Thursday, January 21, 2010

Strange Adventures with the USAF: Drunk and Disappointed

For previous Adventures with the USAF, click here and here.

As I’ve already mentioned, alcohol is a big part of Air Force life, particularly among lieutenants and young captains who enjoy getting stupid in their off-duty hours. By the time most folks reach the rank of senior captain, they no longer enjoy the after-effects of being stupid and prefer to be designated drivers for the younger guys and gals who are still stupid. It’s sort of strange how killing brain cells eventually makes you smarter, but I quit trying to figure it out years ago. Very little in Air Force life makes sense, and you’ll go crazy trying to make it come out all logical.

Back in 1988, George was a butter-bar second lieutenant intent on killing plenty of brain cells every Friday night. I could see why. The stress of Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT) and Electronic Warfare (E-Dub) Training was intense. He needed to have fun, cut loose, and do something his mother didn’t approve of. Youth craves freedom, rebellion, and a serious buzz. These young men and women were signing over their freedom and perhaps their very lives to their country and the mindless machine that is the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense. They were no longer Americans with names, just numbers to be slotted into the machine in whatever way the uncaring pencil-pushers saw fit. George was about to learn this first hand.

The goal for most folks in UNT was a fighter cockpit. There were three “tracks” for UNT graduates: fighter, tanker/transport/bomber, and electronic warfare. A random, highly variable number of slots for each track came down to each class. The fighter slots went to the top students: the hot shots with dreams of being like Tom Cruise in Top Gun—only Air Force, not Navy.

Electronic warfare was next in prestige, mainly because if you went through E-Dub training, you still had a shot at a fighter.

Most slots, however, were for navigators in heavy aircraft: the bombers, tankers, and transport planes. These planes were not nearly as sexy as the fighters. Some, in fact, were downright ugly, like the B-52, which was called the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat F-er). Air Force aviators say the B-52 is so ugly that doesn't actually take off, it just scares the ground away. Watch one take off and you'll see just what they mean.

UNT students filled out a dream sheet with their top choices ranked in order of preference. My grandfather, who flew in WWII, warned George that the Air Force looked at your dream sheet and then gave you whatever was furthest from your dreams. Not much had changed by 1988. I doubt it ever will.

George wanted the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle, though he would have settled for any fighter in the inventory. George’s UNT class had over 40 students. Five fighter slots came down. He ranked seventh in his class, which meant he didn’t get one of them. He went to Electronic Warfare instead.

Disappointment #1.

At one point in UNT, George should have gone to the flight doctor and been made DNIF…Duty Not Including Flying. He was sick and shouldn’t have flown one of his check rides. But all Air Force aviators avoid the flight docs like the plague (which some of them are, as we found out later). So George toughed it out and stayed with his class. Had he washed back to the next class and finished well, he would likely have been assigned to a fighter because 12 fighter slots came down for that class.

I believe we can call this salt in the wound. Disappointment #2.

By the time that UNT class graduated, however, George was already well into E-Dub training, the classified equivalent of memorizing the Sacramento phonebook. There are lots of numbers and frequencies and, well, electronic stuff to learn, and all of it is classified. The E-Dub training building had no windows. I of course never saw the inside, and during this training, George was able to use the line, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” which caused me to pull a muscle in my eye from rolling it so hard. Obviously, study materials could not be brought home, so the guys spent roughly 100 hours every day in a windowless building memorizing very important crap.

George was motivated to do well, however, because he could still get a fighter. When the assignments came down the week before assignment night, only one fighter came through, and George was second or third in his class. To reward him for his good performance, he was assigned to be the very first navigator student to receive a slot in the sexy and still relatively new B-1 bomber, which until then had only been given to experienced aviators from the B-52 to reward them for hard time served in the BUFF.

Going to the sleek B-1 wouldn’t have been so bad, but the B-1 slot got TAKEN AWAY by the pencil pushers at the last minute and given to some B-52 electronic warfare officer, so George got that guy's sloppy seconds…the B-52. My husband, who worked so hard and did such a stellar job throughout his training, received the WORST E-Dub assignment available.

Disappointment #3. Are you noticing the trend here?

B-52s are old and slow, and the electronic warfare officer on the crew has very little to keep him occupied during 10-hour training missions. The other crew members—pilot, copilot, two navigators, and (at the time) a gunner—referred to the E-Dub as self-loading baggage. On those long missions, George would eventually find that, after reading the stock of magazines packed in his flight bag and eating his boxed lunch, he could take a nap by wrapping himself around the base of his ejection seat with the hot air vent blowing on him. Then, he could wake up, do his half-hour of actual work for the day, and go back to sleep until just before landing. Oh, the exciting life of an Air Force aviator!

Disappointment #3 led me to the one and only time in my life I got drunk. It goes without saying that George got drunk, too, and I stayed sober for him, walking the dark and empty streets of Rancho Cordova as he processed his disappointment and threw up on the curb. But when I was in the apartment the next afternoon, alone, my sister called. She was experiencing some serious disappointment in her own life at that moment, and we were commiserating. She brought up the idea of getting drunk together via long distance telephone, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

As one of George’s later instructors might have said, in his delightful southern drawl, “It was a good idea that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.”

It turns out, I am not a fun drunk. I go straight from pleasantly buzzed to hugging the toilet very, very quickly. By the time George got home, he found me lying on the bathroom floor. I mumbled something like, “You always wanted to see me drunk!” He took good care of me, made sure I drank plenty of water, and helped me to bed. Bless him.

Getting drunk didn’t help…a lesson I learned the first time through and haven’t felt the need to repeat. Our disappointment at George’s assignment was acute, but we made the best of it and met a lot of really great people, which I considered to be the best perk of living the military life. After a few years at Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan serving hard time as self-loading baggage in the B-52, he got his B-1.

But he never gave up on his dream to fly fighters, which—as you can probably predict at this point—simply led to further disappointment and drunkenness. But let’s save those adventures for another day.


  1. Thanks for another compelling story. You just can't tell any kind of story about life in the military without some drunkenness and/or public vomiting. :)

  2. Love the humor and sadness all at the same time woven into this. Thanks for a great read.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!