Living in Clarksville (TN) conjures up more memories than you’d expect for a town that I had never been prior to moving here in late 2007. I have no doubt the memories are conjured up by the frequent rotor noises; we’re right next to FT Campbell, home of the 101st Infantry Division (Air Assault) and the sound of helicopters in flight fills the air every day. The 2007 move here was our “third try”; we were on orders for FT Campbell when I resigned my commission in 1983 and I had also on orders for FT Campbell before I was medically grounded for vision problems at FT Rucker in the spring of 1980.
I was a “green hat” there at “Mother Rucker”, a student in Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Class 44-79. That term might be a little confusing; I’ve learned since moving here that flight students no longer wear colored baseball caps during flight training at FT Rucker. I’m not sure what prompted the colored ball caps in the first place – most likely it was a morale/cohesion measure as there were badges that warrant officer candidates could add to their hats upon completing certain phases of their training. A lot of other things were different back then- for instance we got our primary flight training flying the Hughes TH55 instead of the Bell UH-1 (Huey) , the TH55 being so small that it felt more like you were strapping it on your back that flying it.
Unfortunately I received a medical disqualification between the instrument phase and night flying phase for vision problems, specifically lack of convergence and fusion. Commonly known as “amblyopia”, in plain English it means my eyes have a hard time simultaneously zeroing in on the same point at the same time …and during times of fatigue and great stress it would get worse with my left eye drifting all the way over to the side. It made instrument flying problematic what with all the dials and gauges to keep track of. About the only good thing about the condition was that it made unusually adept at flying with a partial panel – an emergency procedure simulating an electrical malfunction in which pilot has to continue to hold course, altitude and airspeed as the blind flying instruments are turned off one by one . The fewer instruments I had to look at the better – when I was flying with just the altimeter, compass and airspeed indicator I could keep all of those needles nailed to their proper places on the dials.
(It was kind of like the old WKRP in Cincinnati episode where Johnny Fever and Venus go on the air with an Ohio State Trooper to do a controlled alcohol experiment showing how a person’s reactions slow down with every drink they take – only with Johnny is reactions got better with more alcohol)
I bear no one any ill will about the grounding but my company commander could have been a bit more committed in helping men fight the grounding but unfortunately he was more concerned about completing a successful troop command. Looking back it was probably the best thing – had I gone on to graduate and serve as an aviator I would have been competent enough….but I would have never known how well I could work with people had I spent most of my time manipulating collective and cyclic.
As disappointing as the grounding was it was almost a relief – the other shoe dropping. It had been extremely tough learning to fly at the same time I was learning to be a lieutenant and there were times when I felt that my head was going to quietly split open like an over-ripe cantaloupe on a hot summer day. Being pushed to the limit like that meant that it didn’t take much to push me over the edge, and sometimes that last little push could involve something as trivial as a watch.
… an LCD digital watch to be precise. While they’re common now, in 1979 they weren’t; especially the one I bought in the summer of 1979. Among all the other bells and whistles it could display 24 hour format military time, which was pretty important to me because I kept getting 7:00 P.M. mixed up with 1700 hours – which is 5:00 PM. That was a big chunk of time at a pretty important part of the day to be so unsure about so for me that 24 format option was more than just a novelty. Unfortunately programming it to display military time – as well as getting it to perform most other functions was confusing and required pressing four prominent buttons in a precise order.
The novelty soon wore off – but not the confusion, some of which I was the cause of. Flying in the mornings meant getting a weather briefing at 6:00 which in turn meant tumbling out of the rack at 4:00 AM. One particular morning my classmates and I were sitting quietly listening to the assistant flight commander talk about warm fronts and imbedded thunderstorm cells when I was jolted to full consciousness by the piercing beep of a watch-alarm. I looked around at the room full of student officers and warrant officer candidates with disgust, wondering which bozo didn’t know how to turn his watch-alarm off …
….until I realized it was MY watch. I clumsily tried to punch the four buttons in the sequence required to turn the beeping off , then finally surrendered and shoved my watch under my leg in a vain attempt to stop the noise.