On Tuesday morning I was awakened at 4:45 a.m. by the bright light of my Ipad telling me that it was time to get up. Now, if you know me at all, you know that I'm not by nature an early morning person. I'm not an "Early Christian." I'm a "Later In The Day Saint."
But yesterday was special. My son-in-law, Josh, had invited me to join him in the Simulator (the SIM) at McCord AFB for a two hour session. To be honest, it wasn't just the early hour that had my attention. I was bit nervous. Well, actually I was a LOT nervous. You know, I didn't want to embarrass Josh nor did I want to be embarrassed myself. I mean, flying a C-17 has got be be complicated.
UNDERSTATEMENT!!! When we arrived I went through the appropriate security checks, Josh signed me in and we were escorted to the SIM by a little guy that I thought was the janitor. Wrong! He was the instructor. I climbed in to the co-pilot seat and fought to make myself comfortable. Everything in the plane was difficult for me. It was not intuitive. The seat belts wrap around each leg indivitually. Naturally they were to short to snap so adjustments had to be made. It became obvious that there are no pilots wearing XL flightsuits....or XXL. Then shoulder straps came over each shoulder and were eventually snapped into the upright and locked position.
Then the seat had to be adjusted left to right and the HUD (Heads Up Display) had to be opened and the brightness level set. Then the seat had to be adjusted up and down. I'm telling you, it's a major operation just getting strapped in to that beast.
Little did I know that the instructor would be sitting right behind us. He was. I assumed he'd be outside the SIM somewhere operating the thing. No, he was right behind Josh and he was manning the computer that set the postion of the plane in different locations. The first was at the end of the runway at McChord. Josh pushed the throttles forward and the plane began to move. About this time I'm having trouble believing that we're in a SIM. It's a dream come true in one way. Every time I've flown commercially I've wished I was up in the cockpit with the pilot just so I could see out the front window. Well, this day I was and as the earth rushed by faster and faster the SIM reacted in such a way that it conveyed the impression of actually rolling down the runway. Even the bumps on the runway seams were noticable. Then Josh pulled back on the stick and the plane began to rise. What a thrill. I didn't want anyone to remind me tthat we were actually just a few feet off the ground. I suspended my embrace on reality and within moments we were airborne with Mt. Rainer poking out of the clouds to my left. A few moments later we were above the cloud level and circling the field.
Josh then lined up the plane for a landing back at McChord. As we approached the end of the runway he said, "It's all your's!" "All mine? I don't want it!" But I took it and with his guidance and the help of some automatic pilot stuff that I didn't totally understand I brought that brute to a perfect three point landing. Well....almost. It bumped a bit and I might have slammed the front wheels down a bit hard but at least we survived.
Such was not the case when we became airborne again. This time he pulled the plane up under a KC-135 for refueling. I can't tell you how frightening that process is. You're a hundred feet from another jet and your flying about 400 miles an hour. Josh gently guided the plane up to the refueling boom and with a thud you could hear it attach to our plane. Then, once again he said, "It's all your's." With great confidence (not) I grabbed the stick to hold the plane in formation. It started to drift a bit and I brought her back. It drifted the other way. I fought to bring her back, but this time I drifted too far. The boom came unattached and as I sought to correct my fight path I overcompensated and tore the tail off the KC-135. Immediately all the windows in the SIM went bright red and Josh said, "We're all dead." Well, thanks for that bit of encouragment. I was sure the crew in the 135 was gone but I thought Josh and I might have a chance if we ran to the back of the plane.
The little guy in the back then said, "Where to now?" Josh told him "Afghanistan" and mentioned the coordinates. In seconds, we were flying over the snow capped mountains heading in for an assault landing on a little airstrip somewhere in that god forsaken land. Josh took care of that landing. Assault landings are above my pay grade. We stuck the plane down hard and within a couple thousand feet she had stopped dead still. Amazing what good pilots can do with this plane.
We then came back to the good old USA and flew through fog and even snow. The little guy in the back said he put the snow in to remind me of Colorado. It was awesome.
I left the experience just exhausted. My admiration for Josh and others who fly such monsters is off the charts. It's not just the actual chore of flying the plane, it's all the guages and switches and knobs that one has to be familiar with. It's the immense amount of knowledge that has to be stored in their minds and called up for use in a fracton of a second.
Back in the car Josh asked me what my impressions were. I could only think of one word. OVERWHELMED. I was, and I am, totally overwhelmed by the complicated process of flying such an amazing machine.
So, to Josh and his fellow pilots, I SALUTE YOU! And thanks for a memory that will last until I get dementia.