Small objects were getting big fast, the ground was too close, I needed a square turn, needed to defy the laws of physics. No aircraft could possibly respond to my demands. The abruptness of the impact jolted me awake. Familiar surroundings offered reassurance. I was alive. It was a dream.
I thought of my mother, her eyes locked on a column of black smoke rising from a nearby runway. Still clutching a wet shirt, Mom walked from the clothesline and remembered the morning. She told Dad about her dream, told him his jet would crash. His laugh punctuated the memory. Sitting next to the phone she waited for the ring, waited for confirmation. Mom did not wait long.
Visualizing my Mother’s dream, I saw my father’s reality. He was struggling to get his broken body away from a burning B-52; seconds earlier both had been whole. A mechanical malfunction resulted in the destruction of the aircraft; the big jet had just touched down when the landing gear collapsed. Dad’s leap from the flaming wreckage fractured his back and crushed his heel. A fellow pilot pulled him to safety as jet fuel hemorrhaged into the inferno.
My maternal grandmother had clairvoyant dreams; my mother had her dream. Had I inherited some type of gift? Did I have a vision? Closing my eyes, I replayed the dream searching for detail, searching for clues. The replay was as vague as the dream—a generic fighter cockpit, flames and an impact. The only clear detail was my face.
I stopped thinking about the dream. It happened years ago, but it still had a home in the back of my mind.
As fighters go, the A-10 is slow. Officially called the “Thunderbolt II,” we referred to it as the “Warthog” or “Hog.” The name fit the aircraft’s unique appearance. My Hog was near 400 miles per hour, 100 feet above an eastern Canadian forest that stretched forever. Every minute, six more miles of New Brunswick were behind me. My target was close.
A-10A Warthog or ‘Hog’ Photo by Bill Bennett, ASC
Canada was not particularly warm, but sun reached through the bubble canopy, competing with my air conditioning. Sweat oiled the rubber oxygen mask. I knew G forces, assisted by perspiration, would try to slide the mask down my face. Cinched tight, I could feel its microphone brushing my lips. A hard shell gave form to the soft rubber, imprinting a distinctive red line on my skin. Protruding from the shell, a hose snaked down until it locked into the harness. The serpentine shape allowed freedom of head movement while it fed me a variable mixture of cockpit air and oxygen.
At this low altitude it was all cockpit air, force-feeding familiar odors. My Nomex flight suit provided some fire protection, the thick webbing of the harness wrapped my torso, a vital link to the seat-mounted parachute. Neither was capable of containing the smell of sweat generated by a combination of straining against Gs and life in a plastic bubble. I was in Hog Heaven.
My eyes were darting; their primary task was to keep metal from merging with rock. Look at the clock, look through the windscreen, glance at the map, look through the windscreen. Scan for enemy fighters, look through the windscreen, confirm my wingman’s position, look through the windscreen.
Three fingers and a thumb held the stick lightly. The gentle grip let the jet talk, it let me listen. My index finger pointed straight forward, it never wrapped around the stick unless I wanted to apply pressure to the red trigger set just above my middle finger. With other switches properly set, squeezing the trigger would release three thousand pounds of hydraulic pressure, a seven-barrel gatling gun would rotate, the gun would fire. Absorbing twelve thousand pounds of recoil the jet would shake as smoke rolled over the canopy and the smell of cordite mixed with the smell of my sweat. I cradled the stick with three fingers and a thumb.
I was comfortable in the jet, I knew her habits. I knew full forward stick would move her nose, but she would move reluctantly. She liked back stick. I knew she wanted a gentle pull to start her nose up.
Through the large flat windscreen, I acquired the target and felt the aircraft respond to my quick, easy nudge. My grip tightened, it was time to force the controls. Selecting full throttle minimized energy loss as I traded airspeed for altitude. Before I could think about my next move, I was floating, stick slammed full forward bringing the jet’s gun towards the target. My butt abruptly met the ejection seat as I stabilized, recorded a simulated gunshot, and snapped into sixty degrees of bank.
Tensing my lower body against my anti-G suit, I pulled the nose up; I was three, maybe four hundred feet above the ground. I snapped right again, the jet more upside down than right side up and continued to pull hard, dragging the nose down, burying it below the horizon. Tones in my headset were screaming, my wings were near high-speed stall. Feeling no buffet in the stick, I held the backpressure. I could no longer see blue; my canopy was full of green. It was time to roll upright, time to return to level flight skimming across the trees. Holding backpressure just short of buffet, I threw the stick left and pushed left rudder, a combination of inputs designed to throw my jet upright.
Eight years of flying jets, eight years of moving flight controls for an expected response. I was comfortable; I knew what she could do.
I was no longer in my jet. I was outside, floating. Floating in front of the aircraft, looking through the large clear pane designed to protect me from windblast and small arms fire. I could see my eyes; I could see my body react. The jet did not react. Inside, I was fully aware of my surroundings, my thought process continued uninterrupted. Another part of me offered no help, it floated in space, a passive observer waiting for resolution.
I was three to four hundred feet in the air, inverted with the nose below the horizon. Ignoring my control inputs, the jet began to shake and shudder. It did not roll, it began to fall.
The dream had arrived. I believed I had but a few seconds left on earth. My mind had been here before, I had thought about this situation. Would my life flash before my eyes? Would I think of those I loved? I chose one word, I now refer to it as the word I chose to sum up my existence. I yelled “FUCK” at the top of my lungs.
Through my helmet, over the whine of the jet, I could hear the stick as I tried to slam it through the instrument panel. The effort slowed my descent, but that movement alone merely delayed the impact. Holding the stick full forward, I shoved it into the front left corner. The jet flipped upright. I was back in my element, the jet liked back stick, it responded quickly with positive Gs, recovering above the treetops.
I did not think about the dream until I was back on the ground. Had I defeated my dream? Was it over? I did not know, it returned to its place in my mind—and lingered.