What Uncle Sam Doesn’t Know
Won’t Hurt Him


This is a Chinook helicopter. It is very expensive.

TZVECL. That same string of random letters read backward is LCEVZT. That’s line 9 on the eye chart at Lyster Army Hospital at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

When I was an Army aviator, I might not have had perfect vision, but I had a killer memory. They never should have left me alone unsupervised in that room. Now, I’ll have 20/20 vision until the sun burns out. In fact, I could now hypothetically read line 9 with my eyes closed.

They told us that wearing contacts was a disqualifying offense. Fortunately, I really did have perfect eyesight when I started flight school. One of my buddies, however, was not quite so blessed. I found out later that he wore contacts to the actual physical that would purportedly slightly reshape his eyes. He then excused himself to go to the restroom just before the eye chart bit. While there, he flushed his contacts down the toilet and proceeded to pass the test. Now that’s bad, I agree. However, he subsequently enjoyed a long and illustrious career flying attack helicopters.

There’s the Way It Ought to Be and There’s the Way It Is

I have Jesus in my heart. I consider myself a man of character. My word is my bond. However, we would have done absolutely anything to fly. Once we started, we would have done absolutely anything to keep doing it. In some cases, that meant a little selective truth management.

They really were Nazis about physical disabilities. Problems with eyes or ears meant having to find a real job. Among the many maladies the flight surgeons really frowned upon was head trauma, resulting in a loss of consciousness. In that world, such an event was a really, really big deal. Now, hold that thought …

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

One of my Warrant Officer buddies was a simply great guy. Smart, driven, personable and cool, Dave was a warhorse. If something needed to be done right, you just gave it to Dave and got out of his way. He was a great asset to the unit, a superb pilot, and an even better friend. He also just couldn’t get enough of flying.

Dave and I flew Chinook helicopters together. Nowadays, a CH-47F Chinook costs $38 million. The reimbursable rate is around $6,000 per flight hour. Fuel burn in cruise flight is 2,000 to 2,400 pounds per hour. The aircraft carries 1,028 gallons. At my local aerodrome, Jet A costs $5.79 if you pump it yourself. Do the math. Ours was a mind-bogglingly expensive profession. However, we worker nugs didn’t see a whole lot of that cash. At home, we lived on a budget.

Dave took some of his hard-earned cash and bought himself a craptastic little ultralight airplane called a Weedhopper so he could also fly on the weekends. The Weedhopper was little more than a hang glider with a tiny engine. Flying the thing was a fairly austere experience. As were we all, Dave was also bulletproof and immortal. That’s what made him such a good pilot.

This is a WeedHopper. It’s not much of an airplane.

Junior Birdman

One fine Saturday, Dave was wondering how high his little ultralight airplane would go. The machine didn’t have an altimeter. Undeterred, he topped off the tank with fuel, took off, and started climbing at the craft’s maximum rate of climb. And he kept doing that for nearly three hours.

He later admitted that he had no idea how high he got. He said it was really cold and he had a hard time thinking straight. He might have reported seeing the curvature of the earth and mooning the International Space Station. He actually climbed until he ran out of gas. That’s when he realized that coming back down was not going to be a terribly expeditious exercise. It took most of the afternoon to finally reach terra firma. So, how high would it go? He was unsure of the details, but really, really high.

One Monday, Dave showed up for PT looking a bit ragged around the edges. When I inquired regarding the details, he reported that he had inadvertently destroyed his little airplane. We were all crushed for him. He had been out skimming the treetops, turning gasoline into noise. To entertain himself, Dave would zip over the trees and drag his landing gear in the uppermost branches. Now cue the ominous music …

I found out the details much later. One tree was apparently a bit more grabby than expected and snatched the tiny little airplane right out of the sky, crumpling it up like the flimsy diaphanous thing it was. In the process, it also just knocked Dave stupid. He regained consciousness an indeterminate period of time later amidst what was left of his little flying machine. He also never quite got around to telling the flight surgeon about his extracurricular mishap.

Dave went on to a fabulously successful career as an Army aviator. His exciting encounter with the sticky tree never caused him a lick of trouble. It seems what Uncle Sam doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

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