Jay Lacklen

Flying the Line, An Air Force Pilot's Journey

Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey

Excerpt Book One

Pilots prefer to fly a hot airplane as an instructor, but the true measure of an instructor is his instruction, not the airplane he instructs in. T-37 instructor pilots (IPs) did far more to shape future pilots than those in the T-38 and should have out-swaggered the T-38 guys in the bar. The Tweet IPs’ hands rocked the cradle of the Air Force pilot corps.

As I returned to the flight room, word had already spread of my check ride bust. As I had seen with many others who had left the program, a pall of disaster now surrounded me, an aura of defeat and impending course failure I had seen envelop many others.

Right or wrong, many a variety of exotic life spices were available outside the gate, and many GIs were looking for exactly that because they knew they’d never be readily and anonymously available again once they got back to “the world.”

Who were those guys in the North Vietnamese Army? They were a splendid, ferociously capable guerilla army whose prowess, ironically, doomed their country to economic depression while decimating their population. They won the war but lost the future.

Then the Donut Dollies came down the ramp and the troops went joyously berserk, but not in a nasty or lewd sense. They spun around in the same frantic ecstasy of a pet dog when you pick it up from the vet, or when you hold its dinner bowl over its head to make it dance.

Nav wife smiled at me with an enthusiastic let’s-get-to-it smirk while I sat frozen with eyes wide and my mind thunderstruck at what I had just heard. My brain whirred rapidly as my good angel and bad angel fought it out. Nav wife had prepared the battlefield well and knew, when she sat down, every detail of how this would transpire. As she anticipated, my mind used the few days between the two phone calls to orchestrate the speech for why this could not happen, while my libido marinated in delicious possibilities of erotic mayhem with her, an option now authorized, incredibly, by hubby.

Everyone made it past the guard but me. The guard looked at my name tag, then at the authorizing order he held in his hand. I was not on the orders. “Halt!” he commanded while lowering his M-16 rifle at my chest. “Raise your hands, sir, and order your crew back here!”

When I leapt into the copilot’s seat and started shouting at everyone, the EW feared I might soon give the bailout order, so terse did the dialogue sound. He knew we were over the snow-covered Sierras and he didn’t have his winter flight jacket on. He said he eyed it sitting on the floor next to him and wondered if he had time to unstrap from his parachute to put it on. He listened to the frantic discussion up front and decided he did not dare do so.

We discussed what to do with food to keep it from the bears. I said, “Hey, no problem, I’ll put it in the front seat and close all the doors and windows. Besides,” I continued, “I’m going to sleep in the back seat and set up my camp tomorrow.” So we all turned in to sleep.

Sometime during the night, I felt cramped and opened the door by my feet to stretch out. As the sky was beginning to lighten, I awoke with a start but didn’t know what had woken me. I sat up, rubbing my eyes, and realized something smelled horrible, like a wet, dirty dog but far worse.

As the plane approached the ridge, Col. Ivey could not have anticipated that he would very shortly realize he was about to die and would have about eight seconds to contemplate his fate.

A reported copilot account said immediately after ridge impact, he first looked at the fireball on the right wing and then turned to see the pilot’s ejection seat traveling up the rails and out of the plane in seeming slow motion.



Table of Contents
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Tending to Affairs
After several years of preparing myself to command a B-52 bomber crew, I thought I had studied all the required aspects: the aircraft, the other aircraft commanders, the command, and the mission. And things had gone well. My novice crew had dropped the “best Bombs” on our first Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), trumping a dozen more experienced crews. However, just when you think you are gaining mastery of your task, fate can put a MiG on your tail and threaten to blow you out of the sky. Social relationships are a difficult aspect of military life on somewhat isolated bases. In far northern Maine, few twenty-something females were available for several dozen young, single pilots to chase. This meant the most compatible females they would meet would be the wives of their coworkers.
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Washington, DC, Vietnam Memorial
I’ve never been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Dc . I’ve gotten near it several times on the Mall but have never had the strength to venture in . There are emotions I’ve locked securely inside me that I fear will erupt if I enter . I may eventually go, but alone, so no one I know will see me fall apart, starship Trooper on his knees, sobbing into his hands. So many names, so many dead, and for what? I can only imagine the sorrow felt by those who fought down-and-dirty in the rice paddies who had their compatriots killed next to them, or who came back maimed or horribly traumatized. If I am so fragile at the prospect of visiting the Memorial, I applaud the strength of those, with much heavier burdens than I, who can stand it.
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Excerpt Book Two

Dedicated to soldiers who die young:
Tombstone inscription
“For the wife I will never see
For my children who will never be
I trust my legacy to Thee.”

While you (generals) commanded at headquarters, we possessed the Air Force soul and dwelt in its home, on the line, where the mission is accomplished, the essence revealed, and where you may get to embrace a brother crew in the dark skies over the Nile.

The bell to commence the class was still a few minutes away, but the (Russian second grade) students slowly showed awareness that some aura had descended on the room, almost like they were, somehow, in a church.

After several minutes of haughty posturing and faux disinterest I eye-locked with one of the Russians and could not let go, nor could he.

The next time I was in the squadron I stepped into the ops officer’s office and brought this to his attention. “I can’t find the sentence about me being the only ART to fly in command with ASEV in my OER,” I said.

He frowned and nodded his head to imply he had had to make a difficult decision and said, “I know, Jay, it was a tough call, but I had to remove that sentence. It would have made all the other ARTS look bad.”

The supportive civilians were greatly outnumbered, initially, by the protest army, but soon were gaining numbers and claiming one side of the street from the anti-war crowd. Although they didn’t know it at the time, and I have been loath to admit it since, I watched their efforts with tears in my eyes from inside the gate. The simple, square, middle-class workers and families were sticking up for us when, seemingly, all of officialdom had sided against us. This was not the last time local civilians would help rescue the military from itself, nor the last time I would have tears in my eyes watching their efforts.

We got off the bus, empty guns in hand, and entered the O’Club for Sunday buffet brunch.

It didn’t occur to me what was about to happen until I approached an empty table in the middle of the room. I got to my chair, paused, and laid the revolver on the white tablecloth next to my plate and silverware, as did my crewmates.

A ripple of shocked silence flowed away from our table in all directions. I didn’t look up. I didn’t need to. I knew every eye of the hundred or so diners, many with their families, was on us. This was their notification that war had come to Ramstein and things would be different.

Suddenly we were not in control of the plane. I felt as if a giant invisible hand had scooped us up and begun to raise us into the sky, a sensation similar to a rotating Ferris wheel after you pass the bottom of the circular arc and begin to rise rapidly.

The rear end of the tanker hovered before us in the utter blackness of the developing typhoon as some sort of alien space ship, more glowing chimera than airplane. In some ways it appeared to be a large manta ray with two radiant eyes that were the under-wing illumination lights of the tanker.

The (retired) colonel’s eyes narrowed and a sneer came across his face. “Are you a reservist, captain?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir, I am.” I said.

“I could tell,” he said, “because it is obvious your patriotism and dedication to this country are much less than the active duty.”

Total silence ensued.

As I have said previously, I only lost my temper a handful of times in 33 years in the Air Force and, prior to this moment, only once. This would be the second.”