A medal for not dying?

I’ve promised, in several places at one time or another, to tell my story about the time the Army gave me a medal for not dying. It’s time to get on with it. On April 17th, 1985, I was flying my first mission as Pilot In Command (PIC), when I flew my entirely Visual Flight Rules (VFR) scout helicopter and nonflying Lieutenant Colonel passenger into the clouds. It happened in Germany, near Neurnberg, when I was a young warrant officer. I lived through the experience and landed at the American training base in Grafenwoehr with an undamaged aircraft.

In very compressed order, I was flying in a shallow but steep sided valley away from Grafenwoehr and toward Goeppingen, through an area with a forecast of patchy fog, but three kilometers of visibility. The banks of the valley grew increasingly foggy as we headed west, and near the Poppberg intersection the autobahn we were flying above suddenly started to disappear in front of me. I started a turn and entered thick clouds at fifty-knots indicated airspeed, a forty-five degree bank angle, fifty-feet above the ground. When he world went gray, I leveled out, pulled all the pitch I had power for, and climbed at max angle of climb airspeed (essentially the slowest speed you can go and still get maximum efficiency from the rotor system. If memory serves, that was about fifty knots indicated, and was a little slower than the Kiowa helicopter was fully stable. I was more interested in putting ridge-lines and hilltops beneath me than in flying smoothly at that moment.

I’d been having some difficulty with my VHF/aviation radio, and so I turned on my emergency transponder code, then continued to follow the inadvertent IMC procedure as set forth in the USAREUR Supplement I to the Army’s flight regulations. It never rains but it pours: I discovered that I could not communicate on any emergency frequency. (This communications failure was due to poor equipment. The aircraft was returned to Coleman Barracks for avionics work after return to home base) About 5 minutes later, I regained contact with Grafenwoehr tower on my tactical FM radio. Because I no longer trusted my radios. I continued on the “copter only” nondirectional beacon approach I had planned while flying without communication. After 35 minutes flying on instruments only, we broke out of the clouds on final approach into Grafenwoehr.

After landing, I forgot to drop my passenger at the VIP pad. He didn’t seem to mind. Later, he claimed not to have been aware that we had survived an emergency that day, and that the only indication he had of anything unusual was the altimeter needle going around and around during the climb. That is a polite fiction, as few colonels are accustomed to obeying orders snapped at them by overstressed WO1 pilots. Without the colonel’s calm support and professional manner, this young WO1 might not have landed safely that day. As it was, we both spent thirty-five minutes pretending everything was business as usual.

I had probably pushed too hard, but that was the job, and given the circumstances of visibility in that valley of twice what we required for single pilot operations, I’m not sure that anybody I knew would have backed down. I know that thirty army helicopters spent that night parked in fields across southern Germany, when the forecast patchy fog turned turned out to be overly optimistic.

Had I pushed too hard? European weather is often poor, and we become accustomed to flying at minimums. It is possible that I was simply overconfident and blundered into a fogbank. But the picture of that Autobahn fading away haunted me. It did not look as if I flew into the clouds. It seemed as if the fog suddenly closed in around me. I eventually wrote an article in Aviation Digest, the Army’s flight safety journal (September/October 1989), discussing what I think happened that caused me to fly into the fog. In a nutshell, the valley had wind blowing directly up it from lower altitudes, and I think that Venturi effect caused winds in that valley to keep the surrounding fog pushed up and away, and the local windspeed high enough to delay fog formation. Then the winds shifted by about ninety degrees, and a million tons of fog fell on the autobahn from the side of the valley. The visual effect was as if a curtain dropped on the path in front of me.

So, why did I get a medal? I can only theorize about that. The European Army aviation people were very interested in my story, and spent a few days digging around to see if I was a bad-boy. My boss at that time was an experience older Warrant Officer, and I’ve always suspected that he knew something major had to happen. The way of the Army is, if you do something unusual, you’re either a hero or a goat, and my boss decided I wasn’t a goat. He also knew that we worked directly for an Infantry unit, and were always at least a little suspect in their eyes. I suspect more to prevent a witch hunt than because he really thought I deserved it, my boss recommended me for an Air Medal. After a couple weeks of confusion, we got a call from headquarters telling us that they don’t give air medals for going into the clouds. This pleased me no end, because I wasn’t feeling heroic, I was feeling like a lucky survivor, and emotionally still felt that going into the clouds was entirely my fault. My unit compromised by giving me an Army Commendation Medal.

In later years I decided that, for my then level of expertise and knowledge, I’d done alright. I hadn’t been any dumber than any other WO1 pilot trying to prove himself, and a lot of other pilots got caught by that wrong forecast. Also, I did some research into inadvertent IMC in the Army, and discovered that, between 1 January 1980 and 5 April 1988, 38 reported rotary-wing aviation mishaps involved inadvertent IFR/IMC in forecast VFR conditions Ten of those were Class A mishaps, which meant back then that they either destroyed the aircraft or killed somebody (for those who were around, a class A either killed someone, or caused more than $100K. If you were flying a Huey or an OH-58, that meant you destroyed the plane. If you were flying an Apache attack helicopter, it meant that you accidentally shattered the NVS helmet hookup when you jumped out of the helicopter to take piss during a long training flight (Okay, I’ve done some odd stuff that led to good story. How do you tell somebody in a bar that you had a Class A incident because you forgot to unhook a cable with a sending unit from your helmet, jumped out of the helicopter to pee in the woods, and had the $100K sending unit shatter when it snapped off your helmet and slapped against the side of the helicopter? More to the point, how do you tell that one without just sounding goofy?)

Moments come back to haunt you, sometimes. Suppose I had been in a deeper valley when I started that turn and the world went gray?

Lemonade or Grape flavored?

I woke up this morning to a lie from the political party I most side with. Guy Cecil from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote to tell me that the “Republicans are so against funding women’s healthcare that they would shut down the federal government over it.” He was lying, and we both knew it. Of course, he probably thought I didn’t, but that just goes to show the incredible gall many politicos have — the unvarnished disdain they have toward their constituency.

If it wasn’t for the serious avalanche of tripe my tea-partying friends are swallowing without any hint of critical appraisal, I’d be more angry with my party. Instead, I’m mildly disgusted, but mostly just worn out. I guess when it comes down to it, the Democrats aren’t my party. They’re just the team that pisses me off the least, this year.

I voted for Barack Obama, even though I’ve always liked John McCain. I’ll vote for Obama again in a year or so, even though I think he’ll lose. I admire the fact that he put his own political career in the shredder to push through a health care bill that we badly need, as a people, if health care is to remain available to everybody. We need to begin thinking of health care as a necessary public service like electric power or running water, or long and healthy life will become the special domain of the wealthy, an elitist privilege.

But President Obama told us that he could be a bipartisan president, at the same time as the DNCC was pushing me for donations to make sure that the Republican’s were so outnumbered that they couldn’t even front a filibuster when “my” party of the moment wanted to have a free hand at whatever legislation they wanted to pass.

As it happens, I don’t want to turn my guns over to the democrats any more than I want to watch the Republicans walk us in lockstep into their most desperately, trenchantly, right leaning members’ idea of a moral utopia. Abortion is not murder — probably 30% of all first pregnancies self terminate. That whole argument is stupid — God isn’t murdering those miscarriages. We are a Christian people, but not a Christian country, and our founding fathers made sure of that. Funny how the wisdom of the founding fathers is plenty of excuse to allow the poor to starve or freeze to death without public aid, but inadequate to bind the country to remaining religiously tolerant.

When it comes down to it, both sides are grandstanding to get attention. If the Republicans blew off their most rabid supporters, and the Democrats really tried to figure out why the Republican middle doesn’t want to give up their guns, give up their sense of traditional values, home as castle, etc, then maybe we could move forward on some really important things.

I don’t want to spend $4.10 per gallon for the privilege of burning Exxon’s industrial waste in my car. I want Shell to use that oil for important things, and treat gasoline as the industrial waste that it is. I want BP to acknowledge that most of the gasoline we burn is something they would otherwise need to dispose of themselves, and stop playing cynical games with charging the absolute maximum they can get from us. Yes, it is possible to engineer a crash in the U.S. economy by charging enough for gasoline.

Wallstreet crashed twice in the first decade of the 21st Century, and we pretend that there is a reason to argue about regulating that place. Most of my friends who lost money during those crashes have never recovered their basis. I had almost recovered my investment from the first crash at the beginning of the decade when the next one hit at the end of the Republican monopoly on congress. Both sides of the fence look away from the fact that the stock-market is just legalized gambling. There are legitimate stocks available for purchase, but most of what goes on there is just addicted gamblers pushing paper around, hoping that their scrip will sell for more of more than it is worth than they paid for it. When the stock market isn’t in freefall, it bounces ten percent on some days. This is not a viable place to keep any money that isn’t absolutely available to be lost.

One of my best retired-military friends owns a bar and grill in Oregon. He spends more on his cook than he earns for himself. His costs are mostly in the form of required benefits, and unless the economy goes back into overdrive, he’ll probably end up selling the place. Too many social programs are being paid for by small business owners.

My sister has lived in and around San Francisco for ahem years. She spent about twenty of them in the food service industry, working three or four jobs at a time. A huge chunk of the food service industry in that area can’t afford full time employees because of the required benefit packages. They avoid that by having five employees doing the job of two full time employees, so that nobody goes over half-time.

A lot of people want to argue that laissez faire business without legal controls is the only way to make the country work, because that’s the way it was when Beaver Cleaver was a sprite. Big business wants us to believe that, because it does work out well for big business. Unfortunate, really, that there isn’t enough big business to go around. But millions, maybe even billions, of dollars are spent to keep the American people from recognizing just how far from true it is that the board of directors or stockholders of GM care a whit about the twenty people who applied to work for that company but were turned down for every one person who actually found employment there. The mobilization of money, deceit and influence that went into fighting health care reform was awe inspiring, and continues to be intimidating, especially when you consider that health care reform is saving lives, and that with some concerted effort on the part of lawmakers, could be economically freeing for 99% of the people in this country, without putting anybody at all in the poor house. This is particularly agonizing to me, since it would work so much better if there weren’t so many people trying to get it to fail because it originated in the wrong camp, and not because it’s a bad idea. Health care reform is a stellar idea, and most of the people in the health care industry approve of it.

Why is it so very easy for me to find out how much money the average American makes, and how many of us there are, and what the average family earns, but so impossible for me to find out how much money the US corporations make, and what portion of the U.S. economy is tied up in corporate accounts? That question practically answers itself. We have big problems in this country, both sides of the political divide are fully aware of it, and they’d rather keep us fighting about abortion, entitlement mentality, and freedom of religion than turn our corporate gaze on what was really going on during the budget crisis this week. The Republicans and the rebranded republicans in the Tea Party were pissing on the American people with lemonade flavored piss. The Democrats were pissing on the American people with Grape flavored piss. But it was all piss.