I used to stare at the Wildcat statue at the Academy. I drew energy from it in a way, when times were rough. It got me back on track just to gaze up at that old bird for five, or ten minutes and remember why I was there. Which is why it wasn't really a big deal for me to walk off disciplinary tours in the square. Even in the rain, I could just keep marching, do an about face, and she'd be right there with me, cheering me on.
Objectively, the Wildcats weren't much to look at, a little ungainly, a little underpowered, and don't even think about an atmospheric dogfight in one. In space they could hold their own, at least in the early days of the war. To think of the history behind those early ships! Wow. I can still close my eyes and see that workhorse physique riding that durasteel exhaust against the sunset.
At New Edwards I got a chance to fly one of the last ones around. It had been down for maintenance for almost a decade. The techs had fixed her up in their spare time, hoping to fly it as part of the heritage wing. I lunged at the chance to strap on a Wildcat. Can you imagine flying a Sopwith Camel, P-51 Mustang, or a CF-58 Peregrine? She was a classic. A true beauty, and I HAD to fly her!
I bribed MCPO Venkata with a case of Scotch and wound up with an ancient copy of the Wildcat NATOPS and a slot on the schedule for Saturday morning. The manual was dog eared, bookmarked, and covered from cover to cover in handwritten notes. Pre-war budgetary constraints had delayed much needed engine and spaceframe upgrades, as well as the replacement of fatigued or weakly designed parts. There were many, many provisos to the flight regime. The Wildcat was, to say the least, a soft touch. It's not her fault for having osteoporosis, she was a grand old lady, and I was going to get to fly her!
But, like dancing with grandma, you can't just start her off with the tango. You gotta limber her up a little. I showed up early. Preflighted for two hours, going through every patch, fastener and rivet. The run-up checklist? Did it twice. Taxi was done at a snail's pace. Takeoff was done at 60% of recommended throttle just to save on engine and lubrication temps. She ate up a lot of runway that way, but even shuffling along as she was, climbout was a dream. Turns were gentle and honest. I eased into a slow, 1G roll, and I could tell she wanted more. So we began to dance. Slowly at first, then we moved faster and faster. We were really having a wonderful time together when a missile trail scorched over my right shoulder as we entered a left turn.
The ship shuddered into a crab, snap rolled, spun, and twenty thousand feet later I finally started thinking again, "Someone is shooting at you! You took a hit!"
Recovering at about 200 meters AGL, I began climbing again and began looking around visually (there was no radar to speak of) for threats. Those old combat instincts die hard. Eventually realizing there were none to be seen, aside from my own very sick spacecraft. My CW panel was lit up like a Christmas tree, and I had some spectacular adverse yaw that I was able to mostly trim out using left and center engine gimbals.
The right engine had, apparently, become cleanly separated from the ship. It had shot out like a missile, still developing full power and scaring the crap out of me. I had permanently bent the spaceframe recovering from the spin, but everything else about the limp home was sweet and honest.
Even with one of her engines lying somewhere on in a smoking crater on the desert floor, she showed me three green on downwind and the two engine landing happened just like the checklist said it would. Bless her heart.
When we rolled to a stop in front of the astonished ground crew, I managed to escape the wrath of Master Chief Venkata and his crew by promising them even more more cases of scotch and, to my everlasting credit, a very humble apology. I honestly felt terrible for bending that precious old bird. Still, losing a month's pay beats a lynching any day, and I even managed to sneak in a kiss and a pat on the rear of that beautiful old lady before they wheeled her sadly back into the repair bay. She was, unfortunately, never to fly again.
Still, I smiled every time I passed her, sitting regally up on her pole at the main gate. I'd been her last fling, and we'd had a hell of a time.
-Excerpt from "Me: The Life and Battles of 'Maniac' Marshall."