Monday, November 28, 2011

The Trim and Nasty Show

I’ve been told that this is as good as it gets. Department Heads, Commanding Officers, even Carrier Strike Group Admirals. There is something about your junior officer tour with a fighter squadron that never leaves your memory. I’m not sure if this is true, as only time will tell, but these last three years have been a crazy ride.

As I leave, a friend of mine asked that I write a few paragraphs with some of the high points. Since I’ve been contemplating it anyways, it couldn’t hurt to try. The problem is, I don’t really know how to put this stuff into words. Or at least in terms that conveys a culture completely alien to anything else in our society.

This isn’t for lack of stories. Coming back from my last mission aboard the USS Nimitz to a hellacious thunderstorm, having to tank other aircraft until my fuel was below what I’d normally land on the carrier with, then filling my own plane up (with electrical discharges going off between the refueling probe and tanking drogue) amidst lightning and a rapidly closing wall of clouds was memorable. So is getting shot off Cat III with a 59k, Asym 3 kick in the pants, accelerating to over 180 mph in less than 2 seconds twice a week for four months. And dropping ordnance on a hilltop of insurgents attacking a special forces outfit in the Hindu Kush. Or landing at night in fog so thick you couldn’t see the already absurdly small flight deck until two seconds before touchdown. Let’s also note any of the 4am nights (mornings?) in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Malaysia or Tokyo.

Yet somehow, that’s just the job. The fleeting moments of sheer adrenaline surrounded by endless boredom. As I’ve come to reflect on these past three years, it’s the people that have stood out. And among them, the leaders. Because it’s these guys that we sit around talking about, sober or otherwise, late into the night, no matter where we find ourselves. Not the flying.

First, the senior leadership. There were plenty of poor showings – Captains and others that drove us up the wall, vowing never to follow their example if we ever were in their shoes. That will happen. But to get there, you need to have had those you aspire to be.

We in the Black Ace Junior Officer Protection Agency (JOPA) called it the “Trim and Nasty Show.” Trim was the first Air Group Commander (CAG) I experienced as a new guy. Nasty was the Captain of the USS Nimitz. Both were straight out of the 1980s – bushy mustaches, boisterous and awe-inspiring charisma, god-like aviators, big Ray-Band Aviators. Top Gun legends – Trim commanding the place and Nasty doing the live fire missile scenes for the Hollywood movie. You couldn’t help but follow either of those two into the bowels of Hell itself.

The thing that most impressed me about Nasty was that he knew my first name, even as a new check-in, and said it every time we passed in the hallway. Not Prof, or Son, but Ben. The commander of over 5,000 people, not including the Air Wing I was a member of, knew my name. It sounds absurd, but it made my day.

Now, he probably knew it because when I first arrived off the coast of Japan, I struggled quite a bit behind the boat. On those nights, you’d hear the voice of God over the tower frequency, in a fatherly, deep tone:

“102, Old Salt.” (Old Salt being the callsign used by whoever commands the Nimitz)

Gulp. (meekly): “yes, sir…”

“102, you’re gonna have to do better than that behind My ship, son. Fly the ball all the way to touch down, and don’t catch the One Wire.”

Dejectedly: “yes, sir…”

This conversation was something everyone in the Air Wing could hear.

But my proudest moment in these entire three years came from that same voice, and shortly after those dark days.

“110, Old Salt.”

What’d I do? That was a good landing!

“yes, sir…”

“110, Well done. That’s how we fly in the Navy.”

Stunned silence.

From the back seat: “Prof, say something!”

Me, now for the first time knowing how a giddy school girl feels: “Thanks, sir!”

Now that I think about it, he was the only Carrier Captain to talk to us on the radio. It was infrequent, but it was always appropriate and worthwhile. He cared.

He would also steer the ship around when airborne in the tanker. (He would only fly with our squadron, hearkening back to his F-14 days, and only tankers, presumably so he could do endless flybys). It probably drove the SWO’s driving the ship nuts. We thought it was hilarious. And he’d do the sickest flybys of the ship you’d ever see. Flybys we would’ve gotten thrown off the flight schedule indefinitely for doing. There is very little I wouldn’t do to work for him again.

Trim was a different story. You could hear him coming from a mile away. Piercing eyes staring you down. Even the biggest jocks in the air wing were intimidated by him. Statements laced with profanity so creative and frequent, it was almost poetically mesmerizing. Constantly smoking a cigarette – even inside the ready room. And he hated Nuggets (first cruise aviators) – I know because he told us whenever he saw us. Now, we couldn’t tell if this was because he was secretly jealous as we had an entire life of flying to live, or if he genuinely hated us, but I was sure he could crush me with merely his glare.

Yet, I loved the guy. His speech to the one hundred plus aviators during my first time in Fallon, NV was something to behold. No notes, just pure stage presence. Here was a warrior marshalling and inspiring his assembled aviators for four weeks of intense and breathtaking flying. It sent shivers down my spine hearing him talk of lost friends and aerial feats of daring. And who could ever forget seeing him, alone and unafraid, go to the merge with three groups (groups!) of adversaries meeting him head on. “THE ENEMY IS AFRAID OF OUR POINTY END, GENTLEMEN, NOT OUR TAILS.” Perhaps overly brash, but the way he said it, you wanted to be there next to him to find out.

Trim was the aviator we all wanted to grow up to be when we were little kids. To the wardroom full of SWO’s eating lunch, just after landing to begin a month long period at sea: “WELL, YOUR REASON FOR EXISTING HAS JUST ARRIVED.” Only he could get away with such arrogance. He’s retiring soon, and in this new Navy, probably not a moment too soon for the admirals. Every person who knew him thinks it’s a crying shame.

One of my mentors, and a department head when I was first on board, said I would never see anything like that pair again in my entire career – he had been in over 20 years to that point and hadn’t either. Thus far he’s been right.

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