Chapter 5: Fighting time
Time was a strange concept. On the one hand it felt like Lorne had been at the training school forever but at the same time he couldn't believe it when they hit the 18 week mark. He was half way through the Hornet training program already ... the time left to go seemed both endless and way too short, like the ending was rushing up to meet him before he was ready.
As the weeks passed, another thought began to occupy Evan's mind at odd moments. It was a given that an entire class never completed the training. They already knew that from Paul Merlin's untimely exit. As each new phase was reached, the thought that another trainee wouldn't cut it ... would have their training ceased before they could graduate ... began to intrude more and more.
Lorne didn't want to see any of his class go ... the close call Drew had with night flying just emphasised that. They'd gotten through that one together but no one could relax because the pressure just kept ramping up. They were all learning about themselves on a personal level – and there was no guarantee that what they’d find would help them achieve their dreams, not when it could just as easily spell the end.
When your instructors likened what you'd already accomplished as kindergarten compared to what you had to do next, it didn't exactly inspire confidence. But that's what Major Charles Bickford, lead trainer for the next round of training, did.
Taking on an opponent when each knew the other was there. No more sneaking up on a bandit’s tail. This was an in your face, out and out battle to dominate in the sky. Getting behind the other guy so you could shoot him and he couldn't shoot you.
Kill or be killed.
It meant max performing the Hornet because if you didn't, in the real world of aerial combat, you'd be gone before you could even blink.
But defence wasn't the sum total of it ... in real combat it wouldn't be just you defending yourself by taking out an opponent before they could take you out. Sometimes it would be offensive too ... taking out targets on orders as part of an overall mission strategy. In the defence of your country sure, but an individual attack just the same. It was a harsh fact but you didn't become a fighter pilot so you could throw a jet around the sky in an impressive display of power and precision. You became a fighter pilot to fight ... and if called upon, to kill.
They called dog fighting Basic Fighter Manoeuvres – BFM – and part of learning it was learning about yourself ... learning about whether you had the aggression and the determination to be a killer. It was the part of the course that had seen more than a few trainees hit the wall ... a dream crusher that had spelled the end of the road for more than one previous rookie.
The beginning of BFM was a series of gruelling missions starting with the most basic scenario and progressively getting more demanding. The rookies had a few days to prepare, which translated into a few days to stress and worry over what was going to happen. Whether you had what it took to be what a fighter pilot had to be. Because it wasn't about how talented you were as a flyer. It was about how ruthless you were as a fighter.
As was the case when each new phase was reached, the trainees spent probably too much time as a group talking about what was to come, whether to make it seem more familiar or to reassure themselves they could handle it was unclear.
"What did your friend say about BFM?" Cade asked John. "The one who did the course a couple of years ago."
"That he realised how little he knew after the first mission," John replied. "It challenged his understanding of the kind of pilot he was too ... he thought he'd be able to easily push the jet to the limits when the time came but thinking it and doing it turned out to be two very different things."
"Theory versus reality," Marcus noted.
"Exactly," John agreed. "You know you can pull 9 G's in a Hornet but even pushing the G's past 7 ... deliberately ... is tougher than it sounds. Making yourself do that is the real challenge."
"It's a confidence thing," Drew said quietly, thinking back to his issues with night flying.
"Never underestimate the mental game," Lorne spoke for the first time. "If you don't believe in what you're doing ... believe you can do it ... no amount of skill is gonna get you through."
"Have you flown combat?" Drew asked, knowing from the history of the other guys that Lorne was probably the only one who might have..
"No," Evan replied. "For the rest of the course I'm as much a novice as the rest of you." And he was happy about that fact - the rest of his classmates had caught up any of the advantage his time at Dryden flight research centre had given him and they were finally all on a level playing field. Lorne was looking forward to that - to being challenged as much as the rest of them, to fitting in, to not being the one they looked to as 'the voice of experience'.
"You worried?" Cade asked curiously.
"No, and you shouldn't be either," Lorne replied. Meeting Cade's eyes he continued. "We can all do this if we want to ... the big question is whether we do want to. Flying BFM will help us all answer that ... if it turns out the answer's no then now's the time to find that out."
"Not everybody's cut out for the fighting part," John concluded.
"Exactly," Lorne nodded. "Sure - training is them testing you to see what you can do. But part of any training program has to be you testing the topic - testing whether what you've set out to do is even what you thought it was gonna be."
"I want to do this," Cade said purposefully.
"Then you will," Lorne returned.
"There are many mistakes a rookie doing their first BFM can make," Major Bickford told them at the last training session before their first missions. "Not pushing the jet hard enough is one of the most common ones, followed closely by letting your airspeed drop too low. What happens if you do either of those?"
"Goodbye aerodynamic grace for the second one," Lorne responded with a smirk.
"Exactly," Bickford returned. "You know that speed is essential to the Hornet performing to spec ... let it get too low and you'll find yourself flying something with the manoeuvrability of a brick. That's if you don't just drop out of the sky." He waited for that to sink in before continuing. "What about the first mistake - not pushing the jet hard enough?"
"The bandit gets behind you," Drew said, cutting straight to the conclusion.
"It'll happen so fast you won't get a second chance," Major Bickford nodded. "Chasing down the bandit means pulling G's - big G's. You go easy on the stick and you'll lose them because rest assured they'll be pushing their aircraft as hard as it can go to get behind you. For this first mission that's what it comes down to ... you start on the offence, the bandit in front of you. Keep them in front of you - make the kill - and you'll pass. Let them get behind you too many times and you'll fail. Any questions?"
"No Sir," John spoke as the others all shook their heads.
"Okay - good luck Gentlemen."
Evan was teamed up with Major Baker again for his first BFM mission. Now he knew why the other man was taking a personal interest in his training, Evan was okay with that. He liked Major Baker - felt comfortable with him as an instructor. Baker didn't instruct unless it was necessary ... he didn't pepper Lorne with comments or suggestions but rather let him do his job, only offering something if he thought it would add to Lorne's performance.
As was usual they had a short briefing before heading out across the tarmac. Major Baker didn't reiterate what Bickford had already told them. Instead he offered Lorne the chance to have his questions answered before summing it up with one statement.
"Keep aware of what you're doing," he said intently. "Trust in the Hornet to handle whatever you ask of it. Trust yourself. And remember ... the fight isn't over until you run out of sky to fly in."
"Yes Sir," Lorne nodded confidently.
"Okay, let’s go do this then," Baker motioned for Evan to lead the way as the two walked to the prep area to finish gearing up and pick up their flight bags, plans and the flight tape for recording the HUD. The system they used for dog fighting was called Automated Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation – ACMI – half black box data recorder, half GPS. It would tell them everything they needed to know about the flight ... including who got the first shot.
Preparing for flight was routine now ... something Lorne liked to use as an example to himself. A task that had seemed large at the start was now second nature ... just like dog fighting would become second nature once he'd given himself the chance to learn and practice it.
They took to the air, Lorne and Baker in one plane, Captain Reed in the other. Once they were at 17000 feet and the fight was called as on Evan would have about 60 seconds to make the kill. Any longer than that and he'd run out of altitude - hit the hard deck at 7000 feet. The hard deck, also called the floor, was the point of no return for being able to pull up in time.
"Bravo six one, in as Bandit," Reed reported once they were at height.
"Bravo six two, in as Fighter," Lorne replied.
And the fight was on.
Evan kept his gaze on his HUD, watching for what he knew would happen next. The bandit would make a diving turn in front of him to get out of his line of fire. Lorne would have to turn tighter to stop him from getting behind him. More than that though, he had to get a lock and make the shot before the bandit could shake him.
Reed dropped his left wing, diving sharply. To Lorne he was just a flash of movement passing across the HUD. Pulling hard on the stick, Evan followed. He didn't have to think about being aggressive. Instinctively he gave it everything, the stick right up into his stomach as he pulled 7 plus G's in a tight turn that saw the bandit's position on the HUD hovering on the edges of his lock circle. It wasn't smooth - the black spot that was Reed's hornet pinged in and out of view as Lorne fought to get him in the line of fire.
It wasn't a matter of reacting without thinking though. It was controlled, focussed thinking, taking everything in that related to the task at hand and leaving everything else to take care of itself. He was only peripherally aware of Major Baker's encouragement from the back seat during the seconds that passed while he chased Reed down.
"He's bailing, go where he was," Baker instructed.
"Think about the altitude," he said moments later. "Watch the floor here."
Reed dipped right and then climbed, turning sharply again. It was purposeful, designed to make Evan feel like the other pilot was in control, but the bandit must have known that Lorne was slowly reeling him in.
Following, Evan matched Reed move for move, watching as the other hornet’s erratic movements on the HUD narrowed around the aiming circle until finally he had a lock.
"Taking the shot," he announced, firing his weapons.
"Keep gunning him," Baker instructed as they followed Reed's flight path across the sky.
The whole thing only took 45 seconds but it felt like a lot longer.
"That was ...," Evan trailed off, adrenalin pumping through his system now the first encounter was behind him, mind back to taking in every detail around him. How blue and clear the sky was.
How fast his heart was pumping.
"Well done," Major Baker complimented. "Nice and aggressive."
"Thank you Sir," Lorne smiled, feeling the excitement still bubbling at the surface.
"Bravo six one, go again," Baker ordered.
"Bravo six one, acknowledged." Reed straightened his path, rising back to 17000 feet again. "Bravo 61, in as Bandit," he reported moments later.
"Bravo six two in as Fighter," Lorne replied.
Reed made the diving turn to the right this time, Evan reacting instantly and chasing him down. He pushed it even harder this time, his response time and the 7.7 G's he was pulling enough to keep the bandit on his HUD the entire time. It didn't take long for him to get a lock ... Reed hadn't even had a chance to try something else when Lorne was announcing that he had the shot.
"Excellent!" Baker's voice was exuberant as if he himself had made the kill. "Excellent work Evan."
"Thank you Sir," Lorne's own voice was full of enjoyment. Now that he was up in the air with two successful BFM's behind him he could admit to himself that he had been a little worried that maybe his unblemished record would meet its first stumbling block with Basic Fighter Manoeuvres.
Evan never pulled any punches with himself. He knew his own mind - knew where his weak points were, knew the things that would bother him at the end of the day. He'd never shot at a live target before but he was comfortable in his trust in the chain of command and the necessity of military action if such action was ordered. The Flight Research Centre and NASA had taught him that he was fully capable of manning up - of flying the nuts and bolts off a plane if that's what it took to meet his objective. He'd been confident pushing the Hornet past 7.5 G's, knowing it had more if he needed it, because he'd pushed other planes to their limits in the past.
What was untested was whether he had what it took to see that target right in front of him - up close and personal - and make the kill shot anyway. It was a training scenario and of course at the back of his mind Lorne knew that - it wasn't real but it felt as close as they could get without it being live combat.
What he'd learned that day was that he did have that killer instinct ... the ability to hunt down the enemy and remove him from the equation. It was knowledge about himself he'd have to reflect on and file away ... but Lorne was okay with it.
"Let's return to base," Major Baker ordered after Evan had completed a final, third successful offensive BFM.
"Yes Sir," Lorne fell into position near Reed's plane, following the other pilot’s lead back to Cold Lake.
The other trainees went up for their first BFM's too ... with the usual mixed results. Drew discovered a hard core of aggression that had him successful in all of his manoeuvres too. The rest were a mixed bag, mostly predictable aside from Marcus not making any kills for all three of his manoeuvres. Prior to that his record had been almost as unblemished as Lorne’s and it was a surprise to everyone that he’d stumbled so badly.
"I wasn't committed enough," he admitted during the group debrief. They'd watched replays of all the HUD recordings, starting with Lorne's and finishing with Drew's. "Didn't get it past 6 G's even though I knew I had to."
"The key to successful BFM's is to pressure the bandit," Major Bickford explained. "You have to maintain that the entire time ... keep them scared ... keep them so focussed on spotting you they don't have time for anything clever."
"I knew that in my head," Marcus commented in a low tone. "Just couldn't translate it into action."
"You're not alone Captain," Bickford said reassuringly. "Like I said before the mission, it's the most common mistake rookies make. All caution, no kill." He looked at Marcus expectantly. "Now you know what to expect you'll do better next time."
Marcus nodded but the expression on his face was doubtful ... not unexpected given he wasn't used to failing.
None of them were.
Maybe that was one of the biggest lessons they all learned at fighter town. They'd come from being the star. Getting the notice of the powers that be - getting that invitation to Cold Lake - meant you were the best of the best for real.
But then you went from being a very big and impressive fish in a big pond to one of the crowd in a much smaller pond. Nowhere to hide from notice and nothing special compared with your colleagues and peers. It was a valuable lesson - learning how to fail and get over it - move on, not give up. Because up in the air that attitude could be the difference between surviving and being the victim.
The next day Lorne returned to his room in the early evening, more tired than he could ever remember being. All he wanted to do was fall on his bed and sleep for a week but he couldn't. He had to read up on the next day’s BFMs - this time defensive which meant he'd be playing the target trying to break away. He was looking forward to it – not worried about not performing but still wanting to make sure he was fully prepared.
Fighter pilot training was demanding on the body and mind ... and on time itself. There never seemed to be enough minutes in the day to do everything required ... learning the coming up next stuff, reviewing what you'd just done, keeping fit so you could handle the physical stresses of high G flying. Sleeping was well down the list and Evan had gotten to the stage of getting just enough every night to stave off complete exhaustion.
When the knock sounded at his door, he couldn't help the groan that escaped. Getting up wearily he moved to open the door, stepping back with a raised brow when he saw his visitor.
"Marcus," Lorne said in surprise.
"Lorne," the other man's whole demeanour was troubled and Lorne mentally wrote off the rest of his evening. The fact that he'd come to Evan ... so late and looking like it was a last resort he felt compelled to pursue said whatever he wanted was serious and likely to take a while. "Have you got a few minutes?"
"Sure," Lorne replied openly, stepping back from the doorway.
Marcus's eyes shot to the interior of the room, noting the books and notes piled up with a frown. "Ah ... outside?" he suggested uncertainly.
"Lead the way," Lorne returned, falling into step beside Price as he headed for the outer doors. They walked in silence for the time it took to clear all the buildings and hit open space on approach to the airstrip.
"I'm thinking about leaving," Marcus admitted once they stood looking out over the tarmac. The line of Hornets were dark outlines against the semi lit darkness ... menacing and sleek as though crouching silently, waiting for action.
"What?" Lorne was surprised. That wasn't what he'd been expecting.
"I'm struggling," Marcus explained, eyes still on the silent planes. "With BFM ... if I fail my next mission I'm out anyway."
"That’s just not right," Evan returned. "You're a great pilot. What's holding you back?" He knew instinctively that it wasn't about skill ... up until BFM Marcus had been one of the stars of the program.
"I don't have it," Price turned to look at Lorne. "That killer instinct. I just ... don't have what it takes to commit to the fight."
"You don't have it ... or you don't want it?" Evan asked pointedly.
"I don't know," Marcus looked down at his shoes before meeting Lorne's gaze. "Maybe both."
"It can't be both," Lorne replied. "You either want to do it or you don't." Marcus made to reply but Evan held up a hand to stop him. "I'm not saying it's easy. I know it's not. But if you're looking inside yourself and doubting the act itself then it's not about capability. It's about desire. What do you really want to do?"
"I thought I knew," Marcus sighed. "Fighter pilot - that's what I always answered whenever anybody asked. Now I'm just not as sure it's what I want anymore."
"It's not what you expected?" Evan asked curiously.
"I don't think I ever thought about it," Marcus chuckled suddenly. "It's a young boys dream ... glory and speed in a super hero kind of way. Not much of reality in that, is there?"
"No there's not," Lorne agreed with a faint smile.
They fell silent for a time before Evan spoke again. "So if I ask you now, what do you want to be when you grow up, what are you going to answer?"
"A pilot," Marcus said immediately. "Definitely a pilot."
"There's a lot of ground between pilot and fighter pilot," Lorne acknowledged. "My whole time at the NASA flight research centre had little to do with the 'fighter' side of things. You can still be that if it's really what you want. But you have to ask yourself ... is this about what you want or is it about not wanting to fail - getting out before they kick you out?"
"I knew you were gonna ask that!" Marcus shot back irritably. Lorne waited, watching the expression on Price’s face turn from annoyance to resignation as he thought. "I'd like to say it's all about the career question,” he finally admitted. “But if I'm honest maybe some of it’s about failing too. I don't want to go up there and suck at this again."
"I get that," Evan replied. "Maybe you should look at this next mission as an opportunity then. Use it as a way to determine what you should be doing in the future. To do that though you're gonna have to commit to it - give it everything you've got - otherwise it won't be a fair test. You pass and still feel that the fighter part isn't for you then it's probably the right thing to step away."
"You're right," Marcus nodded. His expression turned thoughtful as he considered Lorne's advice. "I can do that," he muttered, eyes narrowed.
"And remember one thing," Lorne said, falling into step with Marcus as they headed back towards the dorms. "Not everyone who leaves fighter training is pushed out the door. Deciding to leave isn't a failure. And getting this far is a success."
"I know," Marcus smiled, slapping a hand to Evan's shoulder. "Thanks man."
"You're welcome," Lorne made a play of staggering slightly before straightening again. Laughing, already seeming more relaxed, Marcus said another quick thanks before the two parted ways.
As Evan walked back to his room he wondered when he'd become the unofficial class counsellor. Not that he minded ... if anything he'd said helped Marcus with what was undoubtedly a tough decision, then Lorne would be happy. He had a suspicion about which way Marcus would go but time would tell if he was right or not.
A part of Lorne felt a little guilty though. He had issues of his own that he'd kept to himself - even from Drew who'd become the closest friend he'd had in years. Evan didn't like the thought that everyone was looking at him as the guy breezing through - it felt dishonest. Not that he'd envisage any kind of situation where he'd spill the beans on his personal situation. It would take a lot to bring him to that point.
Pushing the unsettling thoughts to the background, Lorne settled at his desk. He still had hours of study ahead of him and an early morning fast approaching.
Lorne took the F-18 up to 17,000 feet ... ready to be the bandit to Major Collin’s fighter. This time he had Captain Reed in the back seat ... the acknowledged king of banditry.
“Alpha five two in as bandit,” Evan announced when he was ready to go.
“Alpha five one in as fighter,” Collins replied.
Without waiting for an invitation, Lorne dropped the Hornet into a sharp dive. This time he was in the hot seat – he needed to outturn Collins and then manoeuvre his way onto the other man’s tail.
Being the bandit was streets away harder than starting from the offensive. All the time Evan was fighting to spot the other Hornet behind him, even as he flew forwards. The helmets the pilots all wore weren’t exactly light either ... Evan’s weighed somewhere around 8 pounds. Trying to spot his pursuer was literally about physically craning his head up and back and it was hard work.
It was an odd contrast ... his focus behind him while everything he needed to fly the plane was in front of him.
He did have some magic tricks to help throw the other plane off the scent ... Lorne couldn’t help a small grin as he set off the chaff. Small packets of tinfoil confetti designed to confuse the other pilot’s radar. The other tool in his arsenal of defence was flares – flashes of heat and light meant to trick a heat seeking missile into locking on to their position rather than his F-18.
Collins wasn't swayed by Evan's defensive attempts, staying on track as he chased Lorne's jet, closing fast.
“Watch your nose,” Reed cautioned as Lorne flew in a wide diving arc before slamming the stick forward aggressively, craning his neck and just spotting Collin’s hovering outside the line of fire to his right.
It was hard to point the jet’s nose where it needed to be when you were so busy watching your tail but winning the dogfight, living through it, came down to that. Keep the nose down and gravity was on your side – you’d be faster. If Evan could keep his nose below the horizon then he had the best chance of avoiding the other pilot locking on to him.
Setting off a second series of chaff, Evan reversed his direction abruptly, pulling significant G’s as he attempted to swing around behind the other plane. He was counting on using all the altitude he had available to him along with the element of surprise being enough to catch Collin’s offside. It was a bold move that required a very tight turning circle and Lorne was surprised when moments later he found himself in the pursuit position. Before Collin’s could swing away Lorne had locked on weapons and made the shot.
“Woo hoo,” Reed was clearly grinning as Evan straightened out his flight path.
“It took too long,” Lorne commented, knowing that the longer a dog fight went on the more chance there was for errors. You had to take command of the fight and get your shot quickly.
“Not really,” Reed countered. “It just feels like it did. Time elongates inside the cockpit during a BFM. Just wait until we review the ACMI – you’ll see.”
“I guess,” Evan replied. He knew it was true ... he’d been continually surprised during flight reviews how short some of them actually were.
“Okay, let’s try that again,” Reed announced.
Nodding, Lorne went back to making himself the target.
Back on base, successful mission and debrief behind him, Evan sought out Marcus. The other man had redone his first BFM mission while Lorne had been in the air. It was a requirement that every unsat mission – unsatisfactory – had to be re-flown for a passing grade.
“How’d it go?” Lorne asked as he joined the other man in the mostly deserted rookie lunch room.
“Passed,” Marcus said with little inflection in his voice.
“And?” Evan raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“And I don’t know,” Marcus admitted. “It felt good to not suck but ...,” he trailed off with a sigh.
“But it didn’t blow up your skirt?” Lorne jested.
“Something like that,” Marcus agreed with a laugh. Turning serious again he shrugged. “I’m gonna stick it out for a bit longer – see if I can get more relaxed about the whole killer instinct thing.”
“Give yourself a chance,” Lorne urged. “Things can feel uncomfortable to start with and then you settle into them and forget you ever felt that way.”
“Is that what happened for you?” Marcus asked curiously.
“Yeah,” Evan agreed, sitting down opposite the other man. “Close formation flying didn’t come naturally – not like the rest of it. But now ...,”
“Now you’re enjoying it,” Marcus concluded.
“Not exactly enjoying it,” Lorne felt compelled to be honest. “But I’m not hating it either. It’s not a deal breaker. Give yourself time to work out whether dog fighting is your deal breaker or just a part of the job you can do when you have to. No one’s gonna like every aspect of their job ... and you know, the perks for us more than make up for that.”
“They do,” Marcus agreed. “I don’t think I’ll ever fly anything as impressive as the Hornet.”
“Hard to imagine anything more impressive,” Lorne agreed. “So ... you’re hanging in there.”
“I’m hanging in there,” Marcus agreed.
“Nice,” Evan smiled, happy that for the time being their class would remain unchanged.
The one constant in fighter town was that you never got to rest on your laurels ... it fact it seemed a requirement for every rookie never to get too comfortable. The next unexpected challenge was always just around the corner, waiting to trip you up if you let it.
Lorne had flown five successful BMF missions over the space of a week, making him first up for neutral BFM. That was the polite label for what was essentially a game of high speed chicken, fighting head to head.
In a neutral fight no one started with an advantage. You approached your opponent from the opposite direction and engaged the enemy once you were in range. In a real life combat situation such a scenario was probably closest to what might happen ... approaching a designated target from your side's base of operations while the enemy moved to defend it from theirs.
The objective was simple ... engage a lead turn and then be offensive on the other pilot to make the kill shot.
The key to succeeding was to turn at just the right time to circle in behind the other guy. It wasn’t as simple as being the first to the trigger although that was the required end result. You had to know when to join the fight too.
You also had to respect the bubble – the 1000 feet of space around your opponent that for training purposes was designated as out of bounds. Breach the bubble and you’d be in for a red tick and a stern reprimand from your instructor, not to mention bearing the brunt of an angry outburst from your bandit. Training had to be real but it also had to be safe and anything that threatened that was dealt with severely.
Lorne and Captain Reed headed out together with Major Baker flying as the solo opponent for the morning. He rarely ventured out in such a role but had announced he was in the mood to show the rookie how it was done. Evan had played along, pointing out that youth should more than make up for experience.
Grinning, both teams set out for their respective planes.
“Is Major Baker any good?” Evan asked as he settled himself in the cockpit.
“Unbeatable when he first started out,” Reed replied. “He’s not as sharp as he used to be but still more than capable of kicking our asses out there.”
“Noted,” Lorne grinned, completing his checks and getting them moving. He did wonder at Major Baker’s choice for participation until a thought occurred to him. Was he testing whether Evan still had that killer instinct when the base 2IC was his opponent? Whether he’d be willing to take down a mentor – someone he admired – even if it meant showing him up?
“Hell yes,” Evan muttered with a shake of his head. This was going to be fun.
The first approach was an adjustment ... it wasn’t as easy as it might seem to time your entrance into the fight. Too late and you’d miss the other guys leading turn. Too early and you’d deliver your backside for a quick defeat.
Lorne spotted Baker when they were still some distance out. Hand tight on the stick he kept to the straight line. Baker did the same and it began to feel like a game of chicken for real. If each kept to the same line they wouldn’t crash head on but they’d probably clip wings which at that speed was just as bad.
Instinct kicked in again ... Evan wasn’t sure why but there came a point in his approach where he just knew it was time to take the lead, make the turn and invite Baker to counter.
Turning sharply right and down, Lorne used gravity as he’d been instructed to guide the nose of his Hornet down and give him a burst of speed. Baker countered, making a lead turn of his own.
It was like a choreographed dance as the two planes circled each other mid air, Lorne’s turn tight enough to see him gaining on Baker’s tail as they used up some of their precious altitude to jockey for position.
“Watch the floor,” Reed reminded him in a low tone.
“Watching,” Lorne acknowledged, eyes darting to the HUD and then back out the window looking for Baker’s plane. The flash of black whizzing past was his cue to sharpen the turn again, pushing the plane to the limit as he attempted to outturn his opponent.
He thought he had Baker pinned down until the other man did the proverbial brake slam Lorne had only seen in the movies. This was a combination slow down and drop so that their planes maintained a safe distance even as Baker skimmed the edges of the hard deck.
Lorne reacted immediately, pulling back hard on the stick as he shot the Hornet up to vertical. Baker followed as Evan knew he would ... the correction in their relative positions saw Lorne’s undercarriage just shy of the bubble at the roof of Baker’s aircraft. If he’d just returned the plane to horizontal Baker would still be on his tail. Instead Evan twisted the stick while they were still vertical, doing a 360 spin around the straight line path of the other plane. Because he'd covered more distance, when he straightened off, Lorne was on Baker’s tail with an easy lock in sight.
Still mostly vertical he made the kill before doing a back loop to bring his Hornet back to horizontal.
“Holy fuck,” Reed’s voice sounded a little shaky from the back seat. “What the hell was that?” he demanded.
“Inverted vertical spin with a reverse outside three quarter loop,” Lorne replied casually, as though they were standard procedures all pilots made use of.
“Oh - is that all?” Reed quipped. “Where’d you learn that because I know we didn’t teach you?!”
“Cheating Captain?” Major Baker’s voice over the radio broke into their conversation.
“No Sir,” Lorne replied. “Just making use of every advantage against a worthy opponent.”
"Very diplomatic," Baker returned. “Let’s see what other tricks you’ve got under your belt.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne grinned as he flew back to 17000 feet, covering enough distance to provide sufficient separation between the two planes.
The second encounter felt much the same as the first. Evan had to fight hard to keep up with Major Baker and he had to pull more aerobatic manoeuvres as the only way to gain position sufficient to get a lock.
Later, back at his debrief, Lorne did wonder whether trouncing his instructor and the second in command of the base had been a good idea ... until Baker walked in with a grin and an expression of clear enjoyment on his face.
“Haven’t had that much fun in a long while,” the Major commented. “You’re just a wealth of hidden talents, aren’t you Captain?”
“I try Sir,” Lorne said, tongue in cheek.
“I’m not surprised,” Baker shot Captain Reed a look the other man clearly understood.
“I’m up again in an hour,” Reed announced, standing abruptly. “I’ll leave you to debrief Captain Lorne Sir.”
“I’ll look after him,” Baker agreed, waiting until the other man had left before turning back to Lorne. “I’m not surprised,” he said again.
“How’s that Sir?” Lorne was truly puzzled at the turn in the conversation.
“I’m not surprised that the son of Major Jonathon Lorne would have such a talent for stunt flying,” Baker said intently.
“You knew my father?” Lorne sat up abruptly, eyes locked to his instructors as a sick feeling swept over him. He knew Baker had read whatever was written in his file but personal knowledge was another thing entirely.
“I knew of him,” the Major clarified. “And I met him once only a few months before he was killed. You look a lot like him.”
“I know,” Evan looked down, clenching and unclenching a fist absently as his thoughts scattered. “My Mom doesn’t mention him but the expression in her eyes sometimes when she looks at me ..,” he trailed off.
“It must have been hard,” Baker acknowledged. “He was a great pilot.”
“Until the day he wasn’t and paid the price,” Lorne said in a low tone, almost bitter.
“Even more so that day,” the Major corrected. “He made the conscious choice to stay with his plane long enough to ensure he cleared all the spectators. I read the incident report Evan. Your father had partial control, enough to keep that plane in the air – he could have ejected sooner – hell, with more time he might have even gained back full control.”
“Do you really believe that Sir?” Lorne looked up, his expression guarded.
“It’s all there in black and white,” Baker pointed out. “They don’t pretty it up for the family in official reports Evan.”
“I always thought maybe ...,” Lorne trailed off with an awkward shrug.
“You should be proud,” Major Baker stated firmly. “I know he’d be damn proud of you right now.”
“I hope so Sir,” Evan swallowed back the emotions that were clambering to be given a voice.
“So – why the aerobic flying?” Baker asked in a more casual tone, giving Evan the chance to get back some of his control.
“Too many reasons to count,” Evan admitted ruefully. “I guess I wanted to understand him better – why he thought that kind of flying was important enough to risk his life for it. And maybe I was testing myself too – to see whether whatever flaw it was that ended it for him is somewhere in me too.”
“It was an accident,” Baker said insistently. “A simple malfunction. Nothing he did and nothing he could have done to prevent it. He had the skill ... just as you do. You’ve more than proved yourself, even before today.”
“Thank you Sir,” Lorne smiled. Eyes twinkling suddenly he chuckled. “This is one day when I won’t mind you making a spectacle of my mission result Sir.”
“Vying for my job huh Captain?” Baker joked back.
“Not yet,” Evan grinned. “Maybe in a few years ... when I’m too old to fly a Hornet anymore.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Baker said seriously. “Because it goes faster than you can possibly imagine right now.” Before Evan could comment, the other man nodded towards the doors. “Now get out of here – go brag to your classmates about how you trounced me.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne paused for a moment, eyes on his instructor, before silently leaving the room.
He puzzled about Major Baker’s mood for a few days before the reason for it suddenly became clear. Every fighter pilot knew that their active career would be measured in years rather than decades. For most, six to eight years would be all they’d manage as a full time flyer.
Flying a Hornet was hard on the body ... something like 8 hours of hard labour compressed into a one hour time span. Like elite athletes, as age caught up with them a fighter pilot would begin to feel the pinch that eventually led to a drop in performance. From that first hour of flight every pilot was on a short track towards the final one. When it came would depend on the pilot. Some waited to be pushed into a different role, others left before it got to that. Some stayed in the service; others took up positions in private sector.
But no matter how they left, they all shared one thing in common. A last flight ... a solo fly past in an F-18 with their family and friends present to bear witness.
When Lorne heard that Major Collins had announced his retirement from the active flight list and Cold Lake base, Baker’s words made sense. The two men had served together for many years ... Collins leaving would leave more than just a vacant standards officer position to be filled.
The rookies stood on the fringes of the airfield the day Collins took his final fly past with his wife and two young children in attendance. Evan watched, his eyes more on the family than the sky as Collins made the most of his free ride in the Hornet – taking it through its paces with a precision that made his leaving all the harder to accept.
Collin’s wife looked proud and sad ... Lorne was sure she understood more than most what her husband was leaving behind that day. The need to fly that was a part of the man. Turning his attention to the children Evan had to smile. Both boys were unable to stand still, their small faces turned to the sky as they squinted into the sun for a glimpse of their father. The image hit Evan hard ... that would have been him, if ...
“I wonder if they’ll follow in their Dad’s footsteps?” Drew stood beside Evan, nodding to the two boys.
“He’s giving them good reason to want to today,” Evan’s voice was low and rough.
“I’m sure whatever they end up doing, he’ll be proud,” Drew carefully ignored his friends agitation, eyes turned to the sky. Knowing what he did of Lorne's background, Drew knew the scene they were witnessing would be hard to watch and so he stood, silently supportive.
Lorne nodded without speaking. The two of them maintained their place as part of the audience for Major Collin’s departure, cheering along with all the other pilots present as Collins landed for the last time and gathered his family in for a close hug. He might have been leaving the sky but he wasn’t leaving the club ... once a Hornet pilot always a Hornet pilot.
Evan hung around just long enough to be polite and respectful, congratulating the Major and thanking him for his expert instruction. The celebration was still in full swing when Lorne slipped out, walking quickly across the tarmac and on to the fence line. Gripping the fence tightly he rested his forehead against the cold metal loops, casting his gaze to the horizon.
History was what it was ... and the future would be what it was meant to be. He’d meet every test head on and pass it ... to prove something to himself as well as to make his absent father proud.
And maybe one day his mother would understand the choices both her men had made and be happy for his success.
Thank you to the Canadian Discovery channel and the Jetstream program for all the details I’d never be able to find out myself – everything the pilots get up to and all the jargon and other cool stuff is gratefully sourced from them. There are a couple of direct quotes from Kavan Smith's narration included here too - my favourite was "all caution, no kill".
One of the pilots did do his final fly past during the making of the show and I just had to include a version of it here. I never really thought about the time line on a fighter pilot before – it’s a lot shorter than I might have guessed if someone had asked me. It does explain to me why people such as Lorne and Sheppard occupy non pilot specific roles when clearly they are pilots. Both are of an age where they’d be past full time flying anything demanding like an F-16. Lucky for them Puddle Jumpers and F302’s have inertial dampeners!
Last thing before I stop blabbering on ... the title for this chapter isn't a reference to it being time to fight ... it's about fighting time itself, both day to day as the trainees struggle to get everything done, and the battle in general - the one none of us can win.
Chapter 6: Shifting Dreams
It made sense that if you called something ‘basic’ – as in basic flight manoeuvres – it was because there was something more advanced to follow. And in week 22, six months into the training program, the rookies found out just how advanced.
Air combat manoeuvres – ACM – the most realistic combat scenario they’d faced so far. The instructors called this stage of the course ‘Dream Killer’ for a reason and all the rookies knew it. In almost every course someone crashed and burned on ACM’s. It was just a matter of constructing your own list on who was most likely to go down that road on your course.
Lorne, along with the other five trainees, knew the pecking order as perceived by their group of instructors. It was hard not to – through open comments after every mission ... the good and the bad – and because they were such a tight knit group that things like grades were shared openly after every flight.
So Evan knew that his name had been firmly planted at the top of the list almost from day one, followed closely by Marcus Price and Cade Boston. Of course, Marcus had already stumbled on BFMs, his reputation not so much tarnished as it was under the spotlight of increased attention. Before that he’d slipped under the radar, getting it done without song or ceremony. The others were by no means slouches but they’d all suffered setbacks during at least one phase of the course and had to pick themselves up and get back on track. Drew was getting up there again, having made up ground after his struggles with night flying, but his experience showed that it didn’t take much to go from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Because if there was one thing that was certain, it was that fortunes could change in the span of days – that it would take screwing up only a couple of missions to go from high to low without stopping in the middle.
It wasn’t something you wanted to think about ... fighter pilot training was ever a confidence game, a belief game. Evan didn’t need to believe that he could top the class ... truth be told he didn’t really want to, but for the fact that it might draw renewed approval from the folks at NASA. But he did believe in his ability to pass the course – not through serial superior missions but through constant, unrelenting effort and attention to every detail available.
It was in his make up to be that way ... as Major Collins had put it when he’d taken his leave of the rookies, offering each a personal word, Lorne was ‘very to the business’. Translation? Evan wasn’t a wild card or a character of any sort. He was solid and dependable and he got the job done without fanfare or the need for praise. He kept himself on track and he never let anything set him back.
Little did he know that before the end of the course all of that would be tested in the worst possible way.
The first mission for ACM had everybody talking. There would be not one but two other planes in the sky. You, your lead, and the bandit in a two against one air combat scenario.
“The lead and the bandit will engage each other just like any other BFM,” Captain Reed explained in the group briefing. Each trainee would also have a one on one briefing with the instructor who’d sit in their back seat but all new sections of the course began with group training. “Your job is to hover about a mile up from the battle, identify the bandit, tip your nose in and then shoot him down.”
As he spoke he brought up an animated display showing three plane figures on a black screen. The lead was shown in blue, his dotted line flight path shifting into the standard single circle pattern of the first BFM they’d all completed. Circling with him was a red plane figure with corresponding dotting trail, the bandit. Above the two circling planes, crossing the pattern, was a green plane – the trainee whose job it was to take the bandit down.
“Looks easy sitting here doesn’t it?” Reed commented, holding up small versions of the Hornet painted in the three standard colours and mounted on sticks so they could be used to demonstrate various flight positions. “Unfortunately for you we don’t paint the planes so you can distinguish them in the air. In real combat even the planes flown by different countries will look the same when you’re tagging them over your shoulder, upside down, doing 200 plus miles per hour.”
He paused to let that sink in. “So, how do we do it? How do we work out who to shoot?”
“Ask your lead which one he is,” Neil suggested.
“Exactly,” Reed confirmed. “When you have to work out who’s who in the zoo using your comms becomes very important.” It was how they described the practice of distinguishing friend from foe – who’s who in the zoo - and they’d be hearing it all the time during the air combat phase of the course. “What’s the first objective for ACM1?”
“Don’t shoot your lead,” Lorne provided the obvious answer.
“Don’t shoot your lead,” Reed reiterated. “Remember – comms, contracts, and game plan. Talk to Lead. Don’t shoot Lead. Stay one step ahead of the bandit. You do all three and you’ll pass the first ACM mission. Any questions?”
Evan slouched back in his seat, listening to the others ask a variety of questions as he thought about the upcoming mission set for the following day with concealed excitement. Assuming everything went well he was expecting it to be a whole lot of fun.
The weather Gods smiled down on the rookies the day of first ACMs. As the year shifted towards November the seasons shifted too, bringing with them fog that rolled in off the lake from the east and lingered on the tarmac for hours.
Lorne had already begun to feel the cold again, particularly in the early mornings when he ran the now familiar path around the base. Getting the chance to adjust rather than just jumping in after the heat of California helped, but Evan was pretty sure he’d never be won over on the whole extreme winter thing.
“Captain,” Major Baker drew Evan’s attention from the tarmac outside where he’d been watching the operations crew get the planes ready.
“Sir,” he nodded, following Baker to one of the vacant briefing rooms for their detailed mission briefing.
“You ready?” Baker asked simply.
“Studied up as much as I can Sir,” Lorne replied, before shrugging. “I know things are different once you’re up there ... very different sometimes.”
“That’s the thing about ACM,” the Major said conversationally. “You can keep the book in mind but you can’t run it by the book entirely. It’s dynamic and fluid in a way you can’t program. You have to be the same ... that’s why rookies struggle with this part of the course.”
“We’ve all been talking,” Lorne admitted. “John was saying most courses lose at least one trainee because of ACMs.”
“That’s true,” Baker agreed. “It’s about having spare capacity Evan. Your bucket can’t be so full there’s no room for processing what’s right at you during manoeuvres. Some people can do it, others can’t think fast enough to take the opportunities when they’re there.”
The bucket concept was well understood by everyone ... it’s how the instructors described a trainee’s current state. Everyone had a bucket of things they were currently doing, thinking about, planning, learning. If the bucket got too full then things started falling out the sides – that was why rookies made simple mistakes later in the course, forgot things they’d learned and mastered months before.
The key was to absorb the new stuff before it overloaded your bucket – to keep that spare capacity by making all the things you needed in your bucket smaller so that you could progressively fit more and more in. It was like when you first learned to drive a car ... to start with your entire focus was on shifting gears at the right time, turning the wheel, taking your turns at the right speed, paying careful attention to your route. Eventually though you got to the stage where you’d drive from A to B without any conscious recollection of how you got there. For the rookies it was much more challenging because they weren’t getting as much time as they needed to reach unconscious competence in one task before another new one was thrown on top.
“Can I ask if there’s anyone you’re particularly worried about Sir?” Evan queried.
“You can but you know that’s confidential ... besides, it’s not always predictable. I’ve been surprised more than once in the past, going both ways.” Baker looked at Lorne for a moment, consideringly. “You’re worried about losing someone from your ‘team’ – now you’ve gotten comfortable with them. That’s natural, but losing people for whatever reason is a part of the service, as I'm sure you're well aware. And you know, if someone doesn’t make it, it doesn’t reflect on you personally. You can’t bring everyone along for the ride just on the strength of your will alone.”
“Ah ... I ...,” Evan looked uncomfortable before admitting. “I was just thinking maybe I could help a little.”
“And that’s admirable,” Baker agreed. “As long as you keep in mind that it’s not always possible to change the outcome, no matter what you do.”
“Yes Sir,” Lorne nodded.
“Now ... back to ACM1,” the Major stated. “Let’s talk game plan.”
Lorne settled back in his seat, watching as his instructor for the mission ran through a series of in air manoeuvres with the ‘plane on a stick’ props. At the back of his mind Evan was still thinking about what Major Baker had said – that it was almost inevitable that someone wouldn’t make it through this next stage of the course. He knew the older man spoke wisely from experience, but Lorne was still determined to prove him wrong.
It was crowded on the runway as all three planes prepared for takeoff. As one, lead and bandit took to the air, followed closely by Lorne as the intercept.
“Accelerating for 400, we’re at 17000,” Evan reported once they were in the training zone and ready to proceed.
“Alpha five one, in as lead,” the newly promoted standards officer, Major Steven Bond, call sign ‘Jimmy’ reported over the radio.
“Alpha five three, in as bandit,” Captain Reed responded.
“Alpha five two, in as intercept,” Lorne completed the initial fight set up chatter.
Immediately lead and bandit engaged, moving into a single circle fight manoeuvre a 1000 feet below Lorne’s position.
“Alpha five one engaged. Hostile, hostile, MIG 29,” Major Bond spoke, his tone urgent as though the situation were real.
“Okay, you got who’s who in the zoo?” Major Baker queried. Did Lorne know who was the bad guy and who was the good guy? It was the question because even on a clear day the decision on who to shoot could be anything but clear.
“Alpha five one hard right, bandit right,” Bond reported.
Lorne rolled the plane nose up over the fight, upside down. Craning his head back over his shoulder, he locked vision on both planes circling behind him. Two dark plane shapes against the blue sky, indistinguishable from each other.
“Five two, I am tally visual,” Evan reported. Tally visual meaning he had sight of both planes below him. Tipping his nose, Lorne dropped his wing and returned to right side up flying, preparing to lock onto the target.
Everything moved very fast during ACM ... that was the problem. You thought you had your man in sight but very quickly both planes could swap position, complete a full revolution of the single circle manoeuvre while you were busy getting into position. Evan thought he knew who was who but as he pursued to get into a firing position he still worked the radio.
“Alpha five two, confirm the bandit is low?” he queried Bond.
“Alpha five one, bandit is low man,” Bond confirmed.
Lorne slammed the stick hard left, swooping in high behind the bandit. “Alpha five two, press,” he reported, letting his lead know that he was pushing for the kill shot. The instance he had a lock and the shoot cue flashed on his HUD, Evan took the shot.
“Alpha five two, Fox 2,” he said, weapons away.
“Preserve, preserve,” Baker cautioned Lorne to maintain position, to keep the other two planes visual until they’d confirmed the kill.
The plane Lorne had locked and fired on tipped his nose up, regaining altitude.
“Alpha five three, valid,” Reed reported.
“Nice shooting,” Baker complimented Evan, the grin evident in his voice.
“Thank you Sir,” Lorne replied, relieved. In that second before he’d got confirmation of the valid kill he’d wondered briefly if he’d taken out the wrong plane. Only now that he’d been up in the air with two other planes did he realise just how challenging the two against one scenario was. Without the constant communication between lead and intercept it really would be impossible to work out who was who – no one was good enough to remain tally visual on both planes 100% of the time and it only took a moment of inattention for positions to be swapped.
“Alpha five one, reset,” Major Bond announced.
“Alpha five three, reset,” Reed confirmed.
“Let’s make it two for two,” Baker told Lorne.
“Yes Sir,” Evan replied confidently, heading back for 17,000 feet.
The second round of two against one fighting went much as the first had, although Lorne was hopeful he’d managed to get the kill shot a little faster than the first time. That was something all the rookies were told – don’t waste time fighting, get the kill as quickly as possible. It was a balance though, if you acted in haste you could take out your lead but if you took too long you were leaving your lead to fight alone.
“Let’s take it back to base,” Baker advised once Lorne’s hour in the air was up. They’d managed three sets with Evan getting the kill each time. Overall Evan thought he’d done well but until he’d gone through every move in detail he was never completely sure.
Back in debrief the Major took Evan through the mission using the same animated diagrams as they’d seen during training for the mission, this time recorded during the flight. Evan watched in fascination as his green coded plane trailed above the red and blue planes of bandit and lead, dipped and then chased down the red trail, getting the kill shot.
“Forty five seconds,” Baker noted. “Not bad for a rookie. I wouldn’t say you hesitated on this first one but the last check of who’s who probably wasn’t necessary. Did you know who was who before you made the call?”
“Ah ... I guess,” Lorne replied, thinking back to that moment. “I’d lost tally for maybe a second getting the plane back right side ... it wasn’t much but I thought there was a slight chance bandit and lead could have switched positions.”
“Fair enough,” Baker nodded. “You’ll get a better feel for that with practice ... elapsed time compared to how long it feels. If you watch it again,” he reset the tape and played the animation again, “you’ll see lead and bandit couldn’t have switched while you were getting position. There wasn’t time, even with how fast things were moving.”
Lorne watched closely, eyes narrowed as he considered the entire picture. He nodded, understanding what Baker was saying. It wasn’t much, but in combat even a few seconds could be the difference between killing or being killed.
In a battle with two guys beating up on one you’d expect the fight to be over fast. Experienced pilots got in the fight, lined up the shot and made the kill in under 30 seconds. There were even statistics to support the need for the quick kill. Air force studies had shown that in a 2 versus one fight in the first 45 seconds the intercept had a five to one chance of killing the bad guy. Take that out to a minute thirty and the chances of surviving dropped down to one to one. If the fight went beyond two minutes the ratios actually reversed – the intercept had a five to one chance of dying in the fight. Nothing like cold hard numbers to convince you that speed was of the essence.
“Let’s look at your next run,” Baker stopped the playback, cueing up the next sequence.
ACM1 complete and an above average grade under his belt, Lorne went to rejoin his classmates, most of them having done their first missions over the day as well.
“Guys,” he said, walking into the small study room where they congregated outside of classes and missions.
“SureLorne!” Drew grinned, getting in another repetition of his unofficial nickname for Evan, a play on the whole forlorn thing from the call sign review as well as a back door acknowledgement of Evan as the undisputed ‘king’ of their class of recruits.
“I thought we’d agreed you were gonna drop that,” Evan shot out, glaring at his friend.
“You agreed,” Drew said innocently. “Personally I think it’s fitting ... if you can’t do the time then don’t do the crime buddy,” he added, grinning again.
“Whatever,” Lorne dismissed, knowing there was no point in arguing. “So – how’d you go?” he asked, casting a glance around at all his classmates.
“I’m down 40,” Cade admitted.
Lorne whistled. “Tough break,” he acknowledged. While he’d never had to satisfy the requirements of the beer rule himself, Evan understood the implications. The beer rule was all about the number of beers you had to buy your instructor if you stuffed up on a mission. The more beers, the worse the stuff up. It was all about suffering a penalty that while mostly harmless would hurt your finances and your pride enough to make the lesson stick. Forty was a high penalty and given the mission could mean only one thing. Cade had shot his lead.
“Did you get a valid kill?” Evan asked, hoping the younger man had redeemed himself.
“No,” Cade’s tone was clipped and for the first time Lorne could see the cracks in the other man’s facade. Cade came over as young and keen, eager to succeed while being as shy and bashful as his call sign proclaimed him. But underneath all of that he was purposeful and driven to succeed – he just never let the harsher side of being that way show. Until today.
“It’s the first mission,” John reminded Cade simply.
“Yeah, but I was the only one to not get a valid kill and shoot my lead,” Cade pointed out grimly.
“You’ll do better next time,” John said firmly, cutting off the negative talk before it got destructive.
“How about you Marcus?” Evan asked curiously, trying to switch the focus and also interested in how he’d done.
“One valid,” Marcus returned casually, “ran out of time on the other two. Everything moves a hell of a lot faster up there than you realise when you’re reading it from a book.”
“You got that right,” Cade agreed. “Felt like I didn’t have time to even think, let alone work out what to do next.”
Lorne didn’t say anything but Cade’s comment troubled him a little. From the sounds of it his young friend’s bucket was dangerously full – no spare capacity. That was a worry because being a good fighter pilot wasn’t about having the best hands and feet – the most talent in the air. It wasn’t about being the best shooter, or having the best personality either. It was about the ability to process information rapidly and use it to make good decisions. If Cade was feeling like he didn’t have the time to think it was a sure sign he’d reached maximum capacity. Unless something clicked things would only get worse for him.
“I tell you one thing,” Drew chuckled. “I was so focussed on trying to get visuals that I almost forgot to fly the plane. Had it down to 70 knots at the top of a climb and Major Wilson in the back seat just repeating ‘speed’, ‘speed’, ‘speed’, over and over until I realised and corrected it.”
“That’s close to stalling it,” Neil said, surprised.
“Yeah – the Cherokee Lorne and I flew a few weekends back stalls at 68 knots,” Drew admitted, shrugging. “What Major Wilson said at my debrief was interesting though. He said he sees himself more as a weapons systems manager and tactician than he does as a pilot like he would if he was just flying from A to B.” Drew laughed. “Then he pointed out that there are stages where the operation of the plane has to become number one – like before you’re at the top going way too slow and about to drop like a brick. I got off lightly today and you can bet I won’t be forgetting to keep track of that next mission.”
Evan met Drew’s eyes, silently nodding his approval. Drew was just as much a facade on the outside as any of them. So easy going and casual he could be mistaken for being insensitive but in actual fact he was just the opposite. He’d seen Cade’s spirit crushed a little and used his own failings along with a reminder of how useful making a mistake and learning from it could be to help gee up their youngest team mate.
“And the good news is we get to do it all again tomorrow,” John slapped Cade on the shoulder. “So ... who’s up for a drink?”
There was plenty of work to be done, mission debriefs to be gone over again. But as one, the group put all that aside and headed for the officers lounge, instinctively knowing that they’d each get more out of a few hours of social interaction and friendly support than they would from studying.
After two successful repetitions of the two against one scenario with an instructor in your back seat you got to do the whole thing again, but this time flying solo.
Lorne’s first solo air combat mission came at the end of the first week of ACMs and he spent the night prior rereading his manuals, going over his previous two mission reports and just flying it in his head. That meant sitting in front of a wall where pictures of the cockpit and controls had been attached and literally running through your moves, imagining how it should go.
But as luck would have it, the weather gods decided not to favour Evan with a clear day. Visibility was so poor the entire morning of training was cancelled, leading to a frenzy of mission reshuffling for the afternoon once things had finally cleared.
For the rookies it was beyond frustrating ... a night of intense foreplay without the satisfying release at the end ... as Drew jokingly put it.
Lorne did finally get his solo run though, up in the air with Captain Reed – Bravo six three – as the bandit again and Major Peter Bickford – Bravo six one – as his lead.
“Bravo six one engaged, ID hostile, hostile, MIG 21,” Bickford called for help urgently, in character.
“Bravo six two, press,” Lorne returned, flying high and scanning below him for a visual.
“Bravo six one is merging offensive,” Bickford reported just as Evan spotted both planes moving in to circle each other.
“Bravo six two, Tally visual,” Lorne let his lead know he had both planes in sight, needing only to confirm who was who to press for a shot.
“Tally one high, eight o’clock high,” Bickford gave his status clear and rapid, putting the bandit south west from Lorne's position.
“Repositioning low,” Lorne returned, circling and coming in with the other two planes above him. According to what Bickford had told him, lead was closest to his position with the bandit breaking hard left from six o’clock in pursuit. He waited for them to complete the merge and then pulled up on the bandit, getting a quick lock.
Finger on the trigger, shoot cue flashing on his HUD, Evan was all set to take the shot but something made him hesitate. Instinct – be it from the multitude of inputs he’d been getting during the manoeuvre or just from gut feel – said something was off with the identification of who was who in the zoo.
He knew Bickford had said the bandit was high but it didn’t gel. “Bravo six two, roll out,” he watched as the high plane rolled right, the other plane following suit moments later. He’d been right ... his lead wasn’t the closer of the two planes.
“Bravo six two, repositioning high,” he reported, pulling big G’s to match the bandit circling below while climbing steadily to a higher altitude. Dipping his nose down again, he zeroed in on the bandit.
“Bravo six two, shot in five,” Lorne said. “Fox 2.” The shots were away, the battle over.
“Valid,” Captain Reed reported in. “What took you so long?”
“Ah ... just a little confusion in the zoo,” Lorne said diplomatically, not wanting to suggest that Major Bickford had mislead him without seeing the tapes first.
“Yeah, all from me,” Bickford wasn’t so reticent about waiting for the tapes. “Sorry Captain. Nice work saving my ass there.”
“No problem Sir,” Evan said easily.
The remainder of Lorne’s solo mission went without a hitch, Captain Reed and Major Bickford both complimenting him on his quick thinking.
“How’d you know I’d given you a faulty status report?” Bickford asked curiously after they’d run through playbacks on the entire mission at his debrief.
“No idea Sir,” Lorne admitted ruefully. “I’d had a pretty good run on keeping tally visual the entire time and something just ... felt off.”
“Don’t underestimate instinct Captain,” Bickford cautioned. “Often it feels like you’re just listening to your gut but up here,” he pointed to his head, “your brain’s taken in all the details and hit you with the answer. Not something we can always explain.”
“Would you have taken the shot?” Lorne asked curiously. “I wasn’t sure – and we were getting high on the elapsed time.”
“I don’t know,” Bickford admitted. “Depends on how much my gut was screaming at me. In reality you’d hope your lead wasn’t going to fuck up their status report like I did today – there’s a pretty high trust element there too. Can’t question your lead unless you’re damn sure there’s a problem because they’re looking to you to help. The longer you delay the longer they’re fighting alone and the closer they are to getting hunted down by the bandit.”
“Assumptions are the number one cause of errors,” Captain Reed stated. “Nine times out of ten that’s a pilot assuming they know who’s who in the zoo without confirmation. But that one time it’s the pilot assuming lead couldn’t possibly make an error even if there’s evidence to the contrary.”
“So – I should be thanking you for giving me a dud status check then Sir,” Evan suggested, expression bland.
“Why’s that Captain?” Bickford asked with a frown.
“Well, I never would have actively considered what I’d do if I suspected an error otherwise Sir,” Lorne began. “And I’m thinking the beer rule should apply in reverse,” he grinned suddenly. “Which would make me pretty damn popular with the other rookies tonight.”
“He’s got you there,” Reed said with a laugh.
“He does,” Bickford narrowed his eyes at Evan before chuckling ruefully. “I’ll pay this one Lorne – because you didn’t shoot me when you could have. You’ll get your 40 ... and some kudos from your mates.”
“Thank you Sir,” Lorne said respectfully.
“You did good today,” Bickford summarised. “Good comms all day, good fight set ups all day. Overall an above average performance.”
“I’m gonna have to stop signing up to be your bandit,” Reed joked, paying Lorne a high compliment. "You're screwing up my averages."
“Don’t spoil all my fun,” Evan retorted.
All three men laughed, the mission debrief ending with Lorne feeling very much a part of the camaraderie between the two very experienced fighter pilots. Almost as if he were one of them ... which made it an excellent day as far as he was concerned.
Sadly, not all his classmates had had as good as day as Lorne’s.
Things had not improved for Cade Boston, who was staring down the barrel of three successive failed missions. That might not seem like much but in fighter school it was enough to have Cade going from being one of the stars of the course to being a marked man.
It wasn’t just a matter of casting doubt in your instructor’s minds about whether you were up to it. It was also about flight hours. Trainees were assigned a set number of hours to pass the course – every failed mission meant a repeat, using up some of those valuable hours. If you failed too many missions you’d run out of time before you got to the end. The course coordinators wouldn’t let it get that far of course ... you’d be reviewed long before you flunked the course because you were out of flight time.
It was Marcus who suggested they take the night off, head into town and play some pool, have a few drinks and just forget for a few hours that they were even trainee fighter pilots.
“I ah ...,” Lorne hesitated, feeling himself flushing slightly.
“Got a hot date ... Love?” Drew teased.
“Not exactly,” Evan admitted. “I did kind of promise Steph I’d catch up with her tonight though. I’ve been putting her off for over a week so ...,” he trailed off with a shrug.
“You don’t want to cancel again,” Drew concluded.
“Bring her along,” Marcus suggested lightly.
“You sure?” Lorne frowned, not wanting to change the dynamic of what would have been a ‘team’ event.
“Hey, we’d rather look at her pretty face over your ugly mug any day,” John ducked out of the way when Evan made a play at directing a punch his way.
“Okay, I’ll ask her,” Lorne agreed. “Don’t be surprised if she passes on the chance to spend time with your less than charming selves.”
Getting up he headed for the phone, ignoring the comments being yelled out behind him.
“Is Cade okay?” Steph drew Evan closer, speaking close to his ear as she watched Cade head for the bar and another round of drinks. They’d been at the pool hall and bar for over an hour and the mood of the group was light hearted and festive. Apart from Cade, who seemed visibly mired down by the weight of his own thoughts.
“A couple of bad missions,” Evan said by way of explanation.
“Recoverable?” Steph had been around base long enough to appreciate how fortunes changed at the drop of a hat.
“Probably,” Evan kept his eyes on Cade, watching him get their drinks without his usual blushing friendliness for the female bartender with a frown. “If he can get over himself.”
“Evan!” Steph scolded, glaring at him.
“What?!” he shifted back to look at her. “I just meant he has to get over the personal angle and focus on what has to be done to turn it around. Switch off the ‘why me’ machine that’s got all the negative thoughts pumping in his head.”
“Oh,” Steph frowned for a moment before smiling. “And I suppose you’ve got a plan for helping him with that.”
“Still thinking about it,” Evan admitted. “Maybe after a couple more drinks something will occur to me.”
Cade’s timely arrival halted their conversation, drawing the six rookies plus one together into the one conversation again.
Marcus had been very quiet for most of the evening too, not exactly out of character but something worth noting. He took a few sips of his beer before putting his glass down resolutely and clearing his throat.
“I’ve been thinking about something for a couple of months now,” he began, getting everyone’s attention immediately. “This is probably gonna surprise most of you,” he met Evan’s eyes before continuing, “but I ah ... I’ve decided to quit the F-18 training program.”
There was utter silence before he got his first reaction.
“What the fuck?!” Cade shot to his feet, glaring angrily down at the other man. “You got what it takes to get to the end and you’re just gonna throw it away like it’s nothing? Fuck you man!”
“Cade,” Evan was standing before he’d even thought about it, putting a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“No,” Cade turned to Lorne, anger blaring from his eyes. “No! He doesn’t get to just quit!”
“I don’t have it,” Marcus hadn’t taken offence, his tone quiet and purposeful. “Not like the rest of you. You know what I’m talking about Cade. That kill or be killed instinct. It’s not me.”
“Yeah well then maybe you shouldn’t have joined the service,” Cade spat out sarcastically. “Cause it’s a little hard to be a solider if you’re not prepared to kill.”
“You’re right,” Marcus waited for Cade to really look at him, waited for him to see the truth.
Cade stopped, his breathing harsh, eyes locked on Marcus.
“Have you told anyone?” John finally broke the silence to ask.
“I spoke to Major Baker today,” Marcus admitted. “Let’s just say he was less than impressed but at the end of the day he understood my reasons. Didn’t seem all that surprised to be honest.”
“This is just wacked,” Cade muttered, his expression one of a man discovering the world was not the place he’d imagined it to be. “How can you throw away six fucking months of training?”
“How can I not?” Marcus returned. “Listen ... this wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve spent weeks doubting myself, doubting my motives ... ever since we started BFM’s. It’s not a whim.”
“What are you gonna do next?” Neil asked.
“Go back to my unit, serve out the rest of my term,” Marcus replied. “Then I don’t know ... get a commercial license and see what happens after that.”
“Fly but not fight,” Lorne summarised in a low voice.
“Exactly,” Marcus smiled, appreciating being understood.
“You knew,” Drew narrowed his eyes at his friend.
“That Marcus was questioning things, yes,” Evan got a nod from Marcus before answering. “Tonight is as big a surprise to me as it is to the rest of you. But,” and he looked pointedly at Cade before continuing, “I fully support Marcus’s decision. Just because it’s your dream to be a fighter pilot doesn’t make it wrong for Marcus to realise his dreams lie elsewhere. Dreams aren’t about talent or capability. They’re about desire ... that’s why we don’t always get there, no matter how hard we try.”
“Yeah, you got that right,” Cade sat down abruptly, taking a large swallow from his glass before looking away.
“You haven’t failed yet,” Lorne nudged the younger man with his boot, drawing his attention. “But I guarantee you will if you continue with that attitude. So you failed a couple of missions. So what? You wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. And I bet if you asked any one of the instructors they’d be able to tell you about someone, maybe even themselves, who did just as badly but made it in the end.”
“Who died and put you in charge of morale,” Cade spoke resentfully. Lorne said nothing, waiting. A few tense seconds passed and then Cade gave a big sigh and looked up at Evan. “Sorry,” he muttered, embarrassed. “I’m just not used to failing – it sucks, big time.”
“It does,” Evan agreed simply, finally feeling he could retake his seat next to Steph without the threat of fisticuffs.
“What would you know about failure?” Cade shook his head. “That sounded bad but you know what I mean. You’re sitting on a perfect record man!”
“And it wasn’t my dream to be doing an F-18 training program right now,” Evan returned irritably. “Sometimes you have to make that mental shift, make the most of what you’re dealt.”
“NASA,” Drew said under his breath.
“Yeah,” Evan shrugged. “You wanna talk about failure, try gearing your whole career to get into one program, only to be told thanks for coming, you’re the runner up so we’ll call you if someone drops out. You know it’s wrong but deep down you hope like hell someone will drop out ... only they don’t.”
“You can’t try again?” Steph spoke up for the first time, putting a hand on Evan’s forearm.
“I could,” he acknowledged. “And I will – but the window on getting into the astronaut program is really small and I’m on the edge of it already. It’s completely out of my control whether they’ll even consider me a second time.”
“You’re right,” Cade grinned suddenly. “That does suck worse than a couple of failed missions I can repeat.”
“Yeah – thanks for the sympathy buddy,” Evan said snidely.
“So if you can’t be an astronaut, being a fighter pilot is the next best thing?” Drew asked.
“For me it is,” Lorne shrugged. “For now anyway. You take the opportunities where they come. Who knows where you could end up because you did.”
“It’s worth acknowledging,” John looked around the table as he spoke. “Not all of us are gonna make it and even if we do, not all of us are gonna stick with it all the way ‘till they retire us.”
“But we’ll always be a part of the club,” Neil concluded, raising his glass expectantly. Everyone followed suit, waiting for him to speak again. “The cougars,” he said solemnly.
“The cougars,” Evan echoed along with five other men, Steph watching on with a fond smile.
The rest of the night passed without incident, everyone carefully not acknowledging what they all knew to be true. Come tomorrow Captain Marcus ‘Right’ Price would be packing up his gear and leaving 410 Squadron. And while he’d always be a part of the club it would be different ... just by sheer distance alone as well as the unavoidable fact that the remaining five rookies would be continuing on the path that was no longer his. They would all have experiences he could no longer share.
As Lorne let himself be drawn into the jokes and teasing and seemingly endless rounds of drinking, part of him couldn’t help but dwell on the changes that were sure to follow.
There was no escaping that one trainee questioning themselves, challenging whether they were following the right dream would have consequences for all of them. Maybe they’d be positive, maybe not. Only time would tell.
My usual acknowledgement for basic training content, anything cool sounding during the flying bits, including some direct quotes here and there - all gratefully and respectfully taken from the Jetstream program. What a wealth of material for me to play with!