Prologue

May 1987

 

Captain Kathryn Hardesty stood on the wide ramp watching the planes in the airport traffic pattern. As flight safety officer, she was responsible for the safety of the flight operations, and this was her first duty shift. She never got tired of the sight of the massive jets flying different approach and landing patterns to the runway. It was an amazing demonstration of precision and power. The radio brick on her hip crackled to life. “Flight Safety, this is the control tower.”

Her insides clutched as she keyed the mike button. “Tower, this is Flight Safety, go ahead.”

“Spokane Approach Control is declaring an emergency for a KC-135 aircraft, call sign Copper 21.”

“What’s the nature of the emergency?”

“They are reporting Copper 21 as a missing aircraft.”

“When did they last have any radio contact?”

“Last contact was when the aircraft entered the traffic pattern at the auxiliary practice field at 1545 hours. Time now 1615 hours.”

“Are there any search and rescue aircraft in the area?”

“They report Elite 85 is inbound to the practice field, ETA ten minutes.”

“Has the fire department at the auxiliary field been notified?”

“Affirmative.”

“Roger, Tower, I copy all. Is there anything else?”

“Elite 85 also reported a column of smoke southwest of the practice field.”

“Copy, Tower. I’m responding now. Flight Safety out.”

Oh, God, please don’t let it be her.


Chapter One

March 1992

 

First Lieutenant Casey Tompkins smiled looking out at the perfect day. The air was cool, the sun shining, the sky a blazing blue, and she was starting the new life she’d always dreamed of. Today was the first day of Air Force pilot training. Driving due east on the long, straight road through the Arizona desert, she recalled everything she had done to get here.

She’d already beaten the odds just to get accepted. Thousands applied every year, and only a few hundred were chosen. Most didn’t make it past the grueling flight physical. She had to prove she was almost physically perfect with twenty-twenty vision, perfect hearing, no color blindness, and on and on. She’d scored very well on the battery of written tests after studying every night for months. It was two full days of examinations covering math, physics, electronics, mechanical engineering, aerial photo recognition, and flight instrument interpretation. She’d put in extra work to get outstanding personal recommendations from her commanders, and earned an exemplary service record in her first three years in the Air Force. Every spare dollar went to flying lessons to get her private pilot’s license just to make her application more competitive.

She also remembered the women she left behind. One in particular came into her mind—Lynn. She was sweet, kind, loving, and ready to quit her job and sell her home to move to Arizona to be with her. Casey had broken her heart when she told Lynn not to come with her. It had to be done. She had to focus all her time, energy, and attention to make it through pilot training. Now she was on her way. The struggle and sacrifice evaporated into the clear desert sky as anticipation buzzed through her veins.

There was nothing but cotton and alfalfa fields as far as she could see with the rugged Superstition Mountains on the far horizon. Something in the distance caught her eye. It looked like a swarm of gnats or maybe a beehive. Driving closer, she could tell they weren’t bees but were, in fact, airplanes. She pulled over for a better look and saw dozens of planes banking, descending, and climbing in a crazy, coordinated dance. She had never seen so many planes so close together in her life.

She recognized the T-37, the primary jet trainer, and the sleek T-38, the supersonic advanced trainer. The T-37 would soon be her jet, and this would be her new world. A T-37 flew right over her head making a hard banked turn with the high-pitched whine of jet noise. The pungent smell of jet exhaust was intoxicating. The ground rumbled and she looked up as a four-ship formation of white T-38 jets roared overhead in a tight line approaching the airport. Transfixed, she watched the lead aircraft snap into a ninety-degree bank turn followed immediately by the second, third, and fourth jets as they executed identical maneuvers. The landing gear came down on the lead jet, then two, three, and four as they flew a graceful descending turn to the runway with perfect symmetry. She was so filled with exhilaration she thought she might spontaneously combust. This was her life’s dream coming true before her eyes. In her soul, she knew someday that would be her leading a four-ship formation of supersonic T-38s to a perfect landing. Only one thought came to her mind: Please, God, don’t let me fuck this up.

She drove to the main gate, got out her green military ID card, and watched the cute security police airman wave the cars through. The young woman snapped to attention and saluted Casey when she recognized the officer decal on the car.

Casey returned the salute. “Could you please tell me where the 82nd Student Squadron is? I’m new here and starting pilot training today.”

The airman gave her a big smile as she pointed down the road. “Yes, ma’am, the student squadron is the third big building on the right. You can park in the rear.”

“Thank you, Airman.”

“Any time, ma’am. Congratulations and welcome to Willie, ma’am.” She gave Casey another smart salute and waved her in.

Casey read the big sign just inside the main gate. “Welcome to Willie. Home of the Best Trained Pilots in the World.”

She walked up to the student squadron building fifteen minutes early and headed toward the group of men in blue uniforms with fresh, very short haircuts. They were in excellent physical shape and were gesturing and talking like they were already the hotshot pilots they thought they were. Casey sized them up. They were her classmates but also her competition. She could easily match any man here in physical conditioning, intelligence, ambition, and hard work. They were chatting with each other and glanced at her but didn’t speak to her. She approached the nearest one and asked him, “Is this UPT class 93-02?”

“That’s us. I’m Mike Harris,” he said as he extended his hand to her.

“Nice to meet you, Mike. I’m Casey Tompkins.” She returned his handshake with a firm grip.

A loud voice boomed, “All right, everyone, fall in and take a seat.”

They filed into a large, austere-looking classroom with chalkboards at the front, large airplane models around the room, posters of electrical diagrams, and a giant-sized “whiz wheel,” the portable mechanical flight computer, off to the side. In front of each seat was a big stack of books, a regular-sized whiz wheel, a green flashlight, and a large briefcase. Casey scanned the titles of her books—Weather for Aircrews, T-37 Flight Manual, Aerodynamics, Instrument Flying, Aircraft Weight and Balance, Aerospace Physiology, Instrument Flight Rules, USAF Air Navigation.

She saw only one other woman in the group. The woman had a big smile on her face as she talked to the guy in the seat next to her. She was pleasant looking but not remarkable. She definitely looked straight, but Casey was glad she wasn’t the only woman in the class.

“Room, ten-hut!”

The entire group jumped up and snapped to attention as a middle-aged man in a green flight suit walked to the front of the room. He surveyed the group, let everyone stand ramrod straight for a few minutes, then said, “At ease.

“I’m Lieutenant Colonel Gary Oscar, commander of the 82nd Student Squadron, and I want to welcome you to your first day of pilot training. You’ve accomplished a lot just to get here, but now the real work begins. You’re going to have a very busy day today, and every day, for the next year. Your only job right now is to complete this training program and learn to fly as an Air Force pilot. Here are a few points I want to touch on. Be on time. Lateness will not be tolerated whether it’s showing up for class or dropping a bomb on a target; you will be on time for everything. Don’t get in trouble with the locals. If any of you gets a DUI or gets arrested, even off base, you will be out of this program immediately and probably out of the Air Force as well. And finally, we are here to help you. If you have any problems, of any kind, my door is always open. Come and talk to me and I’ll do whatever I can to help you. Once again, welcome to Willie, and now I’d like to introduce your class commander, Captain Steve Morgan.”

Another voice shouted out, “Room, ten-hut,” as the squadron commander left the room. Casey watched the commander walk past her out of her peripheral vision and knew the last thing he’d said was a complete lie. In her three years in the Air Force, and the four years of ROTC in college before that, she’d learned that you never go to the commander with any problems, certainly not any personal problems. That was the quickest way to end your career. The statement “We’re here to help you” was a required platitude in every commander’s speech. No, Casey would never talk to this man about any problem, would prefer he not even know who she was, and would maintain a very low profile while in pilot training.

“I’m Captain Morgan, your class commander, and we have a jam-packed day today, so you need to pay attention because I won’t be repeating myself. On top of your manuals is your schedule for the next month. You’ll be doing ground training, academics, and physiological training for the first four weeks before you go to the flight line. You’ll be taking three to five written tests every week, and you’ll be evaluated on everything you do at every stage of training. Unlike the way some of you got through college, we do not use the ‘Pump and Dump’ system here. You cannot cram the night before the test, regurgitate the material, and then forget everything you just learned. Everything here is based on the building block approach. You need to thoroughly understand the material, memorize it, retain it, and correctly apply it in the air. You need to hit the ground running if you are going to make it through this program. Put your books in your briefcase and follow me to equipment issue.”

Casey was a little nervous as she packed up her books, but her nerves were overcome by the excitement of being here. How am I ever going to learn all this? She vowed to never let any of her classmates ever see any of her nervousness.

The group filed out and went down the hall to a big room with a sign reading “Individual Equipment Issue.” Arrows on the concrete floor showed the direction of movement through the giant room with piles of gear stacked on long tables. There were three small fitting rooms to try on flight suits. When Casey got her turn in the fitting room and tried on her flight suit for the first time, she almost whooped out loud as she stepped into the green coveralls. There were a dozen zippers on it, and the synthetic fire-retardant Nomex material was stiff and scratchy at first. She pulled up the long zipper from her crotch to her throat and stared at herself in the mirror in amazement. She pulled in the Velcro tabs at the waist so it wasn’t quite so baggy and admired herself in the mirror. The flight suit made her shoulders look broad, her waist tapered, her legs long, and nicely showed off her firm butt. She couldn’t wipe the huge grin off her face. This flight suit made her look and feel butch, powerful, and hot. This would definitely be her favorite Air Force uniform ever.

They each received a green padded helmet bag, four olive drab flight suits, a Nomex flight jacket, a pair of black leather flight boots, leather flying gloves, and a duffel bag. They were herded into another room labeled “Helmet Fittings,” where Casey watched with fascination as each of her classmates had a large metal contraption put on their heads followed by an enlisted technician pouring a liquid resembling pancake batter into the top of the device. The first man cried out like a little kid, “Ow, that’s hot!” as the liquid turned into foam and oozed out from the holes all over his head. It solidified instantly and the technician scraped off the excess with a knife, then released the man from the head mold. Another technician removed the rigid foam skull from the mold, labeled each one with the student’s name, and stacked them like a skull collection in boxes on the wall. When it was Casey’s turn, the liquid felt like a warm hug on her head. This is for my very own helmet, custom made for my head.

The class commander shouted, “Drop your gear off in the classroom and you have thirty minutes for lunch. The dining hall is across the street. Be back here at 1300 hours. Do not be late!” As they hurried across the street to the dining hall, her classmates were talking and joking with each other. None of them spoke to her with the exception of Mike, the guy she met when she first got here.

“That’s quite a pile of books they gave us, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be up late reading every night.”

“I noticed you’re a first lieutenant, not a second lieutenant ‘butter bar’ like the rest of us. What did you do before pilot training?” Mike asked.

“I worked at a research lab in Ohio. It took me three years of applying to pilot training before I got accepted.” She avoided telling him anything more about herself. If her classmates knew she had designed prototype flight simulators, they might think she had an edge over them and see her as a potential threat. She just wanted to fit in, be accepted, and get through this training course.

She hurried back over to the student squadron and flipped open her T-37 flight manual. She scanned the chapter titles: Engines, Electrical System, Landing Gear, Flight Controls, Hydraulics, Fire Protection, Flight Instruments, Weight and Balance, Emergency Procedures. It seemed overwhelming, but she couldn’t wait to dive in. She had a hunger to learn everything she could about this airplane.

Captain Morgan came back into the classroom and announced that the class was going on a walking tour—first stop, the flight simulator building. This was the newest and most modern building on the base. As they walked in, Casey saw the cavernous interior and the dim lighting and felt the frigid air conditioning. Captain Morgan showed them the sim sign-in area, the eight simulator bays with full T-37 cockpits on large platforms, and six giant hydraulic actuators underneath each one. It was eerily quiet in the big building except for the squeaks and groans from the moving sims. The simulator platforms moved like big insects as the giant pistons pushed and pulled them from underneath.

“You will do all your emergency procedures training in the sim and you will learn ninety percent of your instrument flying here. You will NEVER intentionally crash the sim. You will treat the sim as if it is the real aircraft at all times. Is that understood?”

The entire class answered, “Yes, sir.” Casey was comfortable with flight simulators and hoped she would do well with this part of the training.

“All right, everyone, next stop, the flight line.”

As they walked into the big, windowless, gray building, Casey looked out onto the huge concrete ramp at row after row of white T-37 jets. The noise from the engines was almost painful, a high-pitched whine as the jets taxied in and out like an organized ant colony. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on one of those jets.

The squadron building was rather dim inside with a wide hallway down the center filled with students and instructors rushing to and from the flight rooms on either side. Captain Morgan took them to their flight rooms. The class would be divided with half the students going into Warlock flight and the other half into Good Grief flight. The logo for Warlock was an eagle descending with a big spear in its talons. Good Grief’s logo was Snoopy flying a T-37 instead of his doghouse Sopwith Camel. Casey decided she liked Snoopy better and hoped she was assigned to Good Grief.

The flight room was the heart of pilot training. It was a noisy, busy open room with a dozen conversations going on simultaneously. Casey saw the instructor pilots teaching their students using model airplanes, drawing diagrams, and flying with their hands. The IPs sat across from their students at tables around the perimeter. There was a podium in the corner, airplane murals on the walls, and a giant sheet of Plexiglas on the front wall with the names of the students on the left and rows and columns of numbers across the rest. This was the master schedule board with most of the entries written in black or blue grease pencil. There were a few entries circled in red. Casey didn’t know what this meant, but she sensed it was somehow bad.

Captain Morgan led them to the front of the building to the supervisor of flying desk. “This is the SOF desk, where you will sign out your jet and sign in at the end of the mission with your flying time.” Casey saw a male student pilot and a woman instructor pilot approach the desk. They both had deep red lines across their cheeks and nose from the oxygen masks, hair wet with sweat, and the student had sweat stains all over his flight suit. Casey couldn’t help but stare at the woman instructor. She wasn’t tall, maybe five feet four inches with a trim, slight build. Even though her hair was wet, Casey could tell it was sandy brown, straight, collar length, and parted on the right. She had a determined look on her face with high cheekbones, full lips, dark arched brows, and hazel green eyes. She wasn’t pretty in the usual sense but had classic features that gave her a striking kind of beauty. Casey couldn’t take her eyes off her. The male student was at least a foot taller than the IP and was the size of a football linebacker with a grim, dazed look on his face. He went over to the sign-in log to fill in the flight time. The woman IP pointed to the sheet and said, “No, the flight time was 1.4, not 1.3 hours.”

“But, ma’am, I wrote down the takeoff and landing times, and I came up with 1.3 hours.”

“Do NOT argue with me, Lieutenant!”

“I’m not, ma’am, I just—”

The IP slammed her checklist on the counter, stepped into his personal space, and poked her finger into his massive chest. Her eyes blazed with fire as she tilted her head up to look him in the face. Her voice was low and threatening, “I am sick and tired of all your excuses, Johnson. You have fucked up every single thing on this ride today, including the sign-in.”

“But, ma’am—”

“Forget it, Johnson. You just busted this ride, I’m done with you, and you’re out of this program. Wait for me in the flight commander’s office.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He walked off, his head slumped down like a beaten dog.

“Goddamn it,” the IP muttered under her breath as she corrected the sign-in log. She glanced up at the crowd of new students staring at her, made eye contact with Casey for a moment, then stormed off down the hall.

“Captain Morgan, who was that?” one of her classmates asked after they were out of earshot.

“That, Lieutenant, was Captain Hard-Ass, uh, I mean Hardesty. She’s the chief of flight safety.”

Casey was horrified at the tragic scene she’d just witnessed. She couldn’t take her eyes off this powerful, compact woman. She was intrigued by her but also felt fear in the pit of her stomach. She heard her classmates mutter, “What a bitch,” and, “Hard-Ass is right.” I hope I never have to fly with her.


Chapter Two

Casey had stayed up until midnight studying her flight manual, got five hours of sleep, but was still exhilarated and alert. Academics today consisted of aircraft systems, jet engines, the AC and DC electrical systems, then fundamental laws of aerodynamics. The instructor went through everything at a breakneck pace, and Casey was glad she’d read all the material and done the review questions the night before. This type of class was completely different from any college course she’d ever taken. This wasn’t just learning theory for the sake of learning it; it was all focused on applying the information to flying an airplane. They were scheduled for ejection seat training in the afternoon, but before they broke for lunch, the instructor announced a guest speaker, the chief of flight safety, Captain Kathryn Hardesty.

Captain Hardesty strode to the front of the classroom. She looked completely different from the way she’d looked yesterday when she was destroying that student pilot’s dream. Her sandy brown hair looked much neater than it did the day before. Her trim build showed some nice curves visible even under the baggy flight suit. She wore the sleeves of her flight suit pushed up to mid forearm and stood in front of the class with her hands on her hips surveying the whole group. She calmly waited for everyone’s undivided attention.

Kathryn surveyed the new group of student pilots. Great, this is the group of students who saw me rip into Johnson yesterday when I had to bust him on his final check ride. After four years as an instructor pilot, all the new students looked the same to her—eager and cocky. They swaggered like they were fighter pilots already and thought they were invincible. They wrote the same things on their application letters: “I plan to graduate at the top of my class, fly the F-16 fighter, become a test pilot, then fly the space shuttle.” Despite the fact that they were arrogant, brash, and way too full of themselves, Kathryn felt protective toward them. She saw them all as her students, and she would do everything in her ability to try to keep them from killing themselves.

She was tough on them because she had to be. She didn’t care if they called her “Hard-Ass” or said she was intimidating. She’d seen too many students killed because they didn’t have what it took to be a pilot. It didn’t matter how hard they worked, how much they studied, or how bad they wanted it, some people were just not meant to fly. If they couldn’t cut it, it was her job to get rid of them before they killed themselves or someone else. She had no problem washing out the weak ones, like Johnson. It had to be done and she had no guilt about it.

She saw the two women students. One was average looking, the other one was very striking with short, dark, wavy hair, intense blue eyes, and a look of fierce determination on her face. She had handsome features with a strong jawline and a long, elegant neck. I hope they both make it.

“I’d like to add my welcome as you start your flight training to become Air Force pilots. Everyone on this base is here for one reason only—to help you learn to fly and graduate from this program. This is the most demanding thing you will ever do in your life. Flying Air Force jets is an amazing thing we do for a living, but it is also a deadly serious business. Thirty percent of you will be washed out of pilot training, and we average five to six aircraft crashes a year in Air Training Command. You will be required to learn to fly at a very accelerated rate. You have to learn how to solo a jet in just twelve rides. If you can’t do that, you’re out.” The gravity of her words hung in the air.

“You’ll be going to ejection seat training this afternoon, then physiological training tomorrow to learn the anti-G straining maneuver. Pay attention. Properly learning how to do this is a matter of life and death. The number one cause of student pilot fatalities is G-induced loss of consciousness, also known as GLOC. You will be pulling three to four Gs every time you fly, and frequently, we pull five to six Gs doing aerobatics and formation flying. Pulling Gs in a jet is not like riding a roller coaster at an amusement park. You have to be able to withstand sustained G-forces, breathe while you pull Gs, look for other aircraft, and fly the jet all at the same time. Don’t let anything distract you from the mission of earning your wings. Once again, welcome to Willie. We’re glad you’re here, and I look forward to flying with you.”

As she ended her remarks and left the classroom, Casey heard her classmates quietly whispering to each other. She was surprised that such a petite woman could be so intimidating to a room full of cocky men.

Casey reported to physiological training and learned about the cockpit ejection seat they would be flying in, including the explosive charges inside the seat. She had to reach down, find the hand grips, brace her body into the proper position, and squeeze the triggers as the ejection seat shot her up a metal rail. The instructor yelled critiques at each student. “You’re burning up! Find the hand grips!” “Get your head braced or you’ll break your neck!”

When it was Casey’s turn, she found the ejection hand grips behind her calf muscles at the lower sides of the seat. When the instructor yelled, “Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!” she pulled the grips up, braced her back against the seat, and pulled the triggers as the seat bottom slammed her up the rail. She felt like she’d been shot out of a circus cannon.

“Not bad, Tompkins. Remember to keep your head and spine in alignment so you don’t get a broken back. Try it again, this time with your eyes closed like the cockpit is filled with smoke.”

Casey did it again with no critique this time. Remember this, remember this.

The next day, Casey listened to lectures on the hydraulic system, landing gear, and flight controls. Her first written test was tomorrow on aircraft systems and she would be up late again studying. She wanted to ace the first test so badly she could taste it.

Casey paid rapt attention as the physiological training officer briefed them on the anti-G straining maneuver.

“This is your primary defense against GLOC. When you pull positive G-forces, blood is pulled from your brain into the lower parts of the body. When your brain is deprived of oxygen, you will black out. Sometimes a pilot grays out first, meaning they lose sight in their eyes, but are still conscious, before they black out completely. The only way to prevent this is to raise the blood pressure by tightening the muscles of the stomach, butt, and legs.”

Casey watched frightening films of pilots slumping over from GLOC in the training centrifuge and gun camera film of actual crashes due to GLOC. She was stunned how fast it could happen to a pilot. One minute, they were flying and pulling Gs, the next, they blacked out. If this happened in the air, the plane just flew itself into the ground with an unconscious pilot in the seat.

Casey tried not to laugh at her classmates struggling with the anti-G straining maneuver. They made themselves red in the face and looked like they were having difficult bowel movements as they grunted and strained. She had to take short, forceful breaths as she contracted her lower body muscles. Casey was getting the hang of it. She couldn’t wait to fly upside down and pull Gs.

The next day was the first time they got to wear their new flight suits. Casey loved the feel of the heavy black leather boots and the long-sleeved green flight suit. She carefully thought about what she would put in all her zippered pockets and wore her blue flight cap low on her forehead. When she reported to the altitude chamber, she was issued her new white helmet. It was very snug on her head and was fitted with a tight oxygen mask on her face. The mask snapped into the helmet, smelled of rubber, and it was claustrophobic as she tried to relax her breathing.

They filed into what looked like a giant steel box with thick windows. They sat in numbered seats and checked their masks and microphones, and counted off their seat numbers. The airman inside the altitude chamber reviewed what they had learned in class the previous day about the symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen starvation, the difference between hypoxia and GLOC, the effects of unpressurized flight, and what to expect during an explosive decompression. Casey saw looks of stern concentration, and maybe a little fear, on the faces of her classmates. Her buddy Mike sat across from her and gave her a thumbs-up. Casey mentally reviewed the emergency procedure for hypoxia and tried to control her nerves by focusing on deep breaths.

She watched the large altimeter dial inside the chamber go up as they climbed in altitude. A rubber surgical glove dangling from the ceiling by a string slowly inflated like a balloon as they climbed. The instructor’s voice in her headset explained the principle of expanding gasses. “That rubber glove is like your stomach. As we climb in altitude, the gas inside your intestines expands as the outside air pressure decreases. There is only one thing you can do to equalize the pressure in your body and avoid injury. Just let ’em rip.” Casey felt uncomfortable pressure in her bowels as they climbed. She was grateful she was breathing one hundred percent oxygen through a hose and mask as she let loose with some major flatulence. She saw her classmates shift from side to side and knew they were doing the same thing.

When they reached thirty-five thousand feet, the instructor had them unsnap the mask from one side of the helmet and told them to prepare for the explosive decompression. She heard a loud boom, felt her ears pop, and the chamber immediately filled with a cold, thick fog. Casey reconnected her mask, went to one hundred percent oxygen on the regulator, and tried not to hyperventilate. Shit, that was scary.

“Your time of useful consciousness at thirty-five thousand feet is thirty seconds. If you don’t get your mask on and go to one hundred percent oxygen within that time, you will pass out. Next, we’ll climb back up to twenty-five thousand feet, you will remove your masks, and we will go through the hypoxia demonstration. You will learn to recognize your own personal hypoxia symptoms, which are different for each person, and you will see the insidious nature of hypoxia from an undetected oxygen leak. You will write down your symptoms as you feel them and complete some simple tasks so you can see how hypoxia affects your mental capabilities. Once you recognize your symptoms, put your masks back on and go to one hundred percent oxygen. Acknowledge with your seat numbers.”

Casey called out her seat number and tried to control her apprehension as the chamber climbed again. She mentally reviewed the list of possible hypoxia symptoms from class: light-headedness, confusion, tingling, anxiety, euphoria, numbness, cyanosis / blue fingernails, belligerence. When the altimeter read twenty-five thousand feet, the chamber chief directed them to remove their masks. When Casey took her oxygen mask off, she thought it would be like suffocating, but she was surprised to find she could breathe normally. The technician inside with them handed out clipboards with childish-looking quizzes on them.

“Complete as many tasks on the clipboards as you can. Remember to write down your hypoxia symptoms as you feel them.”

Casey whipped through the first line of the quiz, 2 + 2 = 4, 3 x 3 = 9, A B C D  . She knew another letter followed D, but she couldn’t remember which letter it was. This struck her as very funny. She looked around at the other students in the chamber. Some were hard at work on their quizzes and some were just staring blankly ahead. The whole scene struck her as hilarious, and she tried not to burst out laughing at them. I think this is euphoria. I should write this down. She tried to write the word but couldn’t remember how to spell it. Then she started to feel tingly. She definitely felt tingly and hot all over. Oh, I think I like this. I feel VERY aroused right now—this is great. I’m really, really liking this.

She became aware of an annoying sound. “Number six, put your mask on. Six, put your mask on now.” Wait, I’m number six. He’s talking to me. “Number six, mask on now!” Why is he shouting? I’m having such a good time right now. Oh, I think I need to put my mask back on. She put her mask over her face, took a deep breath, and the fuzziness in her brain went away immediately. She looked at her quiz on the clipboard. She’d only filled in the first line. Under symptoms, she had written “uforia.” She quickly filled in the rest of her symptoms before she forgot them—euphoria, tingling, very warm, aroused.

She secured her mask to her helmet and looked around at her classmates. About half of them had their masks back on, some were still writing, and Mike was staring straight ahead and not moving. She heard the chamber chief yell, “Number five, get your mask on!” Mike didn’t move. “Airman Rogers, put the mask on number five.”

As the chamber technician moved toward him, Mike started jerking, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he looked like he was having an epileptic seizure. The airman rushed to him, forcefully held the oxygen mask to his jerking head, and slowly, Mike started to regain consciousness. After a few very tense minutes, Mike gave the technician an “okay” signal and clipped his mask back into his helmet.

“As you can see from this demonstration, hypoxia can be very subtle, and if you fail to recognize your symptoms, you will black out. After a certain point, the hypoxia effects will prevent you from saving your own life. The altitude chamber ride is now over. Be alert for any signs of residual symptoms such as joint pain, ear or sinus pain, or the bends.”

Casey watched her classmates as they filed out of the chamber. They had very somber expressions on their faces, especially Mike.


Chapter Three

Casey was pleased when she scored one hundred percent on the first written test of aircraft systems. A passing score was eighty-five percent, and everyone in her class passed, although some just barely. The guys were talking about going out to the Officers’ Club after class on Friday night. Casey didn’t really like hanging out at a bar with a bunch of straight men, but she needed to make an effort to connect with her classmates, so she decided to join them.

After a long, stressful week, Casey was actually looking forward to having a few drinks with the guys. In addition to Mike, a few guys were warming up to her and even chatted with her. The Officers’ Club was divided into two sections. The tradition area, a formal place for dinners where most people dressed up, and then the casual bar in the back, which was a completely different story. This was the official place where the pilots came to blow off steam, and it was unlike any bar Casey had ever seen.

It was one big, dark room that reeked of stale beer with a bar the full length of one wall. There were very few tables or chairs with the exception of a strange-looking long rectangular table in the middle of the room. The place was packed with men in green flight suits at five in the afternoon, and they were all very loud, rowdy, and half drunk. Casey maneuvered her way to the bar to order a beer when she heard someone yell, “Carrier landing!”

She turned toward the commotion and saw six men hoist another man over their heads, running with him toward the long table in the middle of the room. The table was painted to look like a runway, and other men were pouring beer over the tabletop. As the guy held up in the air approached, the other men started chanting, “Whoop, whoop, whoop.” The six guys holding the man up lowered him to the table and shoved him down the length of it. He yelled as he slid down the table, getting soaked with beer in the process. Casey was stunned at this but tried not to show it as she watched the whole ritual unfold. This is going to be interesting. They better not try that with me. The men were laughing and hooting just as Captain Kathryn Hardesty walked in with another woman instructor pilot and sat at a table in the back. Well, Captain Hard-Ass is here with another woman—very interesting.

Casey watched Captain Hardesty sit down and she heard another guy in the bar yell, “Dead bug!” The entire room of pilots threw themselves on the floor, landed on their backs, and flung their arms and legs into the air. As they wriggled their limbs, the room looked like it was filled with giant dying cockroaches. The whole bar was on the floor with the exception of her new classmates.

“New class buys!” someone yelled.

The bartender turned to the new students and said, “That’ll be twenty bucks from each of you for a round of drinks and for being stupid enough to not know how to play dead bug.”

Casey and her classmates put their money on the bar while the other pilots returned to their feet, laughing, yelling, and drinking again. This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.

 

v

 

“I don’t know why you insist we always come here on Friday nights. You know I can’t stand this macho bullshit,” Barb said.

“I’ve told you this many times. I need to see what’s really going on with the IPs and students, and this is the best place to see the animals in their natural habitat,” Kathryn replied.

“You have a sick sense of humor. Well, it looks like the new class has found the casual bar. More fresh meat—at least for a while.” Barb nudged Kathryn’s elbow. “She’s cute, the tall one with the dark hair at the bar.”

Kathryn looked at Casey. She was indeed very cute. She recognized her from briefing their class but took in her appearance more closely this time. She was about five feet nine inches tall with broad shoulders, long legs, and a trim, athletic look. She chugged a beer, laughed with her male classmates, and occasionally flashed a dazzling smile. Just as Kathryn was admiring her, Casey glanced over, and their eyes locked for a brief, hot second. Casey turned away quickly, and Kathryn had a nice view of her firm backside.

Just as Kathryn felt her face heat up, she heard another guy yell, “Carrier landing!” She watched with disdain as the other woman student from the new class was hoisted into the air and thrown across the beer-covered runway table.

“Have you seen enough for one night? Can we please go?” Barb asked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen plenty. I need to stop at the restroom first.”

When Kathryn walked out of the restroom, she almost ran headfirst into Casey.

“Oh, sorry, ma’am, I didn’t see you,” Casey blurted out.

“It’s okay, Lieutenant.”

“Is it always this crazy in here on Friday nights, ma’am?”

“Yes, it is.” Then Kathryn looked straight into her eyes and put her hand on Casey’s forearm. “Lieutenant, I hope you’re not driving anywhere tonight.”

“No, ma’am. I’m walking to my room on base.”

“Glad to hear that. Lieutenant Tompkins, one more thing.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Please be careful in there tonight. Don’t drink too much. Not all those guys are your friends.” With that warning, Kathryn let go of her arm, walked past her and out the front door.

“Thanks, ma’am,” Casey muttered. How does she know my name? Why does she care if I get too drunk with these guys? She rubbed her forearm. It still felt warm from where Captain Hardesty’s fingertips touched her skin.

Casey walked back to her room after drinking several beers at the O Club. Her first week of pilot training had been overwhelming, but she loved every minute of it—even the scary stuff like the ejection seat and the altitude chamber.

She also remembered the feelings of arousal from her hypoxia in the altitude chamber. Combined with the stress of her first week, the beers, and the hot, lingering touch of Captain Hardesty on her arm, she was buzzing and needed some womanly attention. She called her college roommate, Trish, to see if there was any action she could get in on.

 

v

 

Casey walked up to Trish’s house. She heard the sound of women’s voices and started to relax just to be in the presence of women after working around only men for the first week of pilot training. She grabbed a beer, scanned the crowd of women, and found several lovely prospects. Trish introduced Casey to her friends, and Casey gave Trish’s partner, Rhonda, a big hug. The evening was filled with drinking and laughing, and Casey enjoyed herself immensely.

One woman in particular, Marilyn, kept eyeing Casey throughout the evening. As the party started to break up around eleven, Marilyn hung around and found every excuse she could to touch Casey or look at her. As Trish and Rhonda were cleaning up from the party, Marilyn sidled up to Casey and whispered in her ear with her hot breath, “Why don’t you stay with me tonight, honey? You look like you’ve had a long, hard week, and I think you and I could have some fun.”

A shiver ran down Casey’s spine at the warm breath in her ear, and she thought, why not? Marilyn was older than Casey with luscious curves and full, ripe breasts. She had shoulder-length red hair, green eyes, pale, soft skin, and long red fingernails. Marilyn took Casey by the hand and led her out to the dark, quiet patio. Marilyn pulled her down onto a chaise lounge, lay down next to her, turned Casey’s face toward her own, and placed a warm, wet kiss on her lips. Marilyn’s lips were full and luscious, and Casey could do nothing but respond. She opened her lips and Marilyn slid her wet tongue into Casey’s mouth and proceeded to devour her with hungry kisses. She rolled on top of Casey, pressing her thigh into Casey’s center and grinding her hips onto Casey’s pelvis. Casey felt heat from the apex of Marilyn’s thighs through her clothes and knew exactly what she wanted. Marilyn wanted what most women wanted from her. She wanted Casey to take her, to dominate her, to make her moan and cry out, and to bring her to climax again and again. Casey didn’t feel any real emotional connection to Marilyn, but she certainly was aroused. She was hot and needed sex. She was more than happy to oblige Marilyn because she wanted a connection with a woman, any woman, and she wanted it now.

They stole off to the guest bedroom, exchanging knowing looks with Trish and Rhonda, and ripped each other’s clothes off. Marilyn was voracious and spread her legs wide open, her glistening center beckoning. Casey’s mouth watered at the sight and scent of her. She held Marilyn’s thighs open as she lowered her mouth, deliberately tasting the delicate folds. Marilyn moaned, and she tilted her hips up, giving Casey the signal she wanted more. Casey entered her, stroking her deeply as Marilyn got louder. Casey was intent on giving her a long, slow ride, but Marilyn started gyrating her hips faster. Casey matched her deep strokes with the rising hips. Marilyn went quiet and clamped down on Casey’s pummeling fingers. Casey drove in harder and gave Marilyn exactly what she wanted over and over again.

After Marilyn’s breathing returned to normal, she rolled Casey onto her back, settled between her thighs, and gave Casey her own tongue-lashing. Casey loved the feel of the hot tongue on her flesh and climaxed quickly with a short, hard spasm. Casey was more than happy to satisfy Marilyn many times, but she knew Marilyn could not give her what she really needed. After Marylyn dozed off, Casey slipped out of the bedroom, gathered up her clothes, and started to leave. Just as she was about to make her escape, she ran into Trish walking down the hall in her T-shirt and boxers. “Hey, girl, you leaving so soon?”

“Yeah, I have to get up real early tomorrow and study. I have several big tests this week.”

“Thanks for coming over. You know you’re welcome any time. We both love you and want you to knock ’em dead.”

“Thanks, Trish, you guys are the best. Give Rhonda a big hug for me. I’ll call you next week.”

Casey kissed Trish on the cheek and slipped out of the house. She drove back to the base for a hot shower, then went to bed. She’d achieved her objective and connected with a woman even though it was not exactly spectacular. The need to be in the presence of other women, to feel surrounded by the comfort and safety of their energy—this was what she needed more than the sex. The overwhelming “maleness” of pilot training made her keep her guard up all week. She drifted off to sleep with the lilting sound of women’s laughter in her mind.


Chapter Four

April 1992

 

The first month seemed to fly by in a blur. The academics made sense to Casey and she continued to ace the written tests. The day Casey was waiting for finally came—their first day on the flight line. She and Mike were assigned to Good Grief flight. They reported to their new flight room at 0500 hours, looking for their names on the big schedule board. Each instructor pilot had three student pilots assigned to them, and Casey was happy that she and Mike, along with Jeff Parsons, a former enlisted Marine, were assigned to the same IP, Lieutenant Dave Carter. They went to the table with their IP’s name on an airplane sign hanging from the ceiling and anxiously waited for him.

“Room, ten-hut!”

They all stood at attention as the instructors came in and stayed that way until someone said, “Take seats.”

“Welcome to Good Grief flight, the best flight in the Air Force. I’m Captain Stavros, your flight commander, and I hope you are all ready to hit the ground running. I want to introduce our head scheduler, Captain Arnau.”

Casey recognized the woman she’d seen with Captain Hardesty at the bar. Captain Arnau was tall and slender with short, sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and a very intense look.

“The first thing you need to know is NEVER touch my schedule board. Every day on the line with your name, you’ll see your activity for that day. Flights are written in black, sims in blue, and other assignments in green. If you fail a ride, that mission will be circled in red. We don’t want to see any red.”

Next, they heard from the flight standardization and evaluation officer, Captain Harrison. “Every day we start with a time hack, a weather briefing, and stand-up. During stand-up you will be presented with an in-flight emergency. I will call on one of you. You will stand at attention, tell me how you will maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, apply any emergency boldface actions, then bring the aircraft to a safe landing or an ejection, if necessary. If you analyze the situation incorrectly or state the boldface wrong, you just busted stand-up and you will be grounded for the rest of the day. I will then call on someone else until we get the correct information out of you.”

“Nothing like being humiliated in front of the whole flight,” Mike whispered to Casey.

After the flight room briefings, Casey, Mike, and Jeff listened intently to their new instructor.

“I’m Lieutenant Dave Carter, but when it’s just us, don’t call me ‘sir,’ call me Dave. I want you guys to be the best studs in this flight because how you fly reflects on me. I want you to work together to learn this stuff.”

He reminded Casey of a mellow California surfer dude. He briefed them on their first simulator ride to introduce checklists flows, starting the engines, takeoffs, and straight-in landings. Jeff had the first sim, so Casey and Mike studied furiously while they were gone.

Casey was nervous and excited as she walked over to the sim building with Lieutenant Carter. The cockpit forward canopy was replaced with large television monitors that projected a visual scene for the pilots to see as they were flying the sim. The IP could change the view out the windscreen to look like day or night, fog, snow, or even zero visibility. They walked past giant terrain model boards with three-dimensional miniature landscapes and a camera gliding over the surface. The camera was controlled by the pilot flying in the sim to give a visual picture out the cockpit windows.

Casey climbed into the simulator and put on her helmet. Lieutenant Carter showed her how to strap in, run the preflight checklists, and how to start the engines. She smiled as she heard the sound of the jet engines whine as she started them. Even though she was in a simulator and the sounds were recorded, it felt real. They practiced several takeoffs, turns, and a few straight-in landings. Casey was surprised at how sensitive the control stick was, much more responsive than the Cessna 150 she’d flown when she got her private pilot’s license. She barely touched the stick and she was all over the sky. By the time the sim was over, she was sweating and exhausted.

They continued with basic sims for the first week as they got ready for their first flights in the real airplane, the “dollar ride.” The tradition was that the student would “pay” the IP one dollar for giving them their first flight like an homage to the early barnstorming pilots. Casey had butterflies in her stomach the whole day but was disappointed to see that she was in the last group of students to fly their dollar ride. Jeff was scheduled to fly first with Lieutenant Carter, and Mike was flying with Captain Hardesty.

“Oh crap, I’m flying with Captain Hard-Ass on my dollar ride,” Mike said.

“Hopefully, she won’t be too mean to you since it’s your first flight.” Casey tried to reassure him.

There was a buzz in the air as the IPs came in to brief the missions. The dollar ride only happened once in a pilot’s career, and it was the beginning of something special. Casey listened and took notes as Lieutenant Carter briefed Jeff on their first flight. She would be as prepared as she could be when it was her turn to fly. She sensed Captain Hardesty’s presence behind her before she heard her voice.

“Lieutenant Harris, are you ready to go fly?”

“Yes, ma’am, I am,” Mike answered as he jumped up out of his seat.

“Let’s brief up in the flight commander’s office since all the tables are being used.”

Casey felt a pang of jealousy as everyone got ready to fly while she had to wait.

After an hour and a half, the first period students and IPs started to return. Casey saw Mike walk in with a giant grin on his face, a deep red mask mark across his face, and wet hair plastered to his head.

“So, how’d it go, Mike?”

“It was great, and I saw so much. It’s a thousand percent better than the sim.”

“How was Captain Hardesty?” Casey whispered.

“She’s good. She showed me tons of stuff.”

“She didn’t scream at you?”

“No, she made me feel really comfortable in the jet. She even showed me some acrobatics.”

Just then, Lieutenant Carter stormed into the flight room cursing and swearing. He was covered in vomit from his chest to his knees, and the disgusting smell started to fill the flight room.

“Jesus, Dave, couldn’t you change into another flight suit before coming back in here? You reek,” Captain Arnau said.

“I don’t have a spare flight suit with me, goddamn it. I need to go home and change.”

“Great. Now I have to take you off the schedule and find someone else to fly with your other student.”

Casey realized that Jeff, having thrown up on their IP, might prevent her from flying today.

Captain Hardesty then walked in to debrief Mike on his flight.

“Captain Hardesty, my favorite guest help IP, I need you. I need you, bad,” Captain Arnau said.

“What’s up, Barb?”

“Carter’s student barfed all over him and he didn’t bring a spare flight suit. I need an IP to fly with his other student, Tompkins. Please, I don’t have anyone else.”

“He showed up for dollar ride day without a spare flight suit? What a dumb shit. I need to call my office and reschedule my meeting with the T-38 maintenance chief first. Anything for you, Barb. I’d rather fly again than go to a meeting anyway.”

“Thanks, Kath, I owe you.”

“Lieutenant Tompkins, front and center, you’re flying with Captain Hardesty now,” Captain Arnau said.

Casey was both relieved and apprehensive as she walked over to Captain Hardesty.

“Ready, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then let’s go fly.”


Chapter Five

As Kathryn briefed the flight, Casey looked back at her with such intensity that it almost derailed her train of thought. After a momentary hesitation, she ran through the briefing items in her checklist like she had over a thousand times before. “I will demonstrate the first takeoff, point out the ground references, then have you fly. When I want you to fly I will say, ‘You have the jet,’ and you will shake the stick and answer, ‘I have the jet.’ If I say, ‘My jet,’ let go of the stick immediately. If we have any emergency, I will take the aircraft. If I say, ‘Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!’ eject immediately or you’ll be flying solo because I will be gone. Do you understand, Casey?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Casey answered nervously.

Their first stop was Life Support. There were rows of wooden locker spaces, each with a metal bar holding a parachute and an open cubbyhole above it with a helmet inside. The room smelled like a men’s locker room with a hint of rubbing alcohol and rubber mixed in.

The life support technician showed Casey the proper way to clean the helmet visor and her oxygen mask.

Casey put on her helmet and checked her communication cord and oxygen mask in the tester. She hoisted the forty-pound parachute onto her back and buckled the chest and leg straps of the harness. Captain Hardesty scrutinized her up and down, shaking her head with a frown on her face.

“Lieutenant, your parachute harness is too loose. If you have to use this, your body will be hanging in midair attached by only these three straps. Make them tighter.”

Casey tugged on the ends of the heavy nylon straps.

“No, like this.” She grabbed the end of Casey’s chest strap and yanked hard, crushing her breasts in the process. Captain Hardesty went to reach for her leg straps, Casey grabbed them herself and pulled down hard until it hurt her thighs. Her face flushed having Captain Hardesty so close to her body. “I can’t stand up straight with them this tight, ma’am.”

“You’re not supposed to be able to stand up with them on correctly. They’ll feel okay when you’re sitting in the jet. You can unbuckle them when we walk to the plane.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

They walked across the ramp together with rows of white jets in front of them. Casey was tingling with excitement. She glanced at Captain Hardesty walking with her. She walked with authority and purpose—the epitome of confidence. She gave friendly waves to several of the aircraft crew chiefs as she walked.

When they got to the jet, she showed Casey how to review the aircraft logbook and where to stow her gear. It was very loud on the ramp as planes taxied around them, so she had to shout so Casey could hear her. “Follow me as I do the walk-around inspection. I’ll show you what to look for.” Casey nodded and followed dutifully.

Casey watched intently as Captain Hardesty’s gloved hand slid across the leading edge of the wing. She moved the ailerons up and down scrutinizing every inch of the plane—looking, checking, and testing. She pointed out hinges and locking nuts on the control surfaces and where to check for oil drips. Casey watched her trail her fingertips across the other wing almost like she was caressing a lover. Her touch on the plane was firm, precise, in control. If this was a horse instead of a machine, the animal would have been calmed by the sure touch of her mistress.

Captain Hardesty had Casey climb into the jet on the left side and watched her strap in. Casey tried to remember everything she’d practiced in the sim—parachute harness, lap belt, shoulder harness, parachute key, oxygen hose, comm cord, gloves, and helmet visor.

“Pull the lap belt as tight as you can, Casey. Remember, you are the one flying, not the airplane flying you, and you want to strap this jet to your body.”

Captain Hardesty climbed into the compact jet on the right side, her shoulder brushing against Casey’s as she strapped in, in one-tenth the time. Casey heard her voice through the flight intercom and felt calmed by the sound of it.

“Can you hear me, Casey?”

“Yes, ma’am, I can.”

“I’ve got you loud and clear also.”

Casey started her preflight checks very conscious of her every move being watched.

“I’m going to start the engines and show you the hand signals we use with the crew chief to check the speed brake, pitot heat, and flaps. I’ll do the initial taxi out, then I’ll have you taxi the plane.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The sound of the jet engines coming to life with their high-pitched whine filled Casey with electricity. The crew chief motioned them forward with his hands, gave them a thumbs-up indicating everything on the jet looked good, then he snapped to attention and saluted as they taxied out. Captain Hardesty returned the gesture of respect with her own salute.

“The most important thing when you are taxiing is to look outside. You will steer the jet with your feet using the rudder pedals and step on top of the pedals for braking. The horizon should look like it’s halfway up the windscreen. Remember this picture. You will see this again for the level flight attitude. When I take off, I will pull the nose up so it looks like one-quarter ground and three-quarters sky. That will be the takeoff pitch attitude. When I’m flying, I want you to put your right hand on the stick and your left hand on the throttles and follow along with me as I move the controls.”

Casey finished the taxi out checks, lowered the big canopy, and waited anxiously at the end of the runway for their turn to take off.

“Tango 61, cleared for takeoff, runway three-zero left.”

“Tango 61, cleared for takeoff,” Captain Hardesty responded over the radio. Her radio voice was lower in pitch than her speaking voice. She sounded confident and a little bit sultry. Casey wanted to sound like her on the radio.

“Step on the brakes hard to keep the jet from moving as we run the engines up to full power and check the engine instruments.” Casey felt Captain Hardesty push both throttles forward under her left hand. The plane shook and the engines whined loudly, like the plane couldn’t wait to get into the air. “Four green lights, no reds, no ambers, two good engines, release brakes.”

The plane jumped forward as they accelerated down the runway. “Look down at the end of the runway and use your feet to steer and stay on the centerline. At sixty-five knots, we rotate and pull the stick back so the nose comes up to that one-quarter ground, three-quarters sky picture. At ninety knots, we lift off.”

Casey smiled under her oxygen mask as the plane gracefully lifted up into the air.

“Positive climb, landing gear up, accelerate to one hundred and ten knots, flaps up,” Captain Hardesty said. “Casey, you have the aircraft.” She shook the stick with a short side-to-side movement indicating the exchange of control.

“Roger, ma’am, I have the aircraft.” Casey shook the stick in reply. I’m flying, I’m actually flying!

“All right, Casey, start a left turn to depart the traffic pattern, keep climbing, and trim the airplane for one hundred sixty knots.”

“Trim for one hundred sixty, ma’am?”

“Didn’t you learn that in the sim?”

“No, ma’am, I’m sorry, I didn’t.”

“My aircraft, Casey. This is one of the most important things you’ll ever learn about flying. Trim is your friend. This small button on the top of the stick is the trim button. Use your thumb and flick this button forward or backward to trim off the pressure of the stick in your hand. If I feel the stick push forward against my fingers, I flick the trim button back. If the stick is pushing against the palm of my hand, I push the trim button forward. We trim the airplane for the airspeed we want to maintain. If it is trimmed properly, you can take your hand off the stick and the plane will stay right there. Your goal is to fly with just your fingertips. No death grips on the stick. Understand? Your airplane, Casey.”

“Roger, I have the aircraft.” Casey tried the trim button and discovered that it was so much easier to control her airspeed and altitude. It felt like she had received a revelation from God.

“Casey, I have the jet.”

“Roger, ma’am, you have the jet.” Casey wondered what she had done wrong.

“I’m going to show you a few things so you can feel the airplane. Flying is not just about memorizing procedures. You need to be able to look outside and to feel what the jet is doing. We’re at two hundred knots in level flight, and I want you to listen to the sound of the plane and the air.”

Casey was confused but tried to hear the sounds the airplane was making. It was kind of a low roar mixed with the engine whine.

“Now I will pull the power to idle and slow the plane to one hundred and twenty knots. I want you to hear how the sounds change.”

Casey heard the roar sound decrease and the pitch of the engines change.

“Now I’ll push the power up to full military thrust, one hundred percent RPM, and accelerate to two hundred and fifty knots.”

It was clear as a bell as the air noise increased to a loud roar and the pitch of the engine whine went up the scale.

“You don’t have to look at the airspeed indicator to know that you are flying fast or slow, just listen to the jet.”

“Yes, ma’am. That makes perfect sense.” Casey understood she was listening to a master of her craft, that every word this woman spoke to her was pure gold.

“Let’s try some maneuvering turns. Unlike civilian flying, we don’t make gentle turns. We yank and bank and make sharp, aggressive turns. Show me a sixty-degree bank level turn.”

Casey pushed the stick to the side, looked at the attitude indicator for the sixty-degree mark, then pulled back on the stick. The plane started climbing and Captain Hardesty took the jet again.

“You’re looking inside at the instruments, not outside. Do it like this.” Captain Hardesty snapped the plane into a sixty-degree bank. “Look at where the horizon intersects the windscreen. This is the sixty-degree bank picture. Then pull on the stick to keep the horizon in the same place on the windscreen and your turn will be level. Try it again.”

Casey repeated the turn and was amazed that the bank was exactly at sixty degrees and the altimeter showed level.

“Better. You pick things up quickly, Casey. How are you feeling? Are you queasy at all?”

“No, ma’am. I feel great.”

“If you feel airsick, tell me. Now I’m going to pull some Gs so you can practice your anti-G straining.”

She rolled the jet to ninety degrees of bank into a tight spiral as she pulled back on the stick. “This is three Gs.” Casey felt her oxygen mask pull down on her face as she sank into her seat. “Start your straining. Here is four Gs.” Casey tightened her leg, butt, and stomach muscles. Her arms felt heavy and she had a hard time holding her head up. “Keep breathing, Casey, short, forceful breaths. Here’s five Gs.” Casey had to keep all her muscles tight as she huffed out air and quickly sucked in hard.

“It’s…like…an…elephant…is…sitting…on…me,” Casey grunted.

“That’s right. Keep your muscles tight and use quick short breaths,” Captain Hardesty answered.

Casey was tingling all over and saw sparkles of light on the edge of her vision.

“I’m rolling out now and easing off the Gs. How do you feel, Casey?”

The heavy weight lifted off her body as they returned to wings level. “I think I feel okay. That’s hard, ma’am.”

“You’ll get the hang of it. Remember to start your muscle contractions as soon as you start to feel the G-forces. If you’re at high speed and you pull back hard on the stick, you’ll get into high Gs very quickly. Would you like to try an aileron roll?”

“Could we? Oh, yes, ma’am!”

“Follow along on the controls with me. Entry airspeed is two hundred and twenty knots. We pull the nose up so the air vents look like they are on the horizon. That’s ten degrees up, then snap the stick all the way over to the side and hold it there but don’t pull back.” The airplane quickly rolled upside down then back upright. “As we approach wings level to the horizon again, snap the stick back the opposite direction to stop the roll. Now you try one.”

Casey tried to do exactly what Captain Hardesty did but rolled out with twenty degrees of bank instead of wings level. “Crap.”

Captain Hardesty laughed. “Not bad for your first try. Let’s head back for some touch-and-go landings.”

On descent into the auxiliary airfield, Captain Hardesty pointed out ground references for the entry points to the traffic pattern. Casey could see the ground points clearly through the big canopy and took a moment to look at the beauty of the desert they were flying over—the buttes, the dry riverbeds, the mountains—it was spectacular.

“I’ll demonstrate the first landing, then I’ll have you fly a few landings. The most important thing in landing is keeping the aim point, the threshold of the runway, one-third of the way up from the bottom of the windscreen. Keep the aim point at the same place in the windscreen, and that’s how you control your glide path. Then set the power to seventy percent and check your airspeed. That’s all you have to do. Watch your aim point and airspeed, then flare the jet and touchdown.”

She makes it sounds so simple.

Casey felt Captain Hardesty’s hands through the stick and throttles, like they were connected.

“As we slow down and get the landing gear and flaps down, be sure and trim off the stick pressures.” Captain Hardesty’s thumb flicked the little button on the top of the stick.

“When landing is assured, power idle, bring your head up, look at the horizon, then pull back smoothly, and hold that landing attitude picture.” The plane touched down softly on the centerline of the runway.

“Lower the nose, power to military, use the rudder pedals to stay on the centerline, then lift off at ninety knots.” As she got airborne, she brought the gear and flaps up, then snapped the plane into a sharp turn, rolled out exactly perpendicular to the runway, and said, “Your jet, Casey.”

Casey flew the next pattern, but it didn’t quite look the same as Captain Hardesty’s. Just as she pulled the power to idle to land, she felt Captain Hardesty on the controls and the throttles move forward rapidly. The plane slammed onto the runway and bounced into the air as she heard, “My jet.”

“You started your flare too early and ran out of airspeed. Next time don’t pull the power to idle that soon. Fly it down closer to the runway, then flare. Try it again, Casey.”

Her second attempt was better. It was firm but not bone jarring, still nothing like Captain Hardesty’s landing. This was tough.

“Let’s fly back to Willie and make this one a full stop landing.”

Her last landing was sort of decent with only small inputs from Captain Hardesty.

They taxied in and she completed the after landing checks. As they climbed out of the jet and filled out the logbook, Captain Hardesty put her hand on Casey’s shoulder. “Not bad for a dollar ride, Casey.”

The warmth of Captain Hardesty’s hand on her shoulder, even through her flying gloves, gave Casey a little tingle. She was on cloud nine.