The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (Part 3)

Part 3:  BURNOUT BOX

Combat Airlift

As I utter the last words of the Combat Entry checklist out of my mouth, the cockpit grows eerily silent.  Not moments before the scene was dramatically different and the crew was affable with juvenille jokes or crew ribbing.  Our workspace was brightened by the overhead dome light, a bent paged National Dragster lay strewn across the center console while a “box nasty” sits on the floor behind it with a half-eaten turkey sandwich and an empty wrapper of Skittles.  Everything has changed now.  Loose trash has been collected in a trash bag and items secured.  Air Force publications have been strapped down, and crew bags have been placed in designated areas.  The cockpit is now dark and each crewmember is facing out their respective windows.  Dutifully I ask if anyone has any questions, but I already know the answer.  If anyone has a question now, they’re in the wrong place.  This is the mighty C-17 Globemaster III and we’ve just crossed the border into Iraq.  Lights are out and helmets are weighed down by the neck torturing Night Vision Goggles.  Interior aircraft instrument lights have switched to NVG and the exterior position lights are extinguished.  I’ve calculated my descent point and planned my tactical arrival.

The next hour and a half will mostly be filled with silence as each crew member looks out their windows scanning for any bad guys that might be thinking of knocking a big transport plane out of the sky tonight.  I’m sitting in the right seat as the co-pilot and this is my first time flying the aircraft in actual combat.  I’ve observed other pilots make approaches from either the RACM or LACM (left or right additional crew member) positions which are directly behind the aircraft commander and co-pilot.  Sure, I’ve practiced this arrival numerous times in the flight simulator at McChord AFB and I flew practice approaches into the training base at Altus AFB, Oklahoma or Moses Lake, Washington, but this is the real deal, my first time.  We are over enemy territory and I’ve got a crew of folks counting on me to do everything right.  Humvees are strapped tightly in the center of the floor in the cargo area and a large group of stone cold looking Marines line the web seats all the way to the back of the airplane.  Those guys look tough….ready to go to war; they are silent.  A few overly bearded guys wear baseball caps and close fitting t-shirts (smediums) similar to what you might see in a cross-fit gym.  They claim to be “contractors” and you can tell they are real bad asses.  I’m going to war for a few hours to drive these guys in, and then I get to go back to safety in Germany.  Most of these guys are going back for their second or third tour and will be in country for a minimum of a year.  Some I will bring back, but not in the seats of my C-17.  They will lay peacefully with a flag draped over their casket.  This makes me incredibly sad as I think of how many guys I brought back this way.  I am forever grateful for their dedication and service.

From the border to our descent point is about an hour and a half of silence and concentration.  I continuously rehearse the plan in my head.  I grab each shoulder seat harness and pull it over the bulkiness of my flak vest and click each one into place.  As the youngest ranking on the crew I have to wear a concealed 9 MM pistol.  Most guys wear them using a shoulder holster but I’ve never been a fan of the extra weight around me so I wear an ankle holster.  I slide my feet toward the rudder pedals but I can feel the weight of the pistol.  I’ve gotten used to it and don’t mind.  I reach up and place one hand on the throttles and the other hand on the control stick between my legs.  With two clicks the warning tones go off letting the crew know that the autopilot and autothrottles have been disconnected.  I’m in control of this iron bird and my first command is to slide the four throttle levers back to slow the speed.  I call out commands to lower the slats and flaps as we configure for our tactical descent.  I reach my planned point to start my tactical arrival.  I’m not scared…I’m not worried.  This is my job and this is what I’m good at.  I’ve studied the dozen or more emergency response items that will ensure that if something happens to the aircraft I can respond quickly from memory.  I’m prepared.  I’m a warrior, like the generations that have gone before me.  Like the guys sitting in silence in the back that trust me to get them back on the ground safely.

I’ve done the math a hundred times in my head and know precisely when to begin.  I’ve built tricks into the flight computer to help me see my plan on the moving display in front of me.  I slide the Night Vision Goggles down in front of my eyes and the previously dark ground below suddenly lights up.  Once I reach my target I forcefully press forward on the stick and everyone on the big Moose feels lightness as we begin a massive negative vertical velocity.  I place the flight path vector precisely on the number on my heads up display I wanted, and study the map in front of me to stay on the flight plan.  We are falling out of the sky which makes it hard for the enemy to shoot us down.

My plan works out perfectly.  I’m on final to the blackened out runway and I can see it clearly.  The aircraft commander barks out commands.  “You’re aiming short, get it on brick one.  Left of centerline, right of centerline….descent rate”.  I meet each command with a correction; more power, right stick, left rudder, trim up, decrease power……damn it, Chris, relax….breathe.  You’ve done this a hundred times, don’t let the aircraft fly you, put her where you want her.  I got it, on centerline, just inside brick one…perfect.  Take the crab out…wait for the call.  I hear the command I’ve heard many times before, “50 feet”.  I jam in the power in a smooth and well rehearsed motion as I push all four throttles slightly forward.  The jet engines spool up and the flight path marker meets the horizon at the precise moment the rear landing gear touches the ground.  Firmly place the throttles to idle, then up and over the hump and push back as the reversers begin to work.  I dance on the rudder pedals to maintain centerline and come to a nice smooth taxi.  The aircraft commander takes control of the aircraft to taxi to parking and I immediately feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as I successfully flew my first combat mission into Iraq with a load of Marines and “other guys”.  While I would repeat this process countless times over the next three years the first time would always stick with me.  In fact, less than a year later, I would be the aircraft commander in the left seat helping another young guy make his first approach.  The look on his face as he accomplished something this important was priceless.  He was now Combat Airlift!  Little did I know that these experiences would help prepare me for my true ambition.  They would mold me so that I would be ready for the difficulty that laid ahead as I endeavored to reach the highest level of NHRA drag racing.

What Have I Gotten Myself Into Now?

I’ve been racing cars most of my life and part of the process of going faster is upgrading your license.  It’s usually a pretty simple process.  You show up at a track with your faster hot rod, find a couple guys that have the license you are upgrading to or higher to observe, and make a moderate pass followed by two full passes.  When I upgraded my Advanced E.T. license to Nostalgia Funny Car in 2008 we got it all done in one day and I also set the quickest and fastest time on our car during my last pass driving our family Pure Heaven IV Nostalgia Funny Car.

The day we made the deal with Robert Reehl to purchase a big show nitro funny car

We sold that car in 2015 and purchased the roller and several components of Josh Crawford’s NHRA Nitro Funny Car.  This was a lifelong accomplishment that had been completely buried two years prior, and now it was a reality.  It, along with a table full of unknown components was sitting in our shop and we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into.  I had just retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service and was transitioning to an initially low paying position as an airline pilot.  Our initial intent was to run a 55 gallon fuel pump with a single MSD and the No Mercy Fiat body.  We had planned on returning to a tune-up that my dad had previously used when he won the AHRA World Finals three times, tuned by Robert Reehl.

Jeff Bennett’s 3x AHRA World Final Championship No Mercy Nitro Funny Car (2004)

We began purchasing components to build our dream from Scott Gaddy and quickly formed a friendship and bond that still exists to this day.  Scott encouraged us to capitalize on the NHRA national event low car counts and build a pro funny car.  We decided as a team that this was the wise move for us and began moving toward that goal.  It initially seemed like a worthy and fairly easy goal to accomplish.  Make a moderate pass, and two full passes that were faster than 4.70 @ 230 MPH.  I had already gone 240 MPH and not far off from a 4.70 to 1,000 feet.  Little did I know that this Monkey Boy had a monkey on his back that refused to let go.  It would take every ounce of faith and patience….  Scratch that, I had to have faith and learn patience.  I wasn’t ready for what the process would put me through but now as I sit here at this keyboard I understand the WHY.

It’s hot!  Four layers of firesuit, a head sock.  Two layers of gloves.  Super thick boots.  A bulky helmet attached to a Hans device and a chin strap keeping my head strapped to the belts.  Here I sit, strapped between the chromoly tubes of my 8,000 plus horsepower nitro funny car.  Most folks are at work on this Monday morning but we are testing the day after the 2017 NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Beads of sweat drip down my forehead.  I’m not scared…I’m not worried.  I’ve been here before, countless times.  I’ve been driving either a nostalgia nitro funny car, fuel altered, or dragster for the better part of 8 years.  The last two years I’ve been trying to upgrade my license but each run ends in defeat as the car won’t get much past half-track.  I’m determined and pissed to get this done.  I’m tired of explaining to all my friends and family why I still haven’t upgraded my license.  I’ve prayed, wearing out my knees, asking for help.  I’ve tried to let go and let the process work itself out but my controlling nature doesn’t have the patience.  Here we are, next pair to go down the track.

Gentleman, Start Your…

I’ve gone through the routine countless times before I got here.  I stare out in front of me.  The burnout box, the christmas tree.  I analyze each block and tell myself at what point each one is so I won’t get lost on the track.  60 ft, 330ft, ½ track, 1,000 ft.  The track official wearing the radio looks in on me and signals that he wants to see my arm restraints.  I lift up my arms and he gives me the nod.  He points at my guys and gives them the “fire it up” signal.

For me, there is no better place than behind the ominous bulk of a nitro hemi engine when the starter begins to whirl it to life.  The starter begins to spin, the motor coughs to life, and the oh-so familiar smell of nitromethane whisps my lungs.  The pipes begin to spew raw fuel as the cackle fills my eardrums.  This is my Zen.  I am calm, at peace, and become relaxed as the machine finds it rhythmic pace.  This is my favorite song, my favorite band; “Nitromethane Piston Abuse”!   I find the rhythm…my head nods to the beat of each cylinder firing in order.  When the body comes down and the sound of the thumping hemi becomes muffled by its carbon fiber coffin I feel as if I’ve become one with the machine and now it is simply an orchestrated movement as I do my job.  It’s like flying an airplane, with a series of checklist items that are held deep in my cranium.  I’ve recited the pattern numerous times and have practiced each maneuver mentally so I’ll be ready when under pressure.

The crew is clear and I ease off the clutch pedal and let the brake handle fall forward.  I always keep a hand on the brake just in case.  This is a monster and if you let go of the leash, she’ll eat.  Guys have gotten hurt.  I smoothly pull forward and line up following the directions provided by the guy in front.  He signals me and I press the pedal against the throttle stop.  I hate the throttle stop just as much as everyone else watching.  How I yearn for the days when the driver would control it and smoke the tires to half-track.  I loved that as a kid.

I slowly back up from the burnout and make sure to put the car back into forward.  I let the car move an inch forward so the crew guy lifting the body knows I’m ready.  Everyone reaches in to make final adjustments.  I make a mental note to always make sure I see the throttle stop come off.  The body slowly lowers back down around the chassis as the tone of the motor once again muffles.  I see him tug on it slightly to make sure it is down and then he disappears off to the side.

Just Show Up

It’s all up to me now.  The Combat Entry checklist is complete and everyone is watching to see if I can get the job done.  I feel like every experience in my life has led up to now.  The moment that I roll forward and take that tree.  All the dreaming as a young child, and all the years of hard work and dedication.  But, ya know, this is just one moment.  It might smoke the tires.  It might go faster than it ever has before.  It might go horribly wrong.  The point is, you won’t ever know if you don’t show up.  If you don’t roll through the burnout box and take that tree you will never know how things could have turned out.  It’s just another experience.  I hope to one day be holding the NHRA Championship Wally like my buddy Robert Hight and look back on all this and say it was these experiences that prepared me for that moment.  Maybe it won’t end that way, and that is ok too.  I was there that day…just like I was there the day I landed my first combat mission in Iraq.

The crew chief is looking at you and waving you forward into the staging beams.  Focus on the next blog coming soon…..PRE-STAGE   

3 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (Part 3)”

  1. Most enjoyable reading. You make it so easy to understand the mental and
    physical experience. I’m looking forward to your next chapter.

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