I ride bicycles, and when I do, I tend to think about all sorts of things. Well this week, I was riding and realized that in November 1978, I took my father up in a private airplane. I had a pilot’s license and was flying the aircraft. He, on the other hand, had been a Navy fighter pilot in WWII, and hadn’t been in a small plane since just after the war.
As I continued riding, I thought about the stories he’d told me about being selected for the Navy’s elite carrier-based night-fighter pilot program. The stories were amazing, especially considering the airplane he flew — a Grumman F6F Hellcat — and the lack of instruments it had in the cockpit as compared to the Piper Warrior we were flying that November day. There was no VOR navigation radio system available back when he was a pilot, which astounded him with its ability to locate our position instantaneously as we flew along. He used charts and a sextant, while flying at about 400 mph — at night, when it’s real dark outside, and only about two hundred feet above the water to stay below radar. Talk about nerve. I think back when I used VOR and now I shudder, realizing that today’s airplanes have the luxury of GPS, all in living color and with all sorts of alarms attached. So nowadays there’s no need for nerves at all.
The one story he relayed that completely befuddled me was how a night-fighter pilot back then stayed on course. There was nothing to look at, no sight reference at all, only water, and lots of it. The aircraft carrier, or sometimes a land-based location, would send out a single sound wave. If the pilot was on course, the sound he heard through his earphones was a constant beep-beep-beep. If he veered off course to the left, the sound would change to a bee-beep, bee-beep, bee-beep; to the right, it would be a beep-bee, beep-bee, beep bee. Depending on how far left or right the pilot was off course, the sequence between each beep-bee or bee-beep would get faster and more intense. My father told me that the hardest thing to do was stay awake, since it was dark outside and the only thing you’d hear was the constant beeping sound, which was like an audio sleeping pill.
I was elated at his trust to go up and fly with me that day, considering the number of hours he’d flown during his career as compared to the hours I’d accumulated in my log book. As it turned out, that flight was the last time either of us was in a small aircraft. When we landed, I taxied the aircraft to the hanger and got out, never again to get back inside and fly. What a way to end my flying career, though, with my father at my side as co-pilot; a WWII night-fighter pilot at that.
Thanks for flying with me, Dad, and also all the stories you told me over the years, which I will always remember with fondness.