‘There I was …’

  • Published
  • By Col. Thomas Riney
  • 22nd Operations Group commander
Like most pilot stories, this one begins with "There I was..."

There I was -- at 30,000 feet in my T-38 Talon, staring straight into a towering black cloud and wishing I was somewhere else...

Two hours earlier, I was psyched for my first T-38 cross-country mission. I was well rested, well prepared and excited about flying from Arizona to Texas. Sure there was bad weather over New Mexico, but my instructor pilot said, "Ah, we'll be fine, besides my fiancé is stationed at Randolph and she will be there to meet the plane."

I can't remember how long the flight was supposed to be, but I do remember my girlfriend was meeting us in Texas too.

After reaching cruise altitude, we encountered clouds. The T-38 didn't have weather radar, but we were on an instrument flight plan. At first we were able to stay out of the thick stuff. We asked to climb to get on top of some "white puffys." As we climbed out of the clouds, we saw "it" in front of us - a huge wall of towering black clouds. "Now that's what we need to avoid," warned a voice from behind me. "Those bad boys will kill you!"

No need to tell me, I was already turning north.

We picked our way north until it opened up - a little corridor through the clouds to the east. It wasn't ideal, but maybe we could make it to Texas after all.

"Coming right, what do you think? It looks pretty good to me." I said as I turned the aircraft toward Texas.

"Yeah, looks like it will probably open up to the east," my IP responded.

I sure hope so, I thought.

I was wrong. The black walls continued to close in and soon we couldn't turn left or right, only continue straight ahead. The cockpit was silent. "Those bad boys will kill you" kept repeating in my head. Soon the darkness mimicked the middle of the night, radios crackled with electricity and my hair felt as if it was on end. With a crackle and a pop on the radio, the light show started. Bright white flashes filled the windscreen and lit up the cockpit. It seemed like we were bouncing around in the blackness for hours. My IP made a radio call, nobody answered.

Just when I knew we were doomed, we broke through the black curtain and everything turned white. The bumpy ride ended abruptly, like going from gravel to a paved road. A second later, the sunlight blinded my eyes and I checked my instruments - plenty of fuel, two good engines.

The rest of the flight was quiet. The weather was good and before I knew it we were at Randolph. After a short debrief, I was with my girlfriend.

It has been quite a few years since that day. My girlfriend and I have been married for more than 20 years and have three wonderful kids. I no longer wear a helmet when I fly and I have color radar to guide me around storms. As I reflect back on that flight, I learned important lessons that have shaped my character and personality.

First, I learned not to put myself in positions where I don't have options. That is as true on the ground as in an aircraft. I should have listened to that little voice in the back of my head, I was lucky. We can't rely on luck. We are accomplishing a high-paced mission, supporting operations worldwide. It is vitally important we make good decisions and avoid situations with no good options.

Secondly, I learned I can make a difference. Even though I was new to flying, I could have stayed out of those clouds. I used my inexperience as an excuse, and let my emotions drive me. There was no need to take risks. I knew what was right and smart and chose to ignore it.

Finally, as I look at pictures of my family, I remember how precious life is. Our country, our teammates and allies on the ground in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, are counting on us. The Air Force is smaller than it has ever been - everyone is important to our mission. Make good decisions, listen to the voice in the back of your head and do the right thing.

I am proud to serve with you all in the best Air Force in the world and proud to be part of the strongest military in history. Thank you for your sacrifices and defending freedom.