a Fleet Replenishment Squadron (FRS) instructor.  He would teach the future NFOs of the Hawkeye all the skills he had honed, both in and out of the aircraft, over his years with the Wallbangers.  While serving at the FRS, Gazer volunteered to be part of the Naval tradition of carrier qualification.  One of the last phases of training for a Hawkeye pilot was to complete both day and night landings aboard an aircraft carrier before moving on to be a fleet pilot.  Gazer’s love of flying was so great that he volunteered to sit alone in the back of the Hawkeye, which is a requirement, to ensure the aircraft was operating properly during these flights.  This would mean long flights, both day and night, and many landings at the ship with new pilots trying to get qualified.  For Gazer it was an opportunity to share the milestone of Naval Carrier Aviation with the next generation of pilots. 

            On August 15, 2007, Greyhawk 620 launched off of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) with new pilot LT Jerry Smith, instructor pilot LT Ryan Betton, and LT Cameron “Gazer” Hall in the back.  The flight would last less than 10 seconds as the Hawkeye crashed shortly after the catapult launch into the ocean with no survivors.  It was a tragic day for Naval Aviation and the Hawkeye Community and even more so for those who knew the crew.  As for the Wallbangers, we were back at sea on another deployment and the news hit us hard.  I will never forget the tears from my squadron mates as they recounted story after story about Gazer over the years.  Rarely in this world have I met someone that lifts others up as much as Gazer did.  While he left this world far too early, he was the kind of person who lived every day to its fullest.  We should all learn a lesson from Gazer that while there are no guarantees in life, we can be the best we can be today and lift those up around us to do the same.  Many years later I still think of Gazer when I go fly.  The job of being a pilot is inherently dangerous at its core, but somehow I feel safer knowing that I have friends like Gazer looking down on me, guiding me to make the right decisions, and ensuring that I always find a long runway to land on with calm winds.  I have to doubt in my mind that Gazer is up in the clouds with a smile on his face, soaring like an eagle on his Wings of Gold.

Know Your Audience

Understanding How to Get Your Message Across in the Most Demanding Circumstances

By T.R. Matson

            It had only been a few months since I left my E-2C Hawkeye squadron, VAW-117 in Pt. Mugu, California and checked into VT-22 as an instructor pilot and Landing Signals Officer (LSO) in Kingsville, Texas.  There was a lot to learn going back to flying the T-45 in both the A and C models as well as teaching for the first time in any real capacity.  I had spent the previous three years flying the Hawkeye and deploying around the globe while working on my squadron tactical qualifications as well as earning my wing qualification as an LSO.  That wing LSO qualification earned me the opportunity to go back to flight school and teach new students how to land on an aircraft carrier.  While I was looking forward to a little relaxation after the operational tempo of the previous three years, I was still learning how to teach new Navy and Marine Corps students to ensure they were prepared for what their futures had in store for them.

            A couple months after checking in and getting my basic instructor qualifications out of the way it was time to teach my first group of students the fine art of landing a multimillion-dollar aircraft on a multibillion-dollar aircraft carrier.  We would start with a mass briefing.  There would be an introduction of all the LSOs to the students, which in this case was three LSOs for 21 students.  Next phase was after a brief ground school the students would go into the simulator for a few training events before ultimately coming back to the squadron.  The next three weeks would essentially become a Groundhog Day of sorts which included a brief and usually two flights for each student.  They would practice 6-8 landings before stopping and switching out of the jet so that another student could hop in.  By operating this way, we could maximize the amount of training for the students and get them hundreds of practice landings in a relatively short period of time.  This was a fun and stressful time for the students as they got to fly solo a lot, but each landing was being graded very carefully to ensure they were progressing at the rate they needed to before heading out to the ship.

            At the end of every period of flying each LSO would debrief their seven students on every landing.  It was critical to talk about trends that we saw and give the students things to work on.  One important thing that we would stress was not trying to fix everything at once.  It was critical to try to change just one variable and then see how that worked.  If it worked, great, but if not then work on changing something else.  Over the days and weeks, the students were progressing at different rates, but all were on track to leave with their friends to head to Cecil Field in Florida and to the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier.  As LSOs, we were also learning from the senior LSO in our group.  Waving aircraft in the fleet with seasoned pilots was vastly different then waving students who had never seen an aircraft carrier.  We were told that you will see different trends, but the biggest student to keep an eye on was not the one who was struggling at the field but actually the one that was doing great.  A lot of times it was that student who got spooked the most when they found themselves behind an aircraft carrier for the first time.

            As the carrier qualification detachment approached, I found myself excited to be sharing this experience with my seven students.  To this day I can remember every aspect of my initial carrier qualification and it is truly something that sets naval aviators apart from other aviators.  It is every bit of a rite of passage as anything else I have done in my career.  After finishing up the training in Kingsville, TX all seven of my students had progressed to a level that allowed them to head to the carrier qualification detachment in Florida, and I was very proud of each and every one of them.  I knew that some would struggle more than others, but I felt confident that all would come home completing this phase of training successfully.  A couple days after flying from Kingsville to Cecil Field I found myself on the aircraft carrier.  I had never been on the USS Bush before, but it felt good to breathe in the salt air and be on the LSO platform again.  The differences between this training and being in the fleet were very obvious from the start.  In the fleet the flight deck was crowded with various types of aircraft crammed within inches of each other, but now there was just a handful of T-45 Goshawk aircraft from both NAS Kingsville and NAS Meridian.  The flight deck of the carrier seemed bigger than any other I had ever seen even though it was the same size.  I was excited to get the day started and see how my students would do.

            For the most part, day one was what I expected.  The students who struggled at the field tended to struggle a little at the boat and vice versa with one exception.  I had one Marine student who was an absolute rockstar at the field.  Every landing was the same and damn near perfect for his level of training.  I never worried about him making any bonehead mistakes or doing anything unsafe.  Honestly, I had let my guard down.  Did someone invite Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) to this carrier qualification detachment?  When this student got to the ship he froze.  He started making mistakes that the other students were doing at the field at the beginning of training, but all of them had learned from their mistakes.  This Marine had regressed in a manner that I was starting to get concerned with and so were the other LSOs on the platform.  When it comes to being an LSO you are never alone, and there is always a team up there working together to safely and expeditiously land aircraft.  The other LSOs were starting to take notice of this student and it showed.  At the end of day one I spent a lot of time in the ready room below deck talking to him about the basics.  I was trying to get his head back in the game and I told him that he was still on track to pass, even if that was a little white lie.  The fact was he had to come out on day two and show a great deal of improvement or he would risk failing this training.  

            Day two started with another mass briefing with all my students before they headed to the flight deck.  I reminded each of them what they needed to work on in order to qualify, and I also reminded them not to do anything stupid after they had finished.  We all heard stories of pilots who qualified only to fly back to the beach and buzz the tower or do an aileron roll off of the catapult launch.  They were greeted with a failure and ultimately being thrown out of training, and I did not want any of my students to experience that.  I took extra time with my Marine student who seemed concerned with his grades.  I told him to not worry about the grades, that was my job.  I told him to go back to the basics.  At this point I was taking a very kind, almost parental approach to his training.  I felt like it was critical to build up his confidence.

            My Marine was in the first wave of students to takeoff so I would see how my approach would work right away.  For the first two landings he didn’t look bad.  Both of those approaches ended in a touch and go based on the requirements for training, and it was his third pass that he would put his hook down and trap aboard the carrier.  I watched as he flew around the approach turn, and at the beginning he looked good.  Maybe he had listened and calmed down.  Unfortunately, as soon as he rolled out behind the ship, he got nervous again.  While he ultimately landed on that approach, it was not a pretty landing.  The Airboss of the ship sidelined his aircraft partially to get fuel, but also to calm him down.  The Airboss called down to the LSO platform and told us to talk to him and calm him down or he was going to have him shutdown.  He was not interested in having an accident on his flight deck.  I had some decisions to make.  First, I had to decide if I wanted to let this young Marine keep going or end his training right now.  Second, if I decided to keep him going, I had to decide how to talk to him over the radio to get his head back on track.  It is times like this that, regardless of what you are teaching, you have to listen to your gut.

            When there was a break in the landing pattern, I called up my student on the radio.  This was the tower frequency of the ship and everyone was listening.  We did not use names as each student was given a qualification number like G-1, G-2 etc. so that we could talk to them and keep track of their landings.  When I called this Marine on the radio my “pep talk” went like this.  “Listen up Marine!  What I need right now is for you to forget about everything else in your life and pull your head out of your butt and fly that damn plane like we both know you can…any questions?”  The response I heard was a simple “No, Sir” as I was met by a dozen shocked looks from the other LSOs on the platform.  I did not have to wait for a break in the awkwardness long because the Airboss immediately called down to the platform and was irate.  He didn’t want the Marine to even takeoff now, but my gut told me that what I did was correct.  After a discussion my student was allowed to launch, and I watched with eagerness as he flew the approach turn and set up for landing.  I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt it was the best landing I had seen all day from any student.  The head LSO on the platform seemed pleased, and my student was allowed to continue.

            The Marine ultimately went on to get his carrier qualification and earn his wings of gold.  He went onto a very successful career as a Marine Corps Fighter pilot and I will never forget what he said to me when we got back to Cecil field that day.  “Thanks sir, I really needed that slap upside the head…I couldn’t have done it without you.”  With that I learned a very valuable lesson of being an instructor that has stuck with me.  Regardless of what you are teaching, you can be the smartest person in the room but if you cannot read your audience and present the subject in a manner that they can receive, understand and process, then you are useless.  Our egos often get in our way, having us think we are superior to others just because we are the instructor.  Ultimately the best instructors are those who can stay humble enough to remember where they have come from, but confident enough to use their knowledge to lift up others around them.  I am truly thankful for all those students over the years to whom I was able to teach the fine art of landing on an aircraft carrier, and hopefully I was able to learn as much from them as they from me.


Mr. Murphy Gets Some Combat Time

By: T.R. Matson

            The day started onboard the USS Nimitz with Airwing 11 as I checked the VAW-117 Wallbanger flight schedule and saw a rare sight…a day flight.  Airwing 11 had been working combat operations for some time and most of that was done at night.  Between all the flying, being an LSO, and also trying to handle ground jobs, it was a rare sight to see that I would have a relatively routine day flight up to Afghanistan and be back to the Nimitz before dinner.  To make it better, the weather was forecasted to be great and my co-pilot was my fellow roommate and LSO “SEAP,” so I knew we would have a good time.  Looking back at all the planes I’ve flown over the years, and all the different missions I have done, I always remember those flights with another junior officer in the E-2C Hawkeye to be something special.  It was a time to get away from the ship and the Groundhog Day atmosphere of squadron life on a combat deployment.  You would think that I would have learned at this point in my career to check for stowaways, but as I left breakfast and headed to the mass mission brief I hadn’t realized that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) had decided that he wanted some combat time in his logbook.

            The mass mission brief went off smoothly, and my crew and I walked back to ready room two, home of the Wallbangers, to conduct our crew brief before stepping to the aircraft.  On today’s mission the NFOs in the back would be providing command and control for the aircraft entering and leaving the operating area while SEAP and I would ensure that the aircraft flew at the optimal attitude to give them the best radar picture possible.  It may sound mundane when compared to the roles of the fighter aircraft in the airwing, but I can tell you that after flying both the E-2C and the F/A-18C, the Hawkeye came with unique challenges for the pilots on any given flight.  Our crew brief went smoothly, and after covering everyone’s job and all the aspects of keeping the flight safe, we grabbed a couple sandwiches from the forward wardroom and made our way up to the flight deck.

            During the preflight various crewmembers look over the aircraft and while each member of the 5-person crew has their individual role, everyone backs each other up as well.  The aircraft checked good and before closing the door I remember the FDC (flight deck chief) came in one last time to check on SEAP and I and said, “Couldn’t ask for a more perfect day to fly sir!”  Indeed, it was, and as the white, puffy clouds dotted the otherwise clear blue sky for the first time since reaching the flight deck, I had a minute to take stock of my surroundings.  The hum of the twin engines running on the Hawkeye allowed my mind to wander to when I first decided I wanted to be a pilot for the Navy.  In what seemed to be a relatively insignificant run-in with a senior officer at Texas A&M, my career path went from somewhat vague to laser focused with my goal to earn my wings of gold and land on aircraft carriers.  In a series of events that would have me fly the T-37, T-44, and T-45 before finally reaching the E-2C, my life seemed like a blur that maybe for the first time was finally slowing down.  With little time to spare during the launch of a flight deck of combat aircraft my mind was quickly brought back to reality. Our aircraft was checked to be mission ready, and we were taxiing to catapult three for launch. 

            SEAP and I had checklists to accomplish, which were done in a fluid motion of two crew members that had worked together for years.  The bond of roommates during conditions like this tend to solidify friendships for life or create unbelievable tension, but in this case SEAP and I would have our career paths cross many times in the decades to come.  The weight board was agreed upon, to ensure we would have enough speed to fly at the end of the catapult and our wings were spread and locked.  As I taxied forward of the jet blast deflector, it rose behind us to shield aircraft and people during the engine runup.  I confirmed with the mission commander in the back of the Hawkeye that all the NFOs were ready and soon we went into tension.  This is when the aircraft is at the mercy of the catapult and time sped up to unbelievable speeds.  I ran up both motors, checked that all indications looked good, wiped out the controls a few times to make sure nothing felt abnormal, and confirmed with SEAP that he also liked everything he saw, heard, and felt.  The Hawkeye is a unique aircraft because while it is the only day and night capable propeller aircraft onboard, it produces a tremendous amount of thrust and would literally shake while in tension on the catapult.  Additionally, the Hawkeye lacked one system that all the fighters had and that was the ejection seat.  Carrier catapults without an ejection seat meant it was critical that everything looked perfect. If something went wrong in the first few seconds of flight our only option would be to ditch the aircraft in the ocean ahead of the carrier, which was a maneuver that we would likely not all walk away from.  With all checks being good, I sharply saluted the catapult officer and waited.  In what always feels like an eternity, final checks were done outside the aircraft and the button was pushed sending our 53,000lb aircraft from a standstill to flying speed in less than 3 seconds…hopefully.

            After a clearing turn and cleaning up the gear and flaps, I flew the aircraft on our carrier departure and soon turned to the north to begin our climb to our mission track.  In the back of the Hawkeye the NFOs were already busy at work setting up the radar and getting various radios online to coordinate with every fighter, tanker, and frankly any other aircraft that entered our area of operations.  While I am not sure sitting in the back of a Hawkeye was a job that I could have ever done, I have great respect for the job those men and women do.  I have seen what they have to work with, and it always amazes me the job they do.  To my right SEAP was busy switching through the various radio frequencies and getting all our checklists done, and when I looked over passing 10,000’ he was already busy working a fuel ladder for the flight.  Another thing that separates the E-2C from other aircraft aboard the Nimitz was our lack of inflight refueling capabilities.  What this meant is that the approximate 12,000lbs of fuel we left the carrier with was all we would have to use on this mission.  Regardless of how things went, what went wrong, or what Mr. Murphy threw at us, when the fuel read zero it was game over.  With that in mind, every Hawkeye pilot takes their fuel planning very seriously, and SEAP was no different.  When I look back over my 4 years and 1,000 hours flying the Hawkeye, every major memory seems to have SEAP involved somehow.  Whether it was sitting next to me laughing about a port call, or saving my life from the LSO platform, or calming me down in the ready room after a particularly bad night landing on the ship, SEAP was always there.  For that reason, I knew that nothing could go wrong on this flight that we couldn’t handle, not that Mr. Murphy wasn’t going to test us.

            While the Hawkeye has an autopilot system, it is nothing compared to that of other aircraft, and it routinely just didn’t work at all.  Spending six hours on mission profile trying to hold a specific angle of attack while watching the fuel very closely can be fatiguing to say the least.  Throw in the ability to do flat turns (yes, they are as bad as they sound) and the drone of the engines and sometimes it took all your energy just to stay focused on flying.  Today was a different story, though.  The autopilot was engaged, and the fuel flow was set to the optimal rate as SEAP and I monitored radio frequencies, told stories, and enjoyed a stale sandwich from the Nimitz wardroom.  It was about an hour after takeoff that Mr. Murphy gave us a small hint that he was onboard.  I noticed that our angle of attack (a primary instrument gauge for all Navy carrier aircraft) was not matching up with what it should be for our given fuel flow.  Without much thought I kicked off the autopilot and bunted the nose of the aircraft down a little and the AOA gauge seemed to work again.  SEAP and I both shrugged it off and went back to our sea stories and sandwiches. 

            It is flights like this that mostly seem mundane but also go by quickly. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the carrier.  We would be doing a day, Case One arrival and approach which essentially meant we would talk to very few people, find the other aircraft, and land with a beautiful coordination that I have only seen in Navy carrier aviation.  If done correctly by everyone it gets a large number of aircraft back on the flight deck in very little time.  We entered the overhead stack and found the flight of Super Hornets that would be our interval and waited for our turn.  The systems in the back were shut down and essentially the NFOs’ job was to just enjoy the ride while SEAP and I figured out how to get this massive Hawkeye on the relatively small flight deck below.  During this time a characteristic of all carrier aviators started to come out as SEAP joked that I should do a shit hot break (SHB).  What this meant is that I would work out my interval so that I could break right at or slightly behind the aircraft carrier instead of further upwind.  What this did was make the landing much more difficult because there was zero opportunity to fix anything during the approach.  It was essentially a continuous 360 degree turn to landing, and the Hawkeye did not offer the same visibility outside the cockpit as other aircraft, which lead to the difficultly of the maneuver.  That being said I knew two things.  First, there was a Marine LSO on the flight deck controlling this recovery and he was one of us.  He was fun to be around and loved the constant banter of fighter guys and Hawkeye pilots.  He was a great guy and awesome pilot and an even better LSO. He always loved when the E-2C tried to act like its fighter brothers.  Second, there was no way that I wasn’t going to take SEAP up on his challenge.  Even as he was giving me a hard time, I was already changing my interval so that I had more room between us and the flight of Super Hornets ahead.  I can only imagine that Mr. Murphy was smiling somewhere on the plane as I was giving him the perfect opportunity to strike.

            Before I knew it, we were 800’ above the ocean lined up behind the ship, and I was flying the E-2C Hawkeye as fast as I could get it.  We were the last plane to land and all eyes were on us.  Just as the Nimitz went under the nose of the Hawkeye, I pulled the throttles to idle and rolled into a left bank and pulled back hard on the yoke.  The key now was to bleed off airspeed and show up behind the ship in the proper configuration, lined up for landing and the proper angle of attack.  Angle of attack is extremely critical for landing on the ship because if you are too fast you will likely have your hook skip over the wires, you will bolter, and then have to try again. If you’re too slow, you are dangerously close to stalling the aircraft.  For the Hawkeye I was aiming for 20 units AOA on a small gauge in the cockpit, but first I had to get the aircraft slowed and in position.  There is nothing worse than doing a SHB only to get waved off for being out of position or boltering and having to try again.  As we approached the 90 or base position, we were slow enough that SEAP got the gear down, flaps and rudder set for landing.  Rolling through the 45 position and beginning to cross the wake everything was coming together as we finished the landing checklists and I saw the LSO give me the green “cut” lights which was my signal to land.  About this time Mr. Murphy must have grabbed his popcorn to watch the show.

            I have said before that during certain times flying time really slows down and this was one of them.  Being on centerline when landing a Hawkeye on the ship is critical.  We have very little lateral room to play with so on centerline is our only option.  As I was lining up, I noticed that my AOA was still showing a little fast.  I assumed we were just bleeding off excess energy from the relatively fast break.  It was about this time that things outside started to look wrong very quickly.  The first thing I noticed was that the nose of the aircraft seemed higher than usual.  Next I saw another set of “cut” lights from the LSO which this time would mean he wanted me to add power.  So far, my throttles had been at idle since I went into the break.  Very quickly after that second “cut” light we heard, “POWER! POWER!! WAVEOFF!!” and I immediately pushed both throttles to max instinctively and with that my AOA indicator showed us extremely slow.  I eased the nose of the aircraft down slightly to try to help gain flying speed.  Thankfully the Hawkeye has a lot of relative thrust at low altitudes and after activating the rudder shakers to warn of impending stall we flew away and climbed to pattern altitude. 

            A quick conversation between SEAP and I determined that the AOA had frozen again, like it had previously done on mission profile, and if the LSO hadn’t waved us off when he did, we would have stalled the aircraft behind the ship with no time to recover.  SEAP and I were definitely shaken but we still had work to do.  After explaining to the ship what had happened and talking to our squadron maintenance representative on the radio it was decided that we would set up for a visual straight in approach.  This would allow us time to get the aircraft configured and allow us to see how the AOA gauge was working.  After setting up behind the ship, finishing our checklists and calling the ball, the LSOs essentially talked us down to landing giving me glideslope, lineup, and AOA calls until I touched down on the Nimitz.  We taxied the aircraft clear of the landing area, folded the wings, and ultimately got chained to the flight deck and shut down the motors.  As everyone else left the aircraft SEAP and I sat there for a moment.  Little to no words were spoken since we had landed, and I will never forget looking over at him, and with a smirk on his face his first comment was, “I wonder how the shit hot break looked!”

            We both laughed at that and got out of the aircraft and went down to the ready room.  We had to write up the maintenance problem with the aircraft, debrief the flight, get my debrief from the LSO, and get some food.  After talking with the LSOs, I thanked them for being there because they saved 5 lives that day for sure.  There was no way to tell in a timely fashion that our aircraft was headed to impending doom if they hadn’t seen it from outside the aircraft on the flight deck.  Years later I sit here and think back about what, if anything, I would do differently, and the answer is nothing.  While that may sound stupid, the bottom line is malfunctions happen.  It is our job as military aviators to push it and hone our skills in tough environments.  Everyone played a role in our success that day, and that is how the system is designed to work.  Having the experience of flying a plane like that on the razor’s edge of stalling taught me a lot of things that I will never forget and can be applied to any plane I fly.  I guess you could say that SEAP and I gained a little skill in exchange for a little luck that day on the Nimitz, and like the saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

Failure is the ONLY option

By: T.R. Matson

It was a beautiful Friday morning as I parked at the military hospital.  My plan was to finish my annual flight physical and get started on my weekend.  The weather was supposed to be great, and I was looking forward to a few days off work.  As I entered the waiting area, there were half a dozen service men and women waiting to be seen by the doctor, yet one man who stood out.  He was sitting all alone wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and a Vietnam Veteran ball cap.  He sat patiently waiting while leaning on the oxygen tank that sat in front of him and helped him breathe.  With a quick glance around the room it seemed as if everyone had sat as far away as they could from the gentleman whose eyes looked tired yet still very much alive.

            After checking in at the front desk I sat down across from him.  I was a young Ensign in the Navy and proudly wearing my flight suit this Friday morning.  Our eyes caught each other, he smiled, and I returned a simple nod and “good morning sir.”  He took that opening and immediately asked me if I was going through flight training and followed up with asking what I wanted to fly.  Our conversation flowed easily, and time passed without notice.  He told me that he wanted to be a pilot when he was my age but when he learned of the low success rate, he never pursued it.  Before he knew it, he was sent to Vietnam and his life path was set.  He asked me why I was in the hospital, and I asked him the same.  That is where this went from being just another Friday morning to something I will never forget.

            “I’m dying, son. I am just here to say goodbye and thank all the staff that has tried to help me.”  I sat there in shock.  While he didn’t look exceptionally healthy breathing from the oxygen bottle, he also didn’t look like he was going to die anytime soon.  I suppose that my shock was evident on my face, and he immediately changed the subject.  He went on to tell me about his wife and children, as well as the friends he had made while serving in the military.  Some had already passed and others he still spoke to everyday.  He told me about his life after the military, his favorite brand of whiskey, and how he could still smell his wife’s perfume if he closed his eyes even though she had passed years prior from cancer.  His spirits lifted as he spoke of her and their life together.  He smiled and told me he had a full life and with his days numbered he had only one regret.  Before I could even decide if I wanted to ask him what it was, he offered it to me, “I never failed at anything.”

            While on the surface this could come across as an overly arrogant man bragging on his accomplishments, I learned the truth was actually very different.  Here sitting across from me was a man that undoubtedly had seen some pretty amazing things, both good and bad, during his lifetime.  He was facing his own mortality and he explained to me that he never really pushed himself enough to fail at anything.  He gave the example of being told that learning how to fly was too difficult, and that he would likely fail, so he never tried.  The gravity of that point hit me like a rock as I sat there and hung on his every word.  I realized that I was speaking to a man who had lived his whole life and only regretted how he did it.  He told me that there were so many times when he would come to a fork in the road of life, and he had to choose whether to take the path that would be comfortable or the one that took him out of his comfort zone.  He always took the comfortable one.  He ended the conversation when his name was called with a halfhearted joke that he wondered where he would be if he had chosen differently.

            As he left the room, I sat there with my own thoughts trying to process the advice he left me with.  “Never stop failing.”  To this day, there are many times that I sit alone and think of the old man in the hospital.  Life has a way of offering challenges when we sometimes least expect it.  It is very easy to get comfortable and listen to those around us say our goals are impractical.  Today, many years later, I think back on my own life.  There have been many highs and lows, and I have experienced things that if you told me I would, back on that Friday morning, I would not have believed you.  One thing is for sure, that old man’s words stuck with me more than I could have ever imagined.  I laugh at the times that I went for something that seemed utterly impossible only to succeed.  Other times I have failed, and sometimes those failures have been huge, but they always lead to other opportunities and experiences that I would not have had if I just took the comfortable road.

            So today I want to pass on the words of a great old man who had lived a great life with only one regret.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Don’t let the strongest muscle, your brain, get in the way of your success.  When people around you say you cannot do something, prove them wrong.  Life is very short, and we only get one chance. Don’t waste the time listening to what other people tell you with regards to what you can and cannot accomplish.  Listen to your heart, and let it drive your passion. While you may fail at times, those failures will bring opportunities and life lessons that will make you stronger in the long run.  In order to be truly successful at life, failure is the only option.

My Nemesis

By: T.R. Matson

There he is again.  I slowly focus on the noise that I am now very accustomed to hearing day in and day out.  I know what that sound means for me.  It means constant pain and struggle in order to beat him.  My muscles ache down to the bone from our training the previous day, but I know that he won’t leave me alone if I just try to ignore him.  Maybe that is exactly what I should do.  Just ignore him and get on with my day.  When I look at the calendar, I have plenty to do.  Whether it is meetings, chores, or things I’ve been putting off, I know that there is plenty that I could focus my energy on and still feel like I’ve accomplished a lot today.  Without fail I slowly start moving in order to appease him.  Joints ache and muscles still burn but slowly as I am moving, I realize that I am also feeling better.  Like motor oil coating valuable engine parts my body comes alive.  At first the task at hand seems unrealistic and daunting but slowly minute-by-minute it is becoming clearer.  As I decide to go with the full finger bike gloves due to the colder temperatures outside, he mocks me one more time just to make sure I know who the boss is. 

                  Once outside the world becomes more and more clear.  My mind opens up to the environment around me and with the first stroke of the pedal I realize that I am slowly opening up distance between me and my nemesis.  I continue to pedal on and as I warm up more, I start crushing through the gears opening up more and more distance.  Once a comfortable distance has been opened, I am able to ponder many things alone on the bike.  One thing that crosses my mind is why I do this.  Why do we all do this?  Who in their right mind thinks that putting on an overly tight outfit and sitting on a tiny seat alone for miles and miles is a good idea?  Well we all do because day after day and week and week we press on.  Whether the goal is a sprint triathlon or competing at Kona it doesn’t matter.  We constantly track and record all of our data looking for the slightest thing that shows that we are improving.  We become slaves to our computers, heart rate monitors and GPS devices. 

                  None of that matters right now though.  Halfway through the ride that previously I thought was unattainable, thanks to the nagging of my nemesis, I realize that I can do this.  I also realize why I do this.  It may sound simple, but I have always believed that life is short, and I want to make the most out of every day.  So that is why I do this to my body week in and week out.  I know that while I am out here, cranking the pedals mile after mile, I am constantly moving.  Life is just that simple.  If I can keep moving, I am still alive.  No matter what pain I have from yesterday’s workout or what I have ahead of me at the office, I am still alive and moving forward.  I come to this realization approaching my last turn before heading home and it lifts me up.  I suddenly have the energy to press harder.  The road feels smoother or the bike is lighter, or my legs are stronger, but it doesn’t matter because I am alive.  I crank harder now for the last mile, half mile, and hundred yards until I turn into the driveway exhausted.

                  The pain sets in and the muscles slowly begin to cramp but there is one feeling that doesn’t change.  I am alive!  I have now accomplished something this morning that only my fellow athletes could understand.  I could try to tell my folks or co-workers or dog, but I would get the same strange look in return.  I know, as I open the front door that no matter what happens today, I have already pushed myself and proven to myself that I am still alive.  I will, undoubtedly face trials and setbacks in the hours to come but my mind will drift back to that moment on the bike. 

                  As I sit down to stretch and wait for my workout data to download to my computer so I can analyze it over a cup of coffee I hear him again.  Faintly echoing from the distance it’s my nemesis, except this time he sounds different.  The noise sounds much more like triumph now then before because I have beaten him once again.  No matter how much he tries to bring me down and cause me to want to quit I know now that I have beaten him once again and nothing can take that away.  A smile slowly creeps across my face as I stand up and walk to the bedroom to confront him in victory.  Of course, as I address his noise I have to wonder if I will ever remember to just shut off the snooze on him before my ride so that I don’t wake up everyone in the house.

Red Devil with Angel Wings

MAJ Taj “Cabbie” Sareen

By: T.R. Matson

The first time it happens they tell you that you have to let them go.  You are young, invincible and it could never be you…until it is the guy next to you.  No matter what, they tell you to let them go…. but, the reality of the situation for anyone who has experienced this is that you can never let them go.

            It was during my time with my first squadron that I first experienced the “Red Devils” of VMFA-232.  They were deployed with us onboard the USS Nimitz and there was no mistaking that Marines were onboard from day one.  Within days every pipe on the ship was labeled “This is not a pull-up bar” in a pathetic effort to stop the Devils from destroying the Nimitz in order to get their daily workouts in.  It went further than that though.  Even though I was flying the E-2C Hawkeye on this particular deployment my interactions with the pilots of VMFA-232 were constant.  From the LSO platform as I learned my new trade, to airborne when they would never pass up the opportunity to join up on the big Hawkeye and be led into the break, even if they would get in trouble every time, they did it.  The world was their playground and they were larger than life enjoying the floating airport supplied to them by the US Navy. 

            I will never forget the first port call I experienced with the Red Devils when they came to our “Admin” (hotel room for squadron partying) all decked out in matching custom-made red suits.  Their brotherhood was remarkable and had a huge factor on me later applying for a transition to fly the F/A-18C Hornet.  With this in mind it came as no surprise to me that when on October 21, 2015, word came out that one of the Devils had lost his life in the most heroic of ways.  While I never deployed with Major Taj “Cabbie” Sareen, I was stationed with those who did, and the impact was immediate and fierce.  With it came all the memories of those who I did know who are gone well before their time.  In the weeks and months ahead people are always searching for answers but the same line eventually is repeated…” You just have to let them go.”  Easier said than done.

            “Cabbie” touched lives both in and out of the Marine Corps.  Even today looking at his photo leaves the viewer shaken from the power of the eyes looking back.  He was not a man that did his job out of selfish reasons but for the greater good.  Constantly looking to make those around him better, stronger and wiser from his own experiences.  Giving back to those who would never be able to slip the surly bonds of earth. 

            In one story told by a former squadron mate, he and Taj ran across each other in the hot pits in El Centro.  After talking on a tactual frequency, Taj, without hesitation offered his squadron mate and friends access to his San Diego apartment and use of any of his cars, but it didn’t stop there.  Remembering “Cabbie” from squadron social functions, one recounts how he always took time to get to know the wives, girlfriends and families of his fellow Red Devils.  He understood how uncomfortable those events could be for some and he took a genuine interest in getting to know each and every one around him and making them more comfortable.  Even during his last moments in this world there are eyewitness accounts that “Cabbie” steered his stricken Hornet away from populated areas on the ground, no doubt sacrificing his life to save others.  Taj seemed to have the energy of 10 men.  Never satisfied and always striving for more, he left this world a better place than he found it.  But what about those still here?

            That is the million-dollar question.  Every member of the military who has served any amount of time can close their eyes and instantly be confronted with those they’ve lost.  Whether it was a time flying, or a joke in the ready room or a port call that can never be forgotten, the images flood back in force.  It affects everyone differently, some laugh, some cry, while others begin to shake and feel like they are in a bad dream that will never end.  “Why them and why not me,” is often the question.  Survivor’s guilt is what the professionals call it but none of that matters to the service member that has more questions than answers.  How do you go back to your daily lives now with a huge hole in your heart?  How do you keep moving forward when great men and women are taken before their time?  I offer this to my brothers and sisters in arms whenever dealing with a tragedy like this. 

            I will never forget sitting at a bar with a very close friend of mine who is no longer with us.  We were sitting in this bar toasting a comrade who had recently died in a crash and while sitting there telling stories and making up lies, a woman approached us and interrupted with a simple question.

            “Excuse me, I have been listening to you for the last hour and I am sorry for your loss, but I have a question.  After something so tragic, do the rest of you go back to flying, or do you quit and move onto other phases of your life and other jobs?”

            The question brought with it complete and utter silence as every aviator in the group reflected on the woman’s words.  After what seemed like an eternity my friend broke the silence.

            “Of course, you fly, you lift your head up high to honor your fallen brother or sister and take comfort knowing that as a pilot you have the unique ability to lift yourself up off the ground and into the clouds.  You will be closer to them on every flight and have yet another guardian angel ensuring your safe landing.  It is never easy but it is what we do so that others will remember their sacrifice.”

            Taj, you were a man who touched so many in your short time here and continue to touch lives every day.  You were a Red Devil in the purest form and there are many aviators today who are blessed to have you looking over them, their Red Devil Guardian with Angel Wings. 

Just Win Today…

Learning how to control what I can.

By: T.R. Matson

I was sitting in the forward wardroom on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier.  It was 3am and the end of 2004.  The ship was sitting off the coast of Australia, and I could not sleep.  My mind was a blur of the previous two and a half years of flight school since graduating college.  I had moved five times, flew four different aircraft, and after what seemed to be countless hours and completing carrier qualifications in both the T-45 Goshawk and the E-2C Hawkeye, I had finally made it to my first fleet squadron.  As I sit in the wardroom alone wide awake, I realized that even though I had been through a top-notch aviation training program, I was not ready for what was ahead of me. 

            Hours ago, I just saw the real beast of what Naval Aviation was and flight school didn’t prepare me for that one bit.  You see, when you go through flight school everything is done in a very controlled environment.  Nothing more so than carrier qualifications.  When I went during the day in the T-45 the sea and wind conditions had to be about perfect or they wouldn’t even let us try.  Then if you graduate that and move onto your next aircraft, the one you will fly in the fleet, the restrictions for carrier qualifications with regards to weather loosened a little bit.  Of course, as I just learned, once you get to the fleet all bets are off.  This particular night I had just landed in relatively good weather.  There was a full moon and not a cloud in the sky which I would assume would make for a great landing, but I was wrong.  This particular night, off of the coast of Australia, the sea conditions were bad.  I do not remember the exact size of the waves, but there was a film crew out recording and when the episode aired on TV, I remember people were shocked that we land in conditions like that. 

            None of that really mattered to me when I was 5 miles behind the ship, and while flying my instruments to try to make a perfect approach, I happened to glance up at the world ahead of me.  To this day I can close my eyes and be transported back to that night.  I vividly watched as I saw the USS Nimitz roll to one side and then back completely to the other. In slow motion, I watched the giant 21-foot propellers of the ship come out of the water.  The only thing I could mutter was “Did you see that?” to my co-pilot who was a much more senior and experienced pilot than myself.  He knew exactly what I was talking about and immediately responded with a firm “Fly your instruments!” because he knew looking outside would not help at this point.  Somehow, I landed the plane moments later and then did my best to control it while taxiing around the pitching flight deck before the deck crew could get her chained down for the night.  To this day I truly believe it was far more luck than any airmanship that caused me to be successful that night. 

            So, as I sat alone in the forward wardroom realizing that I somehow survived and for the life of me couldn’t figure out how I was going to survive the next time I had to fly, someone entered the room and snapped me out of my haze.  It was a young enlisted airman who was getting ready to mop the floor for the night.  The exchange that occurred, while brief, I will never forget. I believe it was fundamental in shaping who I am today:

            “Rough night, sir?”

            “Yeah, it was crazy out there.”

            “Well, just remember that all we can do is win today.”

 “Just win today” has echoed in my head ever since.  As I sit here and write this, we live in an ever-changing world.  People are being told to stay home and quarantine themselves because of a virus that we are learning more about every day.  A virus that is no doubt taking lives around the world and changing the “normal” we have come accustomed to.  A lot of people feel like they are out of control whether it is losing jobs, taking care of the sick, or just being in close quarters with people they don’t usually spend so much time with.  There is no real end in sight with no magic date that everything will go back to normal, and that is hard to deal with.  We wake up every day and hope this was just a crazy dream, but then we realize that we need to wear a mask to go buy food, we aren’t allowed to go to work, and we can’t visit friends or enjoy many freedoms we love.

            With all this going on, that young airman’s words have never been more important.  “Just win today.”  We cannot control what tomorrow will bring, but today we can get up, take a shower, hug our loved ones and tell them that we love them.  We can set up goals that we can control and accomplish.  We can take a long look at ourselves in the mirror and decide if we like what we see or not and, if not, we can fix it.  All of the things that can be described as life’s daily noise have been put on hold for the time being.  Now is the time to simplify things and just win today.  Sitting in that wardroom and realizing that I couldn’t control what the weather would be for the next landing, or if the plane would break, or the mission would go poorly, was liberating.  Sometimes understanding what you cannot control is just as important as understanding what you can.  So, get up, get moving, make a list of things you can control, and get focused on them.  Take stock in the important things in life and know that many years from now we will look back at the year 2020 as a turning point in our lives…and it is up to you whether it will be a positive or negative turning point.  Make it a positive one!