On Friday afternoon, a leisurely post-lunch perusal of my Facebook newsfeed at first yielded the expected chatter about spring break activities, plans for Easter, and last-minute preparations for Passover seders. The tenor of the status updates scrolling past my half-interested gaze took a discordant turn as the words "column of smoke" and "Virginia Beach" and "I-264 shut down" began to pepper my local friends' status updates.
Then I saw the words that never fail to clench my stomach and set my heart to leaden thudding in a suddenly too-tight chest: "Navy aircraft crash."
Almost before I knew what I was typing, I had tabs open in my browser for all the local news sites and my cursor poised over the refresh button as a familiar feeling settled into my gut. I hate that the knife's-edge anxiety of waiting, hoping, and praying has become familiar since I became an auxiliary member of the military aviation community by way of loving a man whose job it has been for the past six years to strap into a Navy aircraft and take it skyward.
Wait ... for the page to load.
Hope ... that there is more information available since I last hit "refresh" thirty seconds ago.
Pray ... that the new information is not word of a fatality.
Relief briefly triumphed over the grim "reload page" drumbeat when first one news source, then several others, reported that both pilots were alive and had been taken to a local hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries. This aviation mishap vigil would not involves names of the deceased withheld pending notification of the families. This time, my husband and I would not have to wonder during that limbo period whether we had lost a friend.
In the next couple of breaths, dread gripped me once again. The crippled F/A-18D from which both pilots had escaped had hurtled along its doomed trajectory into the courtyard of an apartment complex. Visions of civilian casualties by the dozen flickered in my imagination, though no serious injuries had yet been reported.
Wait ... hope ... pray ... and repeat, as news cameras rushed in and Facebook friends posted iPhone pictures of burning wreckage and plumes of thick black smoke.
Now, a few days later, I have heard of only seven injuries -- and that includes the two pilots and several of the first responders who rushed in to fight the fire. That is so staggeringly lucky that some are calling it a miracle. My heart still aches for those who have lost their homes and possessions, but our worst fears did not play out. Friday might have turned out far differently, and far worse.
I keep thinking about the two pilots who survived what was almost certainly the worst day either of them had ever had in the jet. I wonder if they're married, and how they and their spouses might be dealing with the gut-wrenching retroactive panic of a near miss. Not quite one year ago, my husband set his own personal record for Worst Day in the Airplane, coming far too close for my comfort to needing an obituary full of platitudes like "he died doing what he loved." I remember vividly how off-balance I felt in the aftermath of my husband's mishap, and we weren't even confronted with wreckage-in-your-face media coverage.
The online news updates I was so frantically perusing proved to be a mixed blessing. While I was in wait-hope-pray-refresh mode seeking any kernel of reassurance in the hours following Friday's jet mishap, I made the mistake of reading the comments people were leaving on the news articles. Even before anyone knew if the pilots were alive or dead, some commenters leaped at the chance to hold up the crash as an example of how the evil Navy is deliberately flying unsafe airplanes over innocent civilians in residential areas, and say that NAS Oceana ought to be shut down and moved to some unpopulated area. Other commenters noted that Virginia Beach used to be that "unpopulated area" before developers bought up land closer and closer to the base, and encroached on areas that the Navy warned had the potential to be in the path of a crash. Thus was an old local political argument trotted out for another round within minutes of an accident that could have killed people.
I was appalled. I can only imagine how I would feel if one of the most harrowing days of my life were appropriated to grind political axes. After an event like the mishap on Friday, the survivors deserve our human compassion and our support, not to be vilified or used as pawns in an ongoing debate. I am certain that they both did everything they could possibly do in the few seconds they had to follow the emergency procedures in which they were trained to be experts. All naval aviators have those instant reflexes drilled into them from the first time they take the controls.
As with all aviation mishaps, an exhaustive investigation is already underway to determine what went wrong with the aircraft. Those pilots are in for an intense period of reconstructing every detail that could possibly have had any bearing on what happened, down to every little thing they ate in the days leading up to the mishap. Such thoroughness is the standard procedure that will help the investigators piece together the cause of the mishap, but it means that the pilots will have to replay the incident in their minds over and over again. If they are anything like me, their families are doing their own replaying. Let's keep them all in our thoughts.