02. April 2006 · Comments Off on Flying Status · Categories: Air Force, General, Pajama Game

My first flying experience was at a local fair in 1962 near Fulton, NY. There was a barnstorming pilot type with a Steerman biplane trainer who was offering short rides for “a penny a pound” which, as I recall, set my dad back by about sixty-five cents. I was hooked. Three years later, my father arranged to have Mom and the four kids fly on Eastern Airlines from Syracuse to NYC, where we met him and traveled on to Connecticut to visit his sisters and their families. In those days flying was an important event in the sense that people actually dressed up, with my brother and I in suits and ties, and my sisters wearing skirts with crinolines (today sweat suits seem to be de rigeur, with the airport experience only a couple of notches above that of the Cleveland Greyhound terminal).

Joining the USAF as a radar technician (328X1) gave little hope of flying, other than in transport from one duty station to another. However, things changed around late 1974, when SAC decided that it needed to have technicians available to fly missions in order to troubleshoot certain types of problems that only occurred while airborne. Until that point we were limited to high-speed taxi checks, which involved accelerating down the runway to near S1 speed, and then hitting the brakes. They wanted people who could fly entire B-52 and KC-135 sorties, often 8 – 10 hours or more in duration. I had just earned Master Technician rating and, with an expressed passion for flying, I was able to convince the powers-that-be that I was the ideal candidate. Another plus was that I would collect flight pay. As I recall, this amounted to $75 each month that I flew for some minimum amount of hours (I think it was five or ten). Qualification for this status required that I undergo physiological flight training, which meant a TDY to Pease AFB New Hampshire.

The training consisted of several days of classes covering such things as night vision, various sources of disorientation, and all of the various aspects and effects of high altitude. The night vision class was quite memorable – we sat in the dark while the instructor explained at length that it took an extended period for the human eye to adapt to extremely low light conditions. As he was talking, the image slowly appeared over most of the wall of the classroom of a Playboy centerfold. They had set up a projector that displayed the image at a very low intensity such that, immediately upon extinguishing the lights, it was totally indiscernible. While the image was, by today’s standards, politically incorrect, it was effective in that the lesson taught is vivid in my mind to this day.

Another interesting lesson was to display a small red light on the wall in the front of the otherwise dark classroom. We were asked at various times what direction the light was moving – everyone was convinced that it was indeed moving, although there was no consensus on the proper direction. After a few moments of this, a second light appeared in close proximity to the first. At that instant, the first light immediately stopped moving. When the room was again lit, it was obvious that both of the red lights were fixed, and that the first one could never have been in motion. The lesson was that the human mind can be tricked as to the position and movement of a single visual source, but that a secondary reference gives the proper perspective (one reason why aircraft have more than one light).

My favorite part of the training was the altitude chamber. This is a room in which all of the air is evacuated in order to simulate the atmospheric conditions of different altitudes. Lesson number one, which the hapless sole female airman in our class chose, over vanity, to ignore is to … well … fart. Failure to do so causes extreme discomfort and potential injury due to the expansion of trapped gases in the lower GI tract as the ambient pressure is reduced. My first chamber flight was aborted at about 20,000 feet because of said airman’s obvious discomfort, and she washed out of the class (the Air Force can be very anal about certain things).

At one point, we were in the chamber, but at sea level pressure with our gas masks stowed beside us. We watched a film of an F4, with superimposed recorded radio communication, rapidly ascending to high altitude and then going out of control and crashing, with no survivors. The pilot had pinched his gas mask feed line when closing the canopy, and had blacked out due to severe hypoxia. At the instant that the plane corkscrewed into the ground, there was a tremendously loud sound and the interior of the chamber immediately filled with a thick fog of condensation. They had suddenly decompressed the chamber to an altitude of 40,000 feet, and we had only seconds to get our masks out, put them on, and turn on the oxygen regulator. All the while with the image of the fighter with an unconscious pilot at the controls.

Another exercise was to bring the chamber to an altitude of, I think, 20 – 25 thousand feet with no oxygen masks, at which time we had to take a simple written skills test. The whole thing seemed simple to me; after completing the test I looked up to the instructor outside the window and said that I was done. He looked at me and said, “you sure are!” then telling the instructor inside the chamber to get a mask on me immediately. I looked down at that point and the last thing I remember for a couple of minutes was that my fingernails were blue. Oftentimes the hypoxic person will resist any attempts at assistance because one of the symptoms of hypoxia is a euphoric feeling of well being.

One of the risks of experiencing extremely high altitudes is the forming of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. This can manifest itself in potentially fatal consequences hours or days after the high altitude exposure, with an initial symptom being an itching sensation on the skin. Being highly susceptible to suggested ailments (I once convinced myself, while in the throes of a severe fever, that I had contracted rabies from the bite of a bull snake – turned out to be strep throat) each night during the training period I was convinced that I was a goner. Happily, that was not the case.

I passed the course, and went on to fly quite a few missions. It was not nearly as glamorous as I had thought it would be – crawling through the bomb bay and wheel wells of a B-52G in the dark and in flight is nothing less than terrifying. I do regret that I never took a camera – I would have pictures at altitudes where one can discern the earth’s curvature, and the views of the Northern Lights from the northern refueling tracks was breathtaking. I can still see them in my mind’s eye though.

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