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Not Today

“Aww, man.”

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 3,200 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 ICS call from the backseat.

Doc Taylor had every right to be worried. Takeoffs and landings, as transitory phases of flight, are where most 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.

Not today.

These simple yet profound words rocked my world. I immediately recognized that I am usually preoccupied with whatever’s coming next. 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 can happily 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, and 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) 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 is coming 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 my career, decided the family would best thrive in Coronado, California. 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 that 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 in hand and never knowing when the next overhauled jet would be ready, an early December weekend hop landing in nearby Miramar made an appropriate final flight. My coworker Vern, from episode 3, 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 was ready to be delivered to Lemoore and, fortunately for me, Vern was busy—so I took it. With plenty of excess fuel for such a short jaunt, I galivanted around the Sierra Nevadas before landing, enjoying the snow-capped mountains and majesty of flight. After landing, I figured that was surely it.

But no.

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 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, 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 when today finally came, I was ready.

All good things must come to an end.

CDR Aiello after his last flight in the U.S. Navy. December 13, 2016.

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