I’VE BEEN WORKING a bIt, flying and making some of Puff’s details a little bit righter. I work in a quiet hangar, and I’m used to the tests I’m given. I’ll drop a bolt and it takes two minutes to get it again, I need a tool and it takes minutes to find it, everything takes a lot of time just to do the simplest tasks.
But I’m happy with that, and the time is well spent. I knew, many years ago, that some day I’d be reading many books and learning much about death and dying, and when I’m not fastening some part of the airplane or greasing fittings or setting a new instrument in place, that’s what I’ve been studying.
Answers About the Afterlife, by Bob Olson, seems mostly the way things are, according to my own inner truth-meter. In Michael Newton’s book The Destiny of Souls, there’s even a diagram of a meeting-room I entered when I had a near-death event in Argentina. It was startling, since I had that experience before the book was written, and here it was, a drawing of the curved desk, the elders, me, my spirit guide behind me on the left…on page 206. It didn’t mention the elders could laugh at me.
I realized in time that “death” is a term coined by very young souls. Shifting into our next world was too much for them. Wiser ones could have termed it “Life.” Those who have been there, say it’s brighter, more colorful, we move instantly from one belief of a site to another, there is no judgment, no punishment unless we prefer to live a life that will give us the feelings we gave to others, which many of us do.
While I was tightening bolts in the landing gear, a simple two-minute job that took me 20 minutes, I was thinking about dying, back to the moment when I very nearly flew into the ground. All the feelings are still there, and I lived them once again, fifty-eight years later.
The airplane was a North American F-86F Sabre: single engine, single seat, and for its time it was very fast. It’s easy to think about, since it is one of the two most beautiful aircraft ever designed (the other is the Supermarine Spitfire).
I was training on a gunnery range, which existed since there were no computers to simulate the practice. There were three of us that day, who were learning how to shoot. They had told us the day before, “You’ll want to be careful, gentlemen. Target fixation will kill you. We lost an airplane yesterday that way, he flew into the target. If your pass isn’t working, don’t try to make it better. You’re going too fast to watch your burst and correct it. Just pull up early and try it again.”
It was easy to say Yes, sir.
The things that have haunted me all my life were these:
It was a cold morning in the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, January, 1958. The four of us were to take off at 0700.
My position was Number Two in a four-ship formation, I was wingman of the instructor’s airplane.
The weather was fine: cold, but no clouds.
Like the other students, I had memorized what was to happen. We’d fly a square pattern around the Applied Tactics range, which was old trucks and tanks parked in the desert), and today we’d load all six machine guns in the ’86.
Till then we had only loaded two guns. This time we were going to feel what it was like to be in a combat situation. We’d keep our hands on the windscreen before takeoff, so the armorers knew we weren’t going to pull the trigger while they armed the guns. When they were finished, they’d slap the nose of the airplane, and the guns would be ready to fire.
An easy flight to the range, a nice low pass and the leader pulled up into the range pattern, I counted one, two, THREE! and pulled up to follow him.
Set the switches to make the guns hot, my finger not touching the trigger on the control stick.
Then the leader called “Champagne’s in and hot,” and started his gunnery pass. I was next.
“Two’s in and hot.” That was me. Watch the airspeed as I slanted down. Three hundred fifty knots for the pass. The gunsight was a bright pattern, a circle of diamonds, the pipper was a little white ball in the center, the image where the bullets would converge.
There were the targets, coming up, coming up, and I touched the trigger when the diamonds circled a truck. The first movement of the trigger started the gun camera, the second was the muffled sound of the machine guns. They seemed faraway, distant. I smelled the gunpowder in the cockpit, and the airplane slowed from the recoil of the six guns. The truck flashed beneath me, gone in a second.
I pulled up for the next pass. I couldn’t tell if I had hit anything, the bullets were striking as I pulled up.
“Three’s in and hot.” A nice pattern. Not what it would be if we were ever going to use the airplane in combat, the patterns would come from different directions.
My turn again. “Two’s in and hot.” Wish I could see the bullets. How do I know if I hit the target when I can’t see my burst?
Three hundred fifty knots. There was the little truck under my gunsight. Right about NOW, the guns were popcorn, harmless. I held the trigger and there, I could see the ground coming apart to the left of the truck, looking close now. I banked a tiny bit to the right, and all of a sudden I could see there were little flowers on the sagebrush. The door on the truck was hanging loose and rusted untouched by my flying, though they might be after the rest of the bullets rained down.
That’s when I knew I was dead. The ground was directly in front of me, suddenly huge. I knew I had done the same thing that the pilot yesterday had done. He had seen his own bullets hit the target.
The impulse to snatch the control stick was in my wrist, It could take a hundredth of a second to affect the controls. Way too late.
Everything went black. No gift of death, but of a huge updraft directly beneath the airplane. The G force snapped my head down and I saw nothing. By the time could see, a couple seconds later, the F-86 was several hundred feet above the ground, the impulse in my wrist had pulled the stick back and we were flying.
I heard a voice, the first one I had ever heard, not someone on the radio, not someone in the airplane:
“The hand of God.”
I checked the recording accelerometer, it was well above 8 G’s, well over the maximum G for the airplane. I no longer cared about shooting, that day. I called for the leader:
“Champagne, it’s Two. I’ve overstressed the aircraft.”
A brief silence. “You WHAT!”
In a few seconds he was flying alongside of my airplane, sliding below me, looking for panels missing. “Let’s go home. SFO. Fly it easy. Three, you’re leader, finish the mission.”
A simulated flame-out pattern is a big lazy circle to land. My ’86 lowered her wheels when I asked her to, landed with no difficulty. Guns unloaded, taxied to the ramp, shut down the engine. When the crew chief came up the ladder, I told him what had happened. He frowned, nodded, went down to the ground, began looking for failed rivets. I don’t know whether he found them or not.
So here I am today, working on Puff, asking the same questions, getting no answers.
Why wasn’t I killed in the desert? Other pilots told me it was an updraft, that saved me.
But the morning was cold, there are no updrafts in icy mornings. Let alone updrafts at that precise instant, and with enough force…
I figured it out. An airspeed of 350 knots, going down, in an airplane that weighed 15,000 pounds, it would have needed a updraft of at least 120,000 pounds, sixty tons fired upward, at the instant I happened to be there, in that calm air, so close to the ground — that is not possible.
The hand of God? Poetic, and I didn’t disagree. But the physics… it isn’t possible.
Yet here I am, in the belief of here and now, working on Puff’s landing gear. Another voice saved me years later than the desert God. Are the angels, is there something that keeps me from dying? That bet I plan to win, for the fun of discovering – rediscovering, death. I guess they decided not call it Life, since everyone would have rushed there forgetting they had tests to meet in this lifetime. But it’s true. Has my amnesia worn off? Am I homesick for Life again?
Puff thinks not. She rarely talks when her engine is stopped, but it sounded like her. How can you be homesick, when our home is with our spirit, every minute?
She had died in the crash two years ago, she had been pure spirit till we finally rebuilt her body.
I know that’s true, what she said. Our home is now, forever. Yet it’s my test. I’ve got to prove it, before long.