In retrospect, it was poor timing for such a rueful remark.
I had just rolled wings level on downwind and lowered the landing gear following another routine training flight near Fallon, Nevada, where I was based. I probably should have been fully devoted to the landing procedures but after more than 20 years and 3,500 flight hours in the F/A-18, my hands knew instinctively where to go to prepare the Hornet for landing.
“What’s up?” came an Internal Communication System. An audio system that allows aircraft crew members to speak to each other in flight. call from the backseat.
Doc Taylor had every right to be worried. Takeoffs and landings, as transitory phases of flight, are where the preponderance of aviation mishaps occur. And as our command flight surgeon, he did not fly much—let alone with me. Regardless, Doc’s voice demonstrated cool curiosity devoid of concern.
“BUPERS accepted my retirement request so I’m getting out next summer,” I replied, beginning a turn to base leg and thinking how I’d miss this after dedicating the entirety of my adult life to Naval Aviation. “Soon this’ll all be over.”
Doc’s reply caught me completely off guard, “Well, not today.”
These simple yet profound words rocked my world. I immediately recognized that I am usually preoccupied with whatever’s coming next in life. I suppose you could say I always ‘looked away to the future, to the horizon—never my mind on where I was or what I was doing.’ And it’s no wonder Yoda berated Luke Skywalker for this offense, after all, now is all we have, and we squander it anytime we dwell on tomorrow, or yesterday. That said, I quickly realized that right now I needed to land the airplane and am happy to report doing so, uneventfully.
But since that day I’ve been trying to do better. I try to notice where I am, what I’m doing right now, then I try to relish the moment with gratitude.
For example, I try not to worry about what my sons will do after school, instead enjoying the chaotic, messy, and—to my wife’s chagrin—often smelly house full of boys. Even my nearly eight-year-old best friend, a loyal golden retriever aptly named ‘Maverick,’ as he begins graying and napping longer each day, I try to resist the sadness I know will surely come in a few short years, if not sooner. Because it’s not today. Not yet.
As it turned out, my today was put off another two years.
My wife, who never had much say in where the Navy sent us during nearly 25 years of service, decided the family would best thrive settling down in Coronado, CA. The thought of moving to an expensive enclave with no sure job following the Navy prompted me to cancel my retirement request and accept orders to the area—thus ensuring an easier transition to civilian life later.
During my twilight tour I flew post-maintenance check flights and deliveries for F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets following heavy overhaul. Later, with approved retirement papers once again firmly in hand and never knowing when the next jet would be ready, an early December weekend hop landing in nearby Miramar made an appropriate ‘fini flight.’ My coworker Vern, from episode 3, even arranged for my wife and sons to meet me on the ramp with water hoses and buckets for the traditional last-flight-wetting down. It was a bittersweet moment.
But as it turned out, that was not today.
Four days later a Super Hornet needed to be delivered to Lemoore and Vern was busy. With plenty of excess fuel for such a short jaunt, before landing I galivanted around the Sierra Nevada mountains, enjoying the snow-capped mountains and majesty of flight. I figured that was surely it.
Today finally happened on December 13, 2016. A high-lot single-seat F/A-18C Hornet needed a partial post-maintenance flight to check the engines. Vern and I agreed this would definitely be ‘it’ so I made the most of it—climbing the bird up to over 50,000 feet, flying faster than Mach 1.6 in a dive, even “rigging” a few boats on the azure Pacific for good measure.
I returned to Miramar, from where I had launched, again landed uneventfully, taxied in, shutdown, and walked away to no fanfare. It was sad, no denying, but I’d lived so many not today’s by then that, in the end, when today finally came, I was ready.