I love to fly. Like many things in life there is a tenuous chain of events that lead me to flying…and to my wife, my love, my front-seater, and the mother of our children — Tracy.
In 1968 I was in high school. A junior. I had just started wearing glasses to see distances whereas my two older brothers had worn glasses most of their lives. (Interestingly, none of my younger siblings wore glasses at all — eyes get better with each kid?) My counselor (Mr. Victor Long, whom I visit to this day and ride bikes and play racquetball with occasionally — he can easily outride me and usually beats me in racquetball) asked me if I ever thought about going to the USAF Academy after graduation from high school. As I recall my reaction was something like “The Air Force what?” I applied, was accepted, and in June 1969 walked up the “Bring Me Men…” ramp along with 1400 other members of the Class of 73. I later learned that I was competing for one of about 300 NPQ (“not pilot qualified”) slots, so getting in was tighter than I realized.
Late in my junior year at the Academy I was walking back to the dormitory with fellow cadet, John Eisenhart. (In the 80s I returned the favor and helped John get a job at IBM when Air Florida folded. IBM didn’t hold him; he got a job with Continental a few years later.) He asked me what I was going to do after graduation. Since I was not pilot qualified due to my glasses I was planning on taking an engineering job somewhere in the USAF. (I majored in electrical engineering — a decision I made based on some guidance from my mother back when I was in high school — a decision I have never regretted. EE was one of the “hardest” majors at the Academy. I thrived on it and all of the academics at the Academy…well, most. I didn’t do so well in economics or political science.) He told me about a program, approved by the Air Force, to evaluate a technique for improving vision — orthokeratology. Basically, you wear contact lenses — “hard” contacts — that are flatter than the curvature of your cornea. Overtime and with series of flatter and flatter lenses, your cornea is reshaped — flattened. Ever so slightly, but enough to alter the focal point of your eye back on to the retina thus improving your vision. (Or something like that.) Within a few months I was seeing 20/20. On about April 1, 1973 (senior year), we had to take our contacts out and leave them out. (As cadets we lived by the Honor Code: “I will not lie, steal, or cheat, or tolerate anyone among us who does.” Though there have been numerous “honor scandals” at the Air Force Academy, the huge majority of the 30,000+ graduates of the Academy all abided by this code to the letter. It guides me today in my daily life though I must admit I am not as fervent in following the code as I was at the Academy.) I did not put my contacts in after April 1 in an effort to keep my 20/20 vision and have never worn them since.
On about May 1, 1973, I went to the eye doctor for the first of four exams. The exams always consisted of reading the eye chart, which was conducted by a technician, and then a peek inside my eye by the ophthalmologist. As days passed my vision got worse and worse. It was obvious the effect of orthokeratology was temporary. Due to the environment in which USAF pilots fly, contact lenses were not allowed — pull 6 Gs in your fighter, lose a contact lens, and then what? — nor are they allowed to use the orthokeratology contacts as “retainers”. (Glasses are OK, obviously. I always wore them when I flew with a spare pair in my g-suit pocket.) I got through the first three tests but my acuity was worse with each test. On the fourth — and last — exam, my acuity was greater than 20/50 — the limit for pilot qualification. Sadly, I went down the hall to visit the ophthalmologist for the last time. I don’t remember his name but I should have found out and sent a thank you Christmas card to him every year since then. He looked at my chart and did something he never normally did: Asked me to read the letter chart. I tried as hard as I could to make out the letters. Apparently, this second reading it was good enough for him. He changed my acuity numbers from whatever they were to 20/50 — I was bound for pilot training.
Three months later on the first day of pilot training, the 50 or so members of my class were gathered around a large rectangle of folding tables in the ballroom of the officers’ club at Williams Air Force Base for in-processing. That morning, one of the presenters asked us if we had had a physical within the last six months. I had been through the ringer prior to graduation just three months before so didn’t have to raise my hand. Those that hadn’t included a classmate of mine from the Academy. He, like me, was wearing glasses for distance vision that day. The exam included an eye test; he didn’t pass this time and he was shipped off to navigator training. I got to stick around and complete Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) in October 1974 and got my Air Force Wings. To this day, I wear my wings on my flight suit and my flight jacket. I am truly honored to have had the opportunity to attend the Academy and go to pilot training. They were defining moments in my life.
I went on to fly in the USAF in six different airplanes. Most notable: LTV A-7D Corsair II — the “SLUF” — one of the first attack aircraft with good “magic” stuff, computed weapons delivery system and inertial nav, and the Fairchild-Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II — the “Warthog” — back before it had any of the “magic” and we dropped bombs shot the gun as I imagine the P-47 Thunderbolt pilots did back in WWII: hard sight and Kentucky windage. Well, I guess the gun we carried was a little better. After leaving the USAF I flew in the Colorado Air National Guard (the “Redeyes”) and as a civilian pilot. A particular airplane attracted my attention — one that would be fun to fly and would give me an opportunity to share flying as I had done in the USAF: the Beech T-34 Mentor. In the early 80s I had my first taste of flying the T-34 at Buckley Air National Guard Base near Denver, Colorado. When I moved back to San Diego, I looked for an opportunity to fly the T-34 and found it at the North Island Navy Flying Club: Beech T-34B N795FC. I joined the club in January 1994 shortly after 5FC arrived. Two years later I met Tracy at the club when she started taking lessons. The rest is history and, as Tracy often says, was meant to be.