As Mike goes to fly today, I push aside the irrational thoughts of the danger involved, but are they irrational? Last night, another fighter pilot lost his life in a crash. This is the fifth fighter jet crash in a very short timeframe. Every time my heart grieves for the family, but this time, it weighed heavier. Not because I know the family, but because it happened again. There are times it’s not a fear because it’s not on my mind. Then, it happens again and again and again and now it’s screaming at me “your husband’s job is dangerous!!”
Yes, his job is dangerous. That’s a fact. I’ve had 4 phone calls with him saying “I’m in the hospital, but I’m ok and it’s just precaution.” Four or five other phone calls from an unrecognizable, out of area number saying “I’ve diverted, I’m safe, but I won’t be home tonight.” An occasional run down of his flight when he got home telling me about some dangerous mistake [Lambchop] made mid-flight that in reality put his life in danger. But every time it has been his voice talking to me. I was never afraid; it has always been factual and informative. However, I realize, before I married Mike I knew nothing about what he did, the danger his job posed daily, not just in combat. This thought has led me to want to share with those less familiar with the day to day of a fighter pilot and as a result, his/her spouse.
Every pilot’s career is different, the assignment is different, the hours are different, etc., so I say this acknowledging that this is my experience and there are so many more perspectives out there.
When Mike goes to work he doesn’t fly every day. Some seasons he flies 4 days a week, others 1-2x a week, occasionally 5x a week. It’s inconsistent and ever-changing. When he does fly the time will be different every time but here is what I can expect (in human terms):
- He has a flight time – he goes into work at least 4 hours before that takeoff time – if he has other “desk” work to do he might go in earlier.
- He has a brief time – this is the time everyone in the flight (normally 2, 4, 8 or in some cases 100+ people) gets briefed on the flight with info like what airspace they are going to, what mission they are executing, the objectives for success and the plan on how they will perform that mission, etc. – the brief time is about 2 hours before step
- in between brief and step the pilots will go put on all of their gear like poopie suits if they are flying over water, G-suits, and grab their cute embroidered bags
- Step is the time when the pilots step to the Top 3 desk (front desk) and get more info which may include weather, issues to consider, which jet to hop in, etc.
- They then walk out to the flight line where they do a walk around with the crew chief (the individual who does maintenance on the jet and ensures it’s safe to fly and loaded with the right weapons) – things are discussed like what’s broken on the jet (yep, you read that right) – they will talk again when the pilot lands to discuss if there were things maintenance needs to know about and fix for next time.
- The pilot gets in the jet to taxi down to the runway – you’d think they’d zoom right off, but there’s still more time like stopping to have the loaded weapons “armed” and ready to go if required.
- Take off finally happens.
- The flight is typically about 1.5 hours long, but could include a PIT (land and fly again), a refuel (hit the tanker for more gas and keep going) or sometimes cut short due to a maintenance issue or mistake that’s not worth continuing the flight
- there are often students in the flight
- The pilot lands, does the walk through with maintenance, walks inside the building and goes to the locker room to get out of flight gear.
- They begin downloading their tapes (recording of the flight) & a debrief time is announced – normally about an hour or 2 after landing but it varies.
- Tapes are watched.
- The debrief happens – this is often the longest part of the day; the longest debrief I know of lasted 12 hours!
- if there is a student, the student debriefs the flight giving lessons learned and breaking down all of the important things that occurred
- after the student debriefs, the instructor “takes the pens” and debriefs the debrief – the student is given feedback, lessons learned, constructive criticism, hopefully a good job here and there, and a pass/fail determination
- if a student is not involved a debrief of lessons learned will still occur, but likely be much shorter
- The pilots then either go home or might have more desk work to do.
In that timeline, the pilot is away from their phone or any phone for that matter. For those not wanting to do the math, that’s anywhere from 10-12 hours to be expected out of communication. I hear from Mike before step and after landing. Sometimes a call, sometimes a text. I get a text message of “on way” when he’s walking out of the building – we established this for my peace of mind. If any of this occurs after 10:00 pm it’s always a text message. The 10:00pm rule was established when he was at weapons school and I asked him to sleep in his on base dorm if he couldn’t be home before 10:00pm so I knew to not be worried about him being on the road late. Funny that I’m more often than not more concerned about him being on the road than I am about him flying.
In the event that I had an emergency and needed to contact him, I would call the squadron and they would track him down, pull him from the brief, or get him on the ground as soon as possible if needed.
Night weeks – a.k.a. agonizing nights and annoyingly quiet days. Night weeks vary as well, but as you can imagine, they have to train at night so they have to happen. Some night weeks he could be home by 11:00pm while others he gets home at 4:00am. He often is flying again the next night so needs to rest which means I whisper-scream at the kids all morning to be quiet even though his natural body alarm will wake him up 4 hours after he’s fallen asleep. Every spouse is different and many of my friends have told me they have no issue falling asleep on night weeks. But, I seem to not quite fully fall asleep until I’ve at least heard he’s landed and I wake up periodically throughout the night checking my phone for updates until he’s home.
Because this is all a normal day for us, I do not spend the time that he’s unreachable worried or paranoid that the next call I’m going to get will be his commander with bad news. However, today, as he goes to fly, I cannot help but think of what the spouse at Shaw was doing last night at 11:30 pm. I imagine, just like me, she may have been laying in bed watching Gilmore Girls, or rocking a baby who was up in the night, or making her best move on Words with Friends against another pilot’s wife as a way to keep in touch. Then she received a phone call. Or a knock on the door.
I do not intend to speculate, instead, I am putting myself in her shoes. I am realizing that it could be me. Any given day, it could be Mike. It’s a fear we will all have, but a choice we will make to push that fear aside and tell ourselves that our spouses are at work just like a banker or a doctor. I will allow myself to grieve, accept reality, pat myself on the back for being tough, then go back to pretending what he does every day is normal.