“Hit it!” Honcho said through the headset. He was our commander and lead up in the sky.
I didn’t look out the canopy window to check the position of my fellow pilots for this particular maneuver. We all knew exactly what to do. The precision with which we flew was what made this work. We couldn’t second-guess where the other guy was.
Some people said we shared a hivemind when we were in the air together. We had to. Our lives depended on it. We trusted each other with our very survival.
I broke right, creating the Fleur-de-lis maneuver the Blue Angels were famous for. The routine was practiced over and over and over until it became second nature. I had been flying together with the other five pilots that made up the squadron for about eight months. We knew every little move the other made. That was what had made us the best team since the inception of the Blue Angels—in my opinion.
“Ease power.” Honcho’s calm voice came through once again. “Smooth it out.”
His voice was rarely above a five. I had never flown in a combat mission with him, but he had one of those voices that could make a dangerous dogfight at ten-thousand feet feel like a walk through a park in the spring. It was like a Morgan Freeman voice.
“Up we go.” His voice was our guide. We didn’t argue. We didn’t question. We just did what he said.
“Small pull,” he called out.
He was referring to the G-forces we were going to face with our new maneuver. Small pull for him was about five G’s. We usually hit six to seven. I regularly hit seven in my role on the team.
“Puuullll—” Honcho called out.
I braced myself, clenching my muscles and bearing down to keep the blood from rushing to my feet and knocking my ass out when the G-forces slammed into my body. There was a trick to mastering the hook, as we called it, and maintaining position in the flight pattern. It all had to happen at the same time. Getting even the tiniest bit dizzy could be catastrophic. It was second nature to all of us now. While most jet pilots wore G-suits, we chose not to. The suits inflated to combat the force of gravity, which messed up our ability to control the jet. We had to do without.
The choreography of our routine was led by Honcho. When I first started with the team, the comms felt like I was in a dance class with the cadence of a one, two, three, and turn. One, two, three, and down.
“Let’s take it home,” Honcho said.
“One little move, Honcho,” I said with a small laugh.
“Dice, not today,” was his answer.
I couldn’t resist. They all knew I was going to do it anyway. I rolled my F/A-18 Hornet into an inverted position and had a little fun before rolling back and pulling back on the stick for a climb to the heavens. It was the best feeling in the world. I loved the power I held between my legs. My forearm rested against my thigh as I held the stick. There was a wet spot on my jumpsuit where my arm sat through the duration of the practice flight.
“Dice!” The stern tone of his voice reflected his anger.
“Come on, Honcho, you know that was good. Let’s spice this thing up!”
“Showboat,” Rudy, AKA Blue Angel Number Three also known as Watch Dog, teased.
I was Angel Number Five. I was the lead solo position and I loved it. I loved being the dude that took on the most physically demanding maneuvers, as well as some of the riskiest. We all risked our lives, but the thrill was worth the risk to me.
The forty-minute practice was over. I landed right behind Number Four and taxied to my spot. I was drenched in sweat. The sheer physical demand on one’s body was brutal. Six rolled in and we perfectly timed our canopies opening. Just like that, the show was over. In this case our practice run. I pulled off the flight helmet and wiped the sweat from my brow.
I climbed out of the jet and took a second to get my sea legs. Land legs. Whatever. The rest of the team was doing the same thing. Watch Dog approached me while shaking his head. “One of these days,” he said.
“One of these days we’re going to switch up our usual routine,” I replied. “I want to do something that really curls the toes of our audience.”
“You’re curling the toes of command,” he said.
“Dice!” Honcho, better known as Captain Honcho Wellington, shouted my name.
“Shit,” I muttered.
“At least you know he isn’t going to kick you off the team,” Watch Dog said. “But you’re about to lose an inch of skin from your backside.”
“Won’t be the first time.”
Honcho stalked toward me. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes, but I imagined they were narrowed. “That’s the last time,” he said firmly. “Last time. I will throw your ass off this team. That’s not your jet. You want to go ram your head into a wall or jump off a cliff, so be it, but don’t you put the lives of innocent civilians at risk. Don’t you put my jet at risk!”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He spun on his heel and walked away. “One of these days, cowboy,” a woman’s voice called out.
I grinned at Darby, the one and only Marine on the squad and had the call sign Medusa. She was smaller than the rest of us, but she was the one person I would never want to tangle with in a dark alley. She was tougher than most men because she had to be. She worked in a predominantly man’s world and had to be tough. Her piloting skills were like none other. She brought a certain finesse to the team. When she climbed out of her jet, the little girls in the crowd went absolutely crazy. She was something of a hero. She was definitely more famous than the rest of us. It didn’t hurt my ego.
“Want me to show you how to fly that thing?” I teased.
“I’ll take you in a dogfight any day of the week,” she shot back.
“In your dreams.” I laughed.
“Seriously, you need to be careful,” she said with a slight frown. “This isn’t a simulator. All it takes is one jet-wash. One tiny little jerk of the stick and it’s lights out. You don’t get a do-over.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard that. People thought I was a showboat. A risk taker. Dangerous. I was probably all those things. I loved to push the envelope. I loved to see just what me and my Hornet could do. Rules were meant to be broken. No one was ever going to know what it could do if someone didn’t try. I didn’t mind being the guinea pig. Some people said I had a death wish. I didn’t have a wish to die, but I didn’t really give a shit if I did. At least I would go out doing what I loved. It would be a hell of a ride.
“Debriefing room,” Honcho called out from up front.
“You’re in trouble,” Medusa said with a laugh.
“Won’t be the last time.”
This was the part of the process I actually liked. Yes, I could be arrogant and cocky, but I was my own worst critic. I liked watching the tapes and focusing on all the tiniest details. It only made us better. The formations had to be tight. We were doing stunts that were absolutely dangerous. We all played it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but every time we climbed into the cockpit, we knew we were taking a huge risk.
The debriefing was relatively short. Despite my one little maneuver that earned me another lecture, we were tight. The formations had been damn near perfect. Our team on the ground was certain we’d closed the distance between our wings to about twelve inches in a few of the maneuvers. That was pretty damn close.
“Let’s get a drink,” Medusa said. “I have a feeling it might be our last for a while. Our schedule is ridiculous.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “I’m going to run home and shower. All of you should do the same. You stink.”
After a quick shower, I got a ride off base to avoid too much scrutiny by officers that just might happen upon the Blue Angels pilots tossing a few back. It wasn’t like we drank heavily. When Medusa said we were going to get a beer, that was usually what it was. A beer. Maybe two.
We had a crazy schedule. July was one of our busiest months. We were halfway through the year. Halfway through my time on the squad. I was going to miss it when my time was up. Maybe they’d let me re-up. The idea was appealing, but it wouldn’t be fair to the long list of men and women that wanted one of the coveted positions on the team.
We settled at a table near the back of the bar that was just a little on the rough side. That was the way we liked it. In many ways, we were celebrities. While I loved the gig, sometimes a guy just wanted to drink a beer, eat peanuts, and throw darts without having to talk about what we did in the air.
I sipped my Bud Light and looked around the table at the people that were my family. We spent three hundred days of the year together. This particular group, besides our boss, Honcho, were all single. We didn’t have time for the family-life thing. Even dating was a pain in the ass.
“What are you thinking about?” Medusa asked me.
I slowly shook my head. “Not much of anything.”
“That’s not a surprise,” Watch Dog teased. “He’s been inhaling jet fuel for far too long. He’s probably only got three brain cells in there and I’m not sure they all work at the same time.”
“Very funny,” I said. “I was just thinking I’m going to make the most of this summer.”
“What does that mean?” Medusa asked. “Did you make a decision?”
“No,” I answered. “Not yet.”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Watch Dog said. “He’s career Navy. He’ll retire at about sixty-two with a chest full of brass.”
He was probably right, but I always entertained the idea of leaving the Navy when my time was up. I’d been saying that since I was twenty-two. I joined the Navy right out of high school because I didn’t have options and I thought I might get the chance to fly. The recruiter assured me it was extremely difficult to get into the pilot program. I did it though. I kicked ass and I’d been flying for more than a decade with the Navy. It was the only life I knew.
“Still thinking about the commercial airline route?” Medusa asked.
“It’s tempting,” I said. “With that kind of money, I could retire earlier than sixty-two.”
“And then what?” Watch Dog asked. “You’ll wither up and die if you don’t get to fly.”
“I’ll buy a plane,” I said with a shrug. “With the kind of money I’d make in the commercial business, I’ll be able to afford it.”
“You’re not leaving,” Watch Dog said again.
I probably wouldn’t but I liked to keep my options open. Loud, raucous laughter came from the other end of the table. It was the rookie, Edwin Dean, or as we called him PitA because he was such a pain in the ass that just rubbed me the wrong way. He was a decent pilot, but he was too cocky. I was cocky, but he was obnoxious. I had to trust him, but I didn’t have to like him.
“You’re glaring at him again,” Medusa said in a low voice.
“He’s a hard one to figure out,” I said.
We talked a bit more about the schedule for the month and other random shit. We didn’t really have a lot to talk about outside of our work. Our work was our life. We had little time to do much else.
“I’m headed home,” I said after an hour.
“Alone?” Medusa teased.
“Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be my night,” I said with feigned disappointment.
“Didn’t look like you tried all that hard.” Watch Dog laughed.
“I’m tired. I’m going to get some sleep and get ready for the shows this weekend. You all should think about doing the same.”
“Party pooper,” PitA called out from the end of the table.
“Goodnight,” I said without acknowledging his rather weak insult. “See you all tomorrow bright and early.”