As the day closes, and there is still so much to do, but I have so little motivation and the wine calls to me. I miss the days when it was easy; we walked into the squadron, planned our mission, headed to base ops to file and grab a burrito, then head out to the flight line that was hitting a hundred degrees at 10 am.
As the flight engineer completes his walk around, I climb up on the flight deck and start my preflight and load the mission computers. The pilots strap in and call for engine start. Three turns slowly, until it ignites at about 16%. Once three is on line we bring up four, two, and one. The load climbs on board and shuts the door. Tower clears us to taxi to runway-16 and we pull out of parking. I am standing behind the co-pilot, watching the right wing to make sure we are clear of obstructions. The air conditioning is misting as it comes from the vents. As we taxi, we run through our before takeoff checklists.
Doppler set and in standby, radar on and set, altimeters set, radios set, departure briefed, and we are at the hold line ready to go. Tower clears us to the active, and we move to the numbers. As we reach the numbers we are cleared for takeoff and given departures frequency. Engines run up to max, gages check good, brake release, and we’re rolling. Thirty seconds later we rotate and are airborne, the pilot calls for “gear up” and as they move to up and locked we accelerate and bring up the flaps. I call out the new departure heading, and we are off to spend the next four hours free to do what we are meant to do.
The brown, west Texas, countryside passes 500 below the wing as we reach our low level entry and turn to the west to find a small road bridge that will be our first checkpoint. The flat terrain is easy to follow, but landmarks are few and in the summer heat the thermals make the ride bumpy. I don’t know how others feel about this, but I have looked forward to this my entire life, and I am completely at home. I check headings, drift and ground speed as we brief the next turn point. The bridge slips under the nose as we roll into a 30 degree bank, pull about 1.5 g’s to hold altitude and roll out on the new heading. I check drift and give the pilot a new heading to kill it. There to the left is a farm, and to the right, an oil well. The cattle graze contentedly as we roar overhead. I have to smile because in my world that tells me I am on centerline, because they are used to the noise. If we were off course they would be startled and scatter. I have always thought of this as Bovine course control.
We skim around West Texas, until we are 20 minutes from our drop zone, back at Dyess. I call the 20-minute warning, and we start preparing to drop a small training bundle to represent a person. This 15-pound bundle with a 68 inch pilot chute is designed to represent the drift of a paratrooper so our accuracy can be scored by where it lands. Again I have to suppress a smile because I’ve decided if I were to die I would want to be cremated and have my ashes put into a training bundle named John so future crews could use me. I know I would work hard to land close to the desired point of impact so the future navigators would have a good accuracy average. I know to most these are probably morbid thoughts but that is kind of how I think. I am not looking to be a bundle anytime soon but just in case…
In bound to the drop zone we slowdown and prepare to throw the bundle out. The temperature in the aircraft rises as we open the ramp and door, letting in the heat of a West Texas summer afternoon. One minute out I see the point of impact, judge our offset and guide the pilot to the right path. Five seconds…Green light…Load Clear! We close up and accelerate away… back to another low-level route to try it again.
Finally, we are done and can fly between Abilene Airport and Dyess for an hour of approach and landing practice for the pilots. So many of my navigator friends hate this portion because they feel like passengers, but for me it is fun. I am 24 and have the rest of my life to spend doing this… what could be better?