THERE'S A FLYING SQUIRREL IN MY COFFEE
By Bill Goss
What if you just finished the most exciting day of your life -- a thirty-year dream exploding into a spectacularly exciting reality -- then the next day you found out you were going to die? How would you feel? What would you do?
Here's my story.
Being a pilot and breaking the sound barrier was all I ever wanted to do. Now I was going to do it. Now I was about to turn my dream -- and the many struggles that followed -- into a glorious, exhilarating victory.
Chuck Yeager's historic flight had filled my overactive imagination with an explosion of sound and fury and speed ever since I had first read about it when I was eight years old. I used to tremble with excitement and smile to myself at just the thought of going faster than the speed of sound.
At eighteen, while whipping around the sharp corners and steep hills of Millburn-Short Hills, New Jersey, holding my nose with one hand and holding on for dear life to the back of a garbage truck with the other, the dream of going supersonic still lived vividly within my imagination. I knew no one would have thought a garbage man could fulfill a dream as wildly ambitious as mine, so I kept it to myself.
Many things happened over the next two decades that could have defused my dream, but thankfully they didn't. I enlisted in the Navy and then completed college. A few years later I began flying military aircraft until I had finally progressed to that special place and time in the universe where incredible dreams really do come true.
Now, twenty years after slinging my last trash can, I was going to do it. I remembered for a moment the familiar smell of decay that fanned from the back of the garbage truck, as I now picked up the musky scent of sweat on the ejection seat I was preflighting before takeoff. It was the sweat of the pilot and all the other pilots who had climbed into that Navy F-18 fighter jet cockpit before me.
As I strapped myself into the rear cockpit of the F-18 Hornet, I smiled as I suddenly realized that now I'd be blessing this cockpit, and its future pilots, with my scent -- sweat exuding from my every pore as I anticipated going higher and faster than I'd ever gone before.
The hundred different things on the cockpit preflight and prestart checklists are good to go. The enlisted man standing thirty feet in front of me gives me and the Marine Corps fighter pilot in the front cockpit the hand signals: It's time to start our engines. But we don't just start jet engines. We ignite them. The engines whine and whir as they begin to spool up, then burst into two 900-degree flames of green-blue-orange-red that are almost indescribable.
Now I'm sitting on top of two colossal torches and all is well with the world. One small fuel-leak rupture and I'd explode into a million pieces like a giant Roman candle. But that thought never crosses my mind, even though I've already survived a major plane crash.
The only thing that crosses my mind is my insatiable need for speed.
The engines start to sizzle. The after-start checklists are completed and we taxi out to the end of a monstrous twelve-thousand-foot runway at a naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida. It's not far from where Peggy and I live with our twins, Brian and Christie, down by the St. Johns River.
I was qualified to fly one of the fastest turboprop airplanes in the world, the P-3 Orion, a spy plane designed to track and destroy ballistic-missile submarines with either torpedoes or nuclear depth bombs, but I still hadn't had -- and wouldn't ever get -- a chance to break Mach one, also known as the speed of sound, unless I got a chance to fly an aircraft specifically designed to accomplish such a remarkable aerodynamic feat.
I needed an entirely different kind of aircraft for that. The other three types of jets I had the opportunity to fly -- the T-2 Buckeye, the TA-4 Skyhawk, and the Coast Guard Falcon jet -- couldn't get the job done either.
The job, of course, was to go faster than sound itself. That's 741 mph at sea level, but it all depends on your altitude, the air temperature and air density. We're talking fast. And before Chuck Yeager, we're talking impossible.
Currently the Navy has only two jets designed to go that fast. First, there's the older and super-quick F-14 Tomcat, designed to intercept inbound Russian bombers before they can reach the aircraft carrier.
And then there's the newer and extremely maneuverable F-18 Hornet, a fighter-bomber. It's the jet flown by the Blue Angels, the Navy's crack flight demonstration team, in air shows all over the country. That's the jet I'm strapped into right now. And she's a beauty. Painted camouflage whitish gray to match the cloud cover so that it is almost impossible for enemy fighters to spot her against a slate-colored sky, the swept-wing Hornet costs around $50 million per copy, loaded with the latest computer displays and radar screens that have replaced the familiar cockpit instruments you find in conventional aircraft.
The other guy I'm flying with is a tall, lean, steely-eyed Marine Corps fighter pilot. A friend of mine, Bruce Hilgartner, he's known for some time that I've been lusting to go faster than a .45-caliber bullet. This morning we'll be together on a training flight with another jet for the purpose of practicing high-speed tactical flight maneuvering. We'll be conducting this training hop in a large block of airspace reserved specifically for military use over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of southern Georgia and northern Florida.
After taxiing onto the runway and being cleared for takeoff, we ram the dual throttles forward into afterburner. Instantly, red-hot flames blast out thirty feet from the rear of the jet, plastering me so hard into the back of my ejection seat that I couldn't pull myself forward even if I wanted. My eyeballs are forced back into my skull by an indescribable form of induced gravity. That's g force for you.
One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. The fifty-thousand-pound titanium steed rockets down and then leaps off the runway. The pointed nose of the Hornet is angled to the heavens and I watch the ground below disappear at an almost alarming rate as the jet continues to accelerate faster and faster, just like my racing heart, reaching a breathtaking speed in an instant.
The Navy control tower clears our jet out of its airspace and then passes us over to Departure Control. They follow us on radar, helping us to avoid crashing into other airborne craft. Departure Control stays with us until we reach a safe distance from civilization and all those earth-dwelling creatures below.
We then report on our radio that we are "feet wet," meaning that we have just crossed the beach line heading east, out toward the immensity of the wind-swept Atlantic Ocean. In the earliest days of aviation, if I had been flying low and slow enough, I really could have stuck my legs down and gotten my feet wet. But not on this rocket!
In just minutes we are miles off the coast of the Florida-Georgia border, entering special-use airspace reserved for us, an area where we can do maneuvers and fly at speeds that we aren't allowed to do over land. This is because of the serious damage sonic booms cause to people and structures beneath the flight paths of supersonic jets traveling just above the ground. And because the jets are moving faster than sound, there is no advance warning that you are about to be rocked by a sonic boom. It is simply impossible to hear a jet traveling at supersonic speed when it is coming toward you. The jet is moving ahead of and faster than its own sound. You might see it coming, but you will never hear it coming. You will definitely hear it leaving.
Sonic blasts are so powerful that they feel like a huge bomb is exploding just over your head. Sonic booms have caused entire populations of turkey farms to drop dead from fear-induced heart attacks. And while we are talking turkey -- thousands of turkey lawsuits can be very costly to the federal government. And that wouldn't be good for anybody.
A few minutes later, we are going through some extraordinarily violent flight maneuvers with the two other jets that have joined up with us. A dogfight begins. We blast up to thirty thousand feet and then drop the nose straight down to pursue the other two jets. They're now simulating the bad guys, known in Navy pilot lingo as "bogeys."
I see a tiny speck on the deep blue ocean below. In a second the tiny speck visually explodes in my windscreen into a large fishing boat just as I observe my jet's Mach meter -- the speedometer -- read .80, then .90, then suddenly ka-boooom! as I blast through the sound barrier and rock the poor fishermen in the boat below, giving them -- and me -- the thrill of a lifetime. I continue to focus on the meter as it passes Mach 1.0, then 1.1.
Enormous beads of sweat pour out from under my helmet as we execute a 6-g pull on the flight control stick to gain back our altitude -- effectively changing my body weight from 190 pounds to almost 1,200 pounds in just a fraction of a second. It is so painful that I almost pass out. Yet, for some strange reason, I'm in love with this feeling.
Just a few minutes later we head back for a couple of simulated aircraft-carrier landings at the naval air station. Practice carrier approaches and landings, even on the long runway at the naval air station, are a lot different from the smooth approach, flared landing, and long rollout of a conventional landing. A good Hornet touchdown feels like a crash landing to anyone else. To stay safe, it is important for carrier pilots to continually practice the relatively slow, nose-high approach to the landing zone and the teeth-rattling touchdown required to qualify as a safe landing on an aircraft carrier. The jet's nose-high attitude also dramatically improves the chances that the long metal tail hook hanging from the back of the jet will hook on to one of the four thick steel arresting cables stretched across the flight deck.
If you miss all the arresting cables and don't immediately add max power at the moment of touchdown, your jet will continue rolling down the angled flight deck and off the other end, allowing you and your jet to fall into the deep blue sea. You and your jet will then almost certainly be run over by
the gigantic 100,000-ton aircraft carrier, which is sometimes steaming forward at speeds greater than 30 mph during flight operations to create its own wind.
Thankfully, we didn't have to worry about that today, since our runway was surrounded by tall grasses instead of waves. But I have done carrier landings in the open ocean in two other jets, the T-2 Buckeye and the TA-4 Skyhawk, and it is a huge adrenaline rush.
After our final landing back at the naval air station, I feel so exhilarated that I laugh hysterically into my oxygen mask at the top of my lungs. From takeoff to landing, the total flight was less than forty-five minutes. We taxi back to the parking area and shut down the engines, then pose in front of the Navy fighter jet for a photograph.
I'm on top of the world. Finally, after all these years, I've experienced the ultimate wild ride of a lifetime -- blasting through the sound barrier at the controls of an incredibly sophisticated and tremendously powerful flying machine. For a brief moment I touched the face of God. Nothing gets any better than this. I figured this would keep me on cloud nine for a long, long time.
I figured wrong.
Earlier that month, something the size of a pea had popped up on the back of my left ear and had started to itch. Finally, it bothered me enough to visit the flight surgeon to get it removed.
I remember her telling me not to worry about it. "It's a harmless fatty cyst," she said. It will be reabsorbed into your body in no time at all."
As I got up to leave, I suddenly felt a strong bolt of premonition. I immediately returned to her office and insisted she remove the bump from the back of my ear.
"Doc, if you don't cut this thing off, I'll do it myself, tonight, using the bathroom mirror and a straight razor."
I remember her looking at me, checking to see whether there was a seriousness or a smile in my eyes. Apparently she saw both.
"Okay, I'll cut it off. But really...it's nothing."
In just a few minutes she removed the little nothing from the back of my left ear, which was covered by perfectly unblemished skin that contained some hard white tissue inside. I laughed and joked with her as she put in a single stitch to stop the bleeding, then I was on my way.
That all happened earlier last week and I'd pretty much forgotten about it by now. I mean really, it was only a harmless fatty cyst.
And what about now? Well, I've just gone supersonic. I'm sitting on top of the world. I'm the luckiest man alive.
A few hours later I'm back in my office, working for the admiral, listening to a peculiar recorded message from the flight surgeon. Her normally upbeat and cheery tone has been replaced by a steady, measured cadence. The hair on the back of my neck rises as I sense danger.
"Lieutenant Commander Goss, you have an immediate appointment with Dr. Fischer in the Navy Hospital's Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic."
As soon as possible, I meet with Dr. Fischer. From the look in his eyes, I can tell I am about to be dealt the worst hand I've ever been forced to play.
I notice the sweet-pungent smell of sweat -- but this is different from the macho musk in the cockpit. This is the odor of people anticipating doom. This is the smell of fear. The problem is, I can't tell whether it is coming from myself or from Dr. Fischer.
The doctor clears his throat, then tells me the three most dreaded words in the English language:
"You have cancer."...You have cancer.
Suddenly I feel like I've been dead asleep for centuries, only to be blasted awake in an instant to find myself treading water, alone, in the dark, in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I don't know when the sharks and barracudas are going to pull me under and shred me to ribbons, but I know there is no possibility of escape. A feeling of complete and total despair. Over the entire course of my thirty-eight years on earth, which has included many close calls, I have never felt so alone before.
"You could be dead in six months."
Dr. Fischer's words pierce the almost nonexistent air, and I take another empty gulp for oxygen. When he won't return my direct gaze, I suddenly realize that he doesn't believe I could be dead in six months. He believes I will be dead in six months.
I struggle for some words -- any words -- to string into a question, just to break the gut-wrenching silence, but nothing comes.
My throat feels very dry. I would love a glass of water, though I know my thirst is unquenchable. This is a thirst for life, and there's no drink that can help.
Dr. Fischer is just as uncomfortable with the situation. He's a healthy-looking naval officer, a lieutenant commander, with a beautiful wife and two young children -- just like me. Perhaps he's looking at his own mortality when he looks into my eyes and it's just too difficult for him to face this brutally awful situation head-on.
Finally, under my breath, I mutter, "Well, at least he said six months, not three," as I struggle to maintain a sense of perspective -- and a sense of humor. But at the same time I feel myself falling from the top of the world -- falling from the heavens in a death spiral, only this time without a copilot to help me pull out just in the nick of time.
Never could I have imagined that at this same moment, a creature the size of a cotton ball was also falling to earth.
And that this tiniest of angels would help save my life.