Swiss cheese, shutdown engines and an owl

I barely saw the little black needle of a jet, the T-38, who was flying as my “safety chase”. It seems that since the incident I had where an engine shred itself on me, I was selected to become a Functional Check Flight pilot, whose responsibilities include intentionally shutting down engines while airborne to make sure they’ll start again. Sandi affectionately calls it becoming a test pilot, as I test every system on the aircraft as part of a check flight. The very scripted profile calls for three events that make one’s stomach uneasy. The first is putting the left throttle into the cut-off position, shutting off the engine; the second is the same, with the right throttle. The last is the “PAARS” demonstration in which the pilot points the nose of the jet towards the waxing moon high above and hits the button that tells Hal, the autopilot, to recover back to level flight, which he does with enthusiasm. I had strapped myself in tight, having been warned, so all I had to do was put a hand on my bag of required publications, which is simple when Hal is flying and I’m in my more accustomed role of auto-pilot manager. Ah, the joys of being a stealth “fighter” pilot.

It was an unusual week, beginning with a three-day stand-down (no flying) while they considered the fleet-wide ramifications of the engine trouble I had back in March, and ending with the flight described above. In between we actually flew a 4-ship, another rarity in stealths. Awaiting our clearance onto the range, we circled in 2+2 formation, with the front two aircraft a mile in front of my wingman and I. I marveled at the unique flat black lines with the angular mounds in the center, F-117s from the back and far away, that lead us around the sky. I appreciated the fleeting moment in time called “now” that I have the singular opportunity to see that view.

The extraordinary week continued into the weekend as I began and ended a very long Sunday workout with a three mile run. The first began a triathlon in Albuquerque where I actually won my age group; the second followed a two hour bike ride mandated by my training plan. I stopped the first time to return the gaze of the prairie dog who sat tall in the storm drain, eyeing me suspiciously for some time before he ambled off to more interesting things. His compatriots had made Swiss cheese of the field I circumnavigated. Dead tired and with my eyes on the finishing parking lot, I was startled by a squawk off my right shoulder. Fluttering brown and white wings caught my eye. I stopped to see the owl I’d disturbed settle on the next post down the row, from which he cocked his head to examine me before returning to his surveillance of the field rodents.

Glad to cross Sunday’s training off the list at last, I drove back south to High Rolls, watching two round towering thunderstorms develop, highlighted by the afternoon sun, and kick dust hundreds of feet in the air. As I arrived home I was thrilled to find the last of the week’s uncommon occurrences had actually happened as I’d hoped and prayed – it rained! For the first time in several months. And as I type about it, thunder rolls again up from the valley, suggesting that it’s time to retire from my office with a view, also known as the deck.

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