KAPTAIN DUSTOFF & THE FAST EDDIES

We’re cruising in wanton luxury, up against class A airspace with two hundred mile viz in all directions, what they used to call ‘severe clear’.  I loosen my shoulder straps to lean forward and look behind, awed as ever by the sky’s empty vastness.  Wondering idly at the actual number of molecules we’ve pushed out of our way since takeoff, I mumble, “How many zeros.”  

“Zero what?” asks my companion.  

“…Uh, disregard.”  I check the O2.  It seems OK.  “Zero worries, I guess.”     

When soaring is this easy I get sleepy.  Sunlight trapped in the canopy keeps us cozy but outside it’s frigid, so I poke two fingers through the inch-square vent until they’re numb and press them on my eyelids.  Pulsing tie-dye sunburst gets them optic nerves acookin’.  Oh yeah, now I’m awake.  Back to bizness.  Then as eyes refocus…

JET FIGHTERS  HEAD-ON  STREAK PAST BLURRY CLOSE.  Gone so fast I doubt they’re real.  

They were.

A time warp vacuum grabs us a quarter second before the tremendous all enveloping wallop and shattering BOOM of those zillion-pound tailpipes now pointed directly at us.  Their roar fades almost as quickly, leaving our own bird’s normal whisper still vacuous though now somehow more penetrating.  

Reflexively I pull up to dodge their explosive wakes, already too late of course.  In unison we both squawk, “WHAT the…”, and after a quick stammering conference agree we’d seen four bogies, two on each side.  Yes, for one appalling moment we were inside their formation!  And they were very nearly inside ours.  If we or they had been a wingspan to either side, scratch millions in hardware and pilot training, and scrub our day too.  They had to have seen us – though not until waay too late.     

“Weren’t they too low to be going that fast?”  

“Maybe…” There is a speed limit of 250 knots, but only below 10,000 feet.  (At that altitude 250 indicated is 300 true.)  But we’re a mile and a half higher than that and those jets were moving much faster than 300 knots, true or otherwise.  Realistically, our closing speed was more like 1000 feet per second, or about the pace of a .22 caliber bullet.  And those bogies carry a lot more slug than a .22.  

My ears start to burn as the bone between them yields another oily nugget.  When it’s hot altimeters read lower than true, and the higher you fly the greater the difference.  Only now do I realize that on this August day above the Black Rock Desert our cruising altitude of 17-something – indicated – might easily exceed 17,999 true.  The rule is, above 18,000 feet you adjust the Kolzman window to 29.92, a simple procedure I’ve never actually had occasion to do (before or since as a matter of fact).  Just curious, I twirl the little knob… and it’s amazing how quickly such an effortless an act can cause one to break a cold sweat.  

For Capt. Dustoff and his posse galloping along at mach or so in their airspace, we’re no doubt a hot topic about now on at least one discrete frequency.  Supposing they’ll swing back and check us out, my next belated reflex is to evade them, but there’s absolutely nothing to hide behind and we can hardly run away.  Should we sit like a frightened rabbit and hope they can’t find us?  

If our only sin is being too high, going straight down can fix that.  Still trembling, I pull full spoilers and nose into a steep high-G spiral.  

Our ceiling, however, is not their floor…