Aviators come from all walks of life with wildly varied personalities. But one thing I’ve noticed is, they all tell great stories. Typically, the longer they’ve been flying, the grander the tales.
Recently my oldest son, TJ, and I heard a run of great aviation stories when we accompanied my friend Clif and his wife, Kristen, to the Annual Oyster Roast in Swansboro, NC. The oyster roast started on a Saturday evening, but we made it a weekend affair, arriving Friday night at a great beach house Clif had on loan from a friend. The stories started flowing that evening and while I can usually hold my own, having traveled extensively in the Navy, I had nothing on Clif.
Clif retired from the Navy as a LAMPS MKI helicopter pilot while I only signed up for three years to receive the GI Bill and didn’t earn my wings until later in life. One of the uses of the LAMPS helicopter is to drop sonobuoys, floating devices that detect underwater noise and relay it back to a nearby ship for analysis, specifically to identify submarines and determine if they are friend or foe. Coincidentally, my job in the Navy was a sonar technician, the guy who analyzed the frequencies from the sonobuoys. While Clif shared numerous Navy yarns over the weekend, two of them stood out for me.
The first involved his brush with famed author Tom Clancy who wrote Hunt for Red October and has penned numerous novels with strong military plots. Mr. Clancy planned a shipboard visit for several days to research a subsequent book and Clif learned well in advanced that he’d been assigned to accompany the writer during his time onboard. Knowing the author was quite the military buff, Clif spent many hours in the coming weeks to gain necessary clearance to take Mr. Clancy flying. No small feat.
Finally, the day arrived when the author set foot on the ship and Clif began to show him around. During the tour, Clif proudly announced that he’d gained authorization to fly the writer in the helicopter. But Clif’s excitement was short-lived. Mr. Clancy looked at him and said, “Thanks, Clif, but I really don’t like to fly.”
But perhaps Mr. Clancy is tuned into the world a bit more than the average person and knew something Clif didn’t. Some military personnel will tell you that even though the writer supposedly didn’t have access to the Navy’s top secret submarine hunting equipment, he still accurately described many of the processes and gear in use by combining his power of deduction with his vast knowledge as a military buff. Which brings me to Clif’s second story, and maybe why Mr. Clancy is reluctant to fly.
One January morning a few years later, Clif took off from his ship with his crew for an early flight before the sun rose. Lifting off from the ship sailing in the Gulf Stream about 70 nautical miles off the Florida coast, Clif ascended into the solid overcast above, reaching 500 feet when the helo suddenly became difficult to control. He found himself fighting the chopper as he lost altitude in the pitch black. As he worked to save the multimillion dollar piece of equipment, he wondered if it might be the end of him.
Making his best controlled descent under the circumstances, Clif finally spotted ocean white caps. He secured the engines on the bird right before plunging into the water where the helo immediately pitched left as the cockpit filled with seawater. Clif popped his harness right as the cold brine started to cover his face and then he swam out to the surface. Only after he saw his two crew members pop up behind him did he start to breathe easy.
But the thrill of survival dampened as they bobbed in twenty foot seas. For almost an hour they awaited rescue in the icy water until another chopper finally arrived to lower a harness. Clif had disturbing thoughts as he swam toward it. Man would it stink to survive the helo crash and an hour in the ocean only to get chomped by a shark right before I reach the harness.
Of course, that shark never materialized, and I’m only joking when I wrote Mr. Clancy may have been prescient enough to realize Clif would one day lose a helicopter, an obscenely expensive machine that to his knowledge, still sits at the bottom of the Gulf Stream. And as great as these stories are, there's an additional fact that makes them even more special.
Clif and I met over eight years ago and shared many things in common: the Navy, a love of flying, and a fondness of steamed oysters, which we often ate together at a favorite restaurant whenever the opportunity arose. Many times during those meals we threatened to head to the Swansboro Oyster Roast together. I always meant to go, but the event had a way of creeping up and an overloaded calendar prevented the road trip each time Clif reminded me about it.
Around this time last year Clif discovered he had throat cancer. His physician even feared the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and the doc urged immediate treatment. But Clif is a positive person—something I value in a friend—and he appeared undaunted even as we snuck a last batch of steamed oysters right before he started treatment. Together, we promised a road trip the following year to the oyster roast to celebrate once he had beaten the cancer. Clif held up his end of the bargain, emerging from his treatment cancer-free. Believe me when I say nothing could have stood in my way of joining him this year.
As for Clif's two adventures, the truth is, I’d heard both stories before. But I asked him to retell them, wanting TJ to hear first hand. As I reveled in the tales, both felt as fresh as the first time I'd listened wide-eyed. I knew the opportunity to hear them told once more was a special gift indeed. I hope Clif gets to tell them a million times more.