(Taken from Steven Lane Snith’s Reaper’s Lament, stories by pilots who mostly should be dead. Well-worth the read.)
The Reaper’s a wily scoundrel who knows that, on a sunny day, the ocean is the same color as the sky. Blue.
Not long after my transition from the F-4 Phantom to the F-15 Eagle at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, I was sent to Langley AFB, Virginia to maintain F-15 proficiency with the 94th Fighter Squadron, Eddie Rickenbacker’s “Hat in the Ring” Squadron. This trans-Atlantic shuffle was necessary because Bitburg’s 36th Fighter Wing had taken delivery of only three of its eventual complement of seventy-two F-15’s.
Our mission on this beautiful, cloudless day in question involved launching four Eagles into an air-to-air combat range over the Atlantic to engage ten Navy fighter jets in a dog fight. While imbibing spirits and exuding bravado at the Air Force Officers Club, four versus ten is what we Air Force guys commonly referred to as a fair fight.
Our four-ship of Eagles spread into tactical formation and began parceling up the targets that were coming right at us into the morning sun. My flight leader assigned me the right flank, and I selected two targets flying in trail, a common Soviet tactic. I flew a stern conversion and killed the trailer with a simulated AIM-9 Sidewinder heat shot.
Simulated splash. There wasn’t time to celebrate the kill, because the leader was maneuvering hard. I tangled with him for a few turns before I killed him with the gun,
I wanted to go after a third bandit, but I had been predictable too long. The Squids (our nickname for Navy fighter pilots) were good, and they’d love nothing more than to bag an Eagle that had tracked its prey too long.
I hit the burners and pulled straight up into the blue sky., straining to check my six o’clock to make sure no bandits were on my tail. My six was clear, but the stick felt odd. I had expected stick pressure to lighten up as my airspeed melted away in the vertical climb. Instead, the stick was rock solid. I glanced to check my airspeed. The altimeter was a blur. I was doing Mach 2.2 straight down! That’s almost 1700 miles an hour. At that speed I could fly from Philadelphia to Washington in about five minutes, instead of two-and-a-half hours by car. If I flew Mach 2.2 all the way down from 35,000 feet, I’d be a grease spot in fewer than 14 seconds.
Understand, I has calculated these speeds in the comfort of the O Club after this flight, not while I was actually plummeting to earth at an alarmingly rapid rate. I double checked my numbers; yep, 14 seconds until I became a grease spot.
Being a cunning aviator with a bright future. I didn’t want to become that grease spot. I pulled the throttles to idle and deployed the speed brake. My helmet slammed forward and I heard a loud bang. Excess air pressure had broken the speed brake and slammed it shut. Of course, I was pulling in the pole big time. At first I could only het 3.5 G‘s, but as the speed decayed, available G increased. I pulled out of the dive as soon as available aerodynamic forces le me. I selected burners and climbed back into the flight. I figured I had skipped being shark bait by two seconds.
During the flight back to Langley, my hands began to tremble. Then my knees. I noticed that I had lowered my seat during the unintentional supersonic dive. Doubting the outcome at some point, my instincts told me to block the view of the water so I wouldn’t die tensed up. (Any fighter pilot prefers a serene appearance in his coffin in order to leave a favorable last impression.)
I wasn’t any new guy on the block the day the world turned blue. I had often mixed it up in air-to-air dogfights, yet, I had become disoriented long enough for the Reaper to take a swing at me. Thank God for a magnificent airplane and a second chance.