"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Vectors for the PAR, you are number nine for 27 right"

Uh, number nine? You mean there are eight aircraft more important than me right now? Me, who's flying through a ball of dust that descended out of nowhere on top of Al Asad, causing the senior air control agency for the entire AO to recall all aircraft throughout the province to try and beat the storm home, but instead it worked out so that all the birds arrived over the nest at the same time, the visibility is so poopy that my section leader just dissolved the flight to have us come in separately because we can't see each other, and now there are eight other planes out there of various makes and models, all waiting their turn to ride down the glideslope of the one precision approach back home, and I'm last in line? Really? Really? Oh yeah? Well . . . shit.

Lord, this place will make me old before my time. I hate to start out with a cliche, but there I was, flying a standard ass and trash mission out to the west, when a text message from our duty officer on my scrolling kneeboard sounded the alarm: "visibility advisory released: between 0 and 2 miles until 1500 local. Winds gusting up to 25 knots. Say current conditions at your pos." Well, I thought he was being just a little paranoid: we were seventy miles west of the field, and conditions couldn't be better. It was CAVU: clear and visibility unlimited. The temperature wasn't too high, and I thought I might actually make it through a flight without taking off my armor at the end and being soaked in sweat. So I texted this back to the duty and we proceeded on our merry way. Then, about ten seconds later, the LZ controller for the zone we'd just departed advised us that "the TACC (Tactical Air Control Center a.k.a. Daddy) is ordering you to RTB immediately due to weather." In two deployments, this was the first time that higher, and not us, had aborted our mission mid-flight due to weather. It's the kind of thing that makes you sit up a little straighter. We double-checked with LZ Control, and the conversation made it quite clear: we were to cut our mission short and get the hell back home. Well, there's only one right answer to that. We pulled power and started flying max blast back to the east.

Tongues were a little in cheek as we beat our way back to the field. We were still in CAVU conditions, and while it looked a little hazy up ahead, it didn't seem like something we couldn't just drop down a little lower, slow down a tad, and work our way through. About 25 miles west of the field, the visiblity began dropping, so we dropped down about 500 feet and pressed on. It didn't take long for the weather to convince us to turn around, however. Inside of a mile we lost contact with the ground, and our section lead decided to do a 180, get back to visual conditions, and get radar approaches back to Al Asad, since there was no way would could just 'see' our way through this. That 180 was mighty uncomfortable, since we transitioned from looking outside to relying exclusively on our instruments (but still looking out to stay with dash one) almost immediately. Not an easy transition to make, and it's one that's given better pilots than me vertigo. But we found the ground again, and after determining that this 'dust bubble' could not be safely navigated as a flight of two, we split up and decided to let the radar controllers on the ground do the hard work for us and get us back home.

This was about the same time the rest of the 2d Marine Air Wing showed up, asking for their own approaches. Birds were coming in from all points of the compass, and my aircraft wound up number nine behind everyone else. We were vectored around, and around, and around for spacing, listening as one aircraft after another got their approach clearance and was guided to mother earth, all the while puttering through opaque brown clouds. My main concern at this point was not the fact that we had gone from unrestricted visibility to below a half-mile, but that we had lots of other military machinery in the air around us and the tower controllers - many of them students - still had, well, a lot to learn. Radar control is supposed to be the most accurate way of deconflicting aircraft from one another, but it's only as good as the guy watching the scope.

Well, they brought their A-team today, luckily for us. We were vectored north and then east of the field, and every five minutes or so another aircraft switched to its final approach controller and got reeled in. Finally it was our turn. We turned inbound, staying on our assigned approach corridor and coming down for 20 miles in the radar 'cone' designed to get us to the deck in very low visibility. The ground flickered in and out of our peripheral vision, but never showed itself long enough to give us a warm fuzzy about landing. We came down through ten miles, then five, then two, then one, and still we couldn't see the ground or the airfield, even though both were very close. We were approaching our 'decision height', which is the lowest altitude the controller can bring you down before you automatically have to abort your approach, wave off, and climb up to reset and try the whole thing over again. Finally, the controller said, "half-mile from the runway, at decision height, state intentions." I paused for a heart-beat: we were low on fuel and I really didn't want to climb back into the ball of brown goo around us. And then, that one heart-beat later, there they were: the long string of bright white runway approach lights, pointing the way to terra firma. It was like someone opening their front door on a cold, dark night and the light pouring out told you that everything was going to be alright. I think I sounded fairly excited when I told the controller that we had the runway in sight and would proceed visually. We greased the landing, taxiied back to the line and shut down, our fun meters pegged for the day. At the chow hall, reliving our little adventure over dessert, we saw the approach controllers sitting a few tables over; we went up and gave them a well-deserved thanks for bringing us all back home. Usually, those guys (and gals) are just a voice on the radio to us, and not always a voice we enjoy hearing at that. But they - and my Lady of Loreto medal - earned their paychecks today.

1 comment:

Patrick Brown said...

Wow, man! Glad to hear everything turned out OK. Looks like this is turning into a specialty of yours, eh?! Hope may brings clearer skies.