There I was...reflections from a troubled mission
By Lt. Col. Thomas Riney, 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander
/ Published March 03, 2007
SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Like most pilot stories this one begins with "There I Was"...
There I was--at 30,000 feet in my T-38 staring straight into a towering black cloud and wishing I was somewhere else...
Two hours earlier, I was psyched for my first T-38 cross-country mission. I was well rested, well prepared, and excited about flying from Arizona to Texas. Sure there was bad weather over New Mexico, but my first lieutenant instructor pilot said, "Ah, we'll be fine, besides my fiancé is stationed at Randolph and she will be there to meet the plane."
I can't remember how long the flight was supposed to be so I guess that wasn't very important. I do remember we had plenty of fuel. Besides, my girlfriend was meeting us in Texas too.
After reaching cruise altitude, we started to encounter clouds. The T-38 didn't have weather radar, but we were on an instrument flight plan. At first we were able to stay out of the thick stuff. We asked to climb to get on top of some "White Puffys." As we climbed out of the white clouds, we saw "it" in front of us. We found ourselves staring straight into a huge wall of towering, black, ugly looking clouds. "Now that's what we need to avoid," warned a voice from behind me. "Those Bad Boys will kill you!
No need to tell me, I was already turning north.
We picked our way north for a little while then it opened up--a beautiful little corridor through the clouds to the east. It wasn't as wide as I wanted, but maybe we could make it to Texas after all.
"Coming right, what do you think? It looks pretty good to me." I said over the interphone as I turned the aircraft toward Texas.
"Yeah, looks like it will probably open up to the east" my IP responded.
I sure hope so, I thought.
I was wrong. The corridor didn't open up. The black walls just kept closing in. Soon we couldn't turn left or right. We had to continue straight ahead. The cockpit was deafly quiet. "Those Bad Boys will kill you" kept repeating in my head. It kept getting darker until it felt like the middle of the night. The radios crackled with static electricity and it felt like my hair was standing straight up. With a crackle and a pop on the radio, the light show started. Bright white flashes filled the windscreen and lit up the cockpit. It seemed like we were bouncing around in the black soup for hours. My IP made a radio call, but nobody answered.
Just when I knew we were doomed we broke through the black curtain and everything turned white. The bumpy ride ended like we'd pulled onto the pavement after driving on a bumpy dirt road. A second later, the blinding sunlight abused my eyes and I quickly checked my instruments -- plenty of fuel, two good engines.
The rest of the flight was very quiet. The weather was good and before I knew it we were pulling up to base operations at Randolph. After a debrief that was probably way too short, I was waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up.
It has been quite a few years since that day. My girlfriend is now my wife and we have three wonderful kids. I don't wear a helmet when I fly anymore, and I have a fancy new color radar to guide me around the storms. As I reflect back on that afternoon, I learned some important lessons that have shaped my character and my personality.
First, I learned not to put myself in a position where I don't have any options. It is just as true on the ground as in an aircraft. I should have listened to that little voice in the back of my head. I was lucky that day. We can't rely on luck. We are in a foreign country and accomplishing a high-paced, important mission. It is vitally important that we make good decisions and stay out of situations where there are no good options.
Secondly, I learned I can make a difference. Even though I was new to flying, I could have kept us out of those clouds. I used my inexperience as an excuse and let my emotions drive me into those clouds. There was no need to take those risks. I knew what was right and what was smart and I chose not to do it.
Finally, as I look at pictures of my family and think about home, I remember how precious life is. There are people back home and troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan that are counting on us to do our job. Everyone here is important to our mission. If you weren't, you wouldn't be here. Make good decisions, listen to the voice in the back of your head, and do the right thing.
I am proud to serve with you all in the best Air Force in the world and proud to part of the strongest military in history. Thank you for your sacrifices and defending freedom.