Thursday, June 17, 2010

Operation Rising Star -- Update 02

About ten minutes before Operation Rising Star was to start, I received a phone call from the Executive Officer (XO) for the MEDEVAC Company. I had been badgering those folks for the previous few weeks about when they were going to do training with their hoist, so that I could get hoisted out of a woods by helicopter.

He called to let me know that they had a hoist training mission that was going to lift off at 2045, and that they were inviting me to ride along and participate in the training.


I figured if I went to ride the hoist, I’d have to leave the Operation Rising Star competition early, which would almost certainly not be in my best interest (in terms of the competition), but if I didn’t take the opportunity to get extracted from a woods via air, I might never have that chance again (at least, not voluntarily, anyway).

Now, I had no pretensions about winning Operation Rising Star, especially after realizing it’s mostly a popularity contest. More to the point however, is that I’m old, and have no desire for a singing career. Everyone else in the competition is young, and a couple of them *really* want to become professional entertainers. If this experience can help one of them achieve that goal, I believe he should have that opportunity.

So, I showed up to the competition, and saw that I was scheduled to sing last. That’s actually a great slot to have been given, but I asked to go first, so I could leave early and go for a helicopter ride.

Wouldn’t you know it? I stepped out on the stage, took hold of the microphone they had for me, and started singing “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I realized almost immediately that the microphone was not working, even though it was turned on. So I just kept singing.

I’ve been told I have a big mouth.

Truth be told, I didn’t really need the artificial amplification. However, the woman who organizes these events came out on stage, took the mic from me, and disappeared. Moments later she reappeared, walked stage left and took a microphone from the emcee, and brought it back to me.

I just kept singing.

It was quite discombobulating, and I flubbed a few words, but I think everyone else was so distracted by the extraneous movement that they didn’t notice.
I was pleased with how I sang, and that I sang something I knew that probably no one in the room had ever heard before, but which had meaning for me. It’s become clear that many people value a person’s ability to mimic the style and sound of someone else who’s famous. I don’t see the sense in trying to sound like someone else, however. If I become an impersonator, the music I’m singing remains the “intellectual property,” if you will, of the famous person.

Since the notes and words of songs I sing almost always “belong” to someone else, why would I even want to have the delivery be that of someone else as well? I don’t get it.

I hustled myself off to the Lift Company hangar to retrieve my flight gear and then to the MEDEVAC Company Command Post (CP) to get the pre-mission briefing. As has happened so often when I’ve showed up at their CP, the MEDEVAC personnel were gathered around their large-screen video monitor as two of their own were killing zombies. (It’s a rather strange video game, which must be oddly compelling, since they always seem to be playing it.)

During the pre-mission briefing, the Pilot in Command (PC) gave a run-down of how the training would proceed, and what was expected of each of the personnel involved. He also – somewhat sheepishly – mentioned that in the event of a catastrophic problem with the aircraft while the hoist was being used, the Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) dictates that the hoist cable is severed by means of a small explosive charge.

That part was not a surprise, because I’d heard of it before, but it did sound a bit ominous, none the less.

MEDEVAC Crewman riding the Jungle Penetrator with only one of its legs extended. (stock photo)

We moved out to the aircraft on the MEDEVAC landing pad, put on our night-vision goggles (NVGs), and took off. I love flying while wearing NVGs. We flew a short distance to a part of the Post that had an open field next to a small woods. After the aircraft landed in the field, one of the medics and I moved out across the open field and into the woods.

It was a very hot evening, and the woods was filled with brambles and bugs. (The next day, my buddy mentioned that he’d found a number of ticks on himself after our return; I hadn’t.) At a smallish clearing, my friend took out a large red glowstick which he activated. Seen through the night-vision goggles, the glowstick looked very bright green. (Everything looks green through NVGs.)

Jungle Penetrator is deployed; note how thin the cable is! (stock phot0)

The helicopter approached our site and hovered overhead. The on-board medic deployed the Jungle Penetrator (JP), which hit ground right where we were. The medic with me unfolded the JP, got me situated on it, and strapped me to it. There are three legs which fold out horizontally, at 120 degrees from each other. I sat on one of the legs, and put each of my own legs over each of the others. As the JP began to be reeled up to the aircraft, the medic with me faced me, put each of his legs over each of mine, strapped himself in, and I grabbed onto his flight vest, as if in a bear hug.

I hadn’t really thought much about what being hoisted would be like, so I was surprised (and a little concerned) when the JP began to spin around in a circular motion. (Of course, since the cable was being reeled in by means of a circular motion, it was going to spin around, but I’d just not thought the experience through beforehand.)

Crewman riding the Jungle Penetrator with only one JP leg extended. (stock photo)

It was a weird and surrealistic experience, spinning around at the end of a very, very thin cable (did I mention how thin the cable is?), bear-hugging a medic who was sitting on my legs, both of us wearing NVGs and seeing the ground dropping away below, as the underside of the aircraft got larger and nearer.
I was very aware of how unlikely it was that *I* should be doing something like this for the first time – as old as I am, with my experience of having being assigned a draft number during the Vietnam Conflict, and in light of my rather severe acrophobia (fear of heights).

It was awesome!

Once the medic and I were inside the aircraft (lying on the floor of the rear compartment), the helicopter moved rapidly away from where we were picked up, circled the Post, and landed again in the field, so we could repeat the experience. It was still hot and humid, and the brambles were still sharp, and the bugs still buzzed and bit, and the JP still spun around as we were hoisted out of the woods and up to the hovering Black Hawk, and it was as much fun the second time as the first.

At the end of the mission, upon returning to the MEDEVAC CP, I found other aviators killing zombies. One of them mentioned that I’d been “voted off the island” at the end of the Operation Rising Star show earlier in the evening. I was not surprised, nor did I regret my decision to go train with my MEDEVAC Soldiers.

I would make the same choice again, if given the chance.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ
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