The Power and the Beauty

The sky was a canvas of science and magic. 

For 53 years, I have dreamt of this sight: the night dancing in ribbons of light. And, finally, there I was, barely dressed, cold, and in tears on my deck, letting it consume me.  

The forecast had been promising, but it’s been promising so many times before. We’re just too far from the North Pole, and too thoughtless with our use of electricity. There’s little chance of seeing an aurora borealis in Connecticut.  

It had been a great day in many ways, an island of life’s simple joys. Basking in it, I was both sleepy and restless, and thought I’d calm my brain by checking the night sky. I was braced for disappointment, but Luna’s beautiful crescent was visible through the window, teasing clear skies overhead.  

I stepped out onto the cold, wet deck, regretted not wearing slippers, and let myself be annoyed at bright light low to the northeast. A high school athletic field there normally blots out the darkness.  

Then the light moved. 

Green, then orange. Then pink. Then purple. I struggled to make sense of why, though I knew. 

I tilted my head to look straight up, and lines of light shifted and twisted. 

Magic. Pure, breathtaking magic. 

But not. A tiny shield of gas and magnetism, smothering our tiny rock, in a dangerous neighborhood around a tiny star, was afire, protecting our irrelevant species from destruction on a scale we’ve never experienced in modernity. 

A collective joy rose online, as tens of millions of us shared photos. We stood together in the church of nature, awestruck by the mighty God that is the universe, so much more powerful than our missiles, bombs, and technology. So much greater than our petty squabbles, our endless discontent, our vain belief in our own influence. Or, as I write this, so much greater than meager words can or should even describe. But in vain we write about it, think about it, share our joy, and try to understand what we saw on May 10, 2024. We stood united in awe at the power and the beauty.  

Beauty in the science of the colors and movement that our eyes have adapted to see. 

Power that, with an inadvertent whim, would end modern civilization if just a tiny bit stronger. One of my favorite sayings about nature is, “The mountain doesn’t care about you.” Nor does the ocean. Or the sun. 

This morning, the storm on our star is visible to us as a massive rip, so much larger than our planet. In days, it will be gone, replaced by more turmoil on the sun’s surface, and all that will remain of it will be the memories created by fuses in our simple brains, which we’ll reconnect for the rest of our lives to share the story of this night. 

A moment so rare and precious that many of us will take our last breath never seeing something like it again.  

But while we could, we took in the night sky together, and we reveled in the majesty of it all. 

Find your place, find your space

Fewer than 50 steps from my back door is a small piece of heaven, an altar to nature and life.

My Meditation Station took under $100 of wood and stone to make and returns priceless dividends with each visit. Out here my mind is at home, can empty, and take in the scene: a burbling stream, birds, the wind in the trees, a frog, and the rustle of creatures around me.

The stream that runs next to my chair and platform doesn’t exist on any map I’ve found, marked only as a patch of wetlands, but it is more real than I could imagine.

There is no feeder to the steam but the Earth itself; it originates in a spring behind my neighbor, and gravity then pulls it past me next, barely six inches deep and a few feet wide.

From here, it makes its way through the woods, under a road, past businesses and neighborhoods, under another road, then another, until it connects to the Quinnipiac River. From there, it traces the course of my life, through the towns I lived and grew up in, then into the Long Island Sound of my childhood.

As it empties into the Atlantic, it becomes the water my great-grandparents sailed to escape war and seek a better life. The water my grandfather crossed in the other direction to instead head to war. The water I’ve crossed six times myself in far greater comfort than them all, chasing their ghosts.

Out here on my platform, there’s little of that. My son’s energy is nearby, though…the tree and clump of dirt in the middle of the stream that used to be called “Ryan Island” is now toppled and lost to nature’s cycle, but the large sticks he drove into the stream to trap fish somehow remain. Until they rot  away, like we all will.

There’s no other place on Earth I’ve found where I can empty my messy, conflicted brain as well as here.

It’s always buggy and often smells of decay and water and life. Countless creatures live Hobbes’s nasty, brutish, and short lives just a stone’s throw from my peace. The citronella candles I sometimes light can give it a primitive feel, which is both inadvertent and profoundly accurate.

It’s cool on hot days, sheltered by the branches above and around, and frigid in the winter, when there’s no block to the wind and the marshy ground is frozen solid under my feet as I walk out to the platform.

It comes alive in the spring, when  snapper turtles, frogs, and water striders emerge, skunk cabbage sprouts, and trees burst to green. In the fall, it’s like a snow globe of orange and red and yellow. At night in the summer, it’s a miracle of lightning bugs and singing frogs.

True to its name, it’s a place of meditation and escape, a nook to hide away from lawnmowers and cars and airplanes I hear in the distance. It’s a place to read, to write, to think, to dream.

We all need those spaces today, with so much information, distraction, and false urgency. When so much is fake, it is real. It’s 50 steps and may as well be 50 miles, and time spent here becomes more and more valuable as the hours left of my life grow fewer and fewer each day.

Find your place, where everything flows around you and there’s room to breathe and think.

Find your space, to consider your role in it all, ponder your infinite value, and realize your utter insignificance.

But most importantly, get outside and away from what’s false and easy, and toward what’s real and difficult.

Then meditate on how lucky you are to do so.

Nothing New and Missing the Point: An Essay on AI and Humanity

There’s nothing new in this essay. The topic has been covered by thousands of other articles. Scores of films. Countless novels.  

And that’s the point I keep coming back to in my use of AI, specifically ChatGPT, in the last month. 

I’m intrigued by what it means to me as a writer, marketer, and human to have a tool creating content that, if not great, is clearly good enough. I’ve paid more for worse. Written worse myself. I started off with curiosity (“Write a poem that involves a lemming and a biscuit.” “Describe the love for bacon.”) and sat up straight within seconds. 

A simple bit of stilted but passable ChatGPT writing today, plus millions of inputs to improve tomorrow, turns into something near-indistinguishable from human dialogue in a week or so. 

I’d hoped to retire before this came along. 

Some smart people I know aren’t concerned. We’ll always need the essence of humanity to create good art. AI can’t strategize like humans. The machines will hit a ceiling. Human inquiry leads us forward. They may be right (though I think they’re not), and I won’t deeply strawman argue them here. 

The larger point to me is we’re noticing how good AI is or could be, and we’re ignoring how unremarkable we’ve become.  

This seems ridiculous, here in the golden, enlightened era of human advancement. In one century, humans have created and done more than previous ones combined. Including making AI, which will kill us all spiritually, intellectually, and maybe physically.  

Make no mistake. We’re the host, AI the invasive species, and there’s frightening little buffer between where it is now and our own peak.  

The argument that human creativity differentiates us from the machines must—and fails to—intellectually exist alongside our increasing folly. Ten movies in the Fast and Furious franchise. TikTok. War. Florida Man. Most laws. Most societal trends. “The news” as a blanket concept. We’re just not that good, far too often, in fields from writing to medicine to policy to social sciences to business and everything in the middle. We’re advancing faster and getting weaker, long before ChatGPT. Already letting the machines define our intellectual and emotional lanes. Dehumanizing ourselves and each other by the day.  

We’re amazed that ChatGPT can create a realistic conversation, until we listen to a human one. Make a solid argument, when ours are increasingly wafer-thin. We ease our minds that AI is only additive in nature (always adding a ‘yet!’ at the end), until someone mentions we’ve tried something before, or correctly affirms, as I am here, that there are no new ideas. 

The greatest terror with this is how effortlessly low the bar is for AI to take over our lives, literally. Technology already steals our attention, alters our physical states, steers our views, and blinds our sight. So, let’s theorize you could combine ChatGPT’s dialogue with your digital exhaust with your location data with Google with your peer group’s actions with your past purchase and browsing history with your photos and Reels and YouTube and TikTok videos. This isn’t science fiction…each part of that is available today, just not aggregated. There’s no reason it couldn’t be. Someone is doubtlessly doing it now.  

You’d rapidly create an avatar that knows what you know; knows where you’ve been; knows your deepest preferences, desires, fears, and interests; looks, sounds, and talks like you; and improves from a perpetual stream of increasingly refined data about you. It’s an enhanced digital you in short order. Everyone would scroll through the 20 pages of Terms of Service and click Accept. If we’d even get the choice to, and not that it matters. Mandatory subscription required.  

The danger isn’t just that a nuclear war gets launched by a fake person giving fake orders, it’s in the mass realization that for all our pride, all our identities, all our esteem, we’re easily replicated.  

The pandemic has reset so many assumed truths of our institutions, and diseases of despair soared. We’ll look back at this as quaint compared to the despair when we ourselves are reset. There is no upper limit to where this can go. A clear lower limit.  

There’s no moral to this essay, no clever “10 Ways to Use ChatGPT to Offload Your Content Marketing” lesson. Everything I’m describing has been portrayed by our imaginations already. There’s nothing new here.  

Except what’s old, in that realm of the real, not the digital. The realm that, as I look at the words scrolling out on my screen from ChatGPT, I vainly feel compelled to embrace more than ever.  

Memento Mori

I wasn’t an unusually avid fan of Bob Saget, so his death didn’t particularly strike me hard. Still, reading the posts from those who were fans, he seems to be a guy who made people laugh and enjoy life, and that’s pretty damned good praise. You can say his life was cut too short, or you can say it lasted precisely long enough to give that much joy.

Every day, I carry in my pocket a coin with a stoic expression on it. Depends on my mood, and what’s ahead that day, to the degree I know. But there was only one choice today, which is coincidentally my favorite: Memento Mori. Remember that you have to die.

At 51, it’s no longer shocking when someone my age dies, not like it used to be. It also is a reminder that we all have that unknowable date on the calendar ahead of us and every breath is one more toward it. A million more? A thousand? Two? No way to know, and the older I get, the less I think there’s much we can do about it.

So, this coin. It’s a reminder. To live larger. Laugh too much. Care less what people who aren’t you do; you can only (and barely) control yourself. Go about your day with the rule of five in your head…will this matter in five minutes? Five days? Five years? And when you start applying that, not much will.

Not much you can do, not when you see what fate did to others, the prepared and the unprepared, the heartbreaking deaths and the ones where death was a blessing.

Poor, rich, liberal, conservative, black, white. It’s the only thing we have in common. A loss of control that makes us realize that there is nothing to do but love this next breath, live this next breath, and be the best you can be in that short time. Rinse, repeat.

Memento Mori. Remember that you have to die. And remember this moment is your chance to live.

Addendum: You can buy the Memento Mori coin from The Daily Stoic. I don’t receive any benefit or proceeds from the link, but it’s a great site, and I encourage you to read more there.

Q&A: Capt. Dale “Snort” Snodgrass (USN, Ret) – The F-14 and Naval Aviation

July 25, 2021

We wake to the sad news that Snort died in a crash yesterday. I was honored to interview him in 2000, but it wasn’t our first encounter.

In 1985,  I was there in the crowd as a teenager when he awed us all in the Tomcat at the Pratt & Whitney airshow in East Hartford. I have chills this morning thinking of the chills I had then, watching the Tomcat in formation with the other Grumman cats, and I do believe it was a missing man formation.

UPDATE: Video of the Missing Man, and an interview with Snort. 

Photo from the official Pratt & Whitney commemorative book of the airshow.

RIP, Snort. Thank you for taking the phone call from a young writer with no credentials, but who was thrilled beyond words to interview the legend.


The Q&A has lived on the unformatted back pages of this site since I moved to the new platform. I have copied it below.

Capt. Dale “Snort” Snodgrass (USN, Ret)
The F-14 and Naval Aviation

By John “Spoons” Sponauer

Originally Published August 30, 2000 by

All images below are thumbnails only.


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“Cats” by C.S. Bailey
Image Courtesy of

If you’ve researched information on the F-14, it is pretty likely that the name Dale Snodgrass has appeared somewhere in what you’ve read.  “Snort” is virtual legend in the Tomcat community, and with more than 4,800 hours in the F-14, he is the most experienced Tomcat pilot in the world.  Over a 26-year career in Naval Aviation, he had moved from being the first student pilot to trap an F-14 on a carrier to commanding the US Navy’s entire fleet of Tomcats as the Commander of Fighter Wing Atlantic.  Now retired, Snort is on the airshow circuit, flying a wide range of aircraft, from the F4U and P-51 to the F-86, MiG-15, and MiG-17.

The accolades for Snort’s flying are long and distinguished…..twelve operational Fighter Squadron / Wing tours, including command of Fighter Squadron 33 during Desert Storm, the Navy’s “Fighter Pilot of the Year” in 1985, Grumman Aerospace’s “Topcat of the Year” for 1986, a US Navy Tomcat Flight Demonstration Pilot from 1985-1997, and numerous decorations for combat and peacetime flight. recently had the honor and privilege to speak to one of the premiere naval aviators of his generation….Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass.

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Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, at right in an F4U-5 Corsair
Photos used courtesy of Dale Snodgrass


First of all, thank you very much for talking with us tonight.  

You grew up in Eastern Long Island, ironically near where F-14s were later made.  How old were you when you first became interested in aviation?

My father was a Marine Aviator during WW II in the South Pacific and then a Test Pilot with Convair, Sperry Gyroscope, and finally Grumman, so my exposure and interest in aviation goes back as far as I can remember.  I first flew with my father at around age 3 or 4.  Growing up, I built every airplane plastic model that was available.  WWI, WWII, jets, you name it and I had it.  I remember that my father and I had a game that we played.  When an airplane flew overheard, I would try to identify it without looking at it…..I got very good at recognizing the type of aircraft by the sound of its engine.  However, it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I earned my private pilot’s license.


Did you consider other branches of the service besides the Navy?

Both my grandfather and father were Marines, so following the family tradition was a serious consideration, but my dream had always been to fly fighters off carriers.  Becoming a Naval Aviator transitioned from a dream to a goal to reality!


I’ve read a couple of accounts of you doing some incredible flying, like doing a super-low departure from Rota, Spain that landed you in some hot water.  And there is a famous shot of you flying past the USS America in 1989 that I understand is more of an optical illusion but still pretty seat of the pants flying. Is there some of that spirit in all fighter pilots?

YES, particularly in the good ones…a fighter pilot has to be aggressive.  Aggression takes many forms, and one of the forms, especially for a new pilot just given control of an incredibly powerful aircraft, is to utilize that performance in some maybe-less-than-approved forums!  Sometimes it’s not even showing off…you’ll do it even when there’s no one around, just because you can.  I certainly had the propensity to push the limits and was occasionally reigned in by my superiors, but I always felt I had the maturity, acumen, and skill to fly and operate at the boundaries, be it aircraft performance or rules and procedures.  Not to would be sacrilegious!  When I became the CO of a squadron, there were a number of “non-warrior weasel paperwork-oriented weenies” who prophesized death and doom for both my squadron and myself.  I told all my aircrew, “In this squadron only three things count:  fighting Tomcats better than anyone else, landing on the carrier better than anyone else, and having the best maintained aircraft.”  For guidance I said, “It’s very simple.  I set the boundaries and you have to stay inside them.  It’s very simple.” 

End game…. we won every award available.

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“The Shot,” USS America, 1988
Photo used courtesy of Dale Snodgrass

That shot off of the America is very widely used….most people seem to initially think it is either an edited photo, or a risky maneuver. What was it?

It’s not risky at all with practice…it was my opening pass to a Tomcat tactical demonstration at sea.  I started from the starboard rear quarter of the ship, at or slightly below flight deck level.  Airspeed was at about 250 knots with the wings swept forward.  I selected afterburner at about 1/2 mile behind and the aircraft accelerated to about 325-330 knots.  As I approached the ship, I rolled into an 85 degree angle of bank and did a 2-3 g turn, finishing about 10- 20 degrees off of the ship’s axis.  It was a very dramatic and, in my opinion, a very cool way to start a carrier demo.  The photo was taken by an Aviation Boson’s Mate who worked the flight deck on the USS America.  Just as an aside…the individual with his arms behind his back is Admiral Jay Johnson, the immediate past Chief of Naval Operations for the Navy.

[CORRECTION PROVIDED BY READER D.M., who provided proof in July 2022 to me: “The famous knife-edge photo off the USS America is identified as being from 1989. It was actually taken July 22, 1988, during a practice run for CV-66’s Dependent’s Day cruise the following day. A short video of the famous banana pass was taken during the actual Dependent’s Day cruise, July 23, 1988.”]   The year in the caption of the photo above has been changed to reflect this.  Thank you, D.M.!!!!!


What was your most tense moment in the 26 years?

From a combat perspective, it was when I had a flameout over Iraq while executing a last ditch surface-to-air missile defense.  I was leading a night Fighter Sweep in support of an A-6 strike on a power plant on the north side of Baghdad.  My flight had flushed a couple MiG-29’s and we were in “Hot Pursuit.”  My ECM and radar warning gear had been lit up like a X-Mas tree, so I was vigilant in jinking in altitude and heading, while rolling and visually checking for missile plumes.  During one check, I saw a missile clearing the haze and undercast below us.  We were 25-26 thousand feet at the time and the undercast was broken around 13-15 thousand.  Net result…not a lot of time to see and react to a Mach 4 missile.  Fortunately I was looking at the right piece of sky as the missile cleared the clouds.  I immediately saw it had constant bearing and big time decreasing range.  I immediately rolled the Tomcat into the missile and pulled 8-10 G’s while deploying chaff to aid in breaking the missile’s radar lock.  The missile exploded just above and behind me.  The missile defense worked as advertised (though it was really, really close).  Unfortunately the F-14 has a tendency to depart controlled flight when a very hard rolling pull is executed at high subsonic airspeeds (I was at .95-.97 IMN).  It is exasperated with external stores, and I had two external fuel tanks and six missiles loaded.  I was able to recover the jet quickly, but in the process I lost my right engine.  The recovery had cost me almost 15,000 feet and 300 knots.  I was now slow with one engine thrustless and in the middle of all that pretty Triple-A gunfire that was shown on TV every night!  I was too slow to get a good airstart attempt on the engine and didn’t want to go into full afterburner on the good engine, as the only fighters with one afterburner that could be airborne that night were Iraqi!  With MiG’s in the area I didn’t want to be mistaken for TARGET!

I wound up going to min afterburner on the good engine, while descending deeper into Triple A “sparkles,” in order to get the requisite airflow to relight the engine.  Once making heat and fire again, I climbed out with both engines in full afterburner.  Though obviously tense, the previous event never seemed as tense as operating around the ship at night in bad weather as your fuel gage reaches low state, compounded by problems on the flight deck, and you being number 10 for recovery.  Not to mention there is no divert airfield because the nearest land is 300 miles away!

One night, I was very low on fuel, the weather was terrible, and the deck was moving 15-20 feet.  I was waved off twice because of a fouled deck…something that had nothing to do with me.  I boltered (touched down just passed the wires) on my third try and went around for a fourth time.  It was a really ugly pass…the deck was moving a lot and I was feeling more and more stress due to my rapidly dwindling fuel and no tanker available.  I got it on deck with less than five minutes of fuel remaining.  The thing is, though…almost every carrier pilot has a story like this.  Ask any carrier aviator and they will tell you, life at the back end of the ship is one part thrill, one part chaos, and one part stress.  Only the strong survive.  It’s simply the toughest aviation environment in existence.


How about your most humorous moment? (this was answered by Capt. Snodgrass in a follow-up email to our conversation)

After thinking about that question, I found it revealing that I really couldn’t remember a really humorous flight.  I know there were some exceedingly humorous exchanges on the radio, but they all fall into the “you had to be there” category.  I guess it’s not a very funny profession when you’re flying in that serious of an environment.  The “Laugh and Scratch” factor is rampant outside the mission, but the flying is exceptionally focused.  I guess…be it combat, carrier operations, dogfight training, or airshow flying…the stakes are very personal and potentially fatal and thus very sobering.  The bottom line is if you are not focused, your survival is at risk.  End game, I honestly can’t recall a really funny flight.  My log book is filled with phenomenal “I’d have to kill you to tell you” type of experiences, but imbedded humor is not a player.  I have a thousand funny stories but I can’t remember any that really occurred in an airplane!  They all involve people who fly and thrive around airplanes but involve events and conversations that occur while on terra firma!

However, this tale might work…I was an Ensign ( the lowest commissioned officer rank) and had just completed carrier qualification in the Tomcat…day and night.  Being the first Ensign and the only one direct out of flight school to do that, I was rewarded with the privilege of picking up a brand new F-14 from the Grumman factory in Long Island, NY.  My father was a VP with Grumman Flight Test and a long time test pilot.  Being given the honor to pick up a pristine, brand new, world-beating fighter with my father delivering it to me was maybe the proudest and most cherished experience of my life…I don’t think I was ever more proud of him or he of me.  

But that’s just the prelude…with me was a RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) who was also an Ensign.  Grumman seized the publicity opportunity and while my father relished the moment, I focused on the flight back to NAS Miramar in San Diego.  Not the weather nor the enroute support…but a fuel stop at Luke AFB outside Phoenix.  It was during the ’73/’74 fuel crisis and Luke had refused transient fuel stops for over a year and a half.  Literally days before my flight to Miramar, they had lifted the restriction.  Prior to my touchdown, no F-14 had ever landed at Luke.  I knew they were to receive the USAF’s first operational F-15 the day after our stop……the pot was too sweet to resist!

It was a short leg from Luke to Miramar so I knew I could request a unrestricted climb in full afterburner out of there…thus I timed my arrival for a late afternoon arrival and dusk take off (best light to see the 75 foot burner plume).  The F-14 vs F-15 controversy was at its pinnacle, so the fuel stop was mandatory in my young parochial Navy Fighter Pilot eyes.

The real humor lies in how the USAF received me.  As I taxied in I was directed to a parking spot directly in front of Base Operations normally reserved for Generals / High Ranking Officials.  As we shut down the engines, a USAF sedan drove up and a Brigadier General popped out to meet us.  I told my RIO to put on his cover (hat with our rank insignia) on as the canopy came up.  Climbing down from the cockpit, I gave the General a proper salute but the expression on his face when he saw not one, but TWO Ensigns flying a brand new kick ass fighter that was head to head with the F-15…which no less than a Major had flown…was priceless.  Never was I more proud to be a Naval Aviator!!!!!!! 

As we departed with the sun setting in full afterburner, and most of the base watching, the departure controller witnessed our climb on radar with obvious amazement and asked us our type aircraft, as we were climbing through 20,000 feet and still over the runway.   My RIO responded…..”We’re an Eagle Eater!”  It was a good day to be an American!!!!


Of all the positions you held, which do you remember the most fondly?

Almost my entire career.  Being a second cruise Lieutenant in my first squadron…I had been in the squadron for two years, and had gone to Top Gun.  I was feeling very confident and enjoying what I was doing and gaining respect as a pilot and carrier aviator.  Being an Adversary Instructor flying F-5s and A-4’s in VF-43 at Oceana…I was at the top of my dogfighting skills and was acknowledged by my peers as almost unbeatable.  Plus I got to prove it every day.  Being Commanding Officer of Fighter Squadron 33, particularly leading the squadron into combat in Iraq.

The most rewarding tour was my tour as Fighter Wing Commander.  That satisfaction is from lots of things, but primarily from refocusing the community into precision attack.  Namely, what I did to get the LANTIRN pod both proven as a system and funded by the Navy.  Plus accomplishing that all in a year, unheard of in our current weapon system acquisition world.  It really changed the whole respect for the F-14 community from being a fighter with zero support in the funding stream to being THE naval airplane that goes to the hard targets, and in reality turning the F-14 into a national asset.


As a humorous aside, are you aware of the Dale Snodgrass game that AT&T put on one of their pages about you?

(Laughs) Yeah, I know about it….they told me it was going online. I’ve checked it out a couple of times. It’s both humorous and flattering….


I like the animation of the eye winking.

Yeah, that really completes it.



You were the first Tomcat student pilot to trap the F-14 on a carrier, something only fleet crews were previously allowed to do.  What can you remember about your first trap?  Now, more than 1,200 traps later, what’s the single most important “trick of the trade” to get an aircraft aboard the ship?

When the F-14 was introduced, the first crews to get it were those who had already made one cruise in F-4s or F-8s.  They were proven.  So yes, I was the first nugget to trap the Tomcat.

I don’t clearly remember the first daytime trap in the F-14, but I do remember the first night one.  It was a whole new experience for me.  I felt like I was a couple of seconds behind the airplane the whole way in.  My first landing or two were not pretty and were not as elegant as I would have liked them to be, but I had no bolters.  Most new pilots have a bolter or technique wave off their first couple of times out, so I guess in the big sense, I did OK.

The most important factors in trapping are concentration and just absolutely maintaining your scan, by which I mean keeping the airplane within its parameters, which are speed, angle of attack, and lineup.  All of these come into play and are complicated by the others.  As you adjust one, the others begin to deviate on you.  Plus the condition of the sea and ship can play havoc with that, not to mention any kind of minor aircraft problems you are having.


You’re a 1976 graduate of the Navy’s Top Gun program.  What did you learn there?

What Top Gun taught me was the ability to analyze and convey how to fight an airplane.  It hones the flying and teaching skill sets that make you a valuable and competent air combat instructor.  Top Gun was designed to take students and make them teachers in their own squadrons.  The briefs were thoroughly done…every time you flew a 40 minute sortie, it becomes a 5-6 hour event with a very specific brief and debrief.  In fact, the debrief alone can be as long as 2-3 hours, where every little thing you did is analyzed.  You reconstruct every portion of the fight, and you look at the videotapes from each airplane and analyze each shot.

It’s a very thorough dissection….you talk about what’s going to happen, then you make it happen, and then you talk about what happened.  You have to take the egos out of it so the learning is the focus, not who beat who.

I walked away from Top Gun a much more professional fighter pilot.


What are the most important traits for a fighter pilot to have?

Aggressiveness, and physically you have to have really good eyes.  And by good eyes, it’s not so much physically seeing the other guy, but analyzing his energy state and knowing what he’s going to do.  It all blends in the brain as you project a picture of what’s going down with micro second updates.  The one who maintains the best situational awareness will, generally, be the victor.  It’s almost a Zen art form.


How did your training prepare you for combat?  In hindsight, what would have you wished you had learned in training that you didn’t?

Nothing…I felt really prepared and very confident.  You really have to taste combat to understand it.  The first time you experience it, and this has been true throughout history, you don’t how you’re going to handle it until you see and feel it.  Confidence in yourself and your aircraft, and tested and honed with thorough training, are the critical elements of victory in air combat.



You were in the air nearby when the two Libyan SU-22s were shot down over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981…in fact, you were supposed to be at that CAP station, but got delayed because of a tanker problem.  What was the mood like on the ship and in the cockpits?

The day before the shootdown was the first day we had done our ops supporting the freedom of navigation [below the ‘Line of Death’].  Myself and the CO of VF-41 were the first ones out on patrol.  I took it very seriously, but I also didn’t really expect as much to happen .  As that first day wore on, the Libyans came out more and more and we got into more aggressive turning fights.  The Rules of Engagement we were operating with forced us to wait for a hostile act, which meant a gun or missile being fired in your visual arena.  The ROE sucked….we didn’t think it was any good, but we felt that at least we going to get up and finally see other fighters in the air.  At the end of the first day’s debriefs, though, it was revealed to us from intelligence reports that in several cases, the Libyans were actually attempting to get into a firing position on us.

The next day was the shootdown.  The Admiral personally briefed the ROE to me as I was walking to my Tomcat.  I’m not sure everyone got that same attention.  Shortly after reaching CAP Station Five, my section intercepted and engaged two MiG-25s in an aggressive 2 vs. 2 that lasted over four minutes. The shootdown at CAP Station Four occurred as we were going back to our CAP station after the MiGs had disengaged.  To this day, I kick myself for not gunning the MiG-25 I had successfully positioned 800 feet at my 12 o’clock, with my pipper stabilized on the fuselage forward of those huge afterburners. Knowing that the MiGs would have fired if they had the shot, and I couldn’t until they did, was the stupidest ROE I could imagine.  Fortunately, saner ROE was put in effect later.

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Libyan MiG-25
Photo Credit:  US Navy

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Libyan Su-22
Photo Credit:  US Navy

WAV audio file of 1989 F-14 Interception and Shootdown of Libyan MiG-23s
(File Size: 7.7 MB)

Original Source:  US Navy


Ten years later, you led 34 strikes against Iraq during Desert Storm.  Talk about what was going through your mind as you faced the Iraqis.  How was it different than what you faced in Libya?

This was a completely different scenario…. This wasn’t a chess game, this was a war.  We had strong Rules of Engagement here as well, but this time they were oriented on avoiding Blue on Blue engagements.  From my perspective, Desert Storm was the main event that we’d been training for. Just prior to entering the Red Sea via the Suez all the Squadron CO’s sat down with the Battle Group Commander, and his opening comment was “OK boys, this is it….we’re going downtown.”  With the potential Iraqi Order of Battle, we knew this could be a varsity event.  The night before the war started, I gathered my 16 crews together and told them that this was the real thing and they had to remember everything we had learned and trained to, and all the things you have to live by: crew coordination, section integrity, etc.  You have to execute the mission and not go off course chasing some MiG or something stupid.  And I told them that in all probability, one, or maybe two, of our crews would be shot down before this thing was over.  The war’s eventual outcome was inevitable and never really in doubt, but if the Iraqis had put up what they could have, my predictions might have been true.  Desert Storm operations were very serious, even after the threat diminished.  One of the ancient truths about combat is that in combat you don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.  In air combat, within the span of two seconds, things can get real ugly.  You just have to take that deep breath and press on.


How would you compare the Libyans to the Iraqis in terms of pilot and tactics quality?

The potential strength and quality of both the Libyan and Iraqi fighter threat was substantial and real.  However, in both encounters, their lack of training was evident, as well as the will to fight.  From a fighter perspective, their demonstrated pilot skills were poor!  Their tactics were very basic and in the Iraqi scenario almost always consisted of running away if they thought they were being targeted by a coalition fighter.  I actually chased a MiG-29 200 miles at 1.5 IMN until I ran out of gas.  As time marched on from 1981 to 1991, a ten year delta, the SAM quality and the ground control integration with their fighters improved, as did the quality of their aircraft.  We were still flying the same F-14, which hadn’t really changed at all in that timeframe, but especially in Iraq, we were much better trained.  The overall quality of the threat capability had improved, but their execution of that quality was still sub par.  In fighter pilot terms they were “Grapes”… ripe for the plucking!


What types of threat aircraft have you encountered as a naval aviator?

I’ve never intercepted a Russian fighter, but in blue water ops, I’ve intercepted Tu-95 Bears, IL-38 Mays, M-4 Bisons….mostly long range platforms.  The fighters that I’ve seen in potentially hostile situations are MiG-23s, Mirage III, and MiG-25s from Libya.  On the Iraqi side, I never got to within visual distance, but I had MiG-29s on radar and run from me on three separate occasions.


What is the relationship between pilot and RIO…what kind of trust and respect do you have to have for each other?  How do squadron mates relate to each other on matters of trust and character?

It’s a very tight bond/team.  To maximize that within a squadron there is a Tactical Organization that is continually finessed.  It normally matches up pilots and RIOs and promulgates who flies with who.  That team is similar to a sports team….you attempt to match talent levels and personalities so that you have the best combo of fighting / training / survival abilities.

For example, a brand new pilot who checks in will likely be paired up with a seasoned RIO.  Like any team, though, you are no stronger than your weakest link, so if you have a below-average RIO or pilot, that crew is not going to be as good a performer.  You just try and balance the personalities and talent to derive the best possible fighting team possible.

In my case and at the more senior levels, I typically would fly with a senior talented RIO.  The reason for this is that in that situation, I am, nine times out of ten, a strike leader and I don’t have time to have someone with me who needs “to be brought along.”

Looking back at the two-crew concept, when you fly with someone really good, you are much better off than you would be by yourself in any single seat aircraft.  I had a couple of RIOs with whom it was as if we were glued together…our brains were connected.  I’d suddenly be wondering what was behind us, and at the same exact time he’s calling out bandits in that direction.



What are the biggest factors that separate the Tomcat from other fighters?

Aside from the obvious size and appearance differences, it’s easily separated from the F/A-18 and F-16 because, like the F-15, it was designed exclusively as an air superiority fighter.  It has more loiter time, more range, etc.  All of the peer planes are great airplanes and they’ve all done a great job, but the F-14 has been around longer than any of them.  From a designer’s perspective, it’s the most archaic of the group, although it has design features that make it superior in many respects.  From a flight control perspective, avionics, etc., it’s all 1960s technology, but it still probably has the longest range, is the fastest, and can carry the most ordnance of the whole group, save the F-15E.

It’s also the “trickiest” airplane to fly…it has the least pleasant flight controls of most modern jets.  However, with its wings, flaps, etc. you can make it do things that the others just can’t.


Talk about the jump in capability when new engines and avionics were added to the F-14.

The GE engines certainly gave the airplane a lot of new life in the dogfight arena, and it brought it up to a level of thrust that the airframe was really designed for.  The older engines were a result of politics and other factors, so the new engines made you feel like you were flying a rocketship!

The avionics upgrade was in the F-14D and that was a significant enhancement in air to air capability.  However, the production was very limited.  Over half the Tomcat community is still flying F-14A models.

The biggest capability upgrade was the LANTIRN pod and putting the aircraft into a world class precision strike role, and this all occurred at Naval Air Station Oceana while I was there.  We deliberately kept the project away from Washington so they couldn’t get control of it.  Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin, sent some reps up by invitation, gave us a LANTIRN pod to work with, and contributed some very smart people resources.  I gathered some of my best people to work on the project, and in six months we went from an informal handshake to actually dropping laser-guided bombs from the F-14.  I dropped a bomb from 18,000 ft and 22 miles away that blew the top off a tank at the Vieques range off of Puerto Rico.  We made a short promotional video of those first bombs and then I went around to all the Navy Warfighting CINC’s in Europe and the Pacific and told them to let Washington know that they could have this capability on deploying carriers around the world in as little as six months, for no additional cost.  It was a major jump in capability and in some ways we even exceeded the F-15E, which was designed for that role.  One year after that concept discussion in my office, the LANTIRN capability deployed with VF-103 to the Med and Gulf.

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F-14 LANTIRN Rollout – NAS Oceana, July 1996
Photo Credit:  Lockheed Martin

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F-14 with LANTIRN
Photo Credit:  Lockheed Martin


One of the features that has always intrigued me is the Television Camera System (TCS) and the Infrared Search and Track (IRST).  The F-14 is the only modern Western fighter to carry these sensors.  How do you use them tactically?

TCS has been on the aircraft since it first came out.  It is basically a 10x binocular that can be slaved to a radar lock.  The TCS can give you a magnification, allowing you to get a visual ID on a target.  In a predominately peacetime world and before newer ID systems, we lived with a Visual ID requirement.  In other words, we had to have a visual ID before you could shoot.  Even so, the TCS’s tactical application wound up not being significant in the fighter-on-fighter arena, but was a great aid on deployment when you were tasked to intercept and identify “unknowns,” which usually turned out to be airliners.

The IRST, only found on the F-14D, is more robust and it follows the trend of a lot of Russian systems.  It’s totally passive; you can lock and track a target on IR signature alone at great ranges, based largely on his engine state.  It brings that situational awareness much higher.  Its shortcoming is that it doesn’t have great ranging capability. 


Does it allow Non-Cooperative Target Identification?

The F-14D has a system of identifying targets with its sensors, but it isn’t tied into the IRST.


What do you think of the newer threat aircraft, such as the MiG-29 and Su-27?

From a flying quality, they’re very good.  In some ways they’re better than, say, the F-14/15, and in some ways they’re not.  All of these aircraft have basically equivalent performance.  Until the production of these aircraft, I always felt that we had the performance advantage between our airplanes and theirs, and that is no longer the case.  The things that make you win, though, are training and the ability to practice and fly like you fight.  We have the ability to train to a level that no one else in the world can.


Any thoughts on the Super Hornet?

I think it’s a wonderful airplane, but you have to understand it’s a compromise design.  It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.  From a flying quality standpoint, it has to be one the easiest planes in the world to fly.  I could probably take a guy off the street and in 30 hours have him solo in the thing.  It’s designed to be easy to fly because operating the complex radar and weapon systems is a huge challenge.  From a tactical perspective, it was designed as a trash hauler…it wasn’t designed to be a “hypersonic cruiser” air superiority aircraft.  There were a lot of politics at play in its development…the AFX was shot down, the Super Tomcat got shot down, and as a fall back they went with this robust improvement of the existing F/A-18.  For the US Navy flying off a carrier with this airplane, it’s going to be the most reliable and safest airplane they’ve probably ever flown, and it will carry the “mail” for a long time.



Have you tried any flight sims for the personal computer? Thoughts?

I have flown Microsoft’s Flight Simulator a bit.  I’m not inherently a big-time computer guy, but the ones I enjoy the most are the WWII ones.


There hasn’t been an F-14 sim in a number of years and probably won’t be for a while.  If you were going to help build one, what factors would be most important to you?

The most important thing would be making the flying quality as realistic as possible, specifically things like acceleration and pitch rates.  Unfortunately, you can’t get the real feel of any airplane on the computer, but I’d want to get it as close as could be.

I’d also aim for ease of use, so it’s not too complicated.  I have a couple of sims that I’ve received from companies and it’s just impossible for me to deal with them. I have to read the manual for three days just to figure it out.

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Dale Snodgrass in the T-6 Texan
Photos Courtesy of Dale Snodgrass


You’re an active air show performer, with more than 500 low level performances since 1987.  You’ve also essentially qualified in every generation of aircraft since the 1940s, flying the F4U, P-51, F-86, Texan, MiG-15, MiG-17, and the F-14.  If you could do it all over again, is there a certain era you would like to have flown in as a combat pilot?

Assuming I knew I would survive (laughs) I would say WWII would be the place, especially off an aircraft carrier.  The next time period would be an F-86 pilot over Korea.  So I’d say flying as a Hellcat pilot in the South Pacific or flying Sabres over Korea.


What traits does an air show performer need to have?  How does it compare to naval aviation?

You need to be consistent and TRAIN.  You must make sure that you fly by the numbers and you don’t change it, and you need to make sure you have the best equipment possible.  You also have to realize that you’re not the same guy every day and you can’t let your ego or the crowd get in the way.

People make errors…the majority of airshow crashes are judgment errors, not something wrong with the airplane.  And a sequence of errors may culminate in a catastrophic event.  Like carrier aviation, it’s a very unforgiving business…you’re at very low altitudes and flying very aggressively.  If you make an error, you have very little time to assess the error and react to it.


Captain Dale Snodgrass, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

My pleasure.  Thank you.

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Dale in the F4U-5 Corsair
Photo used courtesy of Dale Snodgrass


Copyright 2002  Reprinted with permission.

A Feature, Not a Bug: An Essay on Unruliness for the Fourth of July 

There is something profoundly American about walking to a New England town green, handmade cardboard sign in hand. Something profoundly American about not walking alone.

That day, some people had warned of violence and damage; there had been enough the weekend before in America. Neither came to be. Just a crowd, much younger than me, perfectly within their rights of self-expression and mildly unruly.

Unruliness is as American as apple pie, bald eagles, and inequity. It is baked hard into our DNA as a feature, not a bug. The deeply flawed, brave, unruly (White) geniuses who committed to “hang together or, most assuredly, hang separately” on July 4, 1776, took on the world’s most powerful empire, could barely stand each other, fumbled greatly, and somehow won, creating this new kind of nation.

In the place of an oppressive monarchy, they put a republic weighted on the side of liberty and the individual citizen over the government, and then specifically oppressed anyone but White men. These unruly upstarts guaranteed a difficult life for our nation and horrors for its citizens.

Long may our government come second to its citizens.

Long may our growth require difficult times, for they create opportunities.

Long may we remain unruly. Long may we doubt actions to make us less so.

We lost some of that unruliness during the pandemic, perhaps out of justified fear of the virus, perhaps out of manipulation, perhaps out of growing softer, perhaps a combination. But we generally gave it away without a whimper, and that’s troubling, because power doesn’t go back in the genie’s bottle easily. You can see it manifested in China right now against Hong Kong or the Uighurs. You can see it in the actions by many here: left and right, elected, bureaucrat, and “expert,” wearing blue, a suit, a lab coat. You can see it in history, ours and humanity’s. You can see it kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8:46, hands in pockets, blankly looking at people screaming for decency. People and systems don’t give up power naturally, or consider they even have to.

Unruliness is important. Malcolm X described it as swinging instead of singing, standing instead of sitting. King said that cooling off was a luxury we can’t afford. Worthy of note that they were also two revolutionary men in the same struggle, and they hanged separately. Whites hanged them both, metaphorically, and many more, literally. To pull right from the powerful Kimberly Jones video that recently went viral, we are fortunate that Black America is looking for equality, not revenge. They’re not the only ones who are owed.

Slavery, civil rights violations, power struggles, and a forced, brutal inequity are not American inventions, nor exclusive to us or our history. But our ideals make them more painful, more of a scar. We need to be and do better toward those ideals. Progress, and I’d argue historically fast progress, is undeniable but it’s not enough. It never can be.

Because I post about politics so infrequently, some friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I conservative? Oh, I sure am. Other friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I liberal? Oh, I sure am.

I think for no one but me. Did I agree with everything expressed that protest night on the Southington Green, prior, or after? No, of course not. Do I always agree with parties or politicians I have voted for? No, of course not. Do you? I’m frightened if so.

I’m allowed to think for myself, the last I checked, although I do question that from time to time. It’s very likely I was the only person on the Green with a sign that spoke in terms of liberty. King said people like me “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

I see no contradiction between the yings of “Molon Labe” and the yangs of belief that ”the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads to justice. ”

I see no contradiction in having complex thoughts on complex issues. We shouldn’t fear that.

We do, though, partly because of how media and information is created and weaponized, and because it’s easy. The default.

We have to choose our buckets, I’m told. Have to strut our purity like peacocks to other people in our camp. Have to unleash an online mob on the enemy we don’t know and with whom we make no pretense of personal, actual dialogue. Shut up and comply, we’re told.

We will surely hang separately on this path. We already are.

I’m privileged in every way. Well-off. White. Male. Straight. Healthyish. Have every structural and personal advantage one could want, and so many that so many fellow Americans do not. I understand the feeling of unease at the world right now, at disruption, at change. A dear friend often shares a quote she likes: “When you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression. It’s not.”

Be unruly. Be uncomfortable. Speak face to face. Engage. Listen. Learn. Stand for a better America. Yours looks different than mine, and different from others’, and that’s OK. The marketplace of ideas should be open and free. Dialogue should be heated and uncomfortable. There should be a gut-level wariness of forced consensus, of the control of thought. Opposing views should be welcomed, considered, and debated. Your beliefs challenged. Orwell, who, with Huxley, could be the narrator of 2020, said it best. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”

If they’re not violating another person’s natural rights, I’ll proudly stand by any American sharing in the mix of ideas, and hope we can give the oppressed ideas the greater benefit of doubt in that intellectual marketplace. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly ideas are the ones that move us forward. Always have. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly people are the ones who do it. Always have.

There will be pain in this process. Liberty is painful. Justice is painful. Freedom is painful. Honesty is painful. Knowledge is painful. It’s also the only hope for mankind, and the spark of it all drives me. I’m a proud, unapologetic patriot for the ideals of America, and part of that means an uncompromising look at how I have contributed to and benefited from our failure to reach them.

Don’t tread on me. Don’t tread on us. Those opposed to the principles of this nation see today as a period of American weakness. It’s not. They’ll seek to take advantage of it. They’ll lose.

But we cannot walk alone through it to make that so.

So, walk.

Happy Fourth of July.

Class of 2020, We Need You!

Embrace this difficult moment, and move forward hard and engaged.


Posted by the UCONN Center for Career Development on April 22, 2020

Class of 2020 Huskies,

I do not know exactly what you’re going through. No one can; no script explains all of this right now.

What you’re experiencing is the grief of loss, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Rites of passage like graduation, the joy of being on a campus in the spring, or getting your first “real” job have meaning. Your rites of passage were snatched away at the buzzer. Mourn them hard. You’ve earned that.

But then move, equally hard and fully engaged. Because we need you. And need creates opportunity.

While I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, I do know this: if you learn to embrace loss and losing, you will discover they are the only path to growth. The obstacles in your life ARE your life.

Let me share some perspective more connected to UConn and less abstract. By any objective measure, my two degrees from UConn were horribly timed, terribly planned, and poorly executed. I nearly dropped out of my first semester with a 1.3 GPA in engineering. I changed majors three more times and earned my journalism degree just before the Internet changed everything I’d learned about the media business.John Sponauer, '92, (CLAS) ’10 MBA

I wanted to be an international reporter and studied Soviet political systems when the Soviet Union collapsed mid-class. I graduated into a recession and struggled financially. I earned my MBA later in life and was in a finance class when the markets spasmed and crashed. I graduated into a second recession, never became that reporter, and never traveled for work. 0 for 5 in the things I thought I wanted at age 21. If attaining goals or sticking to plans are measures of success, I am an unmitigated failure.

And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

My journalism degree never made me a reporter, but it taught me how to write. That skill sustained my career in countless ways. The Soviet Union died, but the ability to examine issues from multiple perspectives helped me at every job. In a dreadful business environment, the MBA opened doors to connections exactly when I needed them.

I’m privileged to have been able to fail, and I’ve learned that failure creates opportunity just as need does.

You’re privileged, too, but you’ve been dealt some really bad cards as of late. There are large, seemingly insurmountable problems in our state, nation, and world.

You have so much going for you to take them on.

First, you have us, an alumni base of 250,000 that will have sympathy for anyone with a ’20 after their name. Use our networks and use our help.

You also have a worldview centered on connections, unlike any generation prior. If you need any more evidence that we’re all connected, well… (gestures wildly all around).

Lastly, you have new ideas and energy, and we do need those right now.

I have been lucky to meet many UConn students at networking events, and I always share the same advice. I suggest making a Venn Diagram of three things: their skills, their passions, and their opportunities. Aim for the middle as the ultimate goal, but settle for any two as a step toward that middle.

You’re naturally passionate at this age. That part’s easy. It’s a tremendous gift that you should explore and nurture. Never let it wither. You’re loaded with fresh skills. Find as many uses for them as you can, like writing and analysis served me.

And that last part, the opportunities? I can’t tell you when or how, but you will find them. Maybe not always as you wanted. Maybe not as you’d planned. Like need and failure, searching will reveal opportunity, maybe where you thought it would. Maybe not.

Maybe somewhere better.

I do not know exactly what you’re going through. It’s true. But to be fair, you cannot know now all of the great things that will come.

Good luck. Go get ‘em, Huskies.



Share Your Strength

“We weren’t poor growing up. We didn’t have to look for coal by the railroad tracks, like some families did.”

My grandmother—of the Great-Depression-and-crushed-fascists generation—used to say this all the time, and what rolled my eyes as a teenager now seems to me to be a pretty good benchmark. These are desperate times, for sure, and while we almost certainly won’t sink to a Great Depression, that it’s even on a radar screen of remote possibilities for the first time in my life is striking.

Despite the endless histories of “the Greatest Generation,” I am of the opinion that they waited too long to tell their stories—certainly on an individual basis. They’re mostly gone now, and with them are millions of untold lessons of how to survive desperate times.

Don’t let this happen today. Tell your story, and tell it from a position of strength, because if you’re able to tell it, that means you’re still alive, and if you’re still alive, that means you’ve got strength…of health, of your personality, of your beliefs.

Write or record daily. A paragraph. A sentence or two about the most remarkable thing you saw or heard or witnessed. A 30-second video. Save them all.

My story yesterday involved a cucumber. We’re more than prepared at home with staples, but I was craving fresh vegetables, so did an off-hours grocery run. Of course, there aren’t “off hours” any more, and it was busier than I’d have preferred. I avoided people, grabbed some peppers and tomatoes, bagged some cucumbers, and headed to the register.

The bag broke, and the cucumbers fell to the ground. I swore, because that’s what I do, and a very kind older woman bent over to retrieve one.

“DON’T TOUCH IT!,” I barked, embarrassed at myself as soon as I spoke. The cucumber is on the ground, for god’s sakes, so we’re already well past the point that a woman who likely wiped her carriage twelve times is going to add to my premature demise.

She stopped, and I apologized and thanked her. She said, “Oh, I get it. Believe me.”

The register lines were crowded, so I picked a self-service one and kept my distance from a younger mom rushing to check out, the belt full of young kids’ food. The machine got an error, and a flashing light signaled for staff assistance. She started shaking. She looked back, eyes reddened and crying, and apologized.

I was chastened from my behavior earlier and said something like, “It’s no problem. We’re all in this together.”

She smiled, said thanks, and we wished each other good health as we went our own ways.

They were two very human moments in very inhumane times.

If you spend any time in nature, I mean really in nature, you know this: it is brutal and harsh and unforgiving.

As nature’s most advanced creation on this Earth, we do not have to be.

These are the stories we can tell. So tell them. Tell them to your children. Tell them to your grandchildren. Somewhere down the road, it will cause rolled eyes.

Until it doesn’t.

Until future generations look back and see solidarity, preparedness, acceptance, sacrifice, kindness, science, new thinking, and the individual actions of billions got us through 2020. We will lose too many, and we will learn so much.

We have been too slow this time. Nature’s most advanced creation is reeling from one of nature’s tiniest. Telling your story will help it be different the next time around.

Because there will be a next time around. And they will need our strength, as we need that of those before us.


Continue reading

Keep Them Flying

“How old is this kid?”

“Older than my grandfather was in 1944.”

I didn’t intend to be a wiseass to the reporter, but these things happen, and it was also true. Standing in front of us was Rob Collings, 25, our pilot for the day, taking us on a shuttle flight between Hartford and Oxford, Connecticut in the Collings Foundation’s B-24 Liberator bomber. He is the son of Bob Collings, founder of the organization, and is, today, very likely one of the highest-hour rated B-24 pilots alive.

But this was 20 years ago–this week–standing on the tarmac at Hartford’s Brainard Airport, after a dismal, rainy Saturday had turned into a gorgeous fall Sunday. I was a new dad, an aspiring writer, and I was knee-deep in establishing a relationship with my paternal grandfather, who’d flown 50 missions over fascist-occupied Europe in a B-24. We’d almost never talked until 1999, when, meeting my daughter for the first time, he saw the news on TV and said, “Huh. We’re bombing Yugoslavia again. Some things never change.”

The following months, and later years, turned into a family history project, perfectly merging my love of words with my love of history with my love of aircraft, and that October day seemed an alignment of stars, taking a flight on the only B-24 left flying as a bomber of the more than 18,000 made.

Bob Collings had been a kind soul, hearing my story and offering a seat on the shuttle flight. I was planning to write a freelance article about the experience, and the rainy Saturday the day before had moved me to tears, connecting with dozens of veterans and families who braved the elements to see Collings’s magnificent flying machines and talk about what the aircraft meant to them.

At the time, the flight, and the overall experience of that weekend, was second only to the birth of my daughter as the most moving experience of my life.

Along with the reporter covering the planes’ visit for the local paper, I was flying with a wonderful vet named Walt, who is a volunteer for Collings and was taking his family on the flight to show them a bit of what he did over the Pacific in the war. The Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress, “909,” flew in formation with us from Hartford to Oxford. It was stunning.

Soaking up the experience of men like Walt, I’d recently joined an online community of WWII bomber crew and their families, led by a kindred spirit from Texas who was also knee-deep in the connection to his own grandfather, a B-17 crewman over Europe.

Dear friends we became and remain, and also friends with dozens of “bomber boys.” Gene, John, Jim, Lloyd, and so many more. Young men who climbed into their imposing but fragile machines, gathered over their bases into metal storms of a thousand planes, and hurled themselves into a frozen hell at 25,000 feet.

Death and dismemberment greeted them at every turn, from the savagely random flak, fierce, slashing attacks of enemy fighter planes, mid-air collisions with damaged planes, bombs dropping from above, collisions in fog over their runways, mechanical failure, hypothermia, fire, smoke, falling, and more. Their pilots nursed damaged planes home for hours, missing engines, smoke trailing behind them, gashes in their metal skin, fuel leaking, cursing pain and loss around them, alone in the sky over an angry enemy. If they were lucky, they saw the next morning, but it also brought empty bunks, empty chairs, around them.

The young men, in machines made by young women, rained war onto the cities, the citizens, the machinery, the soldiers of the Third Reich, Italy, and Japan, in a way not repeated since. It was as raw and brutal combat as has ever existed in mankind’s perpetual history of combat. A total war we could not and would not replicate or tolerate today.

This mighty generation–Depression babies and young builders and warriors–today rapidly slipping the surly bonds of Earth, leaving nothing but legacies and memories.

Oh, Lloyd.

The online conversations frequently veered into politics, and into debate. Lloyd was a sharp debater, a good man, and a passionate advocate for his beliefs. He left us in early 2002.


Fast forward nearly two years from that day in Hartford, and to the first anniversary of 9/11.

It was a brutal time, a gut punch. So raw. So real. You randomly burst into tears during the day.

I was home in my kitchen, thinking about cleaning up after dinner but really thinking about writing something for the anniversary. I cleared the table, and my two kids were running around underfoot, doing kid things.

I wondered how I would explain this crazy world to them, and worried what they’d have ahead. Who their heroes would be. I know who mine had been: astronauts and pilots. I started thinking about how the events of the past year would look, say, 20–25 years from then. I couldn’t help but think that the guys who fought WWII came home victorious, built this country in good ways and bad, committed the whole post-war world to rebuilding, and watched 25 years later as the nation seemed to rip apart. Would my kids look back at 2001–2002 as some bygone era they never really felt? Just a chapter in history, as distant as the Romans? Would they find strength and purpose? Did we understand, as a nation, what was ahead? Could we?

I was thinking about these things, and also specifically about Lloyd and what a decent man he always seemed to be. What his generation went through. I hoped that we would be as strong and give our kids as much of an example. His death, still raw, hurt.

And the house shook.

I ran to the front door and looked out. Then up. The Collings Foundation bombers were in town, soaring low overhead, eight magnificent radial engines roaring, skin shining in the setting sun.

Lloyd was with me. So were all the bomber boys. It would be OK. We’d been through this before. We knew these times. We knew worse.


I don’t know any of the people on Wednesday’s doomed flight of the Collings B-17. I may have spoken to some, as I’d often seen the Collings birds on their annual stops in the fall. Got my dad to do a flight like mine. Ran in similar circles. The loss was personal and real and raw when I saw the headline and the photo of the black smoke. I checked in with people I knew close to Collings. My friend in Texas checked in with me.

I also don’t know what happened on that emergency approach to Runway 6, although I have a theory. But I can guarantee that the crew was doing what the bomber boys were doing in 1944 when their planes were hurt: everything in their power to fight Newton’s damned laws. Flying the plane through the crash, to the end. No computers. Just strength, cables, metal, and thousands upon thousands of accumulated hours of experience with their baby. There would have been no one better in the cockpit than the crew that was there. You can’t understand the passion of organizations like Collings in maintaining and flying these aircraft until you see it for yourself.

There have been calls to ground warbirds like “909” for years. They will get louder in the wake of the crash; some already have. They are misguided.

These birds are pieces of our complex history, flying museums, touching thousands of lives a year, connecting generations, connecting a nation to its past. There is no static display that can replace them. Flying on them is a visceral experience. Feeling their engines near you, imagining the two bombers times 500, to imagine what a raid looked like, to see what we did, leaves you awestruck, in the literal sense of the word.

There is a cost to keep them flying, of course. Wednesday showed us. But risk has cost. So does knowledge. So does freedom. So does laying waste to concepts like fascism. It’s worth paying.

Keep them flying.