Poems 3

Position Report at Fifty Years

 

In the old days, an aircraft had to report its position to ground control stations as it flew along its route of flight from departure point to destination.  A normal position report consisted of aircraft identification, position, time over position, altitude, and estimated time of arrival over the next position.

 

Written on the occasion of the 50th Class Reunion of the Class of 1962, the original Red Tag Bastards, held at the U. S. Air Force Academy, Colorado, 4-7 October 2012.

 
1

Then, when our training was complete, we departed home base,
Turning to our outbound courses, radiating from the
Departure point, challenged to test our flying competencies
And navigation skills, wings shining in the early morning sunlight.

We departed singly or in small groups,
Heading for the destinations we had selected,
Distant and imperfectly envisioned in our minds,
But marked with precision and boldness on our maps.
All we had to do was hold our course, maintain our speed,
Keep careful track of our pre-planned turning points.

The group of which I was a part flew in loose formation.
We looked across at each other, waved, confident in our craft
And the courses we had set for ourselves. I checked my map
At regular intervals, marking my progress along my route.
We checked in on the assigned communication channel,
Loud and clear, on course at our assigned altitudes.

When the weather worsened and the dark clouds appeared,
We did not worry, for we had been told that careful
Airmanship would see us through. We separated
As we sought to penetrate the clouds, but they rose higher
And thickened, forming impenetrable barriers, towering
High above our altitudes. In the darkness lightning flashes
Blinded and disoriented us. We heard thunder
Like the sound of guns. It was hard to hold a steady course
In the darkness and the turbulence.

On the radio I heard distress calls, reports of losses,
Call signs I would never hear again. Some reported
They were unable to maintain altitude, their engines
Failing, revising flight plans, heading for unknown fields.
When we came into clearer skies, some of us were missing.

Those with whom I had been keeping pace
Had disappeared, and I was flying through a sky
Without a reference point. When I checked my map,
I found that I had overflown a turning point, passed it
When I was distracted by some necessary cockpit task.
The ground below was unfamiliar and difficult to see,
But I checked my instruments and held the heading
I thought best.

 
2

Now, I rarely hear a voice over the radio, and when I do
It is garbled, unclear, static-filled. I continue as planned,
Holding my course in this indefinite air. I know that
Other flights have departed after mine, in faster aircraft,
Equipped with instruments far more accurate than those
Which guide me, and these have passed me by, at speeds
And altitudes I cannot imagine, unseen and unheard in
My silent skies.

Some of my equipment is starting to fail, the OFF flags
Showing at the edges of my flight instruments. I don’t trust
The automatic pilot. I’m holding course by the magnetic
Compass, but it seems to wander, as if it no longer knew
Where North is. My fuel gauges are low; I ignore
Their blinking warnings.  Straight and level flight used to be
Much easier to maintain. The skies are growing darker,
Too, and if it weren’t for my training and determination,
I might despair.

Our instructors assured us that up ahead, growing
Ever closer, would be that bright and steady beacon,
Flashing through the troubled air, a signal of those green fields
marking the destination, where I would enter the landing pattern
Of a light-filled sky and see my fellow airmen again,
Orbiting in perfect order, wings high as they turn final
One last time.