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Man Who Flies the Back Seat

Copyright © 1997 Dick Jonas. All rights reserved. Words and music: Dick Jonas; Erosonic/BMI

February, 1993. . .

Major 'TREE' Pengelly nurses the great iron monster onto the runway and brings it gently to a stop snugged up to the right wing of Number Two. The flight leader, two cockpits away, pauses momentarily then sends a hand signal down the line. The roar from a hundred-and-fifty-thousand pounds of thrust bathes the asphalt behind and the fuselages crouch, nose down, like a trio of angry predators. Nine big rubber feet grip the runway, trembling impatiently for brake release.

Eye-to-eye contact and the flight leader waves goodbye, dropping his heels to the floor. A few seconds later Two repeats the magic and chases the lead ship down the runway.

Now it's our turn and TREE unleashes the gallant beast. My left hand has been resting atop the throttles; I feel them fly from under my touch and look quickly inside to see them slam full forward.

All twenty-five tons of thrust kick me solidly in the rear-end. We are in hot pursuit of Lead and Two and the pursuit grows hotter with each passing millisecond. The tactile senses in my butt tell my brain that TREE and me are under the total control of this twin-engined rocket. It's been seven long years since an airplane did that to me.

My thoughts go back to the last mission I flew as an active duty Air Force fighter pilot. It was an air combat training mission in a flight of four F-16s; a delightfully challenging little scrap high off the Atlantic shore between the Swamp Foxes of the South Carolina Air National Guard and a bunch of Jarheads in TA-4's from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

I remember after the mission turning base-to-final for landing with the realization that this was it. I would not, ever again, strap on a hot jet fighter and go off to the defend the skies against the dark forces of evil.

I was wrong. A few months ago, I did a show for the Luke Air Force Base chapter of the Order of Daedalians. I sang several songs, lionizing the glorious feats of several combat air machines and the valiant men who fly them. TREE Pengelly, of the 461st Deadly Jesters, in a lull between ballads shouted from the back of the room, "Sing us an F-15 song!"

The larceny lurking in the heart of every fighter pilot kicked my devious mind into afterburner and without hesitation I replied, "Sorry; I don't have one. You can't write songs about airplanes unless you fly them."

He took it, hook, line and sinker. A few weeks later, my phone rang. It was TREE.

"Hey, Dick, how would you like to fly the Strike Eagle?"

I laughed and said, "I bet you know the answer to that!"

It took two months and probably a disk full of correspondence, but approval finally came down from on high. This 53-year-old, brittle-boned, arthritic has-been would be allowed a few precious minutes in four-foot welded trail behind a steely-eyed Strike Eagle jock.

TREE took up a position about two miles behind the lead element and talked me through a radar lock-on.

The avionics in this cosmic machine! I was totally overwhelmed by four-count 'em, four-TV screens lined up abreast on the panel in front of me. One contained a scrolling display, in color no less, of the low-level navigation route. It looked exactly like the paper maps I used to carry strapped to my knee before computers got this smart. A second projected the radar display with the little green blips of the two-ship element out front. A third gave me the attitude indicator and all I ever cared to know about airplane performance: power setting; airspeed and mach; altitude in two figures, AGL and MSL; and enough other green spaghetti to force my frustrated eyes away to the blur of Arizona desert streaming by beneath the airplane. I don't remember what was on the last screen; my brain washed out with information overload.

We chased the two-ship flight down past Gila Bend to Goldwater Air Force Range, swung south to take Sells off the left wing-tip, then a turn back to the northwest bound for the North Tactical Range.

The North Tac has special memories for me. I went there once a long time ago in an F-16 and came home in a helicopter.

We smoked across the target-dry-in trail behind the two Strike Eagles up ahead. With strangers on board, Air Combat Command forbids ordnance use, training or otherwise.

The two-ship was a syllabus mission for fledgling Eagle jocks and they had work to do. TREE and I popped up to a higher altitude to get out of the way.

Leveling off above, Pengelly said, "Okay, Colonel, you got it!"

"Roger, I got it! " God, it felt good to be a fighter jock again!

I plugged in the blowers and ran it out supersonic just for the exercise. I pulled it up over the top in a loop, then followed that with a barrel-roll which took a couple more efforts to get it right. Flew it around upside down for a while, and did about a million aileron rolls.

What a responsive aircraft! Our gross weight was far below the max of 30 or so tons, but the F-16 is a massive machine. Us Lawn Dart jocks used to refer to them as 'flying tennis courts' in the early training battles against them. I had not expected it to handle like this.

Before we left the range, TREE took up the avionics orientation once more. Afterwards, I was convinced that the guys who used this machine against Baghdad could pinpoint the fillings in Saddam Hussein's rotten teeth. No wonder they never missed.

He let me fly the recovery back to Luke and coached me through the first ILS I had flown in the better part of a decade. That, followed by a PAR under the patient direction of the Luke Approach final controller. I became somewhat embarrassed by the litany of "going slightly below glide slope, now well below glide slope" from the voice in my headset.

Father IP in the front seat sent the clue bird back to help. "Hold 165 knots; that'll give you the best angle of attack on final approach."

A light touch of the throttles and the magnificent beast began to make me look a little more like an instrument pilot.

On the go-around from the PAR low approach, TREE said, "Now, give me a closed."

Great! I always loved that butt-shining pull-up off the runway to the closed downwind. Throttles to the mil stop just short of afterburner range, a hard tug back on the stick to get the nose aimed for the blue, then about an eighty-nine-degree bank to bring her about to the one-eighty.

I grossly underestimate the power in those two godzilla motors and off we go, headed for the antenna farm atop the White Tank Mountains off to the west. A wry comment from the front cockpit, and I apologize to TREE; his buddies are gonna think he's a hamfist. I make a mental note to let his boss know that I was to blame for the space shuttle maneuver.

He takes it on downwind and caresses her gently back onto the asphalt.

After the picture-taking and the interviews with the reporter from the Tally-Ho, Luke's base newspaper, I find a quiet corner and whip out my log book. A quick entry and it now proudly reads two-thousand hours in the F-4, a thousand in the F-16. . .

And an hour-and-a-half in the Strike Eagle.

A month later, I go out to do hot wings and beer with TREE and the other Deadly Jesters. I bring along my guitar and debut Strike Eagle and The Man Who Flies the Backseat.

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