pharewell50

When I was a kid, about 8, a neighbor took me to an airshow. It was 1970.

There were Army Rangers there with a giant boa constrictor. You could put the snake around your neck and have a photo taken. Famous test pilot Bob Hoover, who flew with Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier in 1947, flew a Rockwell Aero Commander prop plane with both engines shut off. There was a real P-51 Mustang there too.

For the finale of the airshow the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds would fly in their supersonic Phantom jets.

After the Thunderbirds landed the father of the kid I went to the airshow with, Alan Larraza, decided we might as well wait there instead of sitting in a hot car in a big traffic jam. Al’s dad heard a rumor that the Thunderbird pilots would sign autographs after the show if you waited. Of course, a rumor like that could never be true.

We waited on the wide expanse of the open airfield. There was smoke in the air and the smell of jet fuel. A fence separated us from the important men who got to walk close to the airplanes and actually touch them. The fence also separated us from the tall, thin men with sharp chins and crisp uniforms who looked like statues and wore their hair stubble short in perfect haircuts that looked like they were done this morning. Everything about these men was perfect- how they stood, the sunglasses they wore, the places they were from, the angle of their jaw.

These men were pilots.

I waited on the other side of the fence, where the regular people had to stay. I came from a single parent home where my Mom barely made ends meet. I wasn’t a great student in any subject except English, which wasn’t really even a subject since it was so easy. I knew, even at 8 years old, that I would always have to stand on this side of the fence at an air show. Only the tall men with the perfect haircuts, patches on their crisp uniforms and polished flight boots got to go on The Other Side Of The Fence.

The Thunderbirds were the biggest, most incredible, most important, loudest thing I had seen in my life. The sound, the smell of jet fuel, the incredible speed of their planes and the giant crowd that came to see them, even at the height of the Vietnam war protests (some hippies were kept outside the gate because they were protesting the “war show”). It was boggling to me that something could be so… big, so serious, so vast, so important.

Men on the other side of the fence in uniforms handed out a free pamphlet with photos of the Thunderbird pilots on the front. The photo on the front showed six men kneeling, one knee up, the other knee down, with big smiles and thin pilot hats. Every man was positioned identically in front of a giant, red, white and blue Phantom jet. These men were the actual Thunderbirds. And I got a free picture of them.

“If ya’ll stick around son, the Thunderbirds’ll be sign’n autographs soon e’nuff”, said a tall man with a cowboy accent in an Air Force uniform from the other side of the fence. He handed out the free pamphlets. Inside the pamphlet were diagrams showing maneuvers the Thunderbirds did, the “Diamond Roll”, the “Knife Edge Pass” and the “Roll Back to Arrowhead Formation” were some of them. On the last page was a photo of a real F-4 Phantom jet with all the numbers about it; how wide its wings were, how fast it went, how far it could fly. Everything you needed to know.

The crowd got thicker at the fence. Six tall men in blue jumpsuits and thin pilot hats were standing out on the concrete near the actual Thunderbird planes. All at once the men began walking up to the fence. The crowd pushed forward. People started holding out their pamphlets as the men got closer to the fence. When they got to the fence, people started snapping photos on their Kodak Instamatics and holding up pens.

autographs

In a tradition that dates back to the first airshows, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilots sign autographs at the fence line after their flight demonstration at the Cleveland Airshow this summer.

The men in the blue jumpsuits shook hands, leaned over and let people take photos with them, smiling wide grins with their special sunglasses and shaking hands like they knew each other or came from the same town. The men would sign their autographs next to a photo of themselves with the number of plane they flew on the free pamphlet.

I held out my pamphlet. “You gonna be a jet pilot someday son?” One of the Thunderbirds asked me when he signed my pamphlet. He took a pen out of a special pocket on the shoulder of his jumpsuit. I was too stunned to answer. He was very tall. Every part of him seemed… sharp. Perfect. His life must be the opposite of mine, everything in order, everything decided, everything perfect. Everything sharp and perfect and clean

I wanted that. But I never got it.

I joined the Army and did minor work in a special operations unit that gathered intelligence. I wound up with the guys who had the snake at the airshow. It was good, great even. We won a war, spied on the enemy and knew secret things.

But it was never- perfect. Not like the clean, crisp tall men with the red, white and blue Phantom jets at that first airshow.

A month or so ago I found out the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the “Phantom jet”, would fly its last flight with the Air Force at the Aviation Nation airshow at Nellis AFB in Nevada. My girlfriend asked me what I wanted for my 55th birthday. I told her, not entirely seriously since it was such a big thing, that I wanted to see the F-4 fly for the last time. It was 47 years after that first airshow with the Thunderbirds and their Phantom jets.

In the way she works her magic my girlfriend, Jan Mack, got us to Las Vegas just a few miles from Nellis for the airshow. I write for an aviation website called http://www.tacairnet.com and wanted to do a story on the final flight of the F-4 Phantom II.

Jan and I meet co-contributors to TACAIRNET (Tactical Air Network) Melanie Mann and Ethan Garrity, both pilots from Texas. We’re sitting up front in the VIP area with catered food, our own bathrooms and chairs on the flightline and about 50 cameras.

There are two McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II’s here at Nellis AFB for its last official airshow. These last surviving two of only about seven left in the U.S Air Force, are called QF-4E’s. They have been modified to be flown by remote control without a pilot or with pilots. When they are unmanned other planes can practice shooting them down. Some of the QF-4E’s will die a fiery death, shot down by live missiles fired from brand new F-35 Lightning II’s out over the open ocean in tests.

One of the QF-4E’s here today is on static display so we can touch it and see it up close, the other will be flown in the final airshow demo by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and retired Lt. Col. Jim “Wam” Harkins of Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

I get to see the last F-4, touch it, look at how it has aged and weathered. I wonder where this aircraft has flown, when it was built, about what happened to the pilots who flew it and where they are today. There are old men here wearing F-4 Phantom hats. They’ve come from around the world to see it fly and touch it one last time. Some of them flew the Phantom a long time ago. One of them may have flown in that first airshow I was at 47 years ago.

There’s a convention that a pilot always says whatever aircraft she or he is flying is the absolute best. Pilots pick careful language to describe a plane they fly, and if you listen closely enough, you get a feel for what it must really be like.

I meet Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Harkins and Lt. Col. Ron King near the QF-4E they will fly today. A bunch of maintenance guys are tending to the tired old plane. Like an old person with difficulty controlling their body, she is leaking everything- fuel, hydraulic fluid. She needs a lot of maintenance to keep her in the air now.

“She’s old, but she still flies good.” Lt. Col. Harkins tells me. “We’ll be taking her home after this, then… that’s about it…” He signs prints of these two QF-4E’s I brought to the show with me. He writes the date of the last flight on the posters. I get a few signed, including one for my friend Lance who is back in Michigan taking care of Jan and my cats while we’re gone.

pharewell100

I shake the pilots’ hands. Thank them for bringing the F-4 out one last time. “You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure”, he tells me. We pose for a photo that Jan Mack takes of us.

And that is it.

The QF-4E flies its last demo. I’m focused on getting good photos of her but during one of the passes I lower my camera and just watch. The smoke and smell and sound are exactly like 1970. It’s 47 years ago and I’m a kid at that first airshow all over again. There’s a new plane here, the F-35 Lightning II, and pretty soon we’ll get a chance to see it fly, talk to the pilot, maybe even touch it if we’re lucky…

pharewell120

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

donald-trump_edited-1

There’s a new American bigot. It’s not who you think.

They rail against the opposing view in broad generalizations. Their toxic vitriol was seen in divisive arguments as old as the American Revolution, the civil rights protests and into today.

They’re just different people now.

The new American bigot uses rhetoric that supports their entrenched fears far to one side of the political spectrum- and doesn’t budge. There is no room for new ideas. There is no suggestion of moderation. They are always right, even now that they are left.

Through recklessly flailed social media driven by shallow thinking that feeds deeply entrenched prejudices the new American bigot wields a mighty and grossly prejudicial voice.

The new American bigot is the polarized Democratic left, a sexist (yes, that’s right), exclusionist, entitled demographic whom, in the wake of an election that didn’t go the way they planned, is throwing their toys.

It’s easy to understand. Gen X’ers grew up with promises of a new American Dream fortified with equality and fairness and a sewn-in silver lining. They got 9/11, three wars and the worst recession in history. They were on the fast track through their 30’s and 40’s but now enter their mid 50’s pissed off. The new American bigot didn’t get what they were promised, gave birth to an even more disenfranchised and entitled generation of malcontent millennials and are rudely awoken from the American Dream gone bad. They tried to build their dreams on the backs of American workers whose jobs were replaced by robots and shipped overseas. In many cases those dreams did manifest, but the people upon whose backs they were built on set off a new alarm clock, waking the now-disappointed American left from their American dream had while sleeping in a house of cards.

newamerican

The bizarre thing is the new American bigot likely got what they wanted over the last ten years, but a big part of America who got left behind in the recession doesn’t like what they got. So they hit the political reset button through that great democratic equalizer, the electoral vote.

In many cases the new American left is as much a national embarrassment as the right. Entitled and enraged as other countries rocketed past us on gross national product, education and diplomacy.

For Democrats still grumbling about the Republican rout in this past election, it doesn’t fit with your previously stand-up doctrine of responsible social action and high-road advocacy for the downtrodden, even if much of it was lip-service from your “Lake in the Woods, from the $400’s” mans’-palaces.

The people who got left behind over the last eight years are tired of getting the crumbs left over after long lines of bureaucracy from government handouts while banks and giant corporations got massive bailouts that lined the new left’s pockets.

For the last eight years the left wore the crown, advanced up the social and economic ladder. Someone was pushed down under the reverse-discriminating, exclusionist race to make two centuries of wrongs right in only two terms. That is neither possible nor just without someone being left behind. The people who got left behind may not have spoken up by occupying Wall Street, marching on Washington or rioting in L.A. and Atlanta, but they shouted on Election Day.

The people who were pushed down voted their way back up. That’s the very ethos of American Democracy. Following this election it’s left the left constituency more than a little butt-hurt. Welcome to America.

The greatest embarrassment about the new American bigot is they are built on a legacy of truly graceful and enviable social action that catalyzed their movement when it started; Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama. These left-leaning leaders took the high road, rose above when their opposition went low. Their philosophical descendents could learn something from them.

But they haven’t. Not yet.

The American Bigot never changes their rhetoric, but they do change their demographic and political orientation. In the last 30 years the American bigot has evolved into something outwardly different, but thematically similar: Ugly, uncompromising, exclusionary and prejudicial.

If you didn’t get what you wanted in this last election- and half of America didn’t- don’t take to social media proliferating propaganda and throwing stones. Even if you believe the right built their campaign on that- don’t lower yourself.

Instead, rise above. Propose solutions and execute on them. Write letters to your lawmakers both local and in Washington. Take up the cause of the great liberals and left-leaning heroes of our time. Honor their legacy through action, don’t discredit it with whining. As you know, the stakes are high for equality, the environment and diplomacy. Those critical agendas now rest mostly with the left, and they are more important now than ever.

When they go low, you go high. Let your inspiration for peaceful and civil action be a model of unity like Martin Luther King, not harbingers of hate and polarity you so vehemently despise.

Don’t become one of those you spent the last 30 years voting against. Left or right, it doesn’t look good on anyone.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

ap_hillary_clinton_jt_151030_12x5_1600

Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton ran a credible and just campaign. It brings to a probable conclusion a long political career that included two runs at the U.S. Presidency.

Clinton has distinguished herself as a public servant for her entire career. And while no public servant, especially at the highest levels that she rapidly rose to, is without criticism, her dedication to public service never lacked vigor, drive or tenacity.

In a divisive election played out largely on the battlefield of social media, Clinton outwardly played by the old rules. That is commendable. But the new rules are, there are no rules.

Secretary Clinton is to be best remembered by her tireless efforts to preserve diplomacy in a world that lacks civility now. When the world went low, she stayed (at least outwardly) high. Her approach to politics was dignified and poised. She should be remembered for that.

Hillary Clinton will never be gone from public service or commentary, and that is good. She is an articulate and civil voice to be heard, and she will remain relevant. She is particularly relevant contrasted against a new Presidency that has swung so far to the opposite extreme.

If you voted for Hillary Clinton, I commend you. You are as fine an American as Secretary Clinton. It is now up to her supporters to vigorously continue to work, further her worthy doctrine, and be heard.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters did not lose. Regardless of Secretary Clinton’s transgressions and errors- of which all humans are susceptible and most are guilty- much of America is better from the legacy of Hillary Clinton.

 

Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

f35break_edited-1

 

Silence fell over 200,000 people when the announcer’s voice dropped off…

A half million eyes turned up and left, looking to the west.

“And… Ladies and gentlemen, from left of show center- your- United States Air Force F-35A Lightning II..!

It is the first time I have seen a major new aircraft introduced in nearly four decades. It is history. Likely the last time in my lifetime this will happen.

So I look left and up…

A small, grey spike, angled slightly upward, drifting silently toward us at moderate speed. Suddenly its speed gathers. The utter silence is eerie- so many people holding their breath, eyes turned upward, necks craned left. Fingers point. There it is!

It’s flight is like an arrow from a bow until- flame. A tongue of orange perforated fire leaps from the rear of the small grey spike. With unlikely acceleration it angles slightly nose downward and hurtles in front us. Still no noise. Silence. Then…

Like a roar from a movie monster there is a deep growl of fiery thrust, then a sharp, shrill whine above the deep, flaming bass. It’s unlike any sound I’ve heard.

Inside the F-35A USAF Major Will Andreotta, callsign “D-Rail”, cranks his right wrist toward his thigh and pushes his left hand forward. His F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter heels over in the gathering crush of centrifugal force as g-forces accumulate. The Lightning II turns one huge, flat, fiery circle in front of us.

Then it is gone.

There are no stunts. No rolls, loops, tail slides. There is a lingering tinge of afterburner noise as the grey spike rapidly fades into blue sky over Lake Erie.

That’s it.

I had one pass to get a decent photo, and my cameras are old and beat up. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. I get lucky. At the outer edge of my camera’s ability to catch a high resolution image I bag one good shot from a sequence of many. A little Photoshop to tweak color, shadows, light and contrast and I have what may be the most significant photo I’ve shot in four decades: the first time I’ve seen an F-35, an airplane that will still be flying and fighting when I die.

f35_250_edited-1

The next morning I get an audience with the pilot of the F-35A, “D-Rail” himself, Major Will Andreotta. Major Andreotta has a tough job flying the F-35A for airshow audiences. Not everyone is convinced the F-35A is a good aircraft. There are protesters outside the airshow holding signs that question how many schools could be built for the price of one F-35A (Quite a few schools could be built, one F-35A costs the Air Force an estimated $98 Million).

Major Andreotta has to chat with everyone from 8-year olds to F-35 protestors to aviation geeks and hybrid journalist/aviation geek/intelligence gatherers like me. But once D-Rail and I begin chatting behind the F-35 demo team tent he senses he’s in relatively safe territory. I ask him pointed questions about F-35 capabilities. My inquiries are laced with attempts to get him to reveal something the rest of the media hasn’t reported on- some new capability, some new feature to report on for the publication I write for, The Tactical Air Network (www.tacairnet.com). D-Rail throws me a bone. He hands me his flight helmet, the nearly half-million dollar helmet that has been a part of the controversy about F-35. They don’t let just anyone handle the $400,000.00 helmet.

It is absurdly light, like a bicycle helmet, and covered in beautiful carbon fiber. The visor looks like crystal and the shell is criss-crossed with communications cables and data cables. With the helmet, D-Rail can “see through” the floor of his F-35.

“It takes a little getting used to, and we don’t turn it on unless we need that capability.” He tells me.

I get no new scoop, no new nugget of previously secret intel about something amazing the F-35 can do. But I do get a series of pregnant pauses and measured responses from D-Rail that hint at many things unsaid.

I also get a handshake, autograph and an F-35 patch, just like the one on D-Rail’s flight suit. My girlfriend Jan Mack shoots a photo of me holding the helmet, standing next to D-Rail with an idiotic grin on my face like a starstruck teenager with a pop star.

But most importantly, I got that one photo when Lightning struck for the first time.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

00-0b-cats-at-war-french-army-indochina-1956

My psychiatrist told me to get a cat.

I was having nightmares. For seven years. Nightmares of plane crashes. I was not in the crashes but would see them from the ground. Not all the dreams were the same, but they were similar. Detailed. Color. Graphic. Gruesome. In one dream body parts were caught in a tree where a plane went down right over my head. In another I tried to pull a burning person from a crash. His arm came off in my hand. I would wake up and stay up, and I was afraid to go back to sleep.

So my psychiatrist told me to get a cat.

I did.

We live in a big world, and most people only see a very small part of it. I have seen much of it. When you travel over continents from peace to war you bear witness to the full spectrum of human interaction, from inspiring charity to noble heroics to horrifying cruelty. And I have seen them all.

So I got a cat.

Over time I noticed that, if I was kind and patient and loving to the cat, it would act the same toward me. I learned that cats were much more intelligent than I originally thought. They have individual characters and personalities. They also have fears and anxieties and sometimes act out.

But for the most part, when you show a cat kindness, it returns kindness.

I also learned that having animals allows us a sacred privilege on a sacrilegious earth; the privilege to create our own little world.

When you have a cat you can make your own moral code of how to live: You will never abandon the cat. You will always care for the cat. You will love the cat selflessly even if it scratches you or knocks something valuable on the floor. You will elevate the cat to a place of reverence and safety. In doing so your relationship with the cat becomes an island of kindness, love and safety in a the vast ocean of the world where things are often cruel and unfair.

But in the little world that you have built between you and your cat, there are no nightmares. Only petting and purring and playing and scratching and cat toys. And until the sad day when your cat leaves this earth it will be happy and well cared for.

And in this life, no matter what else happened, you can point to one thing and say, “I made that better.”

That’s why I got a cat.

Photos and story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

49c97dc8a5df8f84129ca29dfb962140

I didn’t move to Tucson, Arizona by choice. I was a refugee of the American Recession.

In a migration that mimicked a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” I took a job with the world’s largest triathlon retailer in Tucson and moved there after losing my own business in Detroit.

TriSports.com flew me to Tucson for an interview. Following the interview I was convinced I was finished in this business. The founder, Seton Claggett, asked some tough questions. I left with my head down.

But I got the job.

I did a little of everything at TriSports.com’s massive headquarters. Marketing, sales, promotion, writing, photography, video commentary, employee training, managing, sweeping floors, bike fitting, driving stakes in the desert and cleaning up trash by the roadside. Working there was immersive. The H.R. director counseled me that I couldn’t work as many hours as I did because it wasn’t good for me. But in reality, it was exactly what I needed: self imposed exile to the desert gulag.

Today we’re on a photo shoot.

I saw a road headed south from Mt. Lemmon, Freeman Road, that makes a lumpy black beeline toward the Mexican border. It looks like a black snake laid across washboard desert sand. It will be perfect for a photo shoot.

There are a few problems. Firstly, it is beastly hot in Tucson. Shooting in natural light with the sun overhead means working in the open desert at noon. Temperatures are well over 100 degrees. There are rattlesnakes, ill-tempered desert pig-bears called “javalina”. Every plant on the shoulder of the road is wearing knife-like thorns that pierce clothing and implant flesh with barbed needles.

Secondly, I have a clear vision of what I want the photo to look like, but without an aerial camera platform that shot is impossible. I want to show a cyclist riding south on the oddly rolling black road set against the desert backdrop. I chat with a couple local private pilots about the possibility of flying me over this road for the shoot, but the logistics and expense of getting a small aircraft over the road while coordinating with the cyclist/model on the ground make that impossible. We don’t have camera drones yet, and even if we do, getting the resolution and type of image I want would be tough from a small drone.

So, we load up the tallest stepladder from the warehouse, grab one of the big company trucks and recruit Debbie Claggett, a founder of the company, as fashion/action model for the day and head into the desert.

Debbie is a dream to work with. She is pretty, fit and knows how to ride. But it is a little awkward giving photo direction to one of the founders of the company you work for.

I describe the photo I want. We set up the stepladder on firm enough sand to keep me from falling into a prickly cholla cactus, and Debbie sets off south on her bike.

“Ride for about thirty seconds past those lumps in the road then do a U-turn and come back toward me. Keep doing those loops.”

Debbie does a few out and back circuits. I shoot a few frames. It looks pretty darn good. I’m careful to frame the photo so there is space to drop text in the upper left corner. It is a lot of work for a pretty simple photo. That said, the weird looking lumpy road is kind of cool, but it could be anywhere. Something is missing.

We need something that defines this photo as being distinctly Arizona. Distinctly Tucson.

We need a cowboy.

On queue a man who looks like he dropped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western rides a beautiful horse onto the road. We could have spent hours in wardrobe and costume and not done as well. When you look up “Cowboy” in the dictionary, there is a photo of this guy. He is John Wayne, The Marlboro Man and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one with a dash of Boss Hoss for good measure.

Jackpot.

Debbie recognizes the opportunity instantly. Without a word she wheels around, glances over her shoulder to check if I am getting this (I am…) and she makes a few riding passes by the cowboy. Smoke is coming off my cameras this is so good.

debbie

She stops and pets the horse. More incredible images that say, without a word, “Cycling in Tucson is extraordinary, there is no place like it in the world.”

We thank the cowboy and horse, load up our gear; brush off the dust and race back to the warehouse to see the photos.

This one photo describes riding a bike in Tucson, Arizona better than any single image I’ve seen, thanks to Debbie and the mid-day rider of Freeman Road in Saguaro East.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

turkey-july-16-2016_wide-aae7deda93a35bf42d8b229e897c716c13a3ebc9-s900-c85

The July 2016 coup d’é·tat in Turkey erupted almost overnight and lead to widespread destabilization in the country and the region. Before it happened the region seemed reasonably stable to most outsiders.

It feels like the most divisive election in history. It is the first one played out across the broad and unaccountable stage of contributory media. It comes after nearly a decade of at least relative political stability in the U.S.

But regardless of who wins this deeply divisive Presidential election there is one thing to keep in mind: Things will go on. The sun will rise. Good, bad and indifferent, Americans will still be Americans. As long as that is what we want. And trust me- that is what we want compared to the alternative.

Remember that, because this election and its aftermath could spin out of control in an entirely non-constructive way, and it could do it more easily than we think, We, The People, need to keep our shit together.

The relatively stable and entirely ancient country of Turkey nearly descended into bedlam this year in a failed coup attempt. An entire region, from Libya to Egypt to Syria, flipped decades of dictatorship in the Arab spring. The fallout and instability from those dramatic, rapid changes in government resonate across Europe. They contributed toward fears in the European Economic Union, nearly crashed Greece, disenfranchised Germany and sent England running. And it isn’t over as allied forces launch a massive offensive in Iraq against ISIL, the evil-empire that rose from the ashes of multiple failed governments to fill the vacuum with blackness and terror on a medieval scale.

It doesn’t matter whom you are voting for in this discussion. The election is close; it may be closer than slanted media reports admit. What matters more is how we behave in the aftermath of this election.

“In a close race a lot of people will wake-up disappointed: Deal with it.”

In a close race there will be a lot of people who wake-up disappointed after Election Day. Deal with it. This is not an excuse to lose your shit. This is America. We’re founded on acceptance and tolerance and democracy.

If your candidate loses, don’t throw your toys. Don’t talk about recalls and impeachment and fraud. Instead, lock step with the new leadership while using the tools of democracy to enact change within the system, however slow it may feel. Slow change is better than rough justice.

No matter who wins this deeply divisive election America needs to enter a period of healing, and that needs to start on a very local level. Another great American principle is cooperation, the notion that we are better together than apart. That means no matter how this crazy election swings, the day after we need to get up, get back to work and keep being Americans.