~ Tragedy On A Small Island ~
Dr. K. A. Crooks

~ The Destination ~

The fortnight stay at Shemya served, as far as I could tell, only two purposes. One was to perform a pretty high-priority, nationally directed mission. The other was to avoid home when one's mother-in-law visited. Other than that, there was little to commend a trip there. The old, tired joke about there being "a girl behind every tree" was made a bit obsolete when the Air Force allowed civilian female workers on the island, and then made a rather sorry attempt to introduce foliage. When I finally left the island, there was one sad tree all alone chained to the main complex building. Shemya certainly was not the Vegas Strip, although what happened on The Rock stayed on The Rock, mainly because there wasn't much to report. Entertainment generally consisted of one-channel television, an old Super-8 mm projector and Air Force-provided films, poker games, a board game here and there, simulator training sessions (where we sat on the plane in the hangar and pretended we were flying go figure), and the occasional USO show, which usually was swamped by the Tech Reps. There was a basketball hoop in the hangar and once in a while we'd get together and elbow each other during a session of 3 on 3. Otherwise, not a lot of exercise was in the offering.

A good day on Shemya was landing safely after a successful sortie, handing the aircraft over to the other crew, showering, and going up the hill for a steak and a brew. Bad days were spent on alert and enduring crew-cooked meals, the nadir of which occurred when a co-pilot forgot to take off the plastic wrapper on the ham before placing it in the oven. By the time my tour of duty was over, crew meals became fewer and fewer and as far as I was concerned, the loss was unlamented.

~ The Flight ~

During this flight to Shemya, we had at least two simulated scenarios for training/checkrides. The first was my checkride. Then would come Grove's check as well as Loren's instruction. Although I would be done with my checkride, I did not mind serving as Loren's "student." Neither he nor Van Horn had been an instructor of mine. My training was accomplished by either Capt. Howard Cohen or Capt. Rob Jensik. As Howard was extremely laid back and Rob more intense, these two seemed to be in the middle, and I was receptive to a different approach. My checkride was a fairly straightforward scenario. However, before we began, I had to change film due to the changing lighting conditions. This was an action fraught with the potential for disaster. The film ran at a very fast rate and had to have enough "give" so as not to break. Too much slack, and it would snap; too little would have the same result. And a break in the film was a busted checkride. When I fired the film and no problem occurred, all I had to worry about was whether I had properly positioned the aircraft. That I'd find out in the debriefing. Later, I would be able to load the film blindfolded and with one hand. But that was a time yet to come. Every step I took was watched by the raptor's keen eye of Grove. He never said a word, save swapping some well-meaning insult with Bennett.

Checkrides done, we received a call to direct our attention to an operational consideration, which meant diverting the aircraft. It turned out that we were too far from any useful location, so we returned to our flight path, but this diversion cost us some time. We would be landing at Shemya a bit later than planned. And in this universe, timing is everything.

~ The Approach ~

With the checkrides, training and diversion completed, there was little to do save equipment cleanup for operators and deciphering their own notes for the evaluators. I snuck a peek at Bennett's notes on Grove. The words, "Outstanding Performance" were underlined, and I was pleased at that. Not just because a happy Grove may be more generous on my evaluation, but because I thought Grove was a decent sort and would be a good tactical commander as well. At least that was my rather rookie opinion. One of the ESC troops brought a young fellow up through the aircraft to show off the Raven positions. The young guy seemed pleasant and eager and we wished him all the best.

As we got closer to land, the crew began to choose their seats for the approach. I wanted to go to the back as those seats were more comfortable, and I would be out of sight of Grove, and less vulnerable to making a last fatal error. Bill Van Horn, however, told me to stay and sent Loren to the back. Loren gave the equipment a final check and bid us a cheery goodbye. Bennett, done with inscribing his notes, also headed back. As he passed, he gave my right shoulder the same sort of paternal squeeze my father favored me with when I managed a small success in my younger days. What to make from that odd, but warm gesture, I could only speculate.

Passing through the clouds on approach, snow began to accumulate on the MRCS window. This bothered me a lot for some reason. I mentioned it to Bruce Carson on the Raven select communication system. Bruce didn't seem too comfortable either. It was hard to tell what actually was going on, as the Ravens did not have external radio channels on '664. Thus we never heard the ground controllers during the PAR approach. All we could see was snow, all we could feel was the turbulence, and all we could sense was trouble.

K. Crooks

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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