By Bill Paisley
The Super Hornet we lost in Key West yesterday and the loss of the pilot and weapons systems officer is weighing heavy on me today. I don't know how many times I've been down there to Key West for a weapons detachment or an air combat det - 4 or 5 times, perhaps a half dozen, doing the exact same thing these aviators were doing. Probably everyone who has strapped on a fighter or an aggressor aircraft has spent time there. The flying is fantastic, the liberty is great, the views incredible, the colors breathtaking, the memories last your lifetime.
This tragic crash, though, is a reminder of that job we did then and still do today. A "routine" hop, heading out for some high-G air combat, the exhilaration of learning how to fight that jet, to fly it to the absolute edge of its envelope. "Knock it off, knock it off" is the radio call used to end the dogfight, perhaps followed with a "We're bingo...RTB." meaning, in that typical naval aviation radio jargon, you are almost out of fuel so its time to go home..."return to base."
Something happened on that flight. We won't know all the details until the Navy Mishap Board finishes its investigation, but the early reports are that at some point the jet had to shut down one of its two engines and was making a single-engine approach back to the naval air station at Boca Chica field in Key West. A single-engine approach is not always a huge emergency - we train for those occasions often and most times you put the jet back on deck without much of a problem.
A mile from the runway, though, a mere mile from relative safety and landing and climbing out of that jet and shaking hands with your pilot and saying "Helluva job, dude!", something happened. All we know is that the aircrew ejected, pulling the handles on those rocket seats that have saved thousands of lives over the years. But not this time. I never had to pull those handles, but you always think about the old saying..."There but by the grace of God go I."
We've all done that countless times...single-engine approaches. You are keyed up, attentive to every detail in that cockpit and around that jet, ready for anything. Even then, though, as evidenced by this heartbreaking event, you can still come up short.
Its been almost 30 years since I was down there, doing this, climbing into that big jet and loving every second of those hops. I remember my wife and daughter back home in Virginia Beach, we'd talk at night, share our days and plans and what went on and talk about those projects around the house that we'd get to when I got home. No different than what was going on today. We've been there. "Thoughts and prayers" are mocked by some today around this country, but I'd ask you to pass some on to those back home who have suffered the most heartbreaking loss.
Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air.