The other day I was thinking about all the old friends that have passed in the last twenty years.
First it was Ray. He was a aircraft crew chief with a lots of fire in his butt. We were brutally honest with each other as friends. One time I became so angry with him that it was everything that I could do to restrain myself from beating him senseless. If it had been anyone else I would not have restrained myself. An hour later we talked about it and he apologized. It was like nothing had ever happened from that point on. But it had. It was one little building block in our friendship. We, once more, established that our friendship was galvanized regardless of disagreements. We reinforced that we could disagree and it didn't matter. We were friends and that was the most important part of the relationship. At times we acted as a conscience for each other. There aren't many relationships where a person can walk up and bluntly tell another person they are wrong and talk about it without resentment or anger.
Ray died of ALS in 2001.
Second is Mike. Mike was the best helicopter pilot I have ever seen. If it had blades on it he could fly it with a natural skill that is inborn. He was a crusty Vietnam Vet that was prone to be bluntly honest also. He wasn't your normal pilot. He was tall, smoked like a chimney and could run all day. He finally quit smoking after several attempts. He would come outside, where the smokers would congregate, and ask me for a cigarette. I would tell him that I didn't feel good about giving him a cigarette and he would say, "You are going to feel a lot worse if you don't." He was a big guy and I am not afraid of most men but I didn't really feel like wrestling with a guy that big. He lacked that learned grace and polish that officers seem to cultivate. If it was a mess Mike would not sugar coat it. It didn't matter who was present. If he thought it was a bad idea he would say so. He had more hours in the seat than anyone else did so any smart person would take what he said and really think about it. He was teaching a student from Jordan how to fly with low engine power when the student really screwed up. They did something totally unexpected that Mike could not recover control. The result was the helicopter flipped onto it's top. Everyone came out unscathed. Mike was not rattled. He was always very calm and relaxed.
We had a fire in the mountains, a place called Roxborough. We were called to drop buckets of water the fire. We had five or six UH-1H helicopters working the fire. The pilots I have on my helicopter were Major Flora and Mike. Mike was the Pilot in Command. We got a 20 minute fuel light, which means you have "around" 20 minutes of fuel. It could be 15 minutes or it could be 25 minutes. It was never exactly 20 minutes of fuel. He decided to dump two more loads of water then head back to the refueling point. We dropped two more bucket loads and headed back. While Mike was hovering into place at the refueling point we heard the engine RPM start to quickly wind down and the aircraft started to increase out downward speed. Mike pulled up on the collective (it is a control lever to increase pitch to the blades) to slow our descent. We bounced a little bit but not real hard. After we got on the ground and they went through all the switched to shut everything down Mike exclaimed, "We just had an engine failure." I replied, "Yeah, kinda funny how that happens when you run out of gas." We spent a week trouble shooting and testing that engine to prove that when you run out of gas it quits. Me and Ray spent another two days testing the 20 minute fuel light system. I used that for years as an excuse to rib ole Mikey. I sure miss him.
Mikey died of cancer in 2007. They named the new facility after Mike. The last thing we talked about was how he was going to kick my butt when I got back from Iraq. I said, "That would be a good thing." We both knew it was the last time we would ever talk.
We hired a new instructor. I didn't know him very well but I knew his face and name. We soon were talking about family, pop up campers and our faith. Dave was a real nice guy. I would joke with him sometimes that we should have a whiskey together. Dave didn't drink. He would just give me a smile that said, "That isn't gonna happen." He was always smiling and had a positive attitude. He was a great mentor for the younger pilots. He had a way of explaining what they did wrong and how to do it right without making them feel degraded but so they could understand what they could do better. I had the privilege of knowing Dave for about 8 years before I retired. He was a good man.
Last week I got an email from another pilot that was an instructor where I worked. She told me about one of our pilots that had deployed with my old unit. They went to Afghanistan this time around. It is a CH-47 helicopter unit. They are the big ones that look like two palm trees fighting in a dumpster.
In the email Trish tells me:
I just got an email from Randy and found out Dave was one of the pilots in the Chinook Seal Team crash. That really saddened my heart!
I know it was devastating to Trish. They used to work in the same office. They were real close.
Life just sucks sometimes. How come it is always the good ones and not the ones that just waste oxygen?