Aviation is the most beautiful and dangerous thing I’ve ever done.
I’ll always remember one moment when the late-afternoon sun cast the shadow of my Tomcat into a cloud, summoning a gossamer, fighter-shaped cathedral of mist. That ghostly cathedral was surrounded by a glory that rivaled the finest work of the renaissance masters.
Despite its beauty, flying is also inherently risky. Hours of boredom could be followed by an unexpected moment that requires all of your skill, luck, and attention to survive. Sometimes even superhuman effort is not enough.
For the sixteen-year duration of my flying career, I was lucky enough to return after every flight. Until a couple of weeks ago, seven of the finest aviators I’ve ever met weren’t able to say the same.
Now that number is eight.
Dewar and Fur
LT Bill “Dewar” Dey, and LT David “Fur” Bergstrom lost their lives in an airshow mishap at NAS Willow Grove, June 18, 2000.
In addition to their role as demonstration pilots, Dewar and Fur were both Tomcat instructors at VF-101 while I was a student. Dewar was an excellent lead and taught me about the tricky business of flying formation in a Tomcat.
One night I had Fur in my back seat and forgot to set the parking brake as we returned to the flight line. A plane captain was checking our brakes at that moment, and our 50,000 pound jet began to slowly creep forward, nearly flattening him. Fur should have given me a failing grade for that oversight, but he didn’t. I learned a lot about safety, complacency, and teaching that evening, and I never forgot the parking brake again.
LCDR Chris “Basher” Blaschum lost his life on March 2, 2002 when the nosewheel of his Tomcat shattered on a catapult shot, dumping his jet into the Mediterranean sea directly in the path of our 80,000 ton aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The crew ejected. His RIO made it, Basher didn’t.
I was in the overhead stack waiting to land when the mishap occurred. My RIO and I could only sit and watch as the search and rescue operation unfolded beneath us. Just that morning, Basher had sat me down to give me some tips in case we had to divert to Souda Bay, Crete in an emergency. Luckily we made it on deck before our fuel ran out, and I didn’t have to take his advice that day.
CAPT David “Doc” Brown was killed on STS-107 when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry on February 1, 2003.
I only met Doc Brown once. In early 1996 I was an NROTC Midshipman looking to get a Navy pilot-training slot. Unfortunately, I’d had a history of allergies and needed a Flight Surgeon’s waiver or I wouldn’t be allowed into the program. Doc Brown was the Flight Surgeon at the Navy’s Test Pilot School and was working at the clinic in Pax River that day. He was gracious enough to sign my waiver and wish me luck before sharing some good news: he’d just been selected as an astronaut and would be leaving in a few months to start his training.
LT Bruce “Spooner” Clark was killed in a midair collision July 18, 2005 near Death Valley, CA.
Spooner was one of Basher’s squadronmates and was with me on our 2002 deployment. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Spooner as a fellow LSO both at sea and ashore. In addition to being a skilled aviator, he was one of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met.
LCDR Kevin “Kojak” Davis was killed on April 21, 2007 when his jet – Blue Angel Number 6 – impacted the ground during an airshow at MCAS Beaufort, SC.
Kojak joined our first fleet squadron a few months before me, and we were two of 8 JOs sharing a stateroom on our 2002 deployment – the one where we lost Basher. Kojak was, quite simply, the coolest person I’ve ever met – like Steve McQueen cool. He even rode a motorcycle. Unlike many cool people, he was genuinely caring and hilariously, non-destructively funny. Kojak was living proof that awesome, real people got to be Blue Angels. I can still hear his voice saying “What’s up Burnsy?”.
LT Miroslav “Abrek” Zilberman was killed March 31, 2010 while saving the lives of the rest of his crew after a propeller on his E-2C Hawkeye failed over the Arabian Sea.
The E-2 has no ejection seats, so in an emergency the crew has to bail out one at a time through a tiny hatch on the side of the aircraft. Due to the drag from their broken propeller it took all Abrek’s strength and attention to hold the airplane steady so the other three members of the crew could safely jump out. Nobody was left to steady the airplane for him.
Abrek was one of his squadron’s most talented LSOs. I was lucky enough to meet him while evaluating their airwing’s LSO team prior to deployment, and he impressed me from the very start. He had a big smile.
A few days ago, I learned that LCDR Edgar “Sting” Higgins III was killed while piloting a hang glider on June 26, 2015, just fifteen miles north of my home.
I flew Tomcats with Trey in my first fleet squadron alongside Kojak. He left us a few months after I got there, but in that short period we became good friends. Trey was an outstanding fighter pilot, mentor, and guitarist. He and I shared a love of the blues, and he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
Trey and I chatted occasionally after he left for his next assignment, but we lost touch after a few years. Several times I thought about tracking him down to see how he was doing. I had no idea this whole time that he was living just a few miles away.
Do me a favor, if you don’t mind.
Take the time today to look up somebody you haven’t talked to in a while – someone you’ve lost touch with who was important to you. Send them a message and ask how they’re doing.
You might not get another chance.