A day that continues to live in infamy. As a Naval Aviator I rendered honors many times to the USS Arizona as the ship I was on entered or sortied from Pearl Harbor. For Navy personnel it will always be hollowed ground. I have been to Hawaii many times; as a Naval Aviator and an American Airlines pilot. It is probably why my first novel melds the experience of my life together, at Pearl. here is chapter one:
Project Seven Alpha
19 June 1984
The Hawaiian sun had begun to set over the Pacific, casting long shadows across Honolulu International Airport. An American Airlines Captain sat in the cockpit of his DC-10 luxury liner and watched as the sun started its journey below the horizon. On any other day in his life, this would have been a non-event. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed, even reveled in the many passings of the sun he had witnessed. Sometimes he thought he could remember each one individually. He had always marveled how magical it was that a twice-daily event could hold such mystery, such diversity, as it unfolded so many times and in so many ways, right in front of him.
He had seen most of his sunrises and sunsets from the cockpits of aircraft. He had watched many from the ground, but to him, to truly experience a rise or set of the sun, you had to be in the air. You had to be a part of it. This sunset, he mused, was not only an announcement to the world that the day was done. It was a very private message to him that the biggest part of his life—his professional life—was coming to an end.
The best part of his life had been his family, but to say that flying had not been the most consuming part of his life would not be honest. When the sun rose again he would be sixty years old, the FAA’s mandatory retirement age.
Sixty! thought the captain. How can that be? My mind, my essence is unchanged—how can I be sixty?
He would watch the sun set, then rise, one more time as a professional line pilot, a wide body Captain for American Airlines.He’d have his old Stearman biplane, the plane he’d learned to fly at the age of seventeen. It would be fun to putt around in it, but it would never be the same. No, like the day he had retired from the reserves as a naval aviator, this chapter in his life would be complete tomorrow when he landed in Dallas.
He contemplated all this as he watched a seagull effortlessly floating on the updraft created by the heat coming off the concrete tarmac. His meditative state was broken by the entry of the First Officer and Flight Engineer into the cockpit. He turned and looked at the young Flight Engineer. He looked fifteen but was actually nineteen.
I feel like him, not some sixty year old man, the captain thought.
He smiled, watching the FE slump into his seat. The younger man reached into his kit bag and instead of pulling out a manual or checklist, produced a small headset and what appeared to be a tape recorder. The FE slipped on the headphones and began to tap his fingers on his panel. The captain was smiling and watching the youngster when he noticed in his periphery that the First Officer was holding something out to him.
The FO was 41 years old, handsome, of average height with blonde hair and blue eyes. He wore his hair in military style, close-cropped with a hint of grey around the temples. This was a milestone flight for him as well; it would be his last as a First Officer. He would go to upgrade training for Captain after this flight.
The captain turned and took what he assumed was the aircraft logbook. He slipped on his reading glasses, a humiliation to which he had succumbed ten years earlier. It was not the log book.
“What’s this?” he asked the FO.
“Captain, your lovely bride thought you might like this,” responded the FO.
On his lap sat a black leather scrapbook, stamped with the gold wings of a naval aviator and the silver wings of an American Airlines Captain. Under the wings, in silver letters also stamped into the leather, were the words, “An Aviator’s Life.” The captain quickly scanned a few pages of photos showing the aircraft and people he had known intimately; they always seemed to be intertwined. He stopped on an eight-by-ten of a motley-looking bunch standing in front of a DC-3, after an obviously hard night of drinking and carousing. Tears welled in his eyes.
Suddenly, the FO craned his head around and snapped to the FE: “What the hell is that noise, Wrench?”
The captain quickly wiped his eyes as he smirked to himself. Wrench was either an affectionate or derogatory term for flight engineer, depending on the inflection when delivered. It stemmed from the days when FEs were also mechanics. The FO was too young to have flown with a true wrench; they were all long gone. FEs in general would be gone soon too, as the industry moved back to two-man crews. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same—how true in the airlines.
The noise that seemed to truly disturb the First Officer was a combination of the FE singing and the overshoot from the headset.
“What is that?” the FO demanded again.
“What?” responded the FE as he slid off the headset.
“That noise,” countered the FO, pointing at the headset.
“It’s “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” by Oingo Boingo,” retorted the FE with righteous indignation.
“It’s what?” said the FO, shaking his head.
The captain slid out of his seat and patted the FE on the shoulder.
“Don’t pay much attention to the First Officer,” he said. “His father said the same thing about rock and roll.”
“Hey that’s not fair,” protested the FO.
“Oh, yes it is, my young First Officer, because I’m the captain and I say so.”
The captain winked at the FE as he moved toward the cockpit door.
“I’ll get the exterior pre-flight inspection tonight, Mr. Engineer.”
“Cool—thanks, Gramps,” the FE said, smiling smugly at the FO while returning the headset to its previous position.
“That’s Captain to you, numb-nuts!” snapped the FO with more than a hint of irritation.
The FE shrugged and cranked up the volume to his new Walkman.
“Aren’t these Japanese toys the coolest?”
“Yeah, the coolest,” said the captain, pulling the cockpit door closed behind him.
The captain stood on the tarmac and let the warm Pacific trade winds envelope him. Such a glorious day, he thought. How could it come to such a disastrous conclusion? Put to pasture. How could he ever fit into a normal life? Normal. He had to laugh; he didn’t know normal. Normal to him had meant catapulting off the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in hunt of other men—men he would have to kill before they killed him. Normal had meant weaving his way through the mountains encircling Mexico City, at night, with an engine on fire. No, he did not know normal. Even his working day wasn’t normal. He was starting his day at sunset, and it would end at sunrise. He had never tasted normalcy and felt fortunate that he had not. Thank God. Just the thought of it made him feel sick.
He turned away from the sunset and faced his aircraft. What an incredible machine: the Douglass Corporation Model 10, series 30. Normal people called it a jumbo jet. What an insult. This “jumbo,” lightly loaded, could climb out like a scalded dog, thirty degrees nose up, still accelerating, powered by three engines and producing a combined 156,000 pounds of thrust. In denial of its size, it handled like a dream, light and responsive on the controls. In the colors of American Airlines, brushed aluminum with red, white, and blue stripes, it was beautiful—certainly no jumbo.
Pilots called it a wide body. A wide body was the top of the commercial pilot pyramid. It was what the professional, line pilots of all airlines aimed for. In a job where your hourly rate was factored by the weight of the aircraft you flew, it was where the greatest financial reward was as well.
“Paid by the pound,” he often told his wife. “The same as if I was pickin’ cotton.”
She always responded that a cotton picker didn’t spend half of every month on the road, nor did any of the cotton picker’s co-workers die on the job.
To him, it wasn’t about the money. He liked it and had no intention of giving any back, but the money was not what made his blood run. It was the adventure of flying, going somewhere—Paris, England, Hawaii. It was the pleasure of sitting in Piccadilly, enjoying a cold beer—or a daiquiri on the beach, watching the moon rise over the Pacific. Now it was all coming to an end.
The brushed aluminum fuselage began to glisten in the evening sun, giving it a liquid appearance. He watched the red sun’s reflection move down the fuselage. When it got to the midpoint, his mind flashed back to a different time, in this same place—a time when a red sun on an airplane meant something quite different. It meant war.
He gazed across to the Hickam Air Force Base side of the field. Even from here, he could see bullet holes in the façade of the old buildings. He looked toward Ford Island and Battleship Row, where he knew the USS Arizona lay on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, still leaking fuel oil, her crew entombed for eternity.
He looked back to the red sun on the fuselage and remembered the intense hatred that had burned in him, demanding retribution. He was surprised how easily the feeling returned, like an old friend—comfortable, familiar. Vengeance! It had been so long, literally a lifetime. Yet, the intensity of emotion had surged into him like the ocean into the sinking Arizona.
It was back, as if it was 1944 again and he was still hunting the Imperial Japanese Navy in his F-6F Hellcat. The hunting had been good. He knew what the good Book said, but vengeance had been his—over and over again, and none had ever been enough. He had been an absolute killing machine, revenge his motivation, hatred his sustenance.
Then the war was over. For everyone it seemed, except him.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the trade wind. His old friend hatred slipped away, though in his mind’s eye he still saw the flames. To him, fire had always and would always mean war. There had been so much of it: a black greasy smear slowly being consumed by orange as he hammered .50 caliber rounds into a doomed Japanese aircraft; on the water as ships burned, spreading fuel like molten pools of blood, consuming the crew as they desperately tried to swim away. The islands seemed to be perpetually on fire, flames of war fanned by a divine wind.
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