Great Mexican food, three darling little girls crawling over me like I was their favorite uncle, Chuck’s beautiful wife pulling out the stops to make me feel welcome–the unexpected benefits of being the new guy in the squadron. It was a memorable family night and I loved being included. I also wondered whether I would ever be so fortunate to find such happiness.
Chuck was Capt. Charles G. Reed and he and I were going to take two Harriers on a cross-country trip over the weekend. Standard fare, we’d log some instrument time, maybe play a bit over the desert–aerial combat maneuvering–and since we didn’t have to pay for gas, there was absolutely no downside.
Chuck and I left Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, mid-afternoon. Destination? Miramar Naval Air Station Officer’s Club—the best Happy Hour on the planet. Beautiful San Diego. My request, by the way. Tom Cruise would eventually memorialize a typical Friday night in Top Gun. He got it mostly right but I never remember singing anything—too busy whispering ridiculous nothings to the famously abundant ladies. It was a target rich environment in the vernacular of fighter pilots.
Since we were going to depart Saturday morning for Las Vegas and then Seattle, we respectfully declined to drink to excess and just enjoyed ourselves as Marine pilots always do among a sea of star-struck Navy jocks.
We stopped at Nellis AFB in Nevada for gas and then headed for the environs of Seattle. Chuck had been a football player at the University of Washington and wanted to attend some big game. I had other designs. I had met a girl on an earlier trip and well, I was a heterosexual in my prime and my Cro-Magnon self had not yet succumbed to the mercy and love of our Lord.
Mission accomplished, we headed back home to Yuma. We again stopped at Nellis for gas—JP-5 to be specific. If I remember correctly, a full tank for the AV8 was approximately 1,000 gallons. As we entered Operations to file our flight plan, Chuck told me to go ahead and fly back without him. He was going to stay over for a Monday exercise with the Air Force and participate in low-level tactics.
So off I went.
In 2003, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Alan Miller and Kevin Sack of the Los Angeles Times for their revelatory and moving examination of the AV8 Harrier, nicknamed “The Widow Maker,” that was linked to the deaths of 45 pilots.
Capt. Reed, my heroic friend, loving father and husband, stellar American, was one of those pilots. Here’s an excerpt from their article.
Capt. Charles G. Reed. Call Sign: Husky. Died: Sept. 6, 1977 [Monday].
Reed flew into a mountainside during a bombing training run at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
The cause was never determined. But investigators surmised that Reed, 30, didn’t realize how close he was flying to the rugged terrain — perhaps partly because his altimeter wasn’t working properly. He had complained to a fellow pilot [me] that the device was acting up during a flight the previous day, the accident report said.
Investigators recommended that the Marines equip all AV-8A aircraft with an audio and visual low-altitude warning system. It was added to the plane over the next few years.
A highly regarded pilot, Reed left a pregnant wife and three children between 1 and 4. His father, a private and commercial pilot, had died in a plane crash about three years earlier.
In my educated opinion, the G-suit hose disconnected on a high-G, 90 degree low-level turn, Chuck instinctively eased the pressure on the stick to combat the loss of vision, the radius of the turn increased and the jet impacted the cliff. Only pieces remained for the investigators. I could be wrong but I doubt the altimeter played any part at all in the accident. Flying 100 feet off the ground at 400 knots, you don’t spend a lot of time with your head in the cockpit. You’re watching the terrain. And let no one forget that Chuck was a great pilot.
Sadly, some might question whether I should label Chuck a hero. In today’s world that’s understandable because an overworked word in American culture is hero.
Heroes today are generally defined in our society by the media. Unfortunately, the media has decided and the public, so far, has accepted that heroes come from the ranks of celebrities, the sports world and the public domain. They are held up as models, successes or examples for emulation. This is a very limiting perspective and does not serve America well, in particular, the young folks.
Why should people with unique physical ability or artistic talent or public notoriety be elevated to heroic status, a status mostly undeserved since it is based on such arbitrary attributes? It is perhaps beside the point that some of these “heroic” people display suspect character, morality or behavior, but it certainly should be noted.
I’m convinced that the good values of the American past, whether moral, spiritual or civic have been forgotten or buried by the not-so-good language, images and sounds of the present. The limited scope of today’s media heroes reflects this decline.
May I introduce some true heroes? The world’s sharp edges are refined because of them.
Paul Harvey’s farmer, you bet. How about the men and women of the armed forces who risk their lives because they aspire to do the right thing–governed by a value system of Duty, Honor, Country and a Code of Conduct. Or the Christ-centric, genuine servant who leads people to God. Or the healer. Or the protector. What about the high school educated single mother or father who works long hours for pitiful pay but still raises a moral, productive and loving citizen.
How about the ethno-botanist who labors every year in the jungles of South America looking for that miracle plant that will produce medicinal remedies for some of the world’s worst diseases. Perhaps the person whose focus is giving and not taking–selfless, never selfish. Or that grace-filled individual who meets everyday difficulties head-on and does so with tremendous character, extraordinary faith, total trust in God, a sense of humor and a magnificent quiet. The good soul who everyone should aspire to emulate, but ultimately, only a few manage to pull off.
I could go on. Thankfully, we have no shortage of heroes in America–it’s just that nobody has ever heard of them. May God bless them all and lift them up as examples.
Chuck, momentary though it was, it was my honor to have served with you. America was diminished by your loss. And one day with God’s grace, you’ll again be united in love with your precious girls.