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Chump Change (A Memoir)

Summer, 1980

At an altitude of fifteen-hundred feet, the line of black and purple storm clouds stretched wide across the horizon. The patchwork Virginia farmland below looked to creep by even though the airspeed indicator read a steady 100 knots. I was the designated pilot-in-command of

the trail helicopter in a string of five “Hueys.” I was also the only woman pilot in our flight division, the only one most of my colleagues had ever known. We were headed home to Davison Army Airfield near Alexandria after a long day of training in Southern Virginia. Other than my warrant officer co-pilot and me, the aircraft was empty.

We’d done the pre-flight -- inspecting the aircraft nose to tail and skids to rotor -- before dawn and it was approaching sunset now. We were bone tired and home sounded very good.

I could see the four other Hueys in front of me, strung out loose, no attempt to keep a formation. Those guys were watching the line of storm clouds, too, each one heading straight for it.

“Army Flight, this is Army One, dropping down to one-three, see if we can get below this line in front of us. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Roger, Army One,” Number Two replied. The rest of us listened and followed the command.

Visibility was deteriorating and I lost sight of the lead aircraft when he disappeared into the scruffy white clouds churning in front of the storm line. I eased the collective down and began my descent to thirteen-hundred feet. When I leveled off the visibility was better but I still couldn’t see the lead bird.

“Army One, this is Number Five. I’ve lost visual on you,” I radioed.

“Army One, this is Number Four. I’ve got you, no problem.” So the Huey in front of me thought he could still see the lead. I wasn’t so sure.

Late afternoon thunderstorms bubbled up almost daily in the hot summer months, a routine warning issued in pre-flight weather forecasts. Every pilot, newbie or seasoned, knew getting caught in a thunderstorm was not only deadly, it was stupid. All the Hueys at Davison were equipped with weather radar, an unheard-of luxury in combat aircraft, but imperative to our unit’s mission of transporting Pentagon VIPs. No way was the Army going to let a four-star general get caught in a T-storm.

The weather radar in our aircraft was picking up the line of thunderstorms in front of us. The screen on the dash danced with yellow and orange swirls. I saw the Number Three bird descend sharply, well below the assigned thirteen-hundred feet, and skirt under the black clouds. We were far behind Number Four when he punched into the clouds and disappeared.

“Army One, this is Number Four. Descending to five-hundred to pick up some daylight.”

“Roger, Number Four. Watch the wires at Dahlgren Tower. Lights on everybody.”

I no longer had visual on any aircraft and the clouds were dropping fast. Red splashes, indicating the most dangerous winds and rain, overtook the radar screen, the orange and yellow pushed to the edges. Rain pelted our windscreen like buckshot.

“Davison Tower, this is Army One, have you in sight. Landing with flight of five, on one-eight-zero.”

I looked at my co-pilot. “We’re not doing this. We’re turning back to Fredericksburg and RON there tonight.”

“You’re the boss,” he said, but his tone betrayed him. If our roles had been reversed he’d have punched into those clouds and felt his way through the driving rain back to Davison. We’d have probably made it.

* * *

The next morning at our mission debrief, the Rotary Wing Commander, who’d been “Army One,” the day before and who’d slept in his own bed that night, was obliged to commend my decision. Safety first, after all. My colleagues nodded as if they agreed, but their unspoken indictment hung in the air.

The Army picked up the tab for the two motel rooms in Fredericksburg and the taxi fare to get us to and from the airfield, but it was me who paid the price for being the only pilot not to make it home. And that was ok. With no masculine pride to protect I could afford to make the safe decision.

Chump change, really.

--- End ---

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