Out of control–in stormy instrument flight conditions with broken navigation gear, overwhelmed by vertigo not knowing up from down and plummeting toward the concrete ocean–Diamond knew how this was going to end.
It was an impossible situation. He would crash into the Pacific 1,500 miles away from family and home. In the best situation, his “tombstone” would be scattered debris from a Harrier jet; flotsam for a bar-tailed godwit to perch and rest on his own transpacific journey from New Zealand to Alaska.
To a rookie naval aviator, Diamond seemed larger than life. I have one standout memory. My squadron had participated in a major air combat exercise near Las Vegas and a group of us Marines decided to feast on the garish temptations along the Vegas strip. Later on that evening, we ran into Diamond at Caesar’s Palace.
He was a distinguished combat veteran, the squadron’s operations officer and was loudly exhorting the dice as they tumbled across the green felt of the craps table. Wearing a silk shirt, drinking his fair share, sweating the yet to be revealed number and chatting up the blonde to his side, he was a piece of work. A terrific fighter pilot but a wild man nonetheless. I didn’t know him well but he could have been a character out of The Great Santini.
He was complex, no doubt, and driven by what, who knows, but it wasn’t God.
One of my adventures as a Marine Harrier pilot was participating in two Transpacs. In a group of six, we would fly our Harriers from Japan to the States island hopping along the way–Guam, Wake Island (or Midway), Hawaii and then home to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. We were led by a DC-9, which provided the GPS navigation (and transported our maintenance Marines) and aerial refueled by three C-130 tankers. We were also followed by a rescue C-130 in case any of us went down.
The exercise would take about a week, each leg was about six hours of flight time and it was both fun and demanding. Fun in that we would race to the refueling drogue–last one in bought a round at happy hour–demanding because if the weather was choppy or you were desperately low on fuel or you were apprehensive and couldn’t marry the probe to the drogue, there existed the real possibility of saying good-bye to your jet. And ejecting from a perfectly good AV8 was usually considered a bad career move.
Diamond had participated in such a Transpac. Sort of. I would say one for the ages.
On his particular morning, Diamond was in the first flight, which consisted of four Harrier jump jets. The second flight, which would launch an hour behind, comprised only three Harriers. They all took off from MCAS Kaneohe, Hawaii at their designated times and were headed toward San Francisco. Things proceeded smoothly toward their first refueling rendezvous point but then the promised good weather fell apart.
Thunderstorms began to rage and the first flight–Diamond’s flight–had to duck and weave in instrument conditions to try to avoid the worst turbulence–the kind of which has been known to rip wings off of lesser aircraft. It was in these moments that a bad situation became worse. Enveloped by solid clouds, Diamond suddenly lost key navigational and communication gear. He also lost visual contact with the other three Harriers. One great fear must have immediately invaded his senses. Midair!
It was in this fraction of a moment while flying totally blind that he momentarily reduced power, scanned his failed instrument panel for some hint of orientation and fearfully scoured the torrential greyness outside for some ray of light to lead him to safety. To no avail. Completely disoriented by vertigo as well, he could not just trust his instincts and pull “up.” He was no longer a pilot but a passenger.
He was going to die. The roaring noise from the jet turbine could have been a scream. The increasing acceleration forces and the utter futility of trying to solve the problem without instruments but with vertigo must have been sensory overload. He was racing to earth.
At what point does one surrender when facing the inevitable?
I don’t know if Diamond surrendered, and I don’t know if he yelled for God. But here’s what I do know. In this mix of events, in the clouds and fury of out of control flight, a Harrier suddenly appeared in the perfect flight formation. Not on Diamond’s wing, where a wingman usually joins, but in the flight lead position–Diamond was now the wingman and was instantly riveted on his lead as all Marine pilots are trained. Less than ten feet away, this Harrier became Diamond’s savior. It began to lead him to sunlight and safety. And Diamond would soon be able to thank the helmeted Marine who was calmly and steadily leading him home and saving his life.
It should be noted that under those conditions, it’s impossible for two aircraft to join up as they did.
Both airplanes broke out of the grey muck into VFR conditions-visual flight rules, i.e., clear as a bell. Diamond shifted his gaze to his cockpit instrumentation to see what was working or not. Strangely, his internal orientation did not match the newly working instruments. He thought he was straight and level, but his navigation horizon indicator said he was now inverted and descending. He was still suffering from vertigo.
Diamond did a quick half roll and looked for the other Harrier. It was gone. Now under control again, he started climbing and was able to regain contact with the DC-9. It was ten miles behind him and vectored him to the other three Harriers in the first flight who were five miles ahead of him. The second flight of three Harriers remained an hour behind.
Diamond was forced to ask the question. “If they were five miles ahead of me and level, and the other flight was an hour behind me, who was this ‘fifth’ Harrier flying on my wing?” A fifth plane that did not exist.
Minutes later, he rejoined the first flight. The other three Harriers had never been separated from one another.
On the day that Diamond took off for the last leg of his transpacific flight, he was an agnostic. He later said, “I knew that something supernatural had just happened in my life. I knew about God, and I knew about the historical Jesus, but I had long since removed all knowledge of God from my life and was quite happy with the direction my life was moving. I had no spiritual involvements, and my dealings with life were matter-of-fact.”
“God performed a powerful miracle in my life when I least expected it.”
Diamond retired after twenty years of distinguished service in the United States Marine Corps.
He became a pastor.