I seem to have reached a certain age in which anniversaries of important, and not so important, things are hitting the larger numbers. Earlier I wrote about serving in Beirut twenty-five years ago. I did not mention that I have been living on ‘borrowed time’ since then.
Early in our deployment I flew most of one afternoon, landed, and was told I was going ‘back out’ again because I was the only co-pilot available and they needed ammo ‘on the beach, asap’. It was a night mission and we didn’t fly night missions because we didn’t want to light up the ships for fear of suicidal terrorists in boats or planes. Because we did not normally fly off the ship at night, none of us was trained to do so. But you do what you’re told and we did.
Unable to have a decent briefing we flew towards the beach at Beirut International Airport. Through my night vision goggles I glanced through the chin bubble and saw another helicopter narrowly miss us; just a few feet separated us as he had turned around and headed back for the ship with mechanical problems. It was a very dark night and I discovered later that they never saw us.
We were off course and almost landed in ‘bad guy’ country by mistake. We had trouble landing in the proper location because of lack of crew coordination and, I’ll admit, I was scared out of my mind. We then headed back for the ship on instruments.
Once we found the ship we made three attempts to land. On the first attempt I noticed we were at 100 feet and descending at 1,000 feet per minute. You do the math. I screamed for power and put my hand on the escape handle for my window. Did I mention we had minimum lighting on the ship and so depth perception was a problem? The tower said our running lights disappeared below the deck edge and that they were launching the rescue boat when we reappeared.
The second, very cautious attempt found us hovering at a very safe distance high above the deck. The third attempt found us flopping on the deck, but in one piece. Our crippled wingman who had narrowly missed us had also had trouble landing on a dark ship on a dark night. The captain of the ship decided to shut down flight ops and my aircraft commander went to argue.
I knew I could not go back out. I sat in my seat until I had enough leg strength to get to the door where I had to sit again. I finally made it across the deck to the ready room for a debrief and then I sat in my room staring at the wall for the rest of the night. I considered turning in my wings.
I made sure I flew in the mornings for the rest of the cruise. I could take off in the dark, but I didn’t want to come back in the dark. Ironically enough however, my last flight on that cruise was to do night carrier qualifications on the way home. The sense of this training at that point in time still escapes me.
And so, I almost died three times in one hour. Many years later I was diagnosed with a possible case of PT-SD and I know it came from that night and from continuing to fly through panic attacks and an overwhelming conviction that this time would ‘be it’. Why did I make it when others died? I don’t know but I have been on ‘borrowed time’ almost half my life now.
I think of the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ when the older Ryan considers the dead and asks his wife’ have I been a good man?” I well understand his question, and I ask it of myself often, but especially each year about this time.