In the summer of 1984 I was a first grade kid living on Naval Air Station Point Mugu, just north of Malibu. At the time there was a test and evaluation squadron stationed there, and it was the first time I saw Navy jets. I had a great seat to a daily air show. I never got an opportunity to interact with any of the pilots, but I decided that they had to be pretty awesome and I was going to be one of them. The innocent naiveté of a seven year-old obscured the reality that getting to be one of them would be the longest of long shots.
I managed to do well enough in high school to go to college on a Navy ROTC scholarship. And, despite my best efforts, I managed to graduate from one of the nation’s top party schools in four years with orders to NAS Pensacola to begin pilot training. The road from first grade to flight school was bumpy, and the number of times I nearly derailed the proverbial train are too numerous to count. But through stubbornness and more grace and good luck than one person should ever receive I found myself in a jet trying to land on a ship for the first time in May 2002. If I’d never had a chance to do anything more in the Navy I would have been content, but those first few laps around the “boat” proved to be just the beginning.
I’ll fast forward this trip down memory lane to the summer of 2008. I was by then an instructor pilot, having completed a deployment in 2005–2006 flying jets on and off of an aircraft carrier in support of troops in Iraq. My primary responsibility as an instructor was to teach new pilots how to land their first operational “fleet” jets on a ship. This was the first time the students were trying it at night and we spent weeks getting them ready. After we’d done all the training we could at home we’d pack up and head down to San Diego where the carriers were home ported. We’d typically arrive a week or so early and do some more practice landings with the students before the big day (and night). And because we were young and bullet proof, after the flights were complete we’d head to the beach and get after it…
One day we wrapped up early and got out to the beach in the afternoon. One of my friends and fellow instructors, with the dubious call-sign “Detox,” told me about a bar he wanted to hit. Unfortunately the name of the bar escapes me, but it was widely accepted to be one of the best places to watch a sunset. We found a table on the deck, ordered a bucket of beers, and waited for the sunset. Detox asked if I’d ever seen the green flash. Unless he was asking about Flash the DC comic character, I had no idea what he was talking about. He told me the green flash is something that occurs at sunset when two optical phenomena combine: a mirage and the dispersion of sunlight. As the sun dips below the horizon the light is dispersed through the earth’s atmosphere like a prism.
If I’m being honest, until I saw it, I thought he was full of “it”…How could I have grown up in California and Florida and never heard of or seen this? But, sure enough, there it was, and if you’ve seen it you know how incredibly beautiful it is, but also how fleeting it is.
Let’s fast forward some more — to today, August 1st, 2020. I’ve now been doing this carrier aviation thing for a little more than twenty years, and I’m about a week away from bringing my squadron home from a deployment that has already gone down in the record books. My job description is broad. I’m accountable for everything, good and bad, the organization does. One of the elements of the job I’ve enjoyed most has been mentoring our youngest aviators. Whether it’s related to the actual flying or some of the squishier leadership stuff, I’ve tried my best to pass on to them the things I’ve learned from my limited successes and countless failures. I’ve tried to show them that being good at their jobs is fun, that winning is fun, and that hard work makes everything else easier. I’ve shared stories and painfully learned lessons, and I’ve done it because this job has meant so much to me it would have been irresponsible and selfish not to.
It’s funny though, these young aviators often look at me with the same incredulous look I gave Detox when he first explained the green flash to me. It’s a look that suggests mild interest with a healthy dose of skepticism. But unlike the fleeting nature of the flash, many of the lessons and ideas I’ve tried to pass on take time to resonate. If there’s anything they’ve taken away from these discussions, it’s likely to take them time to really comprehend and apply. But not tonight. Tonight the return on investment was immediate.
This evening I decided to go for a walk, alone, up on the flight deck to get some fresh air and to think. As I was strolling across the flight deck I saw one of our young enlisted Sailors working under one of our jets. I crouched down and struck up a conversation with him. He’s a great young man with a loving wife who is anxious to have him home. We chatted a bit about his plans for post-deployment leave, and then he paused and pointed out how pretty the sunset was about to be. We crawled out from under the jet and walked over to the deck edge. I asked him if he’d ever seen the green flash. He gave me that skeptical look; the one I gave Detox back in 2008, and the same one the junior pilots give me when they find themselves trapped in another episode of Old Man Story Hour. I explained to him what we were watching for, and as much of the science behind it as I could remember. Then it happened. We both stood quietly with only the sound of the passing ocean and the brilliance of the now fading flash. He turned to me and said, “Skipper, that’s got to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Thank you.”
I was up on the flight deck this evening for that walk because I thought I needed to be alone for a little bit. Earlier today I landed a jet on a ship for the last time. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, and I got to do it for a long time, but I’ll never do it again. In a few months I’ll hand over command of the squadron and retire from the Navy. I’ll fly some more before then, but never again like this. The finality of today brought a lot of emotions I probably should have been more prepared for. The last twenty years feel like they’ve gone by in the blink of an eye — in the green flash of a sunset. I thought a quiet stroll alone would be helpful. Instead I ended up with Petty Officer Lorenzo — and our few minutes together were exactly what I didn’t know I needed. He told me he can’t wait to get home so he can take his wife to the beach at sunset and show her what I shared with him. He’s going to do what I hope my young aviators do with what I’ve humbly tried to give them.
Views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.