You Will Be Mist: Our fighter pilot remembers a friend

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Camden Thrasher

Note: A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Ben, recently died in a car crash. Like all of you, I’ve had friends and acquaintances pass away, though perhaps with my line of work as a fighter pilot, my number is higher than yours. Regardless, this one hit me especially hard and I thought/hoped writing would help me with the grieving process. Though not as eloquent in my grief, I sympathize with what Abraham Lincoln expressed in his letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby after learning of the five sons she lost in the Civil War, “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.”

As quoted herein, his eye-rolling dad jokes never stopped and he delighted in hearing how hard my kids laughed at his latest one.

To Ben.

“When does a dad joke cost $1000?  When it’s a granddad joke.”

All pilots, be they airline, fighter, or light civil, have had close calls.  Those moments that leave you saying, “Whoa!”, while sitting there momentarily stunned. Some of those have been 100 percent my fault, when a moment of inattention, or attention focused elsewhere, nearly led to catastrophe. Once, over Iraq, I was flying on the wing of a tanker in the absolute middle of the night awaiting my turn to take on fuel when I unexpectedly nodded off and took a micro nap. After sleeping for some small fraction of a second, I was fully awake and aware of what had just happened—or nearly happened—and had adrenaline coursing through my veins the remainder of the six-hour sortie.

Other times, weather and/or mechanical malfunctions conspire to create a very difficult situation. Although we have extensive training in simulators and regular discussions on emergency procedures, sometimes the cosmos just spits out an unprecedentedly strange combination that requires all your skill and cunning—and assistance from friends in the air and on the ground—to overcome. I had chafing in a wire bundle one sortie that led to me running eight different, totally unrelated checklists. I had trapped fuel (unable to transfer it out of the tank), flight control degradations, and more. Normal landing gear extension failed, so I had to lower it via emergency methods, at which time a caution light illuminated to indicate my brakes had failed.  All fighter aircraft, not just Navy aircraft, have a hook, and military bases (service branch agnostic) that support fighter operations have cables strung across the runway for use in such an emergency. Returning early to land, my aircraft was much heavier than normal putting me near the upper weight/speed limit for the cable, I had flight control malfunctions, and there was a 25-knot (about 30 mph) crosswind. Breaking out of the clouds, I noticed the crosswind angled my aircraft such that I was looking at the runway out the side of the canopy and not the front (aircraft, like weathervanes, point into the wind; and, like a crab, your nose can be pointed one direction and your ground track off axis from your nose). I touched down, swung my nose to be aligned with the runway, and got my nosewheel on the ground within the first 1000 feet of the runway before passing over and catching the cable (no small feat when moving at around 170 mph).  The cable did its job (I was one knot below the maximum engagement speed), I stopped, shutdown on the runway, and was towed back to the ramp after the firefighters verified the jet wasn’t on fire.

“My favorite time of the day, hands down, is 6:30.”

When accidents do happen, an investigation is convened and, months later, we get briefed on the findings so we can all learn and prevent further mishaps.  Listening to cockpit voice recorders and watching video recreations of pilots’ last moments before crashing or ejecting is painful and it elicits deep introspection.  Sometimes in those briefs, there’s a stark, blinding realization of, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  When we hear about experienced pilots having a mishap, it can be difficult to maintain the façade of invincibility required in a job that will bury you and your aircraft in a deep, smoking hole if you aren’t on your game.

“I ordered a chicken and an egg online. I’ll let you know.”

Many jets have their flight control surfaces actuated via a 3000-psi hydraulic system. Although aircraft manufacturers build layers of redundancy and backup systems into their designs, hydraulic failures are a still significant emotional event. Holding short of the runway awaiting takeoff clearance, I once had a hydraulic pump seize up and the system immediately, instantly, and without hesitation spew its contents into a giant red lake under my jet. After quickly shutting down and emergency egressing the aircraft (atomized hydraulic fluid is exceptionally flammable), I realized if the malfunction occurred after I had taken off, it would have been a very different experience.

And let’s not talk about the time a ludicrously insane convergence of events caused me to land my fighter at Atlanta International airport.

“What’s the best part about living in Switzerland? Well, the flag’s a big plus.”

The first time someone I knew was killed in a plane crash occurred when I was in pilot training.  They were in a class ahead of mine, meaning we didn’t have much opportunity to interact, so while I had seen him around the building I can’t say we were friends.  It was absolutely a tragedy and his family, and all of us, were devastated.  I had a really close friend in his class who happened to be airborne at the time of the accident and for a while I thought it was my friend who had been killed. When I learned it wasn’t him, I felt a mix of gratitude that he was okay, and shame/disgust at myself for even thinking such a thing. I had been aware, on an academic level, that flying was dangerous and people did/do die, but this hit really close to home, especially since my wife and I had recently welcomed our second child into our family. I asked to be taken off the flying schedule for a couple of days while I worked through my emotions, and visited the therapist our leadership had made available to us.  In all my years of flying, the only other time I asked off the schedule for personal reasons, excluding illness, was while we were waiting to hear if the tumor if my wife’s neck was benign or malignant. I knew I was distracted and my mind wasn’t right, a potentially deadly recipe (see: hole, giant smoking).

“The rotation of the earth really makes my day.”

Drivers and pilots have similar stories about close calls. As in airplanes, some of those vehicular close calls are of our own making—inattention, distraction, complacency—while others are the result of poor weather and/or mechanical issues.  We’ve likely all driven too fast for conditions in pouring rain or dense fog.  We once went to a concert at a venue a couple hours from home, only to have snow start to fall partway through the show. By the time we were driving home, late at night and the only car on the freeway, the road had virtually disappeared, with only its outline made visible by the road’s slight elevation over the surrounding terrain. We crept slowly along, wife and child blissfully and ignorantly asleep, and I was grateful when I finally drove out of the storm and onto clear (visible) roads.

Years earlier, my wife and I were heading to Yosemite National Park on a narrow mountain road with a steep drop off our side when we hit some black ice. We got that light, floating feeling that accompanies contact with the road unencumbered by friction and we started to spin. After a seemingly interminable, uncontrolled slide which took us through nearly 180 degrees of turn, we came to rest, unharmed, in a snowbank on the side of the road opposite the cliff.  If the spin hadn’t taken us across the road …

The day after we got engaged, my wife was driving with her sisters on the freeway in her 1984 Dodge Aries station wagon—sadly, it wasn’t a woody—when it blew a tire and she lost control. When Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride ceased, they were in the middle of the interstate facing oncoming traffic. Miraculously, they didn’t cause an accident and nobody was injured. I let her drive my 1989 Nissan Pulsar T-top after that and we took the Dodge Aries to an auction and sold it for $200.

“Mountains aren’t just funny, they’re hill areas.”

The first part of our marriage, I’d get frustrated when my wife would gasp or tell me to watch out as I was driving; after all, I was a fighter pilot with perfect situational awareness. However, aside from being unnecessarily curt, I had forgotten a key element about accidents: The smallest intervention can prevent a tragedy. In flying, a radio call from a discerning flight lead, wingman, or air traffic controller can alert you to danger and save the day (there are lots of euphemisms for saving the day, to include break the event chain, remove a domino, and keep the holes in the Swiss cheese from lining up). The same is true in driving. I stopped griping about it more than ten years ago when a reaction from my wife drew my attention from the rear view mirror to the car in front of us that had abruptly stopped (I promise I wasn’t tailgating!); braking hard, I manage to stop only just in time. Her action kept the holes in the cheese from lining up and me from rear-ending the BMW 3 Series in front of us.

“Did you hear about the kidnapping at school?  It’s fine, he woke up.”

In middle school, a family friend that was a couple years older than me was killed by a drunk driver. I can still remember somberly sitting in their home one evening shortly after, lights mostly off, just to be there if they needed anything.

I wish I could have been there for Ben, to have somehow broken the chain of events and prevented his crash. He was as genial and kind as anyone you would ever meet. Every day, he sincerely declared that it was the best day of his life. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, he liked feedback on how much my kids groaned at the dad jokes I’d take home to them. Conversely, my kids loved sending jokes to him through me and hearing about how hard he would laugh.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Interrupting cow.”

“Interrupti”

“MOO!!”

It was not uncommon to hear him unabashedly sing Katy Perry songs. He was a terrible singer and we simultaneously mocked him for it and secretly hoped he wouldn’t ever stop, and he just radiated this contagious, happy spirit to all with whom he came in contact and he was a blessing to be around.

It was late in the afternoon when I learned about Ben. I immediately called my wife, told her what happened, and told her I loved her; I know she knows, but I needed her to know. Later, I gave my kids giant, squeezy hugs.  You know the kind I’m talking about: the annoying dad kind that are woefully inadequate to the task of conveying how much you love them; they won’t know what those hugs really mean, and why words fall short, until they have children of their own.

“I read a book on anti-gravity. I couldn’t put it down.”

Tragically, Ben died alone on a quiet road. As an outpouring of charity, and evidence of how much everybody loved him, the account set up for his family raised more than three times its original lofty goal. As much as I’d like to think my friendship with him was unique, it was apparent at his jam-packed memorial that everyone had similar stories of his smiles, jokes, kindness, and singing. His vibrant, ebullient personality made it so everybody was legitimately his friend.

“Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?  The food is great but it has no atmosphere.”

Strangely enough, Ben’s face was slightly round yet his scalp was slightly square.  You may think this made for a silly look, but it really just served to accentuate his gigantic, contagious smile.

I hope you each know an ever-beaming, joyous, punny Ben and that today is the best day of your life.

“Goodbye, boiling water, you will be mist.”

For more of fighter-pilot Josh Arakes’ stories, click here.

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