As I pondered the day before Thanksgiving (Nov 25, 2020), it occurred to me, that 41 years earlier, I was in a very similar geographical spot on the planet.
“November 25, 1979, I sauntered out in the very cold air of Tucson AZ to take my last flight in an A10 Warthog, while on active duty, USAF. Being the last flight, it was bound to be a great and yet sad day. The flight was scheduled as a 2 ship, fully loaded with actual live ordinance. I was carrying 6 MK 82 bombs and 500 rounds of 30mm cannon shells.
Number 2 was engaged in an instructor upgrade flight. As I was his instructor, was to impersonate a student. This would allow him to see things that might never happen while he was an instructor, but, still worth practicing the possibilities.
We took off in the cold morning air and quickly climbed out. (Cold air always makes planes feel like they are more powerful than they really are.) Turning out of traffic with an initial heading of west to fly low level towards Gila Bend gunnery ranges, we were contacted by departure to call the SOF (supervisor of flying) for the day.
He informed us that a student had just ejected from his A10 in the airspace close to Douglas Arizona. We were asked to divert towards the crash site to help locate the downed pilot. Flying no more than 5 minutes in the new easterly direction, we were recontacted and told that the chute had been spotted and there was no sign of life of the pilot. We were to continue on with the original mission plan.
Well, of course, that drastically altered the “fun” part of the flight. Now, quite unusually somber, we entered the low level area and after about a 20 minute flight west bound at 300 feet above ground level (AGL) we entered the east tac bombing range. This is one of 3 tactical ranges in use close to Gila Bend. Tactical means that the targets on the ground are arranged to give the pilots the feel of a real world environment. Instead of a conventional target, the flight would engage targets, predetermined in the pre planning, and drop the bombs or shoot the gun at what resembled a battle scene.
The east tac range is south of present day I8, which transits from Casa Grande, AZ west to San Diego, CA. The north edge of the range is bordered by good sized mountains. Our target array that we had picked was on the desert floor just south of this range. Trying to be a bit aggressive I dropped below prescribed altitude minimus to see what the instructor upgrade pilot would say. However, I realized that after dropping my pair of 500 pound bombs, I was even lower that I had anticipated.
That meant I needed to recover aggressively to avoid the rising terrain ahead. I estimate I pulled about 7 g’s on the recover, and was not sitting firmly in the seat during the pull. Having flown so much in recent weeks, I had become quite tender on my posterior. Looking back over my shoulder to monitor the other plane, pulling and in a bad posture, I felt something in my lower back go pop, pop, pop. I thought maybe I had just twisted my back.
On the way back to base after the completion of the mission, I began to realize how badly I was hurt. (It was later determined I had ruptured multiple disks in my lower back.) What really concerned me was the fact that, since this was my last flight, the maintenance crews normally would meet an FCF pilot and strap him to a trailer. (FCF is a functional check pilot – a local test pilot for airplanes being returned to service after a lengthy repair), Then they would proceed to drive up the flight line with this poor soul and hose him down with fire truck stations along the way.
Today, with the temps in the mid 40 range, that would be bad at best. However, being hurt, (who would believe me) on top of the injured back, I was in for some real trouble. The mixed blessing would be that the base would be in a somber mood because o the loss of the pilot and plane earlier, and I might be saved from this part of the fini-flight.
My family and squadron were all out to meet me as I taxied in. I asked my ops officer to come up the steps of the jet. He complied, wished me well, shook my hand and I told him I might need help getting out of the jet.
Smiles, pictures and fortunately, no water, and I was done. My last flight on active duty was in the “books”. I would separate from my 6+ years of active duty having proudly flown 2 single seat fighters in my short career, both the A7D and the new A10A, as well as being a formal course Instructor Pilot for initial training of A10 pilots.
Now, 41 years later, I was controlling from a tower on the same Gil Bend bombing range complex. Today, 4 A10’s, dropping practice bombs. Hard to believe I was still involved in this piece of real estate and the same airplane!!”