We Were Men With A Mission
As we walked through the snow toward the crowd ahead of us, we knew it was going to be a demanding day, one that would challenge all our skills and stamina. This day would be the culmination of months of effort and training. Joe and I felt ready. With each stride, our determination to accomplish our mission grew. Our mouths were dry in anticipation. . . . It was 8:30 a.m. and time to go up.
We stowed our equipment on the vehicle and boarded. The ride to the top took eight minutes. We had taken this trip many times before; and, as usual, we both sat silent, watching the trees pass beneath us, our minds racing over details of days past. . . .
I had met Joe in Florida at Primary Flight training. We went through Basic and Advanced Jet training in Texas together. Joe had flown A-7 Corsairs off the Coral Sea. I had flown A-6 Intruders off the Kitty Hawk, the Enterprise, and finally off the Coral Sea. Joe was an excellent pilot and Naval Officer. When it came time for his decision on a career in the Navy, he made the same choice that I did. That decision had led us to this day, and what was about to happen.
With Joe in Colorado in 2014
The vehicle stopped and the door opened. We took our equipment and walked outside. It was a beautiful day. It was more than beautiful—it was inspirational! We always enjoyed this moment. The air was crisp and clear, and you could see for miles. The air pressure at 10,000 feet was always invigorating. I took the kevlar polyfiber boards that were across my shoulder and laid them neatly in front of me. I separated two 50-inch poles and, with one in each hand, began my usual stretching routine. This was not a day for pulled muscles. Joe was doing the same. After a few moments, we were ready.
I knocked the snow off my boots with my poles. With two clicks I locked into my pair of LaCroix Mach 3 skis. Joe stepped into his Head SRs, and we were off, accelerating down the mountain. As we picked up speed, we both assumed the low drag “tuck position” —knees bent, thighs parallel to the ground, hands straight forward over the skis pointed down the mountain—accelerating, accelerating . . . soon the other skiers were just a blur as we sped by. . . .
The day also sped by. At 3:50 p.m., we arrived back at the spot where we had started the day. We kicked off our skis and hurried to the gondola, which closed at 4:00 p.m. We rode those eight minutes to the top of Vail mountain with exhausted grins on our faces. We had accomplished our mission—to see how many times we could ski from the top of the mountain to the bottom. We had just completed run number 20. The next, and last run would be the icing on the cake. It was our favorite highspeed route down the mountain—“Bwana-Safari-Simba”, a two-mile combination of three courses with plenty of jumps. It was also going to be our last run for a while. The next day Joe was planning to leave for Florida, where, within a few weeks, he would marry his sweetheart Martha.
As we rode the gondola up that final time, I thought back to the day when we decided to come to Vail. I had called Joe the previous spring at his base in Florida, asking him if he was going to accept another set of orders—which meant at least another three years in the Navy. After six years already served, this was the time for both of us to decide if we were going to make the Navy a career and stay in for 20 years, the minimum time for retirement, or get out. We both loved the challenges of flying high performance jets off aircraft carriers. However, neither of us really liked living on a steel boat with 5,500 other guys and being out at sea weeks at a time.
Joe’s response to my question was, “I’d sure like to go skiing this winter.” I answered, “Me too,” and we began planning. Within a few weeks, we had both submitted our letters of resignation from active service. By October, the Navy released us from active duty. We met at my base in Washington and, after a few days preparation, drove my VW van to Vail. On the day we arrived, we found a place to live. The next day we bought season ski passes. It was that simple.
We had a swimming pool across the street from our condo. Joe was a top notch swimmer at Illinois, and we fell into a great routine. We were up at 7:00 a.m. and at the gondola by 8:30. We skied until 4:30, and then stopped for a few beers and plenty of popcorn at our favorite après ski place, Purcell’s. It was home, then into our Speedos and to the pool, where we did a 1,500–2,000 yard workout. After dinner, we headed back into town for a few more beers somewhere and home early. We wanted to be ready for tomorrow. It was a great life. We could hardly wait to start the next day.
After weeks of solid skiing, we decided to look for work. Our inherent work ethic, and our bank accounts, said it was time. We both found jobs in the banquet department at the Mark Hotel. I worked as a waiter, and Joe did the room set-up for the conferences held at the hotel. Fortunately that didn’t interfere with the skiing, but it did cut into our night life.
As the spring approached, so did the end of the ski season. This was March of 1980, and many airlines needed pilots. We knew that we would soon have to make some important decisions. Joe was interviewing with an airline in San Diego; but for some reason, I had decided that I really didn’t want to be a “glorified bus driver.” I was enjoying the life here in Vail. It was all a 28 year old could ask for, and I decided that one ski season was not enough. This was a good lifestyle for me. Joe was in love and did decide to marry Martha in May, only a few weeks away. Today was our last day skiing together for awhile. We had skied fast all day, minimizing our turns. As soon as we got off the chair lift, it was a mad dash to ski to the bottom, get on the chair lift and back up to the top again. Considering the crowds at Vail this day, we had already set an amazing record. Now we were ready for one final run. . . .
The gondola jerked to a stop. We were at the top—at the place known as Eagle’s Nest. We stepped out, grabbed our skis, and headed over to the top of the ridge line. There we stuck our skis into the snow and sat down on one of the benches. From here we could see across the top of much of Colorado. One prominent peak was the Mount of the Holy Cross. It is a mountain over 14,000 feet tall which has a naturally carved cross on its east face. The vertical crevasse runs down from the top of the peak, and snow stays in the cross all year. The name came from the first pioneer who traveled in this area, who wrote to some friends back east that he had found a mountain “that God had carved a cross on.”
Even in the summer, from over 20 miles away, this snow cross is very prominent. During the winter, sitting above the surrounding snow-covered mountains, it was an inspirational sight. I always enjoyed gazing at this cross, and it provoked many thoughts within me. I had gone to church most of my youth, and I believed that there was a God. However, I didn’t really follow the ways of traditional religion, at least as it was taught to me at the Presbyterian church in Raeford, North Carolina, or the Baptist church in San Angelo, Texas, or the Methodist church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. I didn’t see much point in traditional religion, where it didn’t appear what you did Sunday made any difference in what you did the rest of the week. God was portrayed as impersonal and distant . . . out there somewhere.
The emphasis seemed to be on doing good things and obeying God. However, I never really understood who this God was, and why I should obey Him—even though I was a baptized member of the Baptist, and then the Methodist church, and involved in Sunday School, the choir, men’s softball, and the youth group. As a result, when I graduated from high school and left home for college, I stopped going to church altogether. I thought, “If this is all God has to offer, I’ll see what else is available.”
Ten years later, through college, the Navy and now here at Vail, I had had a good sampling of “what else is available.” I had flown fast airplanes, traveled to exotic places, and experienced many of the pleasures of this world. This season here at Vail was just another chapter in this search for the ultimate high. Yet almost every time I saw the cross cut on the side of this mountain, I was reminded that God really was out there . . . somewhere. Sights like these reflected a majesty of some creator. The intense colors of the alpine flora on the mountains in the summertime were the delicate touch of a true artist. The intricate structure of the solar powered sugar producing factories within each leaf of the aspen trees reflected the design of a brilliant scientific engineer. Yes, by looking at His majestic creation here in Colorado, I began to understand that this God was Someone worth knowing.
So I began looking for Him in all the “high” places—the natural and chemically induced. After all, to experience Him personally had to be the ultimate high and the mountains and the other “highs” available were logical places to look. Yet as I experienced the “highs” of this life here at Vail, I began to sense that whatever highs I had achieved, there was another level above me that I couldn’t quite reach, no matter how hard I tried.
Striving for this ultimate high got a bit frustrating at times because it was a goal that you could almost feel but never touch. My general response was, “More, more,” of whatever we were doing, always trying to take it one step further. Life here in Vail was mostly all fun, but a part of me said at some point this “fun” had to start having some long-lasting significance. But in the meantime. . . .
Joe and I sat there on that bench for about 20 minutes enjoying the view and waiting for all the other skiers to clear off the mountain. We didn’t want any obstacles in our way for this last run. By 4:30 the mountain was clear and we were ready. We clicked into our skis, adjusted our goggles, and headed down “Bwana.”
This wide swath cut through the trees starts with a gentle decline, and then drops rapidly. The vertical drop accelerated us quickly to max velocity. For me, that was when my skis began “chattering” from the vibrations. We did a few wide turns to control our speed before coming to a trail through the trees to the left. This led us to the top of “Safari” which starts with a “lip,” a drop-off that was good for 20 to 40 yards of air. The landing was on a steep, open face.
We both hit the lip, kicked off, and soared. It was just like the old days, except without the jet engines propelling us. The exhilarating joy of flying evaporated immediately at touchdown and turned into deep concern. Now our attention was focused on controlling our speed, and initiating a turn to avoid the thick line of lodgepole pine trees located at the bottom of this face where the course turns left. A turn was mandatory here to ensure continued life; however, our velocity, and the steepness of the slope made it difficult for our skis to dig in and carve a turn. Instead, the skis simply rolled over the packed powder as we accelerated rapidly down the mountain. We knew that at some point our ski edges would stop skidding over the snow and dig in—the question was when. This was always a tricky moment . . . we were right on the “edge” of potential disaster.
I saw a huge “rooster tail” of snow billowing behind Joe as he tore down the mountain. I knew that my skidding skis were producing one as well. Finally, at the last possible moment, the metal edges of each ski finally gripped the snow and dug in. With a slight roll of my knees to the left, I moved into the left turn. The threatening line of lodge poles were no longer a danger, and my gaze shifted to the course now in front of me.
Coming out of this turn, we hit a series of three quick “horizontal” jumps—each of which carried us 10 to 20 yards in the air. After this last jump, we took a cutoff trail to the left, through the trees, over to the bottom face of “Simba.” Here we hit a steep lip that was good for as much air as our now burning thighs could handle. Fortunately, the landing area was steep and clear of skiers. With a few turns for speed control, we now set up for a final jump at the bottom where the course turned right. If you hit this one just right, you could fly all the way to the flats, run out to the bridge, cross Gore Creek, and coast to the gondola.
I hit the jump first, with Joe right on my tail. We soared, hit the ground, tucked it, and raced all the way to the bridge, crossing it together. As usual, we finished this two-plus mile “Bwana-Safari-Simba” run in less than three minutes.
I woke up the next day with sore neck muscles. I could barely lift my chin as I shaved. This was very strange. After I dressed, I helped Joe load his 240Z. Even though Joe was leaving, and our ski season together was over, we both were happy and satisfied. We had skied most every day for the last four months. The mountain would close in a few weeks and we had definitely gotten our money’s worth out of our season passes. Yesterday, we had accomplished our mission and set a new personal record for runs down Vail mountain for one day.
This season at Vail was just another chapter in our mutual effort to “max out” at whatever we were doing. We did it in the Navy, and we did it here at Vail. As intense as the skiing had been the day before, we both knew that there would be more such days together. We could part company with that thought.
Joe left for Florida and I left for the gondola. During my first run, I assumed the “tuck position.” It was then that I realized why my neck was sore. We had spent so much time the preceding day in this position that I had strained the muscles in my neck!
In a few years, I would leave Colorado for Maui, and Joe got a job with NASA and moved my wine collection along with his stuff, and his wife Martha, to Houston. Joe had a stellar career with NASA.
He was first one of their Operations pilots, and eventually he was selected as a mission specialist. He replaced the lenses on the Hubble telescope, and built two of the solar power arrays on the International Space Station. Although Joe lacked the resume for most astronauts, he is a legend in NASA, because of his efficiency outside the orbiter fixing things. We were privileged to sit with Martha and his sons at one of his launches, and a most spectacular night landing after the Hubble mission. Here is one of my favorite photos of Joe in orbit.
The nice thing about Joe was whenever we were with him in a public place, he always made you feel like you were the astronaut. I have no idea why he chose to be my brother.
Six Years Later . . . October 1986
The mosquitos were buzzing madly in my ears. Sweat was pouring off my forehead. I could barely see. I couldn’t move. My legs were stuck in mud up past my knees. I struggled to maintain my grip on the bamboo pole on my shoulder. Ahead of me, at the other end of the pole, was Ron. He was also stuck in knee deep mud. Tied to the bamboo pole that connected us was a 25 horsepower outboard motor swinging wildly back and forth. Neither of us could move. The bugs were in a frenzy . . . we were the best meal that they’d had in a long time!
I fought to overcome the suction of the mud holding my foot down. “Here I am in the middle of a war zone, stuck in the mud, carrying this motor, and on the lunch menu for every insect in the vicinity. How did I get myself in this situation?” I asked myself.
We had started that day at Truman’s house in Sawa with a breakfast of rice, beans, and coffee. Afterward we loaded the boat and headed down the river. The Miskito Indians call this river “Wangki,” and it is the main thoroughfare of their homeland. Government cartographers label this river “Rio Coco” on their maps, and it forms the boundary between Honduras and Nicaragua.
There had been a war going on along this river since 1981. That year, the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua decided to relocate most of the people who lived along this river to camps set up in the interior. Most of the Miskitos resisted this relocation and were forced to flee to Honduras as their villages were destroyed. A Miskito army formed and began a fight with the Sandinistas for control of this river.
I came to this region in November of 1984 with a medical team to aid some of the 40,000 refugees who had crossed the Wangki and were now living in the swamps and savannah of Honduras. In 1985, we formed a non-profit corporation called “Salt & Light” to further assist these refugees. Many lived along the Coco River and along the neighboring Kruta River, which runs roughly parallel and north of the Coco. In 1986, we began a primary education program, with schools in 12 villages along these rivers. The three founders of Salt & Light—Ronald Bross, John Freyer, and myself—along with our Miskito project coordinator, Truman Cunningham, had just completed a visit to all of our schools along the Coco. Now the four of us, along with a few others, were heading back to our base camp in the village of Auka, less than 20 miles away as the proverbial crow flies.
We, however, could not go the way of the crow. Instead, from Sawa, we had to boat downriver to the Coco’s northernmost bend—a place called Utlamata. From there, we would hike a five mile trail that ends in a “lovely” spot called Turalaya. Turalaya in Miskito means “Alligator Waters,” which is very descriptive of this swampy, bug-infested place. There we connected with a tributary of the Kruta River and traveled down it for two hours. Here it met the Kruta and we turned back upriver. From this point, it was six hours by boat to Auka. The whole trip usually took a day and a half.
During the dry season, you could make the trip from Sawa to Auka directly on foot almost as fast as by boat along the rivers. But this was October, the middle of the rainy season. The area between the Coco and Kruta was a low lying swamp, and after continuous rains, both rivers overflowed and covered the trails. Travel by foot during this time of year was difficult at best, often through knee-deep mud and chest-high water.
As we approached Utlamata in our boat that day, I began thinking about the hike to Turalaya. I knew there would be mud, and it would take us at least two hours to make it across. We usually rented horses from one of the villagers to carry our outboard motor and any other cargo that we had. This trail was always difficult during the rainy season; but somehow, as we rounded the final bend before Utlamata, I knew that this crossing was going to be especially challenging.
The first indication that I was right came when the horse rental man refused to rent us a horse to carry the motor. He said there was too much mud, and it would be too dangerous for his horse. After considering our options, we came up with a plan. We decided to put our backpacks on the horses, and two of us could carry the motor tied to a bamboo pole on our shoulders. It only weighed 107 pounds; so, we figured that we could take 15-minute shifts and then trade off. We packed the horses, selected a pole, tied the motor to it, and were off. Truman and one of our visitors from California, Ron Sukut, formed one team, and Ron Bross and I were the other. The rest of our group went ahead with the horses.
We realized after the first tradeoff that things weren’t going to work the way we had planned. There was a lot more mud than we expected, and we found out quickly that we could not carry the motor for 15 minutes without resting. One problem: when we tied the motor to the pole, we didn’t realize how much it was going to swing back and forth as we maneuvered to step on the driest places. This swinging 107 pound weight really threw the carriers off balance, and as the mud got deeper, this became more of a problem. Heat and insects combined to compound our misery. Eventually, Ron and I found ourselves stuck in mud over our knees, neither of us able to move. That was a time for very deep reflection—“How was I going to get out?” was my first thought. “How did I get myself here in the first place?” was the second.
Finally, Truman and the other Ron had to come help us pull ourselves out. Carrying this motor through knee-deep mud proved to be very strenuous. Soon we were down to less than 5-minute shifts, and progress was slow.
After a few hours of this, we finally caught up to the rest of the team and the horses who had stopped to wait for us. We now put two guys on each end. We finally arrived at Turalaya four hours after leaving Utlamata. I dropped into the murky river, completely exhausted. It had indeed been one of the most intense physical experiences of my life.
How had I gotten myself into this situation? Why was I wading in mud rather than skiing in clean, white snow? I loved the cold weather of the mountains. I enjoyed living at 9,000 feet. I hated the heat, and the thick air at sea level always felt oppressive. Why the change? What had taken me from my pleasure-seeking lifestyle in Vail to serving in the swamps of Honduras?
You might say that I had finally achieved the high that had always remained elusive during my college, Navy, and Colorado days. I had finally discovered the source of the inspiration I felt when I looked at the Mount of the Holy Cross from the top of Vail mountain.
But it didn’t all happen at once. . . I had to go back to Hawaii and into the “dark side” before I made my discovery.
Seeds Already Planted
Every farmer knows that when seeds are planted, growth takes place before there is visible evidence. Before the leaves can grow, the sprout must appear from the seed. Even before the sprout appears, there is unseen action taking place within the seed.
There apparently was some “unseen action” taking place within me before I arrived in Vail and began contemplating the Mount of the Holy Cross. Consider these excerpts from “Onboard USS Enterprise 1978,” my personal diary I kept while on an eight-month deployment to the Pacific and Indian Oceans while I was assigned to Attack Squadron 196. I had just visited my cousins Kean and Shelly who lived on the remote eastern side of Maui. I had spent a week with them in 1977 when the USS Kitty Hawk was in Pearl Harbor, and this second visit confirmed some stirrings deep inside me.
Kean and Shelly lived on five acres near the Hana airport, where Kean grew pakalolo (Hawaiian for “crazy weed”) and Shelly painted silk dresses. Kean was my closest cousin as I was growing up, and later had a tremendous impact on my spiritual life.
25 April 1978
Central Pacific Ocean, southwest of Kauai.
We left Hawaii today for 3 weeks at sea en route to the Philippines: set the clocks back an hour already as we moved west. In a few days, we will jump one day as we cross that dateline. Spent a week on Maui with my cousins. Quite a lifestyle on Maui. A different style to be sure. Life on the islands—roaming around in the jungle—very attractive yet at the same time lacking in—what? Nice to be with family again . . . a nice culture. Hawaii has a lot to offer.
MAUI—I will return for longer. . .
26 April 1978
Flew the first launch. It was an ocean surveillance flight and ended with some ACM (air combat maneuvering) with another A-6. The landing was a fair no. 2 wire. Each landing is graded by the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs). This is THE competitive event between the pilots of the air wing. Bombing scores are important, but landing competition is HIGHLY VISIBLE—everybody from the admiral on down watches the landings over the ship’s TV system.
The grading system is: O.K. (5 points); O.K. (4 points); Fair (3 points); No Grade (2 points); Cut Pass (1 point); Wave Off (0 points).
Landing properly aboard the ship is very important to your personal health, and the competitive aspect only adds to the intenseness. Today I scored 3 points.
I keep thinking about the whales breaching off Maui the other day. What a sight to see such animals leap from the ocean!
Meanwhile, I’m trying to get into a little “professional” reading—some Greek historians for a start. But I want to finish Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” first. Quite a mind-stimulating book. Strange how your mind can become channeled in the everyday routine.
Our horizons need to be on the broad scope. . . .
27 April 1978
I flew the A-6 tanker today. The landing was an O.K. hook skip 3 to a 4 wire. That gives me a 3.5 average. “Water everywhere. . .” Nothing but blue surroundings. We are in the middle of the Pacific! The nearest land is Johnston Island which bears 335 degrees at 240 nautical miles.
Dichotomy day—Orbiting the ship at 20,000 feet for an hour can be very thought provoking—especially if the autopilot is working and you can zone out for a while. I thought more about the forces pulling me—a professional military type (serious, focused, disciplined) on one hand—or both hands when in the groove on final approach—and a Maui type (fun and little responsibility) on the other—yet I really enjoy the difference, being both types. I have to subvert one for the other at this point. . . . Yet my job allows for a unique diversity. . . .
My type of flying is a combination of thought and natural instincts. I really believe that some of the best athletes in the world are in my job category—i.e., flying fighter and attack aircraft. Some are onboard the Enterprise. Highly developed motor skills, hand to eye coordination, etc., are a basic requirement for survival. Analysis of the environment must be rapid and continually updated. Thoughts must be spontaneous and disciplined at the same time. With my hands on the stick and throttle, my feet on the rudder pedals, my body snugged tight into the ejection seat, the airplane becomes just an extension of me, my senses extending out past the wing tips, nose and tail. My internal gyroscope and accelerometers tell me what the airplane is doing before it registers on the instruments.
In flight school, they taught us to drop a bomb on a target by hitting certain parameters at the release point—like being in a 40-degree dive at 500 knots at 5,000 feet above the target, as your gun sight center passes over the bull’s eye. At that point, you would hit the release button on the stick, and the bomb should hit the target. That was the mechanical way to do it, and it was fun. But eventually you could roll in on a target at a random dive angle, ignoring the airspeed indicator and altimeter, with the gun sight turned off, and hit the release button at just the right moment when the target picture looks good and everything feels “just right” and get a good hit (less than 100 feet). That’s when it became sport and art.
Talk about job satisfaction! They actually pay me to do this!
On the other hand, being a Maui type could do it for me too. They also pay me to live on a gray boat with 5,000 other guys and keep my hair short. On Maui I can roam through the jungle doing what I like.
Can two different type of men live in the same body? Am I a schizoid? . . . I doubt it . . . Just not quite normal. Never really wanted to be normal in the sense of living a life that was routine, unchallenging, and not experiencing or achieving what I could. There’s too much out there to settle for a middle-class, sedate life in the suburbs with the wife and kids, and two cars in the garage, and pizza and beer on Friday night, and the ball games on Saturday and Sunday. . . . Can’t let it pass me by.
. . . Got to go for it in many areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. This kind of flying hits all three. I guess that’s why I enjoy the Italian Renaissance so much. They too strove to be diverse yet complete—to be the “universal man”—well-versed in many areas. . . . Disciplined, but loving a good party.
All this prompted by blue skies and blue water!
3 May 1978
The movie tonight in the wardroom was “The Trial of Billy Jack,” and it brought back memories of the spring of 1970 when we had the “riot” at Miami University (which was an over reaction by the Butler County cops and the Ohio Highway Patrol) and the killings at Kent State.
Tonight as I sat there, I had to ask myself again “What Am I Doing Here?”—in the Navy as a specialist in destroying people, places and things. . . a frequently asked question . . . such behavior goes against my nature. So what is all this leading to? Just another day in the life? No, all this must be for something. There’s got to be more to it than just 80 years on the planet having fun, making money, being comfortable, and passing time. I don’t buy the materialistic American values as THE goal. We must have been created for something more than that!
I’m waiting for the answer—my mission—just let me know—I’m ready!
Well, maybe not just yet.
I don’t have any real concerns for future events. I can’t get uptight as to what happens after October 1979 (my projected release date from the Navy). I enjoy this opportunity to fly at this speed. My historical big picture concepts reinforce what I’m doing now—defending the Central Pacific Ocean for all you who are sitting at home watching the tube wondering if it’s time to change the oil in the Dodge yet. It’s an honorable profession. I enjoy it.
Just as to what’s coming up . . . I’m not sure, but I think all these experiences will come together to become something meaningful . . . maybe. . . .. . . . Just have to let it happen.
Face To Face With A Demon
Vail Colorado was the place to be in the summer of 1981. There was no skiing, but there was plenty of other activity. There are many beautiful trails in the mountains surrounding our town, and we spent a lot of time hiking through aspen forests and across high altitude snowfields. Melting snow meant rising rivers, and the Colorado River became a natural roller coaster. We spent a lot of time rafting the Colorado and the Roaring Fork. Glenwood Springs was our nearest “beach,” and the hot springs there was a favorite spot. Besides all this, I had a great job. . . . I was the manager of the hottest dance spot in town.
In the fall of 1980, the Marriott Corporation bought a 20-year lease on our hotel, The Mark. Just before they took over I had been promoted from waiter to hotel wine steward and part-time restaurant manager. Marriott brought in their own management team and made some changes. They moved me to the storeroom where I did all the buying of supplies—food, light bulbs, cleaning chemicals, etc.—for the hotel.
This job blended nicely with my recreational activities, especially when the ski season arrived. I arranged for all my purveyors to make their deliveries either before 9:30 a.m. or after 4:00 p.m. I usually arrived at the hotel at 7:00 a.m. and worked until 10:00 a.m. Then it was time to change into ski clothes, grab my skis, walk less than two minutes, and board the gondola. After four or five hours of skiing, I returned to my office/storeroom. Changing back into my work clothes, I spent the next five hours doing inventory, invoices, and ordering for the next day. By 9:00 p.m., I was ready to unwind. Across the hall from my office was the back door to Shadows, the place to be in Vail for dancing and “whatever.” There was usually plenty of “whatever” to be had. . . .
I shared the storeroom with our beverage controller who was named Robert, but everybody called him “Elvis.” He was into the same “work-ski” program as me, and our environment was structured accordingly. We had our skis and clothes stored in the liquor room. We converted one of the saunas downstairs into a ski tune-up room where we had a bench with our files, wax, and iron. We both kept about the same hours; it was a tight, full schedule. The Marriott managers who arrived to take over really didn’t understand this mentality. They came to Vail to make money. Elvis and I came to ski.
The new general manager, a single guy named Bob, quickly realized the advantages of working in a resort town. Bob and I became good friends and began spending time together on the racquetball court and on the town. My immediate boss Hal, the new food and beverage director, was from Atlanta and was a Marriott manager to the core. Resort life and gourmet restaurants were new concepts to him; so was our “work-ski” ethic.
The Mark was a fine hotel, and the previous year our gourmet restaurant, Windows, had been voted the best restaurant in Vail. Once Hal took over, he began making changes to get the Mark more in line with Marriott philosophy. First, he sold all of the hotel silverware and replaced it with stainless steel. Next, he liquidated our $30,000 wine inventory and brought in “Ernest and Julio” as the house wine. For our summer season, he closed our downstairs restaurant and converted Windows into a family restaurant. Before, you couldn’t get a side salad in Windows for less than $5.00. Now there were “all you can eat specials” for $5.95.
Naturally, Hal met resistance in his downgrading from many of the staff members, including me. How could we be proud of Ernie and Julio as our house wine? Fortunately Elvis, our head bartender, and I took advantage of the wine liquidation and bought the entire inventory of fine wines at the original prices that the owner had paid years before. Despite our differences, Hal appeared to tolerate my attitude and ski mentality, and we got along. Perhaps the fact that I was good friends with Bob, Hal’s boss, had something to do with it.
Hal didn’t get along with the manager of Shadows, a tall, blonde former Vegas showgirl. In the spring of ’81 he fired her and offered me the job. I resisted, but since it was a move up a notch in the Marriott corporate structure, I finally accepted. Besides, I spent enough time there anyway and I thought I might as well get paid for it.
I had never been in the bar business before, but fortunately I had four excellent bartenders working for me. The head bartender, Tom, was especially good and quickly taught me all I needed to know. Tom took care of the beverage part of the business and I took care of the customers, cocktail waitresses, disc jockeys, doormen, payroll, and promotions. Shadows was a happening place. On the weekends, we would be jammed with 300 plus people, with 14 of us working.
Obviously my schedule changed. I now arrived at the hotel at 7:00 p.m., and we opened at 8:00 p.m. Things didn’t really get going until around 10:00 p.m., and we closed at 2:00 a.m. By the time we got cleaned up, counted all the money, and got everything in order, it was 3:30 a.m. Nobody was in the mood to go home and sleep; usually we went to somebody’s house, threw darts, drank beers, did some drugs, and unwound.
As the ski season ended and the summer wore on, the “unwinding” took longer and longer. Some of Vail’s “whatever” was becoming a major factor, at least for me. There was a lot of “snow” (the Colombian variety) in Vail that summer, and many of my “associates” had the right connections. It became a regular indulgence along with my friend, that smooth sipping tequila Jose Cuervo, and whatever tasty pot was around. The three were quite a stimulating combination that could keep you going for hours.
There was a price to pay, however. My sleep time was becoming less and less. At first my goal was to be home and in bed before dawn. Under the circumstances, this goal proved to be more and more elusive. It kept getting later and later, and I noticed that the sun was higher and higher above the ridge lines as I drove home. Some days it was all I could do to force my eyes shut for a few hours in the afternoon before work. Even then, sleeping was often difficult.
Something else was happening that year as well. In January, Elvis and I organized the Mark’s ski team for the local employee league. One of our racers was Lonnie, an interesting girl from Hawaii who worked as a waitress in Windows. Besides being a beautiful girl, she was an excellent skier. She had a certain magnetism that was hard to describe, and I was really drawn to her. We began to spend time skiing together and time off the slopes as well. Lonnie was different from any of the girls I had ever met. She had a unique combination of physical and spiritual attributes, but I wasn’t sure why I was attracted to her.
After a few weeks with Lonnie, she told me that she could read palms. That was interesting. I had never met a palm reader before. I showed her my palm and she began to tell me about some of my past relationships—things that she had no way of knowing. This was getting very interesting. At my probing, she began to tell me about her family, which originally was from a region of Romania known as Transylvania, the birthplace of Dracula. She also told me there were many “warlocks” in her family. When I asked her what a warlock was, she replied, “They are good witches.”
Now I began to realize why Lonnie was different. She had a definite connection into the spiritual realm. I, too, for years had been drawn toward the spiritual realities of our existence here on the planet, but I had never really explored this side—palm readers and warlocks—before. This was all very intriguing, yet as I thought through some of these concepts, I felt more and more drawn to the traditional Christian values that I had been taught as a child. Somewhere deep in my heart I hoped that these too were Lonnie’s values.
By the end of the ski season, this palm reader and I were sharing an apartment. Amidst the work, skiing, and other “fun” of life in Vail, we had occasional serious conversations—even talking about God. Our relationship was growing, and I began to think of her in my long-range plans. Lonnie’s immediate plans were to return to Honolulu in August to begin her last year at the University of Hawaii. Somehow, we both knew that this separation would not end our relationship. When the summer ended, she left for Honolulu.
My friend Elvis, the beverage controller, also left for Hawaii that summer. His former college roommate had purchased an ice cream business in Lahaina, and Elvis left in July to open and manage the business.
The summer season ended on Labor Day and I was pretty burned out. Weeks of night life had definitely taken its toll. I took two weeks off and drove up to Whidbey Island, Washington, to visit some friends and take care of my house in Coupeville. Whidbey was always beautiful in September and I really enjoyed those two weeks there. It was a much needed reflection time. After two ski seasons in Vail and a full summer of work at Shadows, it was time to think about some of the things happening in my life.
One of my favorite places to think is a bluff on the western side of the island which overlooks the intersection of Puget Sound, the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Sunsets here were particularly inspirational, and I always felt a peace here as I watched the motion of the planet framed by the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island. What an incredible creation! There must be an incredible Creator behind all this.
It was here that a few years earlier I had asked God whether I should get out of the Navy. He had given me a definite sign then. This time I spent many afternoons on this bluff, but I didn’t ask Him any particular question. I was listening, however; and, in spite of my lifestyle in Vail, I felt a peace from Him that all was working out according to His plan. This was a strange feeling, especially considering all that was happening in my life at that moment.
The two weeks went by too quickly. The day before returning to Vail, I noticed one of the front brakes making a lot of noise. As I inspected closer, I discovered that the brake housing (a thick piece of cast iron) had cracked. It seemed a little unusual to me that this housing had broken. The mechanic agreed and told me that it would take a few days to get the part. That’s when I called Hal and asked him for a few more days off. His reply to me was (almost gleefully), “Take all you want because you don’t have a job here anymore.”
The Marriott Corporation was predicting a recession for ’82. They wanted to prepare by laying off 10 percent of their management force and cutting their overhead. When Hal received this order while I was on vacation, he selected me as the 10 percent quota for the Mark.
I was very surprised, to say the least.
I immediately called Hal’s boss, my friend Bob, to see if this was really happening. He reluctantly told me that yes, it was. Hmmm, something was happening here, but I wasn’t sure what, or what my next move would be.
A few days later I got a call from Elvis in Lahaina. He had gotten my number from Tom at the Mark. Elvis asked me to come to Maui immediately and help him manage the ice cream business, apparently a booming success.
My initial response was hesitation. Elvis responded, “Look, I know that you got laid off from the Mark. Please come over, at least for a few months. I’ll pay your airfare and you can live with me. I have a car that you can drive and I’ll pay you well while you are here.” What a generous offer! There was no reason to turn this down. In fact, there were two other reasons to go to Hawaii. Lonnie was in Honolulu. My cousin Kean, who lived on Maui and had a marijuana plantation in Hana, came to mind as well.
A few weeks later I boarded a plane for Hawaii. That evening, Elvis picked me up at the Kahului airport and, after dinner, drove me to his condo in Lahaina. I quickly discovered that life in Lahaina was in the same lane as Vail—as fast as you liked it. An ocean full of melted snow made up for Vail’s frozen variety. And there was plenty of that Colombian “snow” as well. I fell quickly into a “run in the morning—work all day—swim in the evening—work until ten—and unwind until?” schedule. The night life in Lahaina was full; there was always someplace to go. I enjoyed being in the ice cream business too! I love ice cream and we served a very good product.
After a few weeks, I decided to call Kean. My cousin grew some of the tastiest “pakalolo” that I had ever smoked. When we talked, I discovered that some things had changed since my last visit. He no longer lived in Hana—he now lived on the south shore in Kihei. There were more startling changes as well. His wife Shelley told me that they had become Christians.
“Christians?” I thought. Then, zeroing in on the real issue, I asked, “Does that mean we can’t smoke anymore?” She laughed and invited me to come for a visit soon.
The following Saturday, I drove down to Kihei to visit. I had last seen Kean and Shelley in October of ’79, exactly two years earlier. This Christianity had caused some other changes in their lifestyle which were very positive. We watched football and their next-door neighbor Craig stopped by to watch for a while. It was all very pleasant and enjoyable to be with family. When I left, they invited me to church the next day. I really wasn’t ready for that, so I politely declined and drove back to Lahaina.
A few Sundays later, I reluctantly accepted their invitation. I figured that sooner or later I would have to go. Their church was called Hope Chapel and they met in the old Kihei school cafeteria. I realized upon entering that this was not going to be like the Reynoldsburg Methodist. Nobody wore a suit—in fact, many wore shorts and sandals. When the service began, three guitarists and two singers began singing very lively songs. There were no hymnbooks, but the words to the songs were projected on the wall by an overhead projector. Everybody joined in with a surprising degree of enthusiasm. At one point, there were many people holding up their hands as they sang. This was different! We sang for at least 30 minutes straight.
Now, I had been a church choir member much of my youth, but this type of singing was somehow refreshingly different.
Then it was time for the message. Kean’s next-door neighbor Craig walked to the front of the room, opened his Bible, and began reading. He was the pastor! Craig hadn’t appeared to be a “religious” guy that afternoon we had watched football together.
As I listened to Craig, he began to explain the meaning of the verses he was reading. First, what they meant to the listeners of that time, and then what they mean to us today. The focal point of this passage happened to be Jesus Christ. Craig stressed the importance of a personal relationship with Him. He spoke with conviction, as if a relationship with Jesus was all that really mattered. What he said made sense and he almost had me convinced.
Sure I knew about Jesus. I had heard of Him all of my youth. But this idea of a personal relationship was something new. Craig said that this relationship with Him was the most important thing in this life. Somehow that seemed too simple.
I was into knowing the God who created the sunrise and sunset. I had felt that urge many times standing on the deck of the Enterprise, watching the sun go down over the Indian Ocean and sitting on the bluff watching that same sun set over the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. That desire only strengthened as I spent more time living in the mountains of Colorado. I knew that God was out there somewhere. At the right moment, when I was in the right state of mind, I would be able to feel His presence in a very real way. That had to be the ultimate high. That’s what I was after.
And this Jesus that Craig talked about? I wasn’t sure how He fit into the scheme of things.
I went back to Hope Chapel a few more times that month. Afterward as I drove back along the Pali Highway to Lahaina, I felt some turmoil in my spirit. I had the sense that God was standing behind me, tapping me on the shoulder, trying to get my attention. And the more that He tapped, the more I felt like responding. . . .
Meanwhile, I was still in the fast lane in Lahaina.
The “run-work-swim-work-unwind” routine was in full swing with occasional visits to Honolulu to visit Lonnie. Yes, our relationship was still very much “on.” Yet in the midst of all this, as I contemplated Craig’s Sunday messages, something inside began to happen. I first noticed it during my after work “unwinding” time.
Previously, smoking “Da Kine” (marijuana) had produced a pleasant, fun state of mind. Now, for some reason, it became less fun and almost confusing. I was smoking more and enjoying it less. If this trend continued, a serious problem could develop.
In November, Lonnie came over to Maui for a visit . . . one that I’ll never forget.
We had had a busy day at What’s the Scoop (the ice cream parlor). Lonnie worked all day with us. We had just closed the Scoop and arrived home. We both were tired. We came into my room, sat down on my bed, and began to talk. We didn’t even bother to turn the lights on; there was plenty of light coming in from the hall light and through the sheer white curtains from the parking lot outside my window.
I hadn’t had anything to smoke or drink. I was completely straight. My mind was alert, and I have never hallucinated before—even after ingesting chemicals designed to do just that. What was about to happen was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. . . .
For some reason, the subject of “personal power” came up. One of my favorite authors at the time was Carlos Castaneda. I had read most of the “Don Juan” series; personal power through sorcery was the main theme. I was into personal power, and appropriating whatever was out there. While on the USS Coral Sea, I had even experimented with some of Don Juan’s techniques for controlling your dreams.
Lonnie was into personal power too, and the more the better. She, besides reading palms, was very good at controlling people. I am familiar with manipulating techniques, but Lonnie’s style of manipulation and control went far beyond conventional means. There was a definite spiritual power aspect to her control, and most people never realized that she was controlling them—including me. Fortunately I had a few friends who later pointed this out to me. They told me that they were never comfortable with my relationship with Lonnie. While I was with her, I did everything she wanted me to, even though I didn’t particularly want to.
During these last few weeks, thinking about some of Craig’s messages and about my relationship with Lonnie, I had begun to sense that there were different sources of power. I started to realize that it was important where your “personal power” came from. Just like it was explained in the Star Wars movies, there was a “dark” source of power and a “light” source. I began to realize that power from the dark side could be very dangerous to handle. As we sat there on my bed, I asked Lonnie if she knew the source of her personal power.
“It’s probably from the dark side,” she replied.
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Really? You mean you don’t mind if some dark spirit is giving you this power?”
“No, because I have power to do what I want to do.”
“Lonnie, I don’t think that it’s a good idea for you to allow some dark spirit to be inside you.”
“I don’t mind. I get all the power I want.”
“Well, I don’t think that it is healthy to have a dark spirit controlling you.”
“No, it’s O.K., Michael.”
“No, Lonnie, you need to let it go.”
She shook her head, “No.”
“Yes,” I replied forcibly. “You need to let it go.” (Why I was being so aggressive I didn’t really know.)
What happened next was incredible, but very real. . .
Suddenly Lonnie’s dark eyes began glowing. She was sitting with her back to the headboard, and I leaned forward to be sure of what I was seeing. The glow was yellowish red: the words “sulfurous glow” immediately came to mind. All the color had disappeared from her face and her face muscles were completely slack.
That’s when a voice came.
It spoke to me in a deep, gravelly tone: “I will never leave this body.”
Lonnie was still sitting there leaning against the wall with her eyes glowing—her jaw or lips hadn’t moved!
My mind was racing. . . I had seen this somewhere before.
It spoke again, in the same tone, in the same way: “I have become very accustomed to this body.”
Suddenly I remembered—the movie “The Exorcist”—a big hit in the early ’70s. This was a scene right out of that movie! My memory bank went into the high-speed search mode. . . Now what did the priest do? What did he say? There was something he said. . . .
JESUS! That’s what he had said. The priest had used the name of Jesus.
Boldly, I said to Lonnie, “Spirit, in the name of Jesus, begone!”
Lonnie reacted like I had thrown hot water on her. “No!” the voice groaned.
“In the name of Jesus, spirit, begone,” I commanded.
Lonnie flattened her back against the wall, trying to get as far away from me as possible, her eyes still glowing.
“No!” replied the spirit, “I will never leave this body!”
“Yes, in the name of Jesus, Go!” I yelled.
At that moment, the glow left Lonnie’s eyes, and the color came back to her face. She sat forward and looked at me. All this had taken place in less than 60 seconds and my first thought was that Lonnie was playing games with me. So I asked her, “Why did you say those things to me?”
“What things?” She asked innocently.
“These things,” I replied as I repeated all that had been said.
She paused. Silence.
She didn’t remember any of what had transpired in that minute. Not one thing.
I asked her if that had ever happened before. “I think so,” she answered.
By her tone, I was sure that it had. The whole scene was disturbing. Since I was completely straight at the time and not prone to hallucinations, I was sure that it had taken place. To see a person’s eyes glow like that was pretty amazing. Hearing that gravelly voice was an eerie sensation. To see a spirit manifest itself in that way in the body of my lover indeed sent my mind reeling. But what bothered me the most about this incredible event was Lonnie’s unconcerned attitude. I thought about it for many days afterward.
That “conversation” was very significant for me in many ways. For starters, I saw the reality of spiritual forces in a way that most people never experience. Secondly, I saw myself that night sitting on top of a fence. On one side of this fence was “Light” and on the other side was “Darkness.” Suddenly, I knew on which side I belonged. It wasn’t the dark side.
More importantly, I discovered that night the significance of this character Jesus and the power that His name carried.
This was the turning point in my life.
For weeks, God had been tapping me on the shoulder. Now, a few days after this experience with Lonnie, I finally turned and said “O.K. What?”
In the next few weeks, He responded to my openness and I began having long conversations with my Creator. I discovered that this Creator of the sunrise, the sunset, and me, whom I had longed to know, is none other than Jesus Himself. After reading many passages of the New Testament, I finally began to realize how He fit into the scheme of things.
Hindus say that Jesus was a great holy man. Muslims say that Jesus was a great teacher. New Age philosophy says that Jesus was one of the first to realize that we all have part of God in us, and realizing that too allows us to be gods.
Jesus, however, never said any of those things. He never claimed to be just a great teacher, holy man, or a self-actuated god. He made a simple claim throughout the four gospel accounts of His life—He said simply “I am God.”
Now a person who says he is God is one of three things:
He is a loony tune who actually believes what he is saying; or
He is a liar who is trying to deceive you; or
He is who He says He is.
At some point in our life, we all have to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”
For years, I had based my answer on popular opinions without doing a lot of the research required to come up with my answer. I didn’t feel like He was the religious character portrayed in many churches, but somehow He was something more than that.
It was here that my four years of historical training kicked in. How could I evaluate all the historical-legal evidence about this character Jesus? And there was plenty of evidence to consider.
One big piece of evidence was the Resurrection. Did Jesus actually get up and walk away from His tomb?
By all modern day legal procedures and rules of evidence, you would have to unequivocally say “Yes, He did.” There are too many witnesses and too much circumstantial evidence to discount this event.
Did Jesus’ disciples believe that He was God Himself? All of them except John died violent deaths proclaiming His divinity. Would you die for a lie?
I had seen with my own eyes a demonstration of the power of Jesus’ name.
Was he a liar or lunatic?
I had to conclude that “No, He wasn’t.”
Since options one and two were out, my only choice was option three. Jesus was just who He said He was—the God and Creator of this universe.
One Sunday afternoon, all these thoughts came together.
I decided that I could live with the fact that Jesus is God. In fact, what I realized was that I couldn’t really live at all in this life, or the next, without acknowledging that fact.
In a private moment, I committed my life to Him. What else can you logically do when you come to this conclusion? Continue to ignore Him?
Things began to happen. I began smoking less, and enjoying life more. I began to get “emotional” feelings as we sang those songs on Sunday morning. I began to discover that the book that I had long considered simply just Jewish history and men’s opinions, contained truth for my life.
And Lonnie? After that night, our lives began to take different roads. I think she realized where I was headed, but she wasn’t willing to give up her personal power. Our relationship ended a few months later.
In March 1982, I finished my work at the ice cream parlor, and returned to Vail for the remainder of the ski season. The skiing was still there, but it just wasn’t the same. Somehow, it didn’t seem to be that important anymore. Hal was gone from the Mark, and I was hired back into the storeroom, but even that wasn’t the same. In June, I returned to Maui for a month’s vacation. While there, I was offered a job managing a restaurant in Kihei. Since there was really nothing waiting for me in Vail, I accepted. Soon I began going with Craig to a weekly Bible study.
Then it was time.
On July 4, 1982 at sunset, I walked into the surf at Wailea Beach to publicly declare my allegiance to the King of the Universe. Craig and our other pastor Jason were standing in waist deep water. It was a simple but significant ceremony. I declared my need for a Savior and acknowledged Jesus as my Lord. They dropped me under the water, and pulled me back up. However, instead of walking back to shore, I swam out about 200 yards, flipped on my back and floated for a few minutes. I needed a little one-on-one time with my Lord. I thanked Him for being able to get to know Him. I told Him that I was ready to do anything that He wanted me to do. I just had one request—that He allow me to travel while I served Him.
Later I realized the significance of that simple request.
Little did I know that at that moment He already had my first trip on the schedule and to a place that I didn’t realize existed. . . .
The Right Stuff in the Wrong Place?
Take your preschool son or daughter and sit them at the table. Place before them a plate with rice and beans, and a plate with candy. Which plate will they eat from first?
My daughter Mikaela will eat from the candy plate first. So will our son Lukas.
Set the same plates in front of any adult. Which plate will they eat from first?
Most will eat the rice and beans.
As a child, I hated beets and loved hamburgers.
As an adult, I rarely eat hamburgers but enjoy the flavor and nutrition of beets.
When I was a child, I would have much rather spent Saturday afternoon at the movie theater rather than visit my grandmother. Now I would jump at the chance to visit with her.
What is one of the differences between adults and preschoolers?
The older group has grown in their realization as to what is actually better for them.
Values change. And with them so do the choices made and the actions carried out.
After my baptism that July 4th at Wailea Beach, I found myself in a confused state. My values were changing, and along with that, I was being pulled in two different directions. One direction was professional, toward goals that my flight and university training said were important. The other direction was toward something unknown.
My previous years of training and experience told me to follow one course, but something in my spirit pushed me in another direction. There was a real battle going on inside me. The best way to fully understand this conflict is to describe two “days at the office.”
A Day at the Office—July 1978
Imagine for a moment. . . .
A structure the size of the Empire State Building moving through the water faster than I could ski down Vail mountain.
A small city, population of 6,000, with its airport on the roof.
A ship that had to refuel only once every 13 years.
A floating weapons system that could start and finish a war with almost any country on the planet.
In 1978 this combination of things was my home—the aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE.
My “condo” was located in the world’s largest ship, which also carried over 90 jet aircraft. The flight deck was over 1,100 feet long—three and a half laps around the deck equaled one mile. With eight reactors onboard, it was also the world’s largest nuclear facility.
I was a Star Trek fan and I was proud to be a pilot aboard the Enterprise. The television show produced in the late ‘60s was one that was ahead of its time, and I particularly identified with the various characters dealing with real life problems in a high tech, futuristic setting. Most of the crew also identified this Enterprise with the “Starship Enterprise,” from the Captain down. In fact, the first thing anybody noticed when stepping off of the flight deck into the ‘island’ was a large replica of the Starship Enterprise molded into the tile of the floor. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy made their appearance daily on the ship’s television circuit. Star Trek’s theme song was played over the loudspeaker whenever we rendezvoused with another ship at sea. There was definitely a “cosmic” feeling to this ship.
The Enterprise is a huge ship inside. There are at least seven decks below the flight deck. Navy advertisements at the time said “Navy—It’s not a job. It’s an adventure!” They were right! Finding your way from one space to another on the Enterprise was a true adventure.
The halls (“passageways”) and stairs (“ladders”) all had a uniform look. If you didn’t know where you were going, you could easily end up hopelessly lost, missing for months. Consequently, most of the crew fell into a routine of following the same routes to the “essential” spaces onboard—the rooms where you slept, ate, showered and worked. Like well-trained laboratory rats, we followed the steel maze from one of these spaces to the other. My “stateroom” was on the third deck. Our squadron “Ready Room” was on the second deck. I ate in the wardroom four more decks above.
My “office” was on the flight deck: it was the cockpit of the A‑6E Intruder—the Navy’s $34 million all-weather attack jet. Measuring 53 feet nose-to-tail with a 54-foot wingspan, this airplane is a true fighting machine.
The A-6 is a very sophisticated aircraft, able to launch from the ship and navigate to a target up to 1,000 miles away—at low level through mountainous terrain at night in foul weather if necessary. It has a complex navigation system which allows for radar as well as visual attacks on any target in a variety of delivery modes. (In other words, whether it can see you or not, the Intruder can blow you to pieces.)
Photo: A-6 Intruders over Deception Pass
Whidbey Island Washington.
Photo of a photo by one of my instructors in VA-128, Fred House.
The Intruder’s crew, a pilot and bombardier-navigator, sit side by side. Close coordination between the two is essential, sometimes a matter even of life or death: one error on the part of either crewman while flying low at 200 feet through a mountain pass at night in driving snow could be fatal. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to fly this airplane . . . at least most of the time.
I remember one flight in particular in 1978.
We were in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
My bombardier/navigator George and I gathered with the rest of our flight in the squadron Ready Room two hours before launch time. We had a good mission scheduled that day—a War At Sea exercise, or WASEX. The “enemy “ ship was the USS Long Beach, presently over 80 miles away. The flight brief was given over the ship’s TV station to all the ready rooms. After discussing our tactics with the other crews, we headed to the locker room. It took about 10 minutes to don our 30 pounds of flight equipment. The “G” suit zipped on each leg and around your abdomen easily. Getting into your torso harness demanded the moves of a contortionist, especially after lunch.
Once we suited up, we took the elevator up to the flight deck. With a few steps across the Starship Enterprise tile design, we were out of the island and on to a flight deck humming with activity as men in color coded jerseys prepared the airplanes and catapults for the next launch. Men fueling the aircraft wore purple; plane captains wore brown; maintenance, catapult, and arresting gear crews wore green; deck hands wore blue; those loading bombs and missiles wore red; safety and medical personnel wore white; and taxi directors wore yellow. We wore drab green, and as I walked toward our Intruder, I could feel the excitement within me grow.
Preflight inspection of the aircraft was next. This was the most important 20 minutes of the day. An airplane in good mechanical condition was essential to your survival. With that complete, we both boarded the Intruder and “strapped in.” This meant connecting our shoulder and lower torso “Koch” fittings, and leg restraints to the ejection seat and tightening down the slack.
With the help of a “huffer” (high-powered airblower), I started both engines, and completed the pre-taxi checklist. Now we were ready to taxi, and the ship began its turn into the wind for launch. The 12 chains that held the Intruder to the deck were removed by the plane captain. Following the directions of a yellow-shirted taxi director, I pulled out of the parking spot, turned toward the bow catapults and spread the wings.
The Enterprise has four steam catapults—two on the bow, and two on the “waist” (on the angled deck) for launching aircraft. In less than 250 feet, these “cats” accelerate the aircraft from 0 to 160 mph, usually in less than two seconds. What a ride! Like all felines, these cats are fickle creatures. They can provide you moments of exquisite pleasure or, in a rage of anger, claw you and leave you bleeding, in some cases dead.
Being launched off the ship in this way was like being the rock in a slingshot. As long as everything went fine, it was The Best Ride at The Best Amusement Park that you ever experienced. If something went wrong because of a catapult or aircraft malfunction, then you had less than two seconds to decide if the airplane was going to fly, or fall into the sea.
If your airplane wasn’t going to fly, then you had to get out before the aircraft hit the water. There’s a yellow and black striped handle over your head, and one tucked between your legs. These handles are your “emergency exits” from the airplane. Pulling either one ignites the rocket motor inside the ejection seat that you’re strapped into. The book said that the Martin Baker GRU-7 ejection seat would get you safely out of the airplane at any speed and any altitude (but not attitude) if you had the time for your seat to fire and parachute to deploy before hitting the ground.
Even if you did get out of your jet safely before it hit the sea and inflate your life vest and then disentangle yourself from the parachute shroud lines, there was still a problem.
A Serious Problem.
A 90,000 ton ship was bearing down on you with four 32 foot diameter propellers driving it at 15-plus knots. These big ships don’t “turn on a dime.” Quite the contrary. Anything or anybody immediately in front of an aircraft carrier has an excellent chance of being run over by it. I heard one pilot talk about being dragged under the ship, seeing the propellers approaching, but somehow managing to avoid the blades. Another friend was not so lucky—he ended up caught in one of the water cooling intakes. His body was found a few weeks later.
Ejection off the catapult was not something to look forward to, especially at night, but sometimes it was the only option.
With the ship now headed into the wind, our launch began. The fighters were first, and the noise was deafening as they went to zone five afterburner for the launch. I was in line behind an F-14 Tomcat, and an A-7 Corsair for the no. 2 catapult. As each launched, I inched forward until it was finally our turn.
Following the signals of the yellow shirt, I slowly maneuvered the Intruder into the catapult shuttle—the device that connects to your nosewheel bar and does the actual pulling of the aircraft. When I was “in,” the yellow shirt gave me the “hold” signal. There was a pause as a deck hand attached the “hold back rod” to the rear of the nosewheel. This device is designed to hold the aircraft at full power, but to release it when the cat stroke began. The Catapult Officer then gave the “take tension” signal to the catapult operator who was standing over in the cat walk. I reached forward of the throttles and swung out the “cat grip”and felt the aircraft squat slightly as the nosewheel automatically compressed, as if the Intruder was getting ready to jump off the deck.
Waving two fingers back and forth rapidly, the Cat Officer gave me the “turn up” signal. With my left hand I pushed both throttles to full power, locking my fingers over the cat grip bar. This prevents your hand and the throttles from slipping back during the 24 “G” acceleration that was now just seconds away. You didn’t want to go off the cat with anything less than full power! I watched the fuel flow and the EGT (exhaust gas temperature) indicators climb and stabilize at normal full power settings. I quickly scanned the other engine instruments. With my right hand I began a “wipe out” of the flight controls, moving the control stick to every corner, ensuring that they were all functioning properly. This final wipe out was very important.
Satisfied that this A-6 was ready to launch, I glanced over at George and asked if he was ready to go. He answered affirmatively with two clicks of the intercom. George was always ready to fly. He had spent almost seven years as a POW in North Vietnam, and was making up for lost time. I settled back into my seat and with my left hand tight on the throttles and cat grip, I saluted the Cat Officer with my right hand. That was the signal that we were ready to go. Now I tried to “relax” and enjoy what was coming next.
The next four seconds were the worst part. We were now the “rock” in the slingshot with no control over our destiny. Our lives were now in the hands of two men and various pieces of machinery. The Cat Officer reached down with his forward hand, touched the deck and pointed toward the bow. The catapult operator pushed the two buttons of the catapult control. Within a second the catapult fired and the Intruder shot forward.
This was a good shot! The massive power that accelerated the Intruder down the track slammed my eyeballs back into their sockets. Still, they stayed locked on to the Vertical Display Indicator, my primary attitude reference. The deck became a blur and suddenly the edge passed beneath us. The water 60 feet below was deep blue and uninviting. The 48,000 pound Intruder dropped a few feet as the control surfaces became aerodynamically effective. I pulled the aircraft in a 8 degree nose up attitude with my right hand and my left hand moved forward to the landing gear handle, knocking it to the “up” position. In another two seconds, we felt the thumps of all three wheels locking into their compartments and the gear doors closing. Now we were ready to really fly!
We leveled at 500 feet and accelerated ahead. George turned on the radar and checked out the computer. It was not unusual for some of the onboard equipment to malfunction during the cat shot. At six miles we began climbing and turned, arcing around to our departure radial. There the rest of the strike force, four A‑7 Corsairs, three other A-6 Intruders, and an EA-6B Prowler, was circling at 12,000 feet. We joined with my wingman and the rest of the strike force and headed out toward the Long Beach. Our goal was to sneak in under their radar for a surprise attack.
About 40 miles out from the Long Beach, we descended to 200 feet accelerating to 420 knots. Our radars were off to avoid detection. At ten miles, we split from the A-7s, descended to 50 feet and accelerated to 480 knots. Now we were so low that we were invisible to the Long Beach’s radar.
We began an elaborate zigzag pattern that would put us all overhead Long Beach with ten second intervals between planes. Timing and speed control were critical to arrive overhead in your ten second window. Having a mid-air collision was the last thing that you wanted to happen.
Flying at 50 feet at close to 500 knots is a true rush. The whitecaps of the waves were a blur, and it required total concentration to keep the aircraft low, but not too low. At this altitude and speed, a hiccup or any spurious forward stick movement can be fatal. You can really “feel” the speed this low, especially flying in formation with other aircraft.
At six miles we visually sighted Long Beach and turned the “Master Arm” switch on, opening the electrical circuits to the bomb racks.
Inside two miles, I jammed the throttles forward and began the “pop-up” attack maneuver, designed to minimize your exposure to the enemy’s missiles. It begins from as close to water as you care to fly with a hard pull on the Intruder to 30 degrees nose up. Then comes a 30-degree bank turn to the right (away from the target), followed two seconds later by a roll back to the left to the 135 degree (almost inverted) position, to visually pick up the target.
It’s an exciting effect to see the horizon spin in one direction, followed by a spin back in the opposite direction a few seconds later. Usually at this point you were on your back floating through about 2,300 feet, and enjoying the effect of sky BELOW you, and sea ABOVE, with the target ship UPSIDE DOWN in front of you. Then it was a pull back on the stick to bring the nose of the aircraft down on the target. Now it was time to get everything right-side-up. By rolling back right to wings level you set up for a shallow 10 degree dive attack at 1,500 above the target. Now place the bomb sight cross hairs on the target, check your speed, and count “one potato, two potato, three,” and pull the trigger on the stick.
This was an exhilarating maneuver to fly, with a fatal ending for any enemy in the target area. Five seconds after I began the “pop-up” maneuver, the Long Beach’s conning tower filled my bombsight and I pulled the trigger. However, today the only thing that we dropped on the Long Beach was a “bomb tone” on their radio frequency, demonstrating that we could have inflicted major damage. Flying past the Long Beach’s conning tower at eye level confirmed this to the men inside.
As we all rendezvoused for another attack, the air controllers from the Enterprise called ordering all aircraft to immediately return to the ship for landing. “This is unusual,” I thought as we headed back to the ship.
Landing on the Enterprise was always a thrilling experience—in the daytime anyway. At night it was sometimes too thrilling. Day or night, it was always challenging, requiring a high degree of concentration and skill. During the Vietnam war, a medical study was done on pilots by attaching heart monitors to them and measuring stress during their combat missions. It was discovered that heart rates and blood pressures were the greatest not in the middle of their bombing runs over an enemy target, but rather as they “rolled into the groove” on final approach to their landing aboard the aircraft carrier.
Navy airplanes have something that no other airplanes have—a tailhook. No—a “Tailhook” is not only a wild party (eh, sorry, that’s a Naval Aerospace Symposium) thrown in Las Vegas each year. It is also the steel bar with a curved tip that extends from the lower rear fuselage of every Naval fleet aircraft. Its purpose is to allow the aircraft to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier. The other Tailhook in Las Vegas has its purpose, as long as things didn’t get out of control. I once won second place in the tennis tournament there.
As on all modern carriers, the landing area on the Enterprise is about 600 long and is located on the rear half of the flight deck. Besides being extremely short compared to an 8,000 foot runway, it is also angled 10 degrees to the left of the longitudinal axis of the ship. This allows an aircraft to land and take off without hitting the airplanes on the bow of the ship. There are four steel cables stretched across the landing area, spaced 35 feet apart. The number 1 wire is set about 200 feet from the rear edge of the flight deck. The Optical Landing System (OLS) is mounted on the port (left) side of the ship beside the landing area.
The OLS (or ‘lens’ as it is commonly called) is a glideslope indicator that has a horizonal row of green lights with a vertical row of amber lights. The amber lights project a spotlight out to the pilot. Wherever you are on the glideslope during your approach, you will see this amber “ball” of light. The object is to fly yourself to the point in the sky where the amber ball lines up with the horizonal row of green lights, and keep it centered. That places you on the proper glideslope to safely touch down between the no. 2 and no. 3 wires. That’s where the “tailhook” comes in. As you touch down, the hook grabs the first available wire, bringing the aircraft to a quick stop. What an exciting way to finish a flight!
If you flew a “high ball,” this meant that you were above the optimum glideslope, with the chance of overflying all the wires and touching down long. Missing the wires was called a “bolter” and usually demonstrated poor control of the aircraft. In this case you simply jammed the throttles to full power, since the landing area angles away from the rest of the flight deck, and you were immediately airborne.
Bolters are embarrassing for the pilot. Why? Because the admiral, captain, and almost everybody else on the ship watches the launches and landings over the ship’s closed circuit television system. Besides, it meant that you had to do the whole approach and landing all over.
You didn’t want to fly a “low ball” either. That meant that you were below the optimum glideslope, which is unwise. Why? Because at the rear of every aircraft carrier there is a steel monster called “The Ramp.” While in actuality the ramp is simply the place where the rear edge of the flight deck ends and meets the stern of the ship, in reality it is a place of fear, terror and sometimes death. This is a true monster—the stuff nightmares are made of . . . a definite killer . . . lurking . . . patiently waiting for a second of neglect or inattention on the part of a pilot to reach up and snatch him out of the sky and turn his sleek flying machine into a multi-million dollar barbecue.
As flight students, before we went out to the USS Lexington for our first carrier landing, we watched a film called “Carrier Landing Mishaps.” That’s when we first saw this monster in action. The film was 40 minutes filled with aircraft accidents on the carrier flight deck. The most spectacular (and most fatal) were of jets landing short, striking the Ramp, bursting into flames and rolling down the deck. Needless to say, this film left a definite impression in every Naval Aviator’s mind.
You could tolerate a “high ball” during an approach, but a “low ball” required some immediate corrections. If you got too low, the amber light turned to blood red—a signal of what was ahead if you didn’t take some action. There were LSOs (landing signal officers) who were stationed on the port side of the flight deck beside the landing area. These pilots guided you through every landing and gave you a grade on the landing. If you got too low in close, they would flash some very bright red lights mounted on the side of the lens. These “wave off” lights were an order to abort the approach and go around.
Flying the proper glideslope was serious business.
Along with the glideslope, you have to line yourself up with the centerline of the landing area. A runway on land is usually 200 feet wide. The landing area on the Enterprise is a bit narrower—only 70 feet wide, usually with airplanes parked on both sides. There is little margin for error. Since the landing area centerline is angled 10 degrees off the longitudinal axis of the ship, it is constantly moving to the right as the ship moves forward. This “moving target” factor makes the approach and landing just a little more complicated.
Beside glideslope and line up, the third factor is aircraft speed. The airplane has to be at its exact landing speed as it touches down. The arresting gear is set for a certain amount of force on the steel cables and the pulleys to stop the airplane in a safe roll out distance. Too much speed means too much force which can cause the cable to break. This would be disastrous for you and all the crew on the flight deck. Too little speed can cause you to stall out at low altitude. This is usually fatal and something that you want to avoid at all cost. Aircraft speed was indicated by a short column of angle of attack “indexer” lights mounted inside the airplane above the instrument panel by the left canopy bow. These lights were connected to a sensor outside on the fuselage which measures the wind’s” angle of attack” across the wing, rather than its velocity. This angle of attack measurement is a more accurate speed indicator than simple airspeed, as it takes into consideration the differing weights of the aircraft. When the aircraft was “on speed,” an amber circular light, known as the “donut” illuminated. Slow speed was indicated by an inverted green chevron above the donut, while faster than optimum speed illuminated a red chevron below.
To land the Intruder safely meant flying the 3.5 degree glideslope (keep that amber ball lined up with that row of green lights on the lens) all the way to touchdown while keeping “donut” airspeed (or about 124 knots for the A-6), and keeping your nosewheel within three feet of the centerline.
Flying the approach demands all of your attention and requires a special technique. Instead of watching the deck, you are to keep your eye glued to the OLS lens, with occasional scans to the deck for line up and inside the cockpit for speed, all the way to touchdown. “Ball, lineup, angle-of-attack; ball, lineup, angle-of-attack” is the chant of the pilot flying the glideslope. “Spotting the deck” (ignoring the lens and judging your own approach angle) is usually unsafe and prohibited.
If all went right, your hook caught the no. 3 wire, and the aircraft rolled out to a stop in less than 300 feet. If you boltered or got waved off, and were low on fuel, this meant a trip up to “Texaco,” the KA-6D tanker that was orbiting overhead the ship at 3,000 feet. The KA-6D was an older A-6 with most of the electronics removed and a hose/pump package and extra fuel tanks. This was the airborne “gas station” where everybody who needed a few extra gallons of gas went.
In-flight refueling in the Navy was a challenging task. Here the pilot had to:
(1) Locate the tanker and rendezvous;
(2) Fly close formation on the tanker as he extended his 50-foot hose which has a two foot wide “basket” at the end;
(3) Slide back into a “column” position on the tanker;
(4) Move forward and insert your in-flight refueling probe into the center of the basket (this was the tricky part!);
(5) Lock in, and push it 10 feet forward to start the gas flow; and
(6) Fly this position for two to four minutes while you received 300 to 500 gallons of fuel from the tanker.
All this occurred while the tanker pilot was usually in a 10 to 30 degree angle of bank turn. It took even the most naturally skilled pilots a while to get the hang of in-flight refueling around the ship. Daytime tanking demanded a high degree of skill and finesse. At night, the basket was illuminated by small “peanut” lights around its edges, increasing the difficulty factor dramatically. Add to all this the “pucker factor” of knowing that if you don’t get this additional fuel, you may end up flamed out and in the water. For all these reasons, it was imperative to “get aboard” on the first pass, and avoid the trip up to Texaco.
As we got within 10 miles of the Enterprise, I saw why we had been ordered back. The ship was turning away from a thick line of thunderstorms which was moving rapidly in our direction. It was imperative that we all get onboard as soon as possible. Once this storm hit it would be very difficult to recover aircraft. We were in the middle of the Indian Ocean and our nearest divert field was the tiny island of Diego Garcia, over 300 miles away.
With this storm came heavy seas. The OLS was stabilized to compensate for the ship’s movement in the water. The limits of this stabilization were 12 degrees of pitch and 5 degrees of roll. If the seas got heavier than that, we would see some up and down movement on the ball. If this movement got too bad, the LSO’s would rig a “manual ball” which they controlled and moved up or down to show you your position on the glideslope.
As we circled the ship, the F-14s began landing first. We heard the LSO say that the deck was pitching 20 feet up and down. This movement made the landing a little more tricky. The Ramp was moving! So was the ball up and down on the lens! The first Tomcat—the squadron commander—trapped (caught a wire), but the next one boltered. The third was waved off by the LSOs! Stuff like this usually happened only at night, but this was daylight. The fourth caught a “lucky no. 4 wire” and trapped, and it was now “Trick or Treat” for the other two. That meant that because of their now low fuel state, if they didn’t land on the next pass, they would have to go to “Texaco” for some fuel.
Amid frantic calls from the LSO of “Power, Power,”(a signal to add more power on the engines) the second Tomcat caught the no. 1 wire. He either was very low, or the deck was really pitching, or both. The Ramp was “reaching out to touch somebody”! The LSO came on the radio and told all of us airborne that the deck was really pitching, and the ball was “moving” off the lens and not reliable. No wonder the F-14s were having a hard time! Next they told us that because of the approaching storm, there was no time to rig the “manual ball.” There was a pause as we waited for more information. . . .
No additional information was forthcoming.
Those of us airborne began to “read between the lines.” The message that the LSO was giving us by his silence was clear. We would have to ignore the ball for glideslope information and do something they told us never to do—eyeball the deck, judge the pitching, drive it in close, and then “make your play”—which meant do whatever it takes with a reasonable margin of safety to get aboard. The LSO couldn’t legally tell us to ignore the ball and spot the deck, but this situation gave them no other choice but to tell us to do this by their silence.
The approaching thunderstorms demanded quick and decisive action!
With this new information, and the approaching storm, we all understood what we would have to do. The last F-14 got aboard. Now it was time for the A-7s. They all trapped. Nobody was boltering now! Not with the approaching line of thunderstorms and the nearest divert field over 300 miles away. With the last A-7 aboard, it was time for the A-6s. Our division leader landed, followed by his wingman.
Now it was my turn.
As I “rolled into the groove” on final approach I picked up the ball on the lens, but suddenly it disappeared off the top. A few seconds later, it reappeared, and quickly moved off the bottom of the lens. The LSO came on the air and said “the deck is pitching more than 35 feet now.” The Ramp was really jumping up and down! I really had to be careful to stay out of his grasp, but still close enough to catch one of those four wires. Thirty-five feet was a lot of pitch. The seas must be really heavy to move a structure the size of the Empire State Building like this!
As I got inside a quarter mile, I could actually see the deck moving up and down. This was going to be interesting. All the long perfected techniques for “flying the ball” were out the window. This situation called for the infamous “Troll Technique”—fly in low, flatten out your glideslope, clear The Ramp, pull back the power, drop your nose, descend, then level off just before touchdown, and “troll” with your tailhook for one of the wires.
The “Troll” was a favored technique at night when you really had to get aboard.
About four seconds from touchdown, I did something I didn’t usually do—I looked at the Ramp Monster. He was clawing his way up in an effort to snag me. This was going to be tricky. I had to time this just right. I added a bit of power to flatten my glideslope, and then a little more as he continued to rise. George was not saying a word. After being in the Hanoi Hilton for six years, it took a lot to rattle him. The deck now looked very much bow-down. I knew that the Ramp couldn’t climb much higher and pulled back on the throttles.
Like a rocket that had just spent its fuel, the Ramp leveled, and then began to drop. I was over the top.
Now the deck was quickly dropping away and it was time to make my play. I pulled the throttles back and dropped my nose. I was descending like a rock or, as one LSO used to say, “sinking like a safe.” The deck was dropping faster than I expected but there was still a chance. I had to continue the descent, but break it at the last moment with a hand full of power and a yank back on the stick. . . .
The wheels of our Intruder slammed into the deck. Too hard! My left hand automatically jammed both throttles forward.
After an instant’s delay, I felt the comfortable tug of the arresting gear wire. I heard George release a chest full of air over the intercom. . . . So did I! I could tell by the roll out that we caught the no. 4 wire. The yellow shirt gave us the “hook up” signal and motioned us to taxi forward. “Good,” I thought, “no blown tires.”
We immediately felt the pitching motion of the deck as we taxied toward our parking spot on the bow. The LSO later told me that we had hit hard short of the no. 3 wire, but the force of the impact caused the hook to skip over the three and snag the four.
Landing aboard the ship is really nothing more than a controlled crash, and fortunately Grumman builds a strong airplane. We were extremely happy to be aboard. Within a few hours, the ocean got so rough that waves were crashing over the bow . . . and that’s 60 feet above the waterline!
Another Day at the Office—January 1984
The “Spring House” is a coral rock structure and is the oldest building on Maui. It was built in 1826 over the spring in Lahaina to control the filling of water casks from the numerous whaling and cargo ship which passed through the area.
That’s because in 1824, a ship arriving from Mexico had emptied a partially full water barrel into the spring, and along with it mosquito larvae. Within a few months, the “singing fly” was everywhere, spreading sickness to men and animals alike. Many of the native Hawaiian birds were eradicated because of the birdpox that the mosquitos carried.
In 1826, the King ordered the Spring House to be built to avoid any further ecological disasters. One hundred and fifty-four years later, Lahaina was no longer the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii but was still the “fun capital” of the islands. The Spring House was part of “The Wharf” shopping complex, and we rented it as the studio for our costume photography business.
Costume photography is an interesting business. I am a photographer and historian. Halloween used to be my favorite holiday. This was a great profession for me! Most people on vacation are ready for a fun time. And they definitely had a fun time at “Old Kine Photos.” The owner of the business was a good friend named Rick, who definitely made Old Kine Photos a fun place to be. My job was to first sell a package of photos and postcards to the customers. Next, I had to dress them in a variety of old Hawaiian, Western, or Gangster costumes, arrange their pose, and take the photographs. If all went well, I could dress and photograph them in 15 minutes and have the pictures ready immediately or in an hour.
The traditional hula dress was obviously the favorite costume for the tourist crowd, and we had some great looking grass skirts. With ukuleles and flower leis, we could take any family from Kansas and make them look very Hawaiian . . . well, sort of.
Actually getting the grass skirts on properly was sometimes a problem. If you didn’t secure those catches just right, they could instantly drop off at any moment. This made for some interesting photos! Our “western barroom girl” outfit was the second most popular costume for the ladies, but it too had its dangers. The corsets were low cut, and designed for specific sizes. Some of our clients insisted on wearing the smaller size for that “full cleavage look” but any movement in front of the camera often resulted in disaster!
Unfortunately, the Spring House was tucked away in a corner of The Wharf. We had the “Hilo Hatties” clothing store between us and Front Street, where all the foot traffic was. Visibility is crucial to the costume photography business, but rents were very high in Lahaina and business spaces were limited. We took a chance with this location. Unfortunately, even though we had a sign out on Front Street, most of our customers found us by accident.
As a result, after I opened the Spring House and got everything in order, a “typical day at Old Kine Photos” included a lot of free time. Fortunately I had my Bible, and something to study, so it wasn’t totally wasted time. As the months rolled by, we kept expecting the flood of customers. But they only came in spurts—enough to pay the rent and employee salaries.
Consider this for a moment. . . .
Would You Rather Be:
Operating a $34 million A-6 Intruder Attack jet or a $200 Canon AE1 camera?
Risking the physical dangers of carrier flight operations or the moral dangers of fallen grass skirts and overflowing corset cups?
Defending the United States of America against foreign attack or involved in a business barely making enough money to pay the rent?
What was I doing sitting in the Spring House rather than the cockpit of the A-6?
These were questions that frequently ran through my mind.
Since my experience with Lonnie, and my commitment to Jesus as my Lord, “getting high on life” did not take precedence in my life anymore. It felt strange not having this goal in my life, and its absence left me a bit disoriented. I wasn’t sure what would replace it. I felt that I had a definite destiny to follow, but I wasn’t sure if sitting here in the Spring House had anything to do with that destiny.
I often asked myself and God many, many times what I was doing sitting here inside this stone building all day, apparently wasting my time. A few years before I had been flying a $34 million airplane in a job that was very important to national security. Now, all I was doing was dressing up tourists in hula costumes and barely paying the rent.
Had I made the wrong choice by getting out of the Navy? Was there something else that I should be investing my time and energy in? By all normal standards, I was definitely wasting my time here on Maui.
The entire period from June 1982 through November 1984 does not look good on my resume, at least for a normal career path for a college graduate and former Naval Officer. Besides working at the Spring House, I also managed a restaurant, worked with a local comedian on a television show, had a series of odd jobs (carpenter assistant, laying carpet, and manual labor), and finally worked as a dive assistant onboard a tourist boat. It would appear from my resume that nothing really substantial in my life was happening.
The “professional” inside me said to make use of my training and get a job that would pay me well. This led me at one point to call a Navy recruiter and talk about getting back in.
I resisted that urge and never called the recruiter back. Somehow I realized that I was just where I was supposed to be. I sensed in my spirit that something very important was happening to me. Something quite revolutionary . . . and it had nothing to do with the jobs I was holding or with paying the rent.
It had to do with my values. They were changing.
I was “acquiring a taste for beets. . . .”
Signs Along The Way
In August 1984, one of the most publicized group of Christians who needed help were the Miskito Indians. Therefore it seemed appropriate when a Christian organizer named Fred came to Hope Chapel that month telling us of these refugees and his plan for collecting and sending relief supplies, that I volunteered to help.
I had heard of the Miskitos, who lived along the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. I had followed with interest the moves of the Sandinista government against them. But Central America was never on my travel itinerary, and I knew very little about the region. Only one fact stuck out in my mind: Nicaragua is where Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Bianca is from. Very significant! Then I looked at a map and saw that Honduras has a capital city, Tegucigalpa, that sounds like a parasitic disease that tourists get. Over the next few months, I quickly got educated. . . .
The Miskitos are Indians with a recent Christian heritage who live on the eastern coast of both Honduras and Nicaragua. They were mostly neutral in the civil war that ousted the long time dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza. When the Sandinistas took over the government in 1978, they sent Cuban teachers to take over the schools on the Atlantic coast. Catholic priests and Moravian missionaries were expelled from the country. Church services were disrupted by the Sandinista army troops. A very militaristic, atheistic curriculum was brought into the public schools. And all tribal lands and much personal property were confiscated by the government.
The Miskitos began to resist all this, and fighting broke out in 1981. The Sandinistas sent Cuban and Soviet advisors with their troops to their northern border with Honduras, the Coco River, and began relocating villages on the Rio Coco to areas in the interior. This “relocation” took the form of burning the villages, destroying the fruit trees, and killing all the cattle. At least 90 villages were “relocated,” and many Miskitos died during this forced movement.
Over 40,000 Miskitos fled to Honduras, and another 10,000 went to Costa Rica. Many of these refugees were helped by the United Nations camps set up around the Honduras village of Mocoron, over 40 kilometers north of the Rio Coco. About 10,000 refugees decided to remain in the savannah and swamp land along the Honduran side of the Coco. The situation was desperate for many of these Miskitos refugees, especially the ones who were receiving no assistance.
Fred was organizing medical teams, along with the relief supplies, to take into this border area. I became his project director for Hawaii and began getting the word out to other churches.
By the end of September, we had collected over a ton and a half of shoe boxes filled with things like soap, first aid supplies, needles and thread, food, and clothes. Aloha Airlines graciously shipped this cargo to Honolulu. Continental Airlines then shipped this, plus some shoeboxes collected on Oahu to California. From there the plan was to truck the cargo to Houston and send it by air to Honduras.
When the cargo left Maui in early October, I felt that my job was completed. Fred called me up a few weeks later inviting me to join him on a team to Honduras to help distribute the supplies to the Miskitos. The plan was for the team to meet at the Los Angeles airport on Thanksgiving Day, fly to Houston, and then on to Tegucigalpa. From there we would fly out to “Gracias a Dios” (“thanks to God”), the extreme eastern state of Honduras (named by Christopher Columbus himself after being lost at sea for a few weeks because of a storm). There, we would go by truck and dugout canoe to the villages on the Honduras side of the border distributing the shoeboxes. The entire trip would take two weeks.
I was excited but hesitated due to “financial embarrassment.” The airfare from Maui to Honduras was expensive. Fred sensed my hesitation and offered to pay my airfare from Los Angeles to Honduras! This was a “good sign”!
I had been praying to the Lord, asking Him what His plan for my life was. He was now giving me some specific answers. I had followed a few Biblical principles when I got involved in the shoe box collection project. Now I was being asked to go to the jungles of Honduras. Since I knew a little Spanish from high school and had jungle survival training while I was in the Navy, by my own previous experience, this too seemed in order. I didn’t have money for the airfare, but God provided that through Fred and a few others. Some of the principles in the Bible were working for me.
God hadn’t spoken to me directly yet about this Miskito mission, but He was about to show me the next of many “signs along the way” that confirmed this plan for me.
Signs are important if you want to go somewhere.
Most cultures in this world place a high value on signs, but the types of signs used vary from place to place.
In the United States, we have Big, Colorful, Brightly Lit signs on the freeways directing us to our destination. Once we get off the freeways, streets are marked with observable signs, and each house or mailbox is clearly marked with a number that indicates some sort of ascending order on the street. You can generally find a location from its street address.
It’s not the same in Central America.
Highway signs are often non-existent. Street signs here are often not prominently located and observable, and houses are randomly numbered in no apparent order. Many streets in La Ceiba have a commonly used name that is different from the official name. And most people don’t use street names when giving directions anyway. As a result, unless you call ahead to get directions, you will have a difficult time finding your destination.
Our address here in Honduras is a perfect example.
Formally it is: Casa #1349, Barrio Solares Nuevas, La Ceiba, Atlantida.
From this information you could find the city of La Ceiba, in the state of Atlantida, on the north coast of Honduras, but you would have an extremely difficult time locating our house. The address we give to anyone who is looking for us is: “La casa verde brillante enfrente del Correo Nacional en la calle D’antoni “—the bright green house across from the post office on the street that runs from D’antoni Hospital. It’s a bit complicated but it works.
When we are looking for signs of God’s direction for our life, we are on the freeway looking for those Big, Colorful, Brightly Lit signs. We like and are used to the American system. Unfortunately it seems like God sometimes uses the Central American system. We know the ultimate destination is to be with Him and be like Him. However the route there, the turns and the stops along the way are uncertain. The signs He gives often seem obscure and are sometimes misinterpreted. Many times we are not sure where we are going or how we are to get there.
What’s the difference in Him using one system over the other? It may have something to do with the importance of the “mission.” It could be a manner of developing our perseverance or testing our desire to follow Him and know His voice. I know that here in Honduras, when I have a strong desire to find a place, I don’t let obscure street signs dissuade me from finding my way.
Or it could have a lot to do with the ability of the person to receive and properly interpret the signs.
For my mission to Honduras, God began by using the U.S. system. He gave me a Big, Colorful, Brightly Lit sign: A free ride from Los Angeles to Honduras.
But then He switched to a combination of Central American and U.S. style signs.
It all started at the Maui airport. While waiting for my flight, I decided to call Craig to say goodbye. I knew that it was only going to be a two week trip, but I had the time to call and a quarter. His number was busy, but when I hung the pay phone up, I heard a big “Shuclunck” in the coin return hole. I tried to open the door to get my quarter, but I couldn’t because of all the coins blocking my way. I hit the jackpot! There was over $4.00 in coins!
On the flight to Los Angeles, I sat next to two ladies returning from a visit to New Zealand. During a six-hour flight you can become well acquainted with the people sitting at your elbows. They asked me where I was going and why, and I told them. That started a long conversation. After dinner and the movie, the lady next to me handed me a folded bill and quietly said, “This is for your trip.” I was surprised, and even more so when I unfolded the bill and saw Ben Franklin staring me in the face!
“I don’t need this,” I said. “I’m only going to be gone for two weeks. I have my ticket and expenses paid for, and I’ve got a couple hundred dollars in the bank for when I get back.”
“No,” she insisted. “You are going to need this.”
Later, her friend handed me a check for $50. I gratefully accepted both, wondering what they knew that I didn’t.
I met the team at the Los Angeles airport on Thanksgiving Day. Besides Fred and myself, there were 21 others on the team—people from various churches on the West Coast. I was initially impressed with the size and diversity of this group. The first leg of our flight took us to Houston, where we arrived at 9:00 p.m. Since our flight to Honduras left at 11:30 a.m. the next day, we checked into a motel for the night. The relief cargo had left California two days earlier and was headed, by truck, to Houston. At the team briefing at the motel, Fred told us that a C-130 Hercules transport plane was scheduled to land that evening in Houston, pick up the cargo, and head on to Tegucigalpa. We would arrive the next day, pick up the cargo, and head out by plane to the refugee villages. There we would distribute the cargo, and leave a team of three to construct a building and await further cargo. I was impressed with this plan, and retired to my room for a good night’s sleep.
Just as I dropped off to dreamland, there was a knock on my door. “Everybody up, dressed, and downstairs.” said a voice. I looked bleary eyed at my watch—it looked like it said “2:00 a.m.” I turned the light on. It was.
I arrived downstairs to a room full of sleepy team members. Fred told us that the truck with the cargo had arrived, but unfortunately the C-130 hadn’t, and wasn’t going to. The impressive plan was out the window. The new plan was to unload the truck into a storage area—which happened to be on the third floor vacant wing of a nearby hospital.
We were immediately loaded onto the motel’s shuttle bus for the trip to the hospital. When we arrived, the semi truck was backed up close to a door, and we began carrying armfuls of individual shoe boxes and bigger boxes from the truck, into the lobby, to the elevator, up to the third floor, and into vacant rooms. It was quite a scene. Like a group of ants, the 23 team members formed a continuous line, walking back and forth from the truck to the third floor, to the amazed stares of the hospitals employees. Eventually, we commandeered some unused gurneys to load the boxes and roll them into the elevator.
By dawn, we had taken the last of 37,000 lbs of cargo off the truck and into the hospital. Fred ordered us to keep some of the shoe boxes, and we loaded those into about 20 empty suitcases. Were we still going to Honduras with no cargo to distribute?
At breakfast Fred told us Yes. The cargo distribution team had become a “survey team.” Our mission now was to go to Honduras and assess the needs of these refugees. We had one doctor along, some medicine, and the 20 odd suitcases of shoe boxes that we could distribute. I began to wonder about the value of 23 of us going to “survey.”
We boarded our plane, and two and a half hours later arrived in Tegucigalpa. Fred knew a taxi driver there, and we went with him and four other taxis to our “hotel.”
I have traveled to many places on this planet, stayed in many different types of hotels. Nothing I had experienced quite compared to the hotel that Fred selected for us.
It was dark, dingy, and the owner crammed three beds into a room with space for one. There were “bath rooms,” but none of the toilets had seats. My first thought was, “Oh no! Honduras doesn’t have toilet seats.” The street outside looked safe enough, but still I was glad that one of my roommates was a former Navy Seal.
I went with Fred to exchange money. Surprisingly, we went to a supermarket instead of a bank. “We get a better exchange rate here,” said Fred.
The next day we all went to the airport, to a local flying service where we would charter a DC-3 to fly us to the place known by the Hondurans as “La Mosquitia,” by the Nicaraguans as “Costa Atlantico,” and by the English as “The Mosquito Coast” (named after the bug—not the Miskito Indians who live there). After a visit of a friend from Australia who continually referred to the area as “Miskitia” (where the “Miskitos” live), I adopted that name as the most appropriate for the entire region—Honduran and Nicaraguan.
I went with Fred into the airline office to make arrangements for the flight. The pilot was smiling and courteous, especially when Fred took out $4,300 to pay for the flight. The price for this “survey team” was getting higher all the time.
We loaded our bags, our 20 suitcases of cargo, and ourselves on to the venerable “Gooney Bird.” With smoke belching out of the exhausts, oil dripping from the engines, and rattles coming from all sides, this old bird seemed more vulnerable than venerable.
As we taxied out to take off, Fred stood up and said urgently, “Pray that the tower will release us and give us take-off clearance. We are flying into a war zone.”
Flying into a war zone? Now it was getting interesting. I was glad that I had my Seal friend sitting beside me. We all began intense prayers, and amazingly, the pilot taxied onto the runway and took off. Our destination was a place called Rus Rus. That sounded to me like a name out of a Bogart movie.
An hour and a half later, we landed on a grass runway surrounded by pine trees. There were no buildings anywhere in sight. This was Rus Rus? Fred said that the main village was about eight miles to the west. We unloaded, and the Gooney Bird cranked up and took off. I was apprehensive seeing the plane disappear over the trees. Fred told us to make ourselves comfortable over in the pine trees. That’s where we rigged our mosquito nets and spent the night. Fortunately it didn’t rain.
Fred made connections with our hosts who turned out to be the Miskito armed resistance political organization. They provided us with a truck, a driver and a translator named Truman.
We spent the next seven days traveling by truck, foot, and dugout canoe, visiting villages of Miskitos—Honduran “nativos” and Nicaraguan refugees—along the Kruta River. It was hard to tell the difference between the two groups—all these Indians lived in bamboo or rough cut wooden houses on poles, with leaf roofs. They all appeared to be in the same state of severe poverty. There were many skinny children and adults. Rice, beans and bananas were the food staples, and it seemed that everybody had at least some food.
Over 9,000 refugees lived in this border area. Another 30,000 lived to the west in the United Nations refugee camps around Mocoron. Our doctor held clinic, and I took lots of pictures—over 30 rolls in that week. I was extremely sorry that we had virtually no relief supplies to give these needy people.
As the “survey trip” neared its completion, we decided to establish our base in a village called Auka, which was situated where the grassland meets the Kruta River. Auka is eight miles from the Coco River (Nicaraguan frontier) and this low lying jungle/swamp between the Kruta and the Coco was where many refugees lived. Auka has an airstrip, and we needed this to bring in the relief supplies.
My Seal friend Dan, a mountain climber from Wyoming named Ron, and our Miskito guide Truman remained in Auka when we boarded the truck for the drive back to Rus Rus. Their job was to construct a building and prepare to distribute the cargo.
As we returned to Tegucigalpa on the same venerable Gooney Bird, I kept thinking about all the relief supplies in Houston. I also remembered a few times on Maui earlier that summer when I told different groups at different churches that I would ensure that “this cargo would not end up rotting in some warehouse.”
While in Tegucigalpa, I asked Fred about his plan for getting the cargo to Honduras. He had none. I began thinking about my friend from Vail, Joe, who had recently been hired by NASA as a research pilot, and who had moved to Houston earlier that year from Colorado. On the flight back to Houston, I told Fred and his assistant John, whom I had come to know well on this trip, that instead of returning directly to Hawaii, I could stop in Houston for a few days to investigate the possibility of getting this cargo to Honduras. They agreed, and encouraged me to do so.
We arrived in Houston on December 2nd. The rest of the team went on to LAX, and I went to Joe’s and Martha’s house in Clear Lake City. I was immediately hit with a strong attack of malaria, and spent a few days shivering and sweating in bed. When I was able, I began to call around to different transport companies to get a price on shipping a container to Honduras. The average price was around $18,000, and there were many documents required to get the cargo moved and into Honduras, plus a standard import duty that had to be paid. I called Fred with this information and was told simply “there is no money to move the cargo.”
Suddenly I was at a dead end. It looked like unless something extraordinary happened, this cargo was going to sit in a warehouse for quite a while.
The next night, a stranger called Joe’s house asking for me. He identified himself as a missionary from Houston, who was getting ready to move to Honduras. He wanted to know what we were doing there, and if there was any chance to “co-labor” with his project. In our conversation, I found out that he was going to work in the western part of Honduras— the Miskitos lived in the extreme eastern part. So much for “co-laboring.”
At the end of the conversation though, I suddenly asked him if he was shipping anything down to Honduras. “Yes,” he answered. “How?” was my question.
“There is a missionary here who had a connection with the fruit company. They allow him to send supplies to Honduras free in their empty banana containers. He’s shipping my stuff down next month.” The light went on! “Could you give me his name and telephone number?” I asked. He did.
I excitedly hung up the phone. I immediately called the number, and talked to the missionary, a former banker named Alan. I identified myself, told Alan what I was doing, the situation with our cargo, and asked him if there was any way that he could help us move it. He replied that the fruit company allows him one container every month. He had his December and January shipments already arranged, but he could move our cargo in February.
“What would the cost be?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “You just be here to help me load the container.”
“What about customs in Honduras?” I asked.
“I have a friend there who I work with who has an arrangement with the government to import relief and missionary supplies duty free.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
Alan replied, “Just be here the first week of February.”
Wow! Suddenly the $18,000 transportation fee and the import duties had been taken care of. It was that simple. I called Fred’s office with the news, and John (Fred’s assistant) and Jo Ellen (Fred’s secretary) were ecstatic.
But February was two months away. What could I do until then? After a moment’s thought, I realized that I hadn’t spent Christmas with my parents in over 10 years. They lived in central Florida, which was a $90 airfare away. Now I remembered the $100 bill that the lady on the flight from Hawaii had given me and her words “You are going to need this.”
Soon I was on a Continental flight to Orlando.
The first Sunday I spent in Vero Beach, I went with my folks to their church— Central Assembly. It so happened that the guest speaker that week was Jack—a missionary from Haiti. My mother knew Jack and his organization because she sponsored one of their school kids in Haiti. After the service she introduced me to him. Jack invited me down to his office in Fort Pierce to talk about our project in Honduras. His organization also operated a ship which regularly delivered mission supplies to Haiti. My mother also introduced me to the pastor of Central Assembly, Buddy Tipton. Buddy was very warm and interested in what we were doing.
The following week I went to Jack’s office. While there, I met the captain and first mate from another missionary ship—the La Gracia. Keith and Bob were part of a ministry from Massachusetts which had a Bible school and missionaries all over the world. They had made a trip to Haiti, and were planning further trips to the Caribbean. They were interested in making a trip to Honduras. Keith offered to carry some cargo for us. Interesting . . . something was happening here. We talked for a long time and I gave them my number and told them we would talk later.
Later that week, I received a call from Massachusetts. Neil was a pilot for Eastern Airlines, who was a member of the same ministry as the captain and first mate. He was calling to inform me that he was planning to fly his personal twin-engine Piper Seneca airplane to Honduras in February to do some missions work. He had one question: “Is there anything that I can do to help you?”
I almost dropped the phone.
“Well, Neil,” I thought, “since you asked, actually you are just what the doctor ordered, since we have to move a lot of cargo into a remote area where there are no roads and need an airplane to do it.”
Instead, I replied calmly, “As a matter of fact, you can” and went on to explain the situation. We agreed on a rendezvous date of the third week in February in Tegucigalpa.
I called Fred’s office with the news. I talked a length with Fred’s assistant, John, about this plan to move the cargo. He told me that there was a dental team from Washington preparing to go to Honduras with him in late February. This was perfect. I called Neil and he agreed to fly out the team to Auka, with as much of the cargo that he could.
We felt something big happening. There was only one obstacle—the cargo in Houston had been moved from the hospital into a storage warehouse, and it was accruing substantial storage costs. By February the bill would be up to about $8,000. We needed the money to get the cargo out of that warehouse. John and the staff at Fred’s office had decided that they were going to fast and pray for $15,000—an amount they calculated would cover all transportation costs and provide some funds for tools, seeds, and medicines for these refugees.
In late January, I decided to visit my brother Randy and his family in North Carolina. He was interested in the Miskito project and set up a slide show for me at a local church. I was happy to present the plight of these Miskito refugees wherever I could, and, armed with over 600 slides I had taken on the trip, I was well-prepared. I presented a program, but there was no great response as I had hoped there might be. I returned to Florida, and Randy’s wife Suzanne soon called and told me of the possibility of a donation from a local Realtor. It sounded like a big “maybe,” and no amount was mentioned. I mentally filed this message in the “Remote Possibility” category.
As I made preparations for the trip to Houston a few days later, John called me to tell me that they had received a check of slightly over $15,000 from a realtor in North Carolina! This man, Lloyd, had heard about the Miskito project from my slide show and had given us a 5 percent tithe off a piece of property that he had just sold! That amount was exactly what we had been praying for!
Was something happening here?
I arrived in Houston in early February and met Alan. He was a tremendous help. I received a check from Fred’s office and paid the storage bills. Then, with the help of my friend Joe (from Vail) and a few others, we loaded all the cargo into the container which was scheduled to leave for Honduras within a few days.
The following week, John and the dental team arrived in Houston, and we flew together to Tegucigalpa. That night we met Neil, his co-pilot, and mechanic at the mission house. We also met Joe Walters, Alan’s friend who had the government connections.
As I stood there that night surrounded by dentists, pilots, local missionaries and visiting missionaries, I was awestruck. Only a few months before, the possibility of getting our cargo delivered in a timely fashion to Miskitia seemed remote. The logistical, legal, and financial obstacles were overwhelming. The cargo I had promised to friends in Hawaii that I would deliver was stuck in a warehouse in Houston building up storage charges. We had no money, no transportation and no connections.
It turns out, though, that we did have a connection . . . A Big Connection. One who is connected to and controls all the events in this world.
Yes, something was definitely happening here.
God was moving and teaching me along the way.
The natural man in me told me at the beginning that delivering this cargo to the refugees was going to be a formidable task. But my inner spiritual man hoped to see God move in a great way to overcome all the obstacles.
And He did move in a great way when you consider what He arranged:
Free transportation of 37,000 pounds of cargo from Houston to Honduras;
Duty-free importation of a container of cargo;
Free in-country transportation—including the free use of our own private aircraft; and
A $15,000 donation to cover storage expenses.
Besides the obvious accomplishments, these were Big, Brightly Lit U.S. style signs for guiding me. However, He also used plenty of vague and obscure Central American style signs to get me and keep me pointed in the right direction. This experience was a great lesson for me in knowing God’s voice and navigation through God’s will for your life.
Another lesson: We look for the Big Bright signs, but sometimes these signs can be misleading. God often wants us alert enough and walking with enough faith that we will see the small, obscure signs. The key is knowing God’s will and His voice.
I also realized that night, with this group gathered in Tegucigalpa, two things:
(1) My earlier stereotype of a missionary (an older guy who was nice but probably couldn’t hold a job in the states) did not apply with this group—all of these men were professionals who turned to missionary work after being successful in their own fields; and
(2) That God had been controlling the events around me for the past three months just to make this all happen. The result of His work was amazing.
Now the cargo was out of the warehouse and en route to Honduras. Joe was taking care of the entry permits. Neil was standing by ready to begin his flights. John had brought a dental team ready to go to work. Keith and Bob were planning a trip with the La Gracia to Honduras in May. What had I done? Nothing really, except be available. I felt like a switchboard operator in the middle of all this, just answering the phones and letting the Lord use me to make the connections.
That night I was content, feeling that the mission was soon to be completed, and I would be able to return soon to the photography business in Hawaii.
That, however, was not in my Maximum Leader’s plans. Instead, I was about to embark on the first of a series of battles against the one opposing Him and all members of His family.
The Fury of the Battle
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness, in the heavenly places”. Ephesians 6:12
War has been around since the first moment when one person decided to impose his will upon another, and the other person decided that his rights (or land, or family, or property) were worth fighting for. This conflict between individuals is unfortunately one of the constants of our existence here on Planet Earth, despite what wishful sociologists and psychologists may say to the contrary. Training and preparation for war is an activity that most ancient as well as modern societies have engaged in.
In the mid-seventies, the Air Force began a series of realistic war exercises in the Nevada desert called “Red Flag.” This was an effort to simulate a genuine combat environment and provide real life training for flight crews. By using actual Soviet radar and missile systems, with tanks, trucks, runways, and missile sites as “targets,” all scattered over a 60 by 80-mile section of desert, Red Flag was the most realistic combat training available.
A typical Red Flag mission consists of a coordinated air strike against one of the targets. Each strike group is assigned a target time and given the enemy’s “order of battle”—i.e., the location of radar, missiles, and other forces. The target is “defended” by surface to air missile systems as well as an enemy air force composed of Air Force and Navy “aggressor” squadrons (each with red stars painted on their tails). Captured Soviet MIG-21s are even used for the utmost in realism. The object of the strike force is to slip in around or under the radar, avoid the aggressors, place your bombs on the target, and escape unharmed.
In Red Flag, normal peacetime safety rules were abandoned in favor of actual wartime “rules of engagement.” Peacetime rules require a minimum flying altitude of 200 feet above the ground level and no air combat maneuvering below 10,000 feet. In Red Flag, these rules were waived since the Soviets had missile systems that could track you and shoot you down at less than 100 feet above the ground, and air combat maneuvering is often necessary to defend yourself against an enemy fighter while flying low across the desert floor.
In 1977 our air wing (CVW-11) from the USS Kitty Hawk became the first Navy air wing to participate in a Red Flag exercise. This was the type of flying that we all lived for. Even though our job was to “defend national security,” (and if it came to it, all attack and fighter pilots would lay their lives on the line for this worthy cause) to most of us, flying high performance jets was one of the most demanding “sports” in existence. It’s an exclusive “arena” where the competition was intense. Simply staying alive in this unforgiving environment was a worthy achievement. Bombing scores, landing grades and air-to-air engagements were all part of the process of measuring the best.
Red Flag presented us a rare opportunity. For two weeks, we enjoyed the best of both worlds—wartime tactics in a peacetime environment. We could fly the airplanes to their maximum, and know that there was nobody shooting real bullets at us.
One of these missions was one of the most unforgettable flights of my career. . . .
Fighter Sweep. . . .
It is a mission that is exactly what it sounds like. Fighters go into an area with the sole purpose of engaging and shooting down enemy fighters—”sweeping” the areas clean so that the strike force can follow to hit the target free from air interference. A fighter sweep was included in the original Red Flag schedule for our air wing. In the Red Flag environment (no real bullets), this was the type of mission that dreams were made of.
Air Combat Maneuvering is the proper military term for what used to be called “dogfighting”—aircraft fighting against other aircraft. ACM requires a combination of acrobatics and hunting senses. It is pure multidimensional flying at its best. While putting your bombs on a target has great job satisfaction, this is a real opportunity to engage in head-to-head competition with enemies, who were not just shapes on the ground running for cover or faceless people sitting in the missile control room trying to shoot you down. These opponents are real people, trying to fly their airplane better than you are flying yours, matching you move for move, while trying to anticipate your next move. It was a personal duel between highly qualified individuals, and the stake in real combat is your life. In practice the only thing on the line was your pride.
How do you shoot down an opposing fighter?
Modern air-to-air tactics for most fighters are to intercept the enemy aircraft— called a “bogey”—and shoot him out of the sky with a missile as quickly as possible. Once you get within 10 miles of the bogey, Sparrow missiles are effective. The Sparrow is radar-guided and allows you to shoot the bogey head-on or at any angle. If the Sparrows don’t get him, then you close in and engage the bogey with the purpose of getting behind him so that you could fire a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile which will home in on his tail pipe.
These modern missile tactics left very little room for the classical shoot-’em-down-with-your-machine-guns dogfighting seen in World War I and World War II—so much so that the F-4 Phantom, which led the air war in Vietnam, was designed in the late ’50s without a gun.
However during the Vietnam war, the need for a gun on a fighter became very evident—missiles often failed to launch or hit their target. A gun is relatively simple and reliable if you can get into a position to use it. The designers of the F-4 realized their mistake in not building a gun into the Phantom, and the next generation of fighter aircraft was designed with multi-barreled guns. Still, with more reliable generations of missiles coming on-line, using your gun against a bogey was considered a last ditch effort to shoot him down—and to be used only if the missiles failed, or you had exhausted your arsenal of Sidewinders and Sparrows.
In spite of the high reliability factor of modern air-to-air missiles, the best position for a sure kill was the close in “guns position”—within 400 yards on the tail of your opponent. In the training environment this was the preferred position and the one we all strived to achieve.
In the “guns” position, there was no doubt who was shooting whom.
The excitement for this fighter sweep heightened as the day of the mission approached. Crews jockeyed for those limited places on the flight schedule. Excitement turned into frenzied titillation with the announcement that the “Opposition” would include the newest addition to the Air Force’s inventory—the F-15 Eagle. Since the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat had been introduced into the fleet only a few years earlier, there had been much discussion and debating over which aircraft was the best “Air Superiority Fighter.”
Both aircraft had their strong points.
The Tomcat has a crew of two and operates off of aircraft carriers. The Eagle has a pilot only and is shore-based. The Tomcat has a “swing wing” that can be moved inflight to a “spread” position for tight turns, or a “swept” position for high speed (Mach 2.4+). The Eagle has a fixed-wing design that allows for speed and maneuverability, and two very powerful engines that allowed it to set many speed and climb-to-altitude records. Both aircraft are equipped with Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and a 30mm six barrel Gatling gun mounted in the nose that fires 3,000 rounds a minute.
The real difference between the two lies in the Tomcat’s Phoenix missile system. Operated by the Radar Intercept Officer who sits behind the pilot, the Phoenix can shoot down an aircraft at a range of 60 miles. The Phoenix, plus the extra set of eyes in the cockpit would seem to give the Tomcat the edge in any air-to-air engagement. However, until this point (mid 1977), there was no real opportunity to do more than just discuss the merits of each plane and speculate on how they would fare in a true combat head to head confrontation.
Aside from these design and weapon system differences, we all knew that the real edge in any air-to-air fight was with the best pilot—the one possessing the greatest skills and situational awareness. Given that all Air Force pilots had made the choice not to even attempt a landing on an aircraft carrier (which they did by choosing to join the Air Force rather than the Navy), we all knew where the edge lay when it came down to the human factor. . . .
Now was the time to put all speculation to rest.
Air Wing 11 sent eight Tomcats, two A-7 Corsairs, and two A-6 Intruders on this fighter sweep into the target area. Normally attack planes (the A-6 and A-7) were not included on fighter sweeps—our primary mission was air-to-ground attack. However, since we did carry Sidewinders and air-to-air fighting was a secondary role, we were included on this training mission. The A-6 didn’t have the afterburners and speed of the F-14. However at low altitude our engines had comparable performance and with its huge load carrying capacity wing, the Intruder could out turn any aircraft in the fleet.
The opposition was a mixed bag of F-4 Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks, and, of course, the F-15 Eagles. Pete Rice and I were chosen to fly one A-6. The other was flown by a future Blue Angel, Jack Ekl, and his bombadier/navigator (B/N), Casey Gibbs.
This flight was led by our air wing commander, Sam Leeds. Sam was a skilled fighter pilot but did not have the attitude of a typical air wing commander when it came to dress, appearance, and paperwork. He was a curly-headed guy who made his mark in my book when he made the statement, “Haircuts don’t kill MIGS.” He contrasted sharply with my squadron commander—a straight laced pilot named Daryl whose hair on his eyebrows was longer than any other part of his head.
I always enjoyed flying with Sam. He was strictly goal orientated when he strapped into the cockpit. Daryl, too, was an excellent pilot, and we flew many challenging missions together. However, it took Daryl a while to overcome my marginal haircuts. In fact, when we first met in 1976, his first words to me were: “The next time I see you, you better have a proper haircut.” After flying with me for a few months, he realized that a marginal haircut did not reflect marginal performance in the cockpit. I never had that problem with Sam. We clicked from the first time we flew together.
At the brief, Sam instructed the F-14 crews to set up for long range Phoenix and Sparrow missile shots, and then close in for a Sidewinder shot if possible. After “one or two turns” with the bogey, the engagement was to be broken off and the fight terminated. To us “attack” crews now turned “fighter jocks,” he only said “If you can get a shot, fine; but if not, stay out of our way.” Jack looked at me and rolled his eyes. Sure! Stay out of the way? No Way!
My B/N, Pete was the squadron maintenance officer. He ordered the best two aircraft in the squadron to be specially prepared for this flight. Normally the A-6 carried external fuel tanks or bomb racks on each of the wing and belly stations. For this flight, Pete ordered the tanks and racks removed. With these attachments gone, the A-6 now flew faster and was even more maneuverable.
Even though the A-6 had radar designed for ground mapping, Pete was skilled enough to be able to get some airborne returns—as long as the bogeys were above the horizon. We knew the fighters would stay high and accelerate ahead of us as we entered the target area. So we decided at that point to descend to the desert floor, accelerate and “look up” on our radar for the bogeys. There were many ridgelines and mountains in the target area, and the bogeys could come at us from any direction, high or low.
We took off, rendezvoused with the 11 other airplanes, and headed south. As we approached the target area, the F-14s began getting bogeys on their radars and accelerated ahead. Jack and I began our descent, and also began dumping all of the remaining fuel in our wing tanks. With only the fuselage fuel tanks filled, these Intruders were now down to their best “fighting weight.”
As we headed down a long desert valley, Pete began to get target blips directly in front of us on his radar. At the same time, far down the valley I saw visually what appeared to be a small black spot in the sky. This was puzzling but Pete saw it too. As we got closer, this black spot expanded and took on the appearance of a small black cloud. In another minute, I could see the individual dots that made up this “cloud.” In a few more seconds as we got closer, we could see these dots turning wildly—they resembled a hornet’s nest, with the hornets buzzing madly around. It became immediately obvious to us that this was the fighter sweep happening right in front of us—with all the airplanes concentrated in one big ball!
So much for missile tactics!
This was classic World War I dogfighting! Everybody was trying to get a gun shot on each other. There were over 24 airplanes—all turning within the same three mile circle. It was an incredible sight!
Jack’s airplane accelerated and I shoved my throttles all the way forward. We continued ahead until we were directly under the center of the circle. With a nod of the head, Jack pulled up and into the fight. I followed. We both had our eyes scanning the sky for a bogey in the right position for us to get a quick shot.
Jack saw an aggressor A-4 ahead and maneuvered into his six o’clock position. I was in trail on him covering his six. Suddenly Pete called, “Bogey at our left high eight o’clock” position. It was an F-4 Phantom who was already in a good “Sidewinder” position and moving toward a gun shot bearing down on us at high speed. I warned Jack and pulled the nose of the Intruder into a hard left turn into the oncoming Phantom.
Phantoms were at one time the world’s fastest airplane, but they can’t turn that well. When this Phantom driver saw the Intruder coming back at him, he realized that he had no other option but to break off the attack. If he didn’t, he would overshoot me and with a quick turn back, I would have the Phantom in a nice gun position.
He broke off to the right, and I rolled back right to see if I could get a shot. He was gone. I looked ahead for Jack, but he was gone too. Just then, an F-15 whizzed past the top of my canopy, closely pursued by a Tomcat. Ahead of me was an aggressor A-4 Skyhawk, but before I could make a move on him, Pete called another bogey who was attacking us. It was another A-4, and he was closing in from our close eight o’clock position on our tail.
The Skyhawk is a smaller airplane with excellent turning abilities. I pulled hard left into him and saw him begin to overshoot. I then rolled nose low back to the right, as a Phantom closely pursued by a Tomcat shot past us in a climbing turn.
The Skyhawk followed my nose low roll, and I continued my roll “over the top,” and we found ourselves in a “rolling scissors” motion, with each one trying to get behind the other. As the horizon spun around me with each revolution of this rolling scissors, I noticed in my peripheral vision other fighters crossing, in front, above, and below us. With all these aircraft within such a small area maneuvering, I was amazed that so far, there had been no mid-air collisions.
After four revolutions with this Skyhawk, he suddenly broke off the fight to the left. I had no real opportunity for a shot, so I continued straight ahead, looking for Jack. I didn’t see him, but what I did see made my heart leap.
Straight ahead about 1,000 yards in front of us was an F-15 Eagle in a shallow left turn heading away from us. I pointed my nose directly at him and closed the gap. The Eagle pilot must have just seen me at that point because he tightened his turn. I rolled into a left turn, and he then rolled back right to almost wing level and pulled his nose up. “So much for this shot,” I thought as I saw his nose go up. I figured that he would next light his afterburners and pull straight up, which I couldn’t follow with my non-afterburning Intruder. Then, with him on top and me low, I would be easy prey for him.
Instead, his next move surprised me. He dropped his nose until it was level with the horizon, rolled left, and pulled harder into me. Amazing! This was exactly what I was hoping that he would do. I leveled my wings and pulled up my nose in a classic “high yo-yo” maneuver, converting my speed to altitude, which allowed me to close the gap between us while maintaining a good attack position. At the top of the yo-yo, I rolled back left, nose down, and slid into a gun position on his tail.
The Eagle attempted a reversal, but it didn’t shake me. More reversals, with more hard turns, but there was no way that this Eagle was going to out turn an Intruder. All that he had to do to escape was to light burners and go nose up. I could have never followed him. Yet for some reason, this F-15 pilot chose to try to out turn an A-6.
A fatal mistake.
The result of this tactic came soon—I called “Guns on the Eagle” over the common radio frequency. The F-15 rolled wings level, and wagged his wings back and forth—the signal acknowledging a kill. He knew who had won this fight. Had this been actual combat, he would have been floating under his parachute watching his flaming Eagle drop out of the sky—if he was lucky enough to get out of the airplane. Pete and I were ecstatic!
We dropped out of the circle and back to the desert floor. We were both soaked with sweat, and breathing hard. My right biceps was pumped up and burning—pulling 4 to 5 g’s for 15 minutes was like doing multiple sets of curls. I looked over at Pete, and he had blood running down the front of his oxygen mask! I asked him, “Did we take a hit?” “No,” he replied, “My glasses dug into the bridge of my nose during those high g turns.”
The fight was still going on above us, and after a few moments, we pulled back up and into the circle. More engagements with F‑4s and A-4s followed, but soon the fighters began running low on fuel and began to bug out. Finally it was down to us and the A-4s, and soon we, too, reached our minimum fuel. We dropped low, found Jack and Casey, and headed home.
We landed and headed to the debrief room with the other crews to talk about the flight. All the Tomcat crews were there, loudly exchanging stories of their own engagements and talking more with their hands. They were excited that they had prevailed over the F‑15s. We all were.
Sam arrived and the room got quiet. We knew that we had ignored the briefed battle plan. The temptation to dogfight with the F-15s had been too great for all of us, including Sam.
His eyes scanned the room, and with a smile he said, “I hope that you enjoyed that because it will be the last time that we will ever do anything like that again.”
“Enjoy” was an understatement. We savored every moment of this fighter sweep. It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was a flight that you would mortgage the house, the cat and the mother-in-law for.
Aside from the fun and satisfaction of that flight, I had learned a great lesson.
As Jack and I flew low across the desert, heading toward the hornet’s nest that was buzzing madly in front of us, we had only one thing on our minds—attacking the enemy airplanes and shooting them down. Yet once we actually pulled up into the fight and engaged the enemy, all of a sudden, it was us that were being attacked. We immediately were on the defensive and we spent much of our time that flight fending off those attacks. The battle was intense, and attackers were coming at us from all directions. We had our moments of success, but much time was spent in defending ourselves.
Eight years later, I began to understand that this principle applied not only to fighter sweeps, but also to battles fought in the spiritual arena.
Jesus once said, “The thief (Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10).
Paul told the Ephesian church, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the world powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).*
My experience with Lonnie had demonstrated the reality of “dark” spiritual forces. My Bible studies indicated that there was indeed an active, organized force of fallen angels with a definite command structure. Their mission here on Earth is to blind people to their need for a Savior and to actively oppose the work of the Kingdom of God. As we prepared to move the cargo out to Miskitia that February of 1985, I was about to get a lesson on just how strong this opposition is.
Remember the night I arrived in Tegucigalpa and met Neil and Joe and the group of dentists? The cargo was en route, and we had importation duties and in-country transportation all arranged. I was feeling good; everything was taken care of.
The next morning, I went to the airport with Neil and the dentists to help them load Neil’s Seneca for the flight out to Auka. Neil and I went to the Aeronautica office to file the flight plan. It was a relatively simple procedure and there didn’t seem to be any restrictions to flying out to Miskitia. I thought of my flight out to Rus Rus in the DC-3 with Fred a few months earlier, and how we had to pray as we taxied out that “the tower would release us for takeoff.” I asked Neil if there were any further procedures to get approval for the flight. “No,” was his reply. “Once you file the flight plan and get the Aeronautica office stamp on it, it’s approved.” Then why had Fred asked us to pray that the tower would release us? The pilot had already filed his flight plan. I began to wonder about some of the other things that Fred had told us. . . .
Auka is about two hours (240 miles) from Tegucigalpa in Neil’s Seneca. It’s a small village that is difficult to find by air because of the lack of distinguishable landmarks. Auka is surrounded by grassland and pine forest on one side, and a winding Kruta River with thick jungle and swamp on the other. I have flown in and out of there for over 10 years, and I still have to look carefully to find this village. It is an easy place to miss. The surest way to find Auka coming from Tegucigalpa is to find the town of Mocoron, with its Honduran army base and long dirt runway (very visible from the air), and fly a heading of 097 degrees for exactly 10 minutes. That heading and time should put you overhead Auka.
Neil took off with the first part of the dental team around 8:30 a.m. I returned to the airport at 1:00 p.m. with the second half of the team, and Neil arrived shortly after. The flight had gone smoothly, and Ron had been very happy to see him. It had been over a month since Ron had seen another American face. Neil refueled, and grabbed a burger from the Bigos hamburger place across the street, and a few for Ron as well. We loaded the team and their baggage, and he took off sometime after 3:00 p.m. Neil’s plan was to spend the night in Auka and return the following morning.
The prevailing wind in Auka comes from the northeast and picks up in the afternoon—usually averaging about 15 to 20 knots. That’s enough to blow you off course to the south.
This is apparently what happened to Neil, because when he arrived over Mocoron, he took his 097 degree cut, flew 10 minutes, and didn’t see Auka. After flying a few circles, and not seeing anything familiar, he did what you are supposed to do when you are “temporarily disoriented.” He reversed his original course and flew back to Mocoron—his last known point.
Once overhead Mocoron, he made a circle, and set out again for Auka. Again, after flying 10 minutes, he saw nothing familiar, and headed back to Mocoron to try again. By now the sun was low on the horizon. It would be dark within an hour.
He found Mocoron, and this time made a few circles over the army base to get his bearings, so that he could set up to fly an exact course to Auka. As he was circling the base, he noticed what looked like flares coming up from the base in his direction. Were they trying to signal him, or just maybe help him get his bearings? Neil wasn’t sure why they were shooting flares, but he was sure of one thing—that with approaching darkness, he’d better find Auka soon.
After 10 minutes, with a slight correction to the left to compensate for the wind, Neil sighted Auka, and landed. Everybody was happy to be on the ground in Auka. The next morning, the dental team began pulling teeth, and Neil returned to Tegucigalpa. However, there was a slight problem—Neil’s left engine lost most of its oil pressure during the flight and he had to shut that engine down. Fortunately the Seneca has two engines, and one is sufficient to keep the airplane airborne.
After he landed, he discovered a huge crack in the engine casing—most of the oil had leaked out of that engine. This crack was unrepairable—the engine had to be replaced. When I asked Neil how much a new engine would cost, he calmly replied “Oh, about $18,000.”
We made a plan. I would stay in Tegucigalpa and arrange for a plane to go pick the team up the following week. I would also arrange through our friend Joe to get an importation duty exemption for the replacement engine. Eighteen thousand dollars is a lot of money, and the importation duties would be considerable. Neil got on an airliner the next day and returned to Miami, saying that he would be back in “a few weeks” with a new engine.
What a strange time for that engine to go out! It was more than strange, and the story wasn’t over yet.
After Neil left for the United States, I spent the next four weeks living with Joe and his family. Joe had started numerous children’s feeding centers around Honduras, and in my spare time—which I had plenty of—I traveled with him to visit these centers. Joe also travelled with a group of young people who presented Gospel puppet shows and clown skits to these children as they received their plate of bulgar wheat and rice and a cup of milk. Joe’s program was to feed the children physically and spiritually.
For me, living and traveling with Joe was a crash course on how to effectively do the work of the Kingdom of God in the Third World. It was a practical course that no seminary could provide. During this time, the cargo arrived and was stored in the house that Joe used as his office.
One of Joe’s friends was a Honduran businessman named Victor. This man had recently entered into a personal relationship with the Lord, and was devoting much time toward the work of the Kingdom. One of his projects was helping start a church in Julticalpa, a town in the state of Olancho.
If you draw a straight line from Tegucigalpa to Mocoron, it passes close to the airstrip at Julicalpa, which is 80 miles from Tegucigalpa and only 160 miles from Auka. Victor suggested that we transport the cargo by truck to Juticalpa, where we could store it in his church building while we made our shuttle flights to Auka. This was an excellent idea. By flying a 160-mile leg to Auka (instead of a 240-mile leg), we would save over an hour of flight time and 20 gallons of fuel each flight.
Neil’s “a few weeks” had turned into four. He shipped the engine down on a cargo flight, and we got it out of customs the same afternoon that Neil and his wife Maggie arrived from Miami. The next day (Tuesday) we rented a truck, loaded it with as much of the cargo as it could hold (about half of the original shipment and five drums of aviation gas as well), and sent it on to Julticalpa. The engine was installed the same day. The next day, we took the Seneca for a test flight.
Victor and his wife drove out to Julticapla on Wednesday. They had some business to take care of, but they also wanted to be there to help us move the cargo out to the airstrip. Neil and I flew to Auka with a load of cargo. Our plan was to meet Victor in Julticalpa on Thursday.
When we arrived at the airstrip in Julticalpa on Thursday, Victor was not there to greet us. We took a taxi to his church building, and were dumbfounded by the scene that awaited us.
As we stepped out of the taxi, we saw that the church was surrounded by people— many of who were weeping. We made our way into the crowd, looking for a familiar face. We saw none. Finally, in my best Spanish, I asked a man where Victor was. He began a long and rapid explanation. I only caught a few words as he rambled on, but the words I did catch sent a queasy feeling to my stomach.
Victor and his wife had been killed in a head on collision the day before. They were cresting a hill when they collided with a truck who was passing another truck coming up the other side of the hill. They were killed instantly and their small car destroyed.
Victor’s friends at the church were in a state of shock. Neil and I were not sure what to do until an elderly gentleman named Julio came and introduced himself to us. He owned a bakery in town and was one of the elders of the church. Victor had told him about us and our mission. Julio offered to assist us with his truck and whatever else we needed.
We loaded Julio’s truck with the cargo and drove out to the airstrip and loaded the Seneca. Neil took off with over a 1,000 pounds of cargo for Auka. I stayed behind to organize the next load—I was just dead weight anyway. We spent the next four days moving the cargo. On the last flight on Sunday, I went with Neil to Auka. There, we had a very interesting conversation with Ron.
Puerto Lempira is the main town in the Honduran Miskitia and is about 20 miles north of Auka on the Caratasca Lagoon. It’s a 15 minute flight from Auka, but about 10 hours if you have to walk. A few weeks earlier, Ron had walked to Puerto Lempira. There he met a Honduran Army lieutenant who was stationed at Mocoron. When this lieutenant found out that Ron lived in Auka, he began asking him about any airplanes flying in there at the end of February. Ron told him that a twin-engine airplane had flown in a dental team. The lieutenant then told him an amazing story. . . .
The afternoon of Neil’s flight to Auka, this lieutenant had been on duty in Mocoron. A twin-engine airplane was seen flying overhead, heading southeast. About 20 minutes later, this same airplane approached Mocoron from the southeast, made a circle and headed off in that same direction. In another 25 minutes, the same airplane approached the army base from the southeast and began making circles over the base.
At this point the Honduras army troops were concerned. Since they had seen this airplane three times in less than an hour, and since it was coming from the direction of Nicaragua, where there was a serious war going on at that moment, and since it was late in the day, they concluded that this was a Nicaraguan airplane preparing to bomb the army base. The lieutenant ordered his soldiers to fire on the unidentified aircraft with one of the machine guns.
The gun crew fired, but after about 15 rounds, the machine gun jammed and would not fire. The crew immediately ran to another gun and began firing. After a few rounds, this gun too jammed. They went to a third gun, and began firing. Amazingly, this one also jammed after firing only a few rounds. By this point, Neil was headed off to Auka, and getting out of range. Since it was getting dark, the lieutenant ordered his men to cover the guns until daylight.
The next morning, the lieutenant ordered his men check the machine guns. Amazingly, all three guns fired normally!
The flares that Neil had seen when he circled Mocoron that last time were in fact tracer rounds—bullets that light up when fired which are spaced in the magazine at regular intervals so that the gunner can see where his rounds are going.
All three guns, which had been firing properly before, jammed and would not fire. Yet the next morning they functioned perfectly again. Ron told us that the lieutenant was “visibly moved to tears” as he realized that he had almost shot this missionary airplane out of the sky.
What about those machine guns?
Why had they all of a sudden jammed, only to work properly the next day?
Neil and I were shocked to discover that he had almost been shot out of the sky. On the surface here in Honduras everything seemed to be going smoothly. But this, plus Victor’s death, and Neil’s broken engine were vivid reminders that we were working in a very hostile environment. Somebody was opposing us. It was nothing that we could put our finger on directly, but we sensed in our spirits that we had stepped into enemy territory.
We later realized that of all the villages in Miskitia, Auka is considered one of the centers of witchcraft. This is the village that we had almost “randomly” selected in 1984 to establish our base. When we asked the village elders for a site to build our house, they gave us a piece of land on a little hill southwest of the village that had no houses within a half mile. We later were told that this hill was a place where people had “seen Satan” at night as they passed.
Yes, the “spiritual forces of wickedness” led by “The Thief” himself were upset at our intrusion into their territory. A definite spiritual battle was taking place. Our mission here in Miskitia was not necessarily to destroy the enemy as it had been in Red Flag, but rather to save the lives of the innocent. Still, we met heavy opposition. This enemy was not willing to concede an inch of territory or one soul to us.
As we entered the enemy’s territory and “pulled up into the fight” as Jack and I had done in the Red Flag fighter sweep, we felt the fury of the battle. We knew that we had our own celestial support—the “jammed” machine guns for starters. But we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were in a battle. The enemy forces so far had two confirmed kills, one damaged airplane and a nearly downed airplane.
This mission was more dangerous than we initially realized. I was used to fighting using my physical senses and physical weapons. This war was on an entirely different level, against unseen but very real enemies. Weapons and strategies existed to fight in this realm but were different than what I had been trained to use.
Paul said to his friends at Corinth:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” 2 Corinthians 10:3–4
Now it was time to learn to fight this spiritual war using spiritual weapons.
The first step in this spiritual battle was what Paul told the Ephesian church—recognize the enemy. I knew from previous experience that he existed.
The next step was to recognize where our strength in the spiritual realm comes from: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” (Ephesians 6:10)
Our strength comes through our relationship with Him.
It is He who gives us the power to fight.
Then it’s time to “Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” Ephesians 6:11
What is this spiritual armor? Paul goes on to explain:
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13–17
This armor that Paul describes so well in this sixth chapter of the book of Ephesians is the defense that a close and obedient relationship with God gives you—believing His truth vs. Satan’s lies; knowing your relationship as an adopted son or daughter of God Himself and the legal rights that go along with that relationship; your willingness to share the good news of this relationship; your faith in God to protect you; and your knowledge that you have eternal life with Him no matter what may happen here in this life. This is the defensive armor that God offers us.
But there are offensive weapons as well. The “sword” in the spiritual realm is God’s Word—Truth to apply to every situation where you feel yourself under spiritual attack; truth about your identity; truth about God’s promises to you; truth about the limited power of the evil one over you.
The other weapon He gives us is Prayer—communion with Him; prayer to align ourselves with God and His will and move with Him to accomplish His plan for our lives and for this world.
Truth and prayer are powerful dynamics in the spiritual realm.
The concept of a spiritual war seemed ambiguous when I lived full-time in the United States. Maybe that’s because few people there really believe in the existence of the spiritual realm. Even in most churches, spiritual warfare tactics were taught in a similar way that we flew in the Red Flag exercises—with little fear of real bullets.
Here in Miskitia, where everybody knows for a fact that the spiritual realm exists, and that it influences their lives daily, it was a different story. This was real combat— against an enemy firmly entrenched in the culture. Daily he sent “flaming missiles” in our direction.
Before, I had been trained in the Navy to recognize surface-to-air missiles and their associated fire-control radar systems, and how to take proper evasive action. Now I had to learn to recognize an entirely new array of weaponry—things like lies, deceptions, false “signs along the way,” temptations, discord, and disease. These things are common to everyday life. “The Thief” himself is the source of many of these which he uses for his own warfare purposes.
Even though the battles in the spiritual realm were for the most part “unseen,” this was a struggle more real and more important than any I had ever been a part of.
On Sunday, March 31, we flew back to Tegucigalpa. I arrived feeling like our mission was accomplished, and soon I would be able to head back to Maui. Joe met us at the airport with two reporters from the Houston Chronicle who were interested in doing a story on the Miskito Indian refugees. They wanted to go to Miskitia, and asked if I could help. Somehow at that moment, I sensed that it would be a while before I saw the island of Maui again.
I was right. A year later (May 1986), I finally arrived back home on Maui, but it was only to arrange my things so I could return to Honduras in July, when we launched our primary school project, named after a famous Biblical refugee. Project Ezra grew in 1987 to include schools in 12 refugee villages. When the war ended in 1990 with the election of Violeta Chamorro as the new president of Nicaragua, the new Minister of Education, Humberto Belli, sent word to us that we were invited to cross the Coco River and become the official government school in the villages along the lower Coco River.
Laura and I were ready at that time to finally return to Maui, but when we were told that if we didn’t put our teachers there for the 1991 school year, there would be none. There were no funds to put school in the most remote corner of Central America. We agreed, and tore down our school buildings on the Honduran side and rebuilt them on Nicaraguan soil.
These schools have educated tens of thousands of Miskito Indian children since then, and continue to this day.
Last Flights—First Flights
From the Speed of Sound
To the Speed of Smell
In October of 1979, Attack Squadron 196 was aboard the USS Coral Sea. We were operating off the Southern Californian coast in preparation for a long deployment to the Indian Ocean. The last exercise for this particular training period was a 24-hour war-at-sea between the Coral Sea’s air wing and some “enemy” cruisers and frigates.
USS Coral Sea CV-43
We had started this WASEX at 6:00 a.m. with a dawn strike against the enemy task force. I flew a mission that morning with my B/N Gary Sims. The next flight for us was that night—the 3:30 a.m. strike, which would be the final one of the WASEX. Gary and I were assigned to fly the KA-6D, the “Texaco” tanker. Our mission was to launch first, take up the “Low Station” overhead the ship at 3,000 feet and top off the F-4 Phantoms after their full afterburner catapult (cat) shot. These “full burner” cat shots are spectacular, especially at night, but they burn up about 400 gallons of fuel. Fighters need a lot of fuel to do their job. That’s why the A-6 tanker was one of the most important airplanes in the entire air wing.
Once all the fighters were full of gas, we were to climb to the “High Station” at 20,000 feet, orbiting overhead the ship until the strike force returned. Then we were to drop back to “Low Station” and be ready to refuel any aircraft low on fuel as they prepared to land.
Normally the “Texaco” mission was very routine and unexciting. A properly functioning auto pilot was a must for this mission. That hour at High Station driving the Intruder in a racetrack pattern around the ship was an excellent opportunity to let “George” (the auto pilot) practice his flying skills.
Flying at night at sea is always more challenging than daytime. The night catapult shot is the most dangerous event in the life of a carrier pilot. The sensation of being the “rock in the slingshot” was the same. But being launched at night was even more intense, and the feeling of helplessness is greater. It has been accurately described as “flying into a black hole with a bag over your head.”
First there is the lack of visual references except for the flashlight “wands” of the taxi directors and catapult officer. Once you are locked into the shuttle and go to full power, instead of saluting (since the cat officer can’t see you) to signal that you are ready, you turn on your wing and tail lights. Next, since you can’t see what’s happening on the deck, the initial acceleration usually comes as a surprise— eyeballs are jammed back into the sockets and the only thing visible outside the cockpit are the small lights marking the edge of the deck rushing toward you. As those deck lights disappear under you, you are looking at nothing but blackness in front of the Intruder, but your eyes are doing their best to focus on an artificial horizon on the screen directly in front. Knowing that the cold, deep ocean is only 60 feet below (or on the Coral Sea only 40 feet), it is mandatory to pull the nose up 8 degrees above the horizon. Assuming that your engines and instruments are still functioning after the 24 to 30 “G” acceleration, once you feel the aircraft climbing, and your eyes returning to their normal focused position, the rest is a piece of cake.
Sometimes things don’t go right, and men and machines are lost at sea.
Gary and I had almost bought it one night, even when everything and everybody had functioned properly.
That almost disastrous event occurred almost three months earlier—in July 1979. It was a launch I’ll never forget. That night we were also the scheduled “Texaco” for a night launch. The sky was broken to overcast, the seas heavy, and the deck was pitching. In conditions like these, when the bow is moving up and down during a launch, the cat officer waits until the bow has almost completed its downward motion before he touches the deck— the signal to fire the catapult. The idea is to get the aircraft going down the track as the bow begins its upward movement so that as the aircraft clears the deck, the bow is at the top of its arc, giving the aircraft a “kick” upward.
Most carriers cut through heavy seas with a rhythmic up and down motion. This is due to a special hull design. The Coral Sea moves through the water a little differently. She was designed and built at the end of World War II as a battleship, with more of a round bottom design. At the last minute they decided to put a flat deck on top and make her a carrier.
When the Coral Sea moves through heavy seas, she does a rhythmic up and down motion, but occasionally she stops the pitching movement and with a slight left and right roll, drops her nose and pitches even further down. All aircraft carriers are designed with the flight deck 60 feet above the water, but the almost-battleship Coral Sea has her flight deck only 40 feet above the water. These two factors came into play this particular night and made an already terrifying night launch just a little bit more exciting.
As we taxied into the shuttle on this July night, everything seemed as normal as it could be. The cat officer gave us the “turn up” signal, and I went to full power, and wiped out the controls. Gary gave me his usual grunt on the intercom indicating he was ready, and I turned on the lights.
The cat officer timed the movement of the bow, and touched the deck when the bow stopped its downward motion. In a second, my body felt the 28 plus “G” force, my eyeballs were slammed into the back of their sockets, and we were off. Unfortunately, the Coral Sea chose that moment to do its peculiar roll movement, and instead of the bow gently pitching upward, it buried its nose deeper into the oncoming swell. Unbeknown to us, our Intruder left the deck pointed down at the oncoming sea.
As the deck lights disappeared under us, I pulled the nose of the Intruder to the normal 8 degrees “climb” position above the horizon. I then moved my left hand off the catapult grip bar and moved it forward to the landing gear lever, slamming it up. As I did, I noticed through the side canopy window the moon breaking through the clouds just above the horizon. The reflecting moonlight danced off the waves below me, illuminating the white caps. I could even see the spray coming off the whitecaps as the wind hit them, and the individual droplets shooting off. It was such a remarkable scene—the rising moon, the dancing light, the whitecaps, the spray, the droplets flying off the top of the waves. Suddenly I had a disturbing thought: “I’ve never noticed the droplets off the top of the waves before. . . .”
It was less than two seconds since the deck lights had disappeared beneath us, and suddenly it all made sense. In a split second, I reacted with a hard pull back on the stick. At that same instant I heard Gary scream in no uncertain terms “ROTATE!” (the command to bring the nose of the aircraft up) as his hands latched on the yellow and black striped ejection seat handle between his legs and he straightened his back in preparation for the rocket motor to ignite. He was ready to get out! At that same instant, the Air Boss in the tower on the Coral Sea yelled into his microphone, “ROTATE!”—we had disappeared from his sight below the front of the now pitching-up flight deck.
I yanked the Intruder into a near stall to stop the descent, and then eased the nose down as we began to climb out. Gary relaxed slightly, but didn’t take his hand off the ejection seat handle. As we climbed through 200 feet, we both looked at each other. That had been close. We had bottomed out at less than 15 feet above the waves! That was too close for both of us.
The next day, I bought a Seiko diving watch that I had been looking at in the ship’s store, in celebration of life. I still have and wear this same watch as a reminder.
After that night, Gary and I were sure to cover the emergency procedures for ejection off the cat before each flight. Now it was three months later, and this last flight of the WASEX was no exception.
Fortunately, our launch this October “morning” was uneventful but still a bit unusual. Something about a 3:30 a.m. catapult shot just doesn’t seem normal. Feeling the force of the catapult grab you and fling you off the ship in less than two seconds was a definite wake-up call, and the resulting adrenaline rush provided more stimulation than 10 cups of strong Navy coffee.
Soon we completed our tanking with the Phantoms and climbed to High Station. After leveling off at 20,000 feet, I turned the auto pilot on and sat back to enjoy the view. George was a good pilot—especially for moments like these.
The heavens were spectacular—clear unpolluted skies with no lights within hundreds of miles. The stars were so bright and close that you could almost reach up and touch them. Such sights always prompted in me the thought of the immense expanse of the universe and the finite smallness of man. What was out there past the most distant star that I could see? Surely something. Somebody was behind all this—it just didn’t happen by chance.
Soon we could see the pink threads of the approaching dawn peeking over the horizon. Slowly these tiny rays grew almost before our eyes into broad bands of brilliant color. Soon they filled the horizon—truly an amazing sight!
Gary and I were both lost in our thoughts inspired by this magnificent display of cosmic colors. Few words were exchanged during the 45 minutes of orbiting the ship, and soon it was time to descend and return to Low Station. The Phantoms, Corsairs, and Intruders returned from the strike and began landing. Soon, all aircraft were aboard except for us.
Approach Control then cleared us to leave Low Station and set up for a straight in approach.
The sun was now almost to the horizon, and the sky was a radiant pink with orange streaks. As we approached the Coral Sea, she was bathed in a sea of pink and orange reflected light. The normal chatter on the radio had long ceased. The only sound was the quiet roar of the jet engines and the gentle whisper of the passing air. There are moments of stark terror in Naval Aviation, but this was a moment of sheer delight.
I didn’t really want to land yet; neither did Gary. Since we were the only airplane airborne, and this was the last recovery of a 24-hour exercise, there didn’t seem to be any hurry about getting aboard. We both were enjoying this scene around us too much. I began making a series of gentle turns. The colors in front of us combined with the whispering sounds around us were almost too much. It was just the sea, the sky, the Coral Sea, and us. This was what Naval Aviation is all about—these four basic elements—and the combination this morning was truly inspiring.
Gary and I were thinking the same thought, which he finally spoke over the intercom: “And to think that they actually pay us to do this.”
We made a few more turns. Finally, when we could delay no longer, I dropped the landing gear and flaps and slowed down to approach speed. About a mile from the ship, I visually picked up the ball on the OLS and descended slightly to “center” it on the lens. The morning air was smooth, and so was the approach. We touched down just short of the no. 3 wire. The tail hook snagged it, and we rolled to a stop. The taxi director gave us the “fold wings” signal, and directed us to our parking spot. I opened the canopy, shut down the engines, and unstrapped from the ejection seat.
The normally noisy flight deck was silent. There were no sounds of jet engines, tractors, or men moving around the flight deck, just silence. The sun was just beginning to crest over the horizon. Gary and I sat in the Intruder a few moments just taking it all in. It was amazing! They actually did pay us to do this!
Although it wasn’t planned this way, this turned out to be my last flight in the Navy. Soon after I received my orders detaching me from active service. What a great way to end my Navy flying career!
Shortly after this flight, I returned to Whidbey Island, shed my uniform for the last time, met up with Joe, loaded my VW van, and took off for Vail. Little did I realize then that it would be seven years until I made my next flight in an airplane as the pilot-in-command. How that came about is an interesting story.
Srumlaya is a village south of Auka on the Kruta River. It sits in the middle of a swampy area that is about 3 miles from the Coco River. In 1987, Srumlaya was a village where the refugee population outnumbered the native Honduran Miskitos. Because of its close proximity to the border, it was a base for the Yatama—the Nicaragua Miskito Resistance. Because of this large refugee population, Srumlaya was also the village where Project Ezra had its largest school.
We frequently visited the Srumlaya school. During the dry season, it took about two hours to walk to Srumlaya. During the rainy season, we traveled by boat, and the trip on the winding Kruta took almost three hours. In between seasons we walked, but the muddy trail usually added an hour to the trip.
On one particular trip, it took us about three hours to hike the trail. After spending a few days there working with our students, we were ready to go home. . . back to Auka. Auka was a very primitive place, but the bugs, mud, lack of clean water, latrines, and sanitary conditions (caused mostly by the pigs that roamed the village) in Srumlaya made Auka look like civilization.
As we prepared to leave, we heard the sound of a helicopter. Within a few minutes, a camouflaged military UH-2 helicopter with no markings landed in the cleared area next to our school building. Out stepped three of the Miskito “contra” leaders, plus the pilot, who was an unknown white face. This was a big event—probably the first time that a helicopter had landed in this village.
We went over and struck up a conversation with the pilot, who turned out to be a very nice guy from Rhodesia (the country in Africa now called Zimbabwe). When we jokingly asked him if he could give us a ride back to Auka, he thought for a moment, smiled, and said “Where’s your gear?”
We quickly grabbed our packs and boarded the Huey. Our pilot powered up, and in a few minutes, we were airborne. As we climbed above the tree line and turned north, I could clearly see our house in Auka. In three minutes we were there. Three minutes by air to cover the same distance that had taken us three hours! “Yes,” I thought as we landed, “these flying machines are valuable tools.”
When we first came to Auka in 1984, I had taken a few moments to stand on the small airstrip and talk to the Boss. I sensed in my spirit that soon I would be doing many takeoffs and landings from this small strip. I wasn’t sure just how this was going to come about, but I was certain that He would provide. It seemed very likely that since we were working in such a remote area cut off from the “civilized” part of Honduras, and since the U.S. government had invested huge amounts of money teaching me how to fly, that sometime soon we would have to get an airplane to support the project.
God did provide an airplane. Immediately. About a month after that conversation on the Auka airstrip, I heard from Neil, and he volunteered the use of his Seneca. Neil kept his airplane in Honduras from February through August of 1985, making many flights for us.
God’s provision for us through Captain Neil was a real blessing, but there was to be more. . . .
Jack Dyer is another missionary who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Before he came to Honduras in the late ’70s, he owned a very successful engineering business in Louisiana. I met Jack in Puerto Lempira in 1985 where he was serving as the project engineer for World Relief and the United Nations refugee program.
As I got to know Jack, I realized that there was something very special about him. He was a focused man who, with little resources, could accomplish a lot. He had a Maule airplane which he used to support the refugee project, as well as various church related activities. He helped us in those early years with many flights. As I flew with Jack I saw another quality—he is a good pilot. Actually he is a lot better than good—his skill in getting in and out of a short muddy airstrip in foul weather is unsurpassed.
Papa Jack Dyer, Laura and I, Waspam Nicaragua
One day in 1987, Jack stopped by Auka with some friends from Louisiana—Charlie and Cathy Cole. Charlie was very interested in what we were doing and asked a lot of questions. When he asked us what we needed most, I replied, “A truck to drive back and forth to Puerto Lempira.”
A few weeks later, I found myself with Jack in Tegucigalpa. We were there on some business, and one of his “chores” was to renew his Honduran pilot’s license. For some reason which I can’t remember, I went with him to the Aeronautica Civil office, showed them my American license, took the physical, and received a Honduran license. That was significant.
Shortly after that, I saw Jack in Tegucigalpa again. He approached me and told me that he was selling his Maule and his other airplane so that he could buy a Cessna 185. He asked me “Would you be interested in buying my other airplane?”
I didn’t realize that he had another airplane. It was a 1953 Piper Pacer: A fabric covered, four-place, single-engine airplane. His price was $7,500. That’s cheap for an airplane.
Still I replied, “Jack, we don’t have that kind of money.” We didn’t. Things were tight in Salt & Light.
A few days later, I saw Jack again. He asked me if I had thought about the airplane. I replied, “Yes, but we don’t have the money.” He suggested that I think some more about it.
Another week passed and I saw Jack at the airport. He took me aside and said: “Look, you guys need that airplane. I want you to have it. It needs to be used doing the kind of work that you all are doing. I’m going to give it to you now and you pay me when you can.” I finally got the message. The light went on. Jack was probably right—we did need that airplane.
Two weeks later I was in La Ceiba, and received a call from Charlie Cole. I was surprised to hear from him. He told me “I have $2,500 for you toward a vehicle. Can you use it?” I almost dropped the phone. “Well, Charlie,” I replied “We are buying a vehicle, but it’s an airplane instead of a truck. Can we use the money for that?”
Of course Charlie agreed, and suddenly we had one third of the Pacer paid for.
This was definitely a sign!
Now the next task was to learn to fly this airplane which, because of my training and experience, I knew wouldn’t take too long. After all, how complicated could it be? The last airplane I had flown had over 100 switches and selector buttons in the cockpit. This Pacer had only nine. The A-6 flight manual is a big book almost three inches thick with over 300 pages of information. The manual I got with the Pacer was only 22 pages—small pages. The A-6’s minimum flying speed was about 105 knots. The maximum straight and level speed of the Pacer is just under 101 knots. This had to be a simple airplane to fly.
Jack flew the Pacer to La Ceiba, and the first thing I noticed was its color—bright yellow. It reminded me of the color of a ripe banana. I noticed a few other things—short wings, a short longitudinal axis (short nose-to-tail), and instead of a nosewheel, a tailwheel. The controls were very simple—there was a control yoke, a fuel selector lever, an ignition key, a battery switch, a starter button, two radio switches, a throttle, and a mixture control (which, unlike most mixture controls, had to be pulled out about an inch for the normal operating position).
That’s it. Very simple.
But somehow I sensed that learning to fly this “Banana” was going to be more challenging than I imagined. Sure, I had plenty of flight time and some of the most intense training available in the world. But practically all of my time was in jets and the Pacer was definitely a different type of flying machine. The short longitudinal axis, the stubby wings, and the tailwheel marked this to be an aircraft that is difficult to handle on the ground— especially while taking off and landing. The tail wheel itself requires a special technique for landing and takeoff. The engine is a four-cylinder, 150 horsepower model—sufficient for most maneuvers of normal flight, but not a lot of excess power to get you over some mountains or out of some difficult situations.
We picked Trujillo, a light traffic airport, to practice landings. On the first takeoff, I became acquainted with the Flying Banana’s desire to go in any direction but straight. Delicate rudder control was definitely required to keep the airplane on the runway. My first attempts at landing were hilarious. I discovered quickly how to bounce down the runway without actually coming to a stop. I felt like I was doing low level acrobatics! I’m sure that Jack was thinking, “And this guy landed on carriers?” But, he was patient and brave enough to sit beside me during landing practice sessions. After that day, and about 20 landings, he pronounced me “safe for solo.” I wasn’t so sure. I knew that it would take a while to get familiar enough with this machine to land at the narrow short airstrip in Auka.
My first solo flight came a few weeks later. (We had flown Jack’s Maule to the United States in the meantime). Since I had no checklists, I was very careful to check all that I thought I should on preflight, and then start the engine and taxi out. Once the tower cleared me for take off, I said a quick prayer and pushed the throttle all the way forward. The engine seemed to be running a little rough, but soon the tail wheel came off the ground, and a few seconds after that I was airborne.
I climbed to about 500 feet and turned out over the water. That’s when an urgent voice came over the radio and said, “Don Jack, hay humo saliendo de su motor.” In English that translates: “Mr. Jack, there is smoke coming out of your motor.” It was the tower operator calling who she thought was Jack. I answered and immediately turned to set up for a landing. I touched down, and after a few bounces, came to a stop. I taxied over to the hangar area and shut the engine down. One of the guys working came over to ask me what the problem was. He’d seen the smoke too—black smoke.
Jack’s mechanic Julio was not there—it was Sunday afternoon. With my very limited knowledge of piston engines, there was little I could do, except wait until Monday and get Julio to check it. In the meantime, I tried my best analysis as to what the problem might be. Smoke coming from an engine was a serious problem. . . .
When Monday dawned, I headed to the airport. I explained to Julio the problem and my concern. He is a gentle older man (over 72 years old at this point), and he knows airplanes. We cranked the engine and it was still running a little rough. Julio listened and told me to go to full power. I did, and the engine’s roughness became more apparent. I could see Julio looking under the engine (probably at the exhaust pipe). He then came to the door, opened it, reached in, grabbed the mixture control, and pulled it out about an inch.
Suddenly the engine smoothed out. The smoke disappeared. And it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten about this special setting for the mixture control, and had left it in the “full rich” position, which on this engine was too much.
Julio looked at me like I’m sure he often looks at his grandchildren. I felt like one of his “nietos” then, too. If there was any pride left over from my Naval Aviation career, it evaporated right then and there. I smiled sheepishly, and gave him a wave, shut the door, and taxied out for a landing practice session.
I was soon ready to make my first flight to Auka. Since there are few navigational aids, I would have to rely on my map, and my knowledge of the geography of Miskitia. The route was a simple one—follow the coast east for about 100 miles until you get past the last tall mountains on the coast, then turn southeast. Using rivers and lagoons as checkpoints, you could eventually find Auka. From La Ceiba, it took about two hours and 40 minutes to get there—longer if the easterly winds were stronger than normal.
Landing on the airstrip at Auka was almost as challenging as landing on the Coral Sea. The “runway” was only 30 feet wide, and there was always the danger that a cow, horse, or pig would run out on the airstrip just as you touched down. Add to that the frequent rain, the associated puddles and mud holes, and the normal cross wind conditions, and you had an environment for landing that was as “user unfriendly” as any aircraft carrier.
After a few months, I finally got comfortable operating the Pacer, now know as the “Flying Banana,” and she proved to indeed be a valuable tool. That 12-hour walk to Puerto Lempira now took only 15 minutes in the Banana. The flight from Puerto Lempira that used to cost $80 in a chartered airplane now only cost four gallons of car gasoline—about $12. Our “standard of living” and the whole school project took a turn upward by having this flying pickup truck available for hauling supplies and teams to Auka. By this time too, we had received enough donations from friends to pay Jack the entire $7,500. Charlie and Cathy were especially generous once again.
In July, Victoria Palacios and Tom Keogh came to Auka for a teacher’s conference. I flew to Puerto Lempira to pick them both up. The conference came off very well, and soon it was time to fly them both back. One problem however—there was a big puddle in the middle of the runway. We had had some heavy rains, and there was almost a foot of standing water right at the spot where I normally lifted off. I wasn’t sure if the puddle was going to be a factor, or what would happen if I hit that water at high speed loaded with passengers. But I felt pressed to make the flight to get these guys back to their homes, and I figured that I had a “sporting chance.”
However, as I taxied through the water to get down to the take off end, I noticed that it was a little deeper than I had thought—almost over the wheels. I quickly prayed: “Lord, if I am not going to make this take-off safely, please let me know before I get to the end of the runway.”
Do you think that God answers prayers like that?
As I neared the end of the runway, I pushed on the right brake pedal to turn the Banana around. I felt the normal pressure, but then the pedal suddenly went all the way to the floor. I realized that I had just lost my right brake. I shut the engine down, and got out.
Yes. My suspicions were confirmed—there was red hydraulic fluid leaking from the belly of the Banana.
I was dismayed at this rupture in the brake line until I remembered my prayer. God had given me His answer—and kept me on the ground.
I got out my tool bag, and took off the metal panel and took a look. The brake line had broken, and it was a big tear. We pushed the Banana back to our house, and began thinking. I didn’t have a replacement line, nor did I have anything to patch it. After looking around our tool room for something, I found some old marine underwater epoxy which a friend had brought down to repair holes in our dugout canoe.
This might work. I mixed some up, molded it around the brake line over the tear, and let it sit. It took 24 hours to really dry completely. In the meantime, I wondered what fluid I would use to fill the brake line and reservoir, since I didn’t have any hydraulic fluid or regular car brake fluid.
Later that day, I heard an airplane approach Auka. I ran down to the airstrip. It was a friend Barry Watson, who flew for SAMI airlines, the local charter service based in Puerto Lempira. I told Barry of my problem and asked him if he had any hydraulic fluid with him. He replied: “You don’t really need brakes to fly—this airplane has been without brakes for the last two months.”
This surprised me. I asked, “Are you sure? Have you had any problems?”
Barry said, “No problems . . . well . . . except for the time I ran into the fence at the end of the runway in Cauquira. I got a little bit of barbed wire wrapped around the propeller, but it was no big deal.”
I looked at the propeller. Sure enough there were some deep nicks and gouges in the spinner and on the prop.
Barry loaded his passengers, and took off. I thought about what he said, and we rolled the Banana down to the airstrip for a taxi test. I fired the engine up, and moved down the runway. After a hundred feet, a gust of wind came along and pushed the airplane to the left. I gave it full right rudder, but she didn’t straighten out. Since I had no right brake, I couldn’t do anything but go along for the ride. Soon I was off the runway and into the weeds. That’s when I killed the engine. So much for the taxi test. Maybe Barry didn’t need brakes to steer his airplane—after all, his had a nosewheel. That makes a big difference.
The next morning, the epoxy was as hard as a rock. I had decided to use outboard motor oil to fill the line and reservoir. But would she hold the pressure? Only one way to find out.
I had never “bled brakes” before, but had watched Julio do it once. I connected the line, loosened the bottom relief nut, and began pouring the oil into the brake cylinder mounted on the brake pedal under the dashboard in the Banana. I would pour and pump, then pour and pump, then pour and pump. . . .
After about an hour of this, oil finally began coming out of the bottom. I tightened the relief nut. Now it was more pour and pump— two more hours worth. Finally I sensed some pressure as I pumped. Then I realized that after three hours of pumping with my left arm, I could be confusing “pressure” with muscle fatigue. But after 15 more minutes, I was sure that there was pressure. Another 15 minutes and I was definitely feeling it. Soon it was starting to feel hard pressure! I called Ron out to pump the pedal while I slightly loosened the lower relief nut. Oil and bubbles of air came out. I tightened it all up, and we poured and pumped another 20 minutes until the cylinder was full.
I was excited, but wondered would if she hold the pressure. We did another taxi test. She held. I turned around and taxied down to the end of the runway. The puddle was drained off, and it was no longer a factor. I took off, flew around and landed. She held!
Later that day, I flew Tom and Victoria up to Puerto Lempira.
The next day I flew to La Ceiba to get the brake line fixed.
Julio seemed impressed that I had repaired the line so well.
I had a question for him:
“Julio, if I ever find myself with this problem again, what should I use if I don’t have any hydraulic fluid?”
He thought for a minute and said “Beer.”
“Beer?” I replied.
“Yes,” he said. “Cold beer.”
“Cold beer?” I asked.
I thought a few moments about the viscosity of beer and its ability to hold pressure. Being cold must increase the viscosity and give it better pressure holding capability. But beer?
Finally, I asked, “Beer will work instead of hydraulic fluid?”
“No,” Julio responded very seriously. “But, if you drink two cold beers and then get into the airplane, you won’t worry about the brakes.”
Then he again gave me that smile that I’m sure that he gives to his other grandchildren. . .
A Matter Of Trust
King David, one of the most famous warriors and poets of ancient times, wrote:
Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will do it. Psalm 37:4–5
King Solomon, David’s son and one of the wisest and richest men of his day wrote:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5–6
What David and Solomon both were talking about in these verses is this important principle of life: if we commit our lives to God and enter into a personal relationship with Him, God will always be there for us. Whatever problems we have in our lives here on Planet Earth, the Lord will always be there to assist us. By trusting in Him, “He will do it.” By “acknowledging Him” in all areas of our life, “He will make our path straight.”
Some of us have had this experience: We are out for a drive when suddenly the car develops problems and stops running. We are without our tool box and far from home. We are out of ideas on how to fix the car. Just as we are getting desperate, a car passes and stops, then backs up. The driver gets out and asks us what the problem is. He takes a look under the hood, then returns to his car for his tool bag. After adjusting a few valves on the carburetor, the car starts. Our new friend gets into his car and drives off.
This is what David and Solomon spoke of in these verses: Trust. God will never leave us stranded. He will always be there for us. Now God’s eternal perspective on the events of our lives is different, and His solutions for our problems may be different from what we may expect. But He promises us that He will always be there . . . if we place our trust in Him.
If we place our trust in Him . . .
Airplanes are great tools to get you where you need to be, especially in remote areas where there are no roads. The Flying Banana served this purpose for us in Honduras. It was reliable, low cost transportation. But unbeknown to me, my Creator had other purposes for this airplane in my life as well. . . .
One day, we made a trip to Raya to visit some friends. Raya is in the extreme eastern corner of Honduras and is a very isolated village. When we started the take off roll down the Auka International runway, it seemed like the Banana was struggling to get off the ground. I aborted the takeoff. I then unloaded my passengers, and took off solo. She did seem a bit sluggish, but flyable. I landed, loaded the passengers, and took off for Raya.
Somewhere en route to Raya, one of the two bolts holding the tailwheel on came off. I had no way of knowing it until we landed, when the free swinging tailwheel came up and crushed the bottom of the rudder. I realized something was wrong when I couldn’t move either rudder pedal.
I got out and looked, and saw that the tailwheel had bent up the metal frame of the rudder, and crushed the fabric. Many villagers had gathered by this point, and I asked one for some wooden blocks to jack up the airplane. Next, I bent back into place the metal frame, and tried to smooth out the fabric as best as I could. Now all I needed was a bolt with a nut to reattach the forward part of the tailwheel leaf spring assembly to the bottom of the fuselage. Since the nearest hardware store was over 200 miles away, I asked if anybody had any bolts. People began bringing out rusty tin cans with rusty (and usually slightly bent) bolts. Unfortunately, nothing worked.
Then someone suggested that one of us go out to a shrimp boat that was anchored about a quarter mile off shore. Ron quickly left to find someone with a boat to take him there. About an hour later, he returned with two shiny stainless steel bolts (with matching nuts), just the right size. He said that the captain had taken them off an air compressor.
These worked, and within 20 minutes we were headed back to Auka. Thank God for those bolts.
Time Lapse Photo.
The next day, I flew to La Ceiba to get the rudder repaired. Julio saw the damage and said that it would take a few days to weld a piece of metal and recover it with new fabric. As an afterthought, I told him that I thought that the engine was performing a bit sluggishly. He said he would check it.
A few days later, I returned to the airport. The rudder was back on the airplane, but still needed painting. But what bothered me was the green tarp that was draped over the engine.
As I walked into Julio’s office, I saw four engine cylinders sitting on the floor. “They are all bad,” Julio said. My stomach took a little turn. “What do you mean bad?” I replied.
Julio explained that he’d checked the compression on all four cylinders, and the pressure ranges were from 31 to 39 psi (pounds per square inch). Normal compression is 68 to 78 psi. Minimum safe limits are 55 and above. All of these were 39 and below. No wonder the Banana felt sluggish! The engine was operating on less than half its normal 150 horsepower! He said that they needed to go back to the United States for overhaul.
By coincidence, I was scheduled to return to Florida that week to meet Laura, who was coming from Hawaii on her prenuptial visit. I packed up the cylinders and boarded the airliner.
When I arrived in Florida, my friend Keith Larkin took me and the cylinders to a local engine shop for repair. When I asked for the estimate of cost, I was told “about $400 to $600 each.” I was good at math in high school, but any way I figured it, the repair bill was going to be a minimum of $1,600 more than I had at the moment.
This was a lot of money, and I began to think where I could come up with this amount.
After much thought, I finally realized that since the Lord had given us this airplane, He would also take care of this repair bill. I just needed to trust Him.
I told the shop owner, “Go ahead and repair them.” Then he told us that he needed a $500 deposit on the work. I must have had the look of financial embarrassment on my face, because without a word, Keith took out his checkbook and wrote the check!
That week, I had an opportunity to play racquetball with my good friend Buddy Tipton, pastor of Central Assembly in Vero Beach. During the course of our games, he asked me about the school project and the airplane. Buddy was always interested in the project.
Sunday morning, I was in church, in a seat near the aisle. During the worship time, we were all standing. Just as the last song was about to end, Buddy came up to me and said “Why don’t you come up and tell everybody about the airplane problem. I think that the Lord is going to do something today.”
I was surprised, but obedient. When he called me up, I shared for a few minutes about the Flying Banana and the engine problem. As I sat down, Buddy announced that they would immediately take up a special offering to help pay for the repair.
Now there were about 200 people that first service, and I thought that it would be nice if $200 or $300 came in. After the service, Buddy asked me to stay for the second service. I shared again about the Banana. Another offering was taken.
After the service, Buddy’s assistant pastor Larry Boan told me that the combined total for both services was $3,289.
When the cylinders came back from the factory, the price was not $400 or $600, but closer to $800 each. Apparently the valves needed to be replaced. But, with God’s provision, I was able to pay the bill and give Keith back his $500 check. Laura and I took the cylinders back to Honduras where Julio reinstalled them. When the bill came for his work on the engine and the rudder, because of God’s provision, I was able to pay his bill. I was able to also buy some other needed parts for the Banana.
A few weeks later, I added up all the bills for the work done on the Banana. The total came out to $3,288.75. The Lord knew just how much we needed, and gave it to us that Sunday morning—with a $1.25 to spare.
God was showing me something—I could place my trust in Him. But there was more. . . .
July 4th is a special day for me. Besides being the day of Independence for my country, it was also the day I was baptized at Wailea Beach on Maui by Craig and Jason. It’s sort of my spiritual independence day. July 4, 1988 was a very significant day for these reasons, as well as another lesson in trust.
We had a team from California visiting to build a house in Auka. July 4th was the scheduled day to fly them all to Auka. We sent five of the team on a commercial flight to Puerto Lempira. I took Matt (one of the carpenters), plus all the excess luggage and some food with us in the Banana.
Two significant things happened while I was loading the cargo:
(1) A bird flew over and deposited some “processed food” on my shoulder;
(2) As I was trying to fit a backpack into the Banana, I felt something pop in my left wrist.
The bird poop was a sign of what was ahead for the day. My wrist was sore immediately, but not sore enough to prevent me from flying.
Matt and I made it to Auka in the usual 2 hours and 40 minutes, and unloaded. I immediately took off for Puerto Lempira, where the rest of the group was waiting. It’s only a fifteen minute flight from Auka to Puerto Lempira, and as I landed, I could see some dark thunder clouds approaching.
I parked the airplane and quickly walked to the house of a friend near the airport where I kept two drums of gasoline. I filled two 5-gallon jugs and walked back to the airplane. With my plastic hose, funnel, and chamois, I poured the gas into the two wing tanks. Then I began loading the baggage and my one passenger. As we took off, I could see dark clouds in the direction of Auka.
Sure enough, five minutes out of Puerto Lempira, we hit heavy rain. I descended to where I could still see the ground and pressed on. At the end of 15 minutes, when we should have been over the airstrip, all I could see were pine trees. I began circling, looking for something familiar. Finally, I caught a glimpse of the roof of our big house off to the east. We circled for another 5 minutes until the shower passed and finally landed. I quickly unloaded and took off.
I hit more rain on the return leg, and it seemed like the engine began running a little rough. After I got out of the rain and close to the airstrip at Lempira, I was sure the engine was running rough. I did a quick magneto check once I got lined up with the runway, and the engine began vibrating loudly. The magneto is the source of spark for an airplane—similar to the distributor in an automobile engine. There are two magnetos on an aircraft engine, and each cylinder has two spark plugs— each connected to a different magneto so that each cylinder has two separate sources of the needed spark. Checking the magneto is done by disconnecting each magneto from the engine circuit while the engine is running, and ensure that the other magneto is providing the need spark to all the cylinders. A rough running engine on a mag check indicates a bad magneto, bad spark plug, or a broken wire.
I landed quickly and taxied up to our friends. They were waiting with two full jugs of gasoline.
I asked them the put the gas in the fuel tanks, as I opened the engine cowling to take a look. Nothing was obviously wrong, so I got out my wrench, and took off the spark plug wires. On the fourth wire, I found it—a broken spring connector at the end of the spark plug wire. How was I going to fix this? There are no mechanics in Puerto Lempira. The nearest one is about 60 miles away at the Mission Aviation Fellowship base in Ahuas.
While I was trying to figure this out, Vic, one of the carpenters, came to me and told me that the fuel was in, asked me for one of the fuel caps. I was puzzled. “I don’t have the fuel cap. Where did you put it when you took it off to pour the fuel in?” I asked.
“We didn’t take the left one off—it was already off. We assumed that you did.” Vic said.
I hadn’t taken the fuel caps off, and we looked around on the ground for the cap. After about five minutes of searching, it began to dawn on me where the cap was—probably somewhere between Puerto Lempira and Auka. It must have come off in flight after we had refueled on the first flight. Because of my sprained wrist, I probably didn’t tighten it down properly before I took off.
Now we had two major problems—a broken spark plug lead and a missing fuel cap. Both items were essential for flight.
“What now?” I asked myself. And then, “Where are you, Lord, when I need you?”
That’s when it started to rain very heavily.
Soon the heavy rain passed and, I began to walk down to the SAMI hangar at the end of the runway. SAMI is the local charter service with (at that time) one Cessna 206. They don’t have a full-time mechanic, but maybe they might have something. . . . I was starting to get desperate.
The guy that takes care of the plane is a boy from Auka named Derrick. I had brought many bags of bananas from Derrick’s mother in Auka for her son. I told Derrick my problems. He motioned for me to come with him behind the hangar. There, lying next to the latrine, was the wing off a Cessna that had crashed a few years before. On one of the fuel tanks was a fuel cap!
As I took a close look, I realized that it was a completely different type than what was on our Piper Pacer. It didn’t even look to be the same size, much less a compatible design. I tried to twist it off with my good hand. It wouldn’t budge. I tried both hands. Then I asked Derrick to try. He couldn’t get it to move either.
Since it probably wouldn’t fit, there was no use wasting our time further. Besides, I had another pressing problem.
As I walked back to the Banana, I saw an airplane landing. It taxied right up next to ours and the engine died. Out stepped a good friend, Tom, who was a pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship. He had just flown in with some passengers from their base in Ahuas!
Now, all MAF pilots are also mechanics, and I was very glad to see Tom. I explained to him our problems. He took a look at the spark plug lead and went to his airplane and grabbed his tool bag. From it he took out a new spring connector. He carried a few on all his flights for moments just like these.
With that, we went to work. In about ten minutes, he had it connected, and it was time to crank the engine and test it. As I turned around, I almost bumped into Derrick, who was standing behind me. He had a screwdriver in one hand, and a gas cap in the other. He had worked the cap loose with the screwdriver.
I took the cap, looked at it, and was now sure that it would not fit. It had a completely different type of design. I almost handed it back to Derrick with a “thanks, but no thanks,” but I realized that he must have worked more than a few minutes to get the cap off the wing. It wouldn’t hurt to try so I climbed up on the wing and held the cap over the fuel tank filler hole. I dropped it down, and the metal prongs on the cap fit through the notches in the filler neck perfectly! With a twist, it tightened securely into place. I was amazed. So much for my engineering expertise.
In fact, as I took it off again and again, it seemed like this Cessna gas cap fit better on the Banana than the Piper cap did.
I climbed down off the wing and into the cabin and started the engine. It ran very smoothly. Tom’s repair job was perfect.
There were still plenty of dark clouds on the horizon, and it was getting late in the day. I still had two flights to make to Auka. Tom saw my situation, and volunteered to make a flight to Auka, and then head back to Ahuas. We loaded up, and in 20 minutes, we both were on the ground in Auka.
As I walked up to the big house with my bags, I remembered what I had said in Puerto Lempira: “Where are you Lord when I need you?”
At that moment a still small voice said to my spirit, “Right here. Right where I said I would be.”
When you think about the possibility of finding a fuel cap in Puerto Lempira, and Tom’s coincidental flight to Puerto Lempira that he made at exactly the right time, I knew that He was right. He was right there, taking care of everything. Just as He promised He would.
“Commit your way to the Lord and He will do it.”