The silence pounded in my ears. Ready or not, it was all about to happen.
I could think of nothing else but the digital ticking of the clock in the heads up display (HUD), right in front of me.
I don’t know if I had imagined this moment before. Honestly, I can’t say that I had. You hear about these moments. You prepare for them. But when they arrive, it’s not what you pictured–it’s unlike any experience you’ve ever had.
Time almost stands still. I’ve heard people talk about that–how everything slows down, and you have this heightened sense of awareness–of hearing, of seeing, even of feeling–all of these senses kick in.
|Time almost stands still, but it doesn’t. If you are in a hurry, jump to the end to find out more about mj2,the author and narrator, or find out more about the book You Can Be a Test Pilot.|
There was a high frequency percussion–the air was actually beating around me. It wasn’t a rumble, because the frequency was too fast and too high pitched–but it wasn’t really high pitched. Have you ever listened to the sound the air makes when only one window is open in the car, when the window is behind you? It was sort of like that.
It was as if everything had stopped except the beating air. Nobody was even breathing. They were all holding their breath, waiting.
Maybe it was just the sound of my own beating heart, the blood pulsing through the vessels in my ears.
For a moment, all I could do was watch it happen in front of me, almost as if I wasn’t there.
And then I was back, back in the present, engaged in the flurry of activity the moment demanded.
I double-checked the instruments–the airspeed indicator…
The altimeter…the deck angle…the heading…the distance…
I could feel my right hand on the throttles, confirming their position, that they weren’t moving.
My left index finger was keying the mic: “Three…”
I had to let go of the push-to-talk switch between each transmission, after each word, because someone, anyone, could call it off at any second, if something went awry. Anyone could call an abort, and I had to listen for that, listen over the sound of my own thoughts and the steady beating of my heart and the air around me.
What if something goes wrong?
Key the mic: “…Two…” Release.
Fear disappears for a moment.
I’m not sure that what remains is courage.
It’s something else–it’s procedure, doing what you know comes next. It’s habit–you’ve gone through these motions before. It’s obedience to the checklist, following the steps. It’s a plan.
But you are also doing a million other things–things that you have never done before, that no one has ever done.
You are doing something you have never done before, but you have already done it a hundred times: you have practiced and trained and rehearsed this moment more times than you can count.
All of this goes through your mind in a fraction of a second…
Key the mic: “…One…” Release.
It all rides on this next moment, the next second. It’s less than one second away. Now it’s time.
What happens next is all a blur. But not really a blur, because you remember it all very clearly. But it happens so much faster–the next minute goes by so much faster than the last ten seconds.
It happened for me, exactly like I just described. I was thirty two years old. It was my first mission as a test pilot in the C-17. It was a flight test airdrop mission 25,000 feet above Yuma Proving Grounds, and we had just released a NASA payload, a parachute test vehicle modeled after the Orion space capsule, that now plunged towards the Arizona desert below.
I had just faced the unknown. That’s what test pilots do. That’s also what flight test engineers (FTEs) do and test loadmasters and so many others.
That was my first flight test ever as a test pilot. It’s also a story in the book You Can Be a Test Pilot, but both are just waypoints in life’s journey.
If you’d like to find out the destination of this journey or meet the travelers read more about mj2 here.
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