By far my favorite line, however, was the conclusion: “This reporter believes it was the secret Air Force spy plane, the Aurora, returning to its base in the California desert.”
One of my favorite guys to fly with was “Lucky” Loy. He should have gotten the call sign “Odie,” after the tongue-wagging, impossibly cheerful bounding puppy in the Garfield comics. But he walked into our Ready Room for the first time just moments after one of the most horrific mishaps in our squadron’s history, so happy to be there, smiling from ear to ear. “Hey everybody! I’m the new guy!” The Duty Officer shoved one of the many ringing phones in his hand and said, “Hey Lucky, just take down a number and hang up.”
Lucky was so great to fly with for a couple reasons. One, despite his goofy-happy demeanor, he was smart as shit. Crazy smart, Carnegie Mellon engineer, might have been a cyborg smart. Secondly, he was an injection of enthusiasm at the right time for a seriously salty second-tour LT like myself.
I wasn’t jaded, I always appreciated every moment in the saddle of these magnificent jets. I did, however, have a couple cruises and a few hundred traps and was just starting to bitch about stupid stuff, like the damn scratches on the canopy glass, or when people didn’t erase the ink from the white boards in the debrief rooms.
Flying with Lucky was like seeing everything through his eyes, mostly because he never shut his mouth. It was a constant, stream of consciousness non-stop monologue of accidental hilarity from the back seat. No thought was too unimportant to escape his lips. And I loved it. He was saying what I felt when I zipped between mountain peaks or ricocheted 20mm rounds off tank hulks on the Fallon range.
As my RIO, Lucky had the dubious honor to accompany me out to “The Rock,” San Clemente Island, for my stints as the squadron LSO. The Rock was, and is, the most amazing night carrier landing simulator in the world. As we used to say, it’s more real than the real thing. It’s a long, skinny island that sits about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, just south of its more famous twin, Catalina Island. The southern 90% of the island contains target ranges and secret SEAL stuff. Parked at the very tip of the island there’s an airport. Well, during the day it’s an airport.
Then night falls, and the wind picks up, and the standard marine layer rolls in blanketing the sky at 800′ all the way to La Jolla, and The Rock becomes a carrier deck without a ship. The end of the runway, where Lucky and I sat grading the jets all night long, sits atop a cliff wall 184′ high, which the constant whipping wind tries its best to suck approaching planes into. The frigid, choppy seas are patrolled by great whites. The absence of light beneath the clouds is so absolute that it’s difficult to tell when you’re blinking. And waiting for you at the end of the terrifying approach is a cranky, shivering LSO in an unheated shack grading your every movement.
The only solace for the LSOs was leaving. And we did that in style. I don’t know who coined it, but we all called it the Star of David departure. We would take off into the western winds at full blower, just barely lift off and hug the runway in a speed gathering low transition, accelerate just past the runway still level with the unseen waves for a few more seconds, and then blaze into the sky in a giant, arcing, majestic Immelman rolling out at 16,000′ pointing straight east at Miramar.
You would keep the blowers in, accelerating to 1.5ish until you got 40-50 miles from shore, then you would slow down so you wouldn’t make the papers. If there were other squadron’s LSO taking off before you it was an amazing sight. The Tomcat in low transition would disappear behind the far crown of the runway; then a moment later it would reappear, streaking up into the sky and you could track the twin plumes like a comet heading home. It was impossible not to stare at it and smile until the burner cans twinkled out.
On this night Lucky and I were the only two in the shack. Due to our squadron’s mechanical issues, the schedule had bled into the very late night and I was anxious to get home before Miramar closed at midnight sharp. They were very strict, and the last thing I wanted was to spend the night at NAS North Island, tantalizingly just down the road from home and hearth. So I sent my last guy, Truck, back at 23:30. Lucky and I jumped into the dilapidated van and I drove like mad to the awaiting jet.
The Misfit Toys that were sent to San Clemente to service the planes had just barely managed to hook up air and electrical as we screeched to a stop and ran up. We put our gear on and I sent Lucky into his seat while I quickly briefed the plane captain. I jumped up, started the right motor as I strapped in and looked at my watch. 23:40; right on timeline.
I spun up the left motor while I pushed on the handle to lower the canopy. And pushed, and pushed even more emphatically. Nothing. DAMNIT! I made some frantic hand motions to the plane captain that we needed a shot of nitrogen to power the *@$#ing canopy, but it was all Chinese to him. So I pressed the intercom button, “Lucky, we need some nitrogen for the canopy. I’ve got an engine started. Can you go down and help them fill it up?”
Unfortunately, at that point Lucky was so new he didn’t even know we used nitrogen for the canopy, so that was out. So of course, I unstrapped, double checked that the parking brake was engaged and climbed down the ladder, with the right engine still running. On the ground I had the guys get rid of the huffer and pointed emphatically at the nite-cart.
A couple of them shuffled over and rolled it back. I looked at my watch (tick, tick, tick), then the nitrogen attachment, and then into the nose-wheel-well, where I was fairly certain there was a Schrader valve of some sort. A couple minutes later I was turning valves wildly on the nite-cart and hearing a satisfying hiss.
I scooted out and motioned Lucky to test the canopy lever and sure enough, it moved. I whooped and gestured the guys to move the cart as I scrambled up into the cockpit, lowered the canopy and crossbled-started the left engine right there on the ramp. We had about ten minutes to spare as I taxied out and spread the wings doing about 60 knots on the taxiway. Lucky called for takeoff as I made the U-turn to take the runway facing west, away from home, and we were off. Star of David.
As always, it was a glorious ride, and this time I had my own play-by-play announcer in the back seat. We hit 16,000′ heading east and I let the Tomcat accelerate for all she could. We were blasting through a solid 1.4 and I was staring at the beautiful string of lights of the southern California coast when Lucky informed me that we needed to slow down. I pulled out of blower and we hung in the straps, feeling like we had driven a car into quicksand, as the draggy F-14 rapidly shed its speed to a more pedestrian .95 Mach. I glanced at my watch as we crossed the shore a couple minutes later, 23:55. We might just make it.
I flew over Atlas, the initial point for the Miramar runway, at 16,000′ and split-S into the break. Approach handed us over to tower at a mile from the numbers and I lined myself up for the carrier-break on the beautiful runway lights. But as Lucky made the call, every light at the Miramar airport went out. We were at 1600′ and 600 knots screaming into a black hole.
I quickly switched us back to approach and told them what happened. A few heartbeats later, as I was nearing where I knew the end of the runway must be and resigning myself to a night in the North Island BOQ, the lights came back on. We landed uneventfully, but as I walked into maintenance control to fill out the paperwork, Truck, the last guy I had sent home from The Rock at 23:30 looked up and said simply, “Dude…”
It was that kind of ‘Dude’ where a pit opens in your stomach because you know you messed something up, only you don’t know yet which of the many possibilities it referred to. “What?” was my first line of defense.
“You totally boomed us,” Truck informed me and Lucky, no small amount of glee on his face. Lucky and I looked at each other, totally confused. We had been subsonic well before the 30-mile limit, at least 10 miles before that. “I don’t know what to tell you man. We heard it loud and clear hear. Quick double boom, car alarms going off, windows shaking. I looked at my watch and saw 23:53 and I said, Paco’s coming home.”
All the guys in maintenance nodded, confirming the loud and distinctive noise that all who knew could identify a sonic boom. I was befuddled and irritated; we had definitely slowed down in time. We were, unfortunately, the last supersonic plane on the entire west coast airborne that night.
I drove home hoping no one else had noticed and I wasn’t going to have to dance on the Skipper’s carpet in the morning. As I opened the door to my bedroom in Del Mar, my wife was still up watching Letterman. “Was that you?” she asked, laughing at the look on my face. “The stuff in the china cabinet was rattling.”
Craaaaaaaap, I was definitely screwed.
I spent a restless night dreaming I might slip under the radar, only to wake to my wife nudging me with the paper. Every aviator’s nightmare, I had made the news:
“Mystery boom felt from Oceanside to Tijuana.”
There was speculation about the origin of the noise which had shaken windows, set off alarms and sent residents into the streets fearful it was an earthquake. Some of my favorite lines were those from the National Geological Survey, assuring the reporter that there had been no temblors, and the one quoting Navy and Air Force spokesmen stating that there had been no aircraft airborne at the time.
I slunk into the squadron ready for my thrashing, yet nursing a glimmer of hope. There was no note to see the skipper at the Duty Desk, no red faced LCDR chasing after me with a stick. It was strangely quiet.
Later that afternoon, when I had almost accepted the fact that I had somehow escaped retribution for booming So Cal, Lucky pulled me into a room. He started whispering conspiratorially and shuffling charts and papers in front of me.
“I couldn’t stand not knowing so I did a bunch a research. Finally I figured it out. Last night at 16,000′ we had a tailwind of over 100 knots. So even though we were beyond the supersonic limit when we slowed down, the wind carried our boom all across greater San Diego. It’s like we were supersonic right over the shoreline!”
He was really proud of himself. And really excited. He wanted to present the findings at the next All Officers Meeting. I picked up the papers, arranging them into a neat stack and handed them to him, “Put this stuff away, Lucky, and don’t ever take it out again.” He looked hurt and quizzical, so I explained, “Life is good when you can blame your mistakes on a secret Air Force project.”