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Two F-18 Hornets: from Top Gun to tin can

Has this hunk of metal swerved through the missile-rich skies over Baghdad? Or Syria?

Average working life: 40 years. No more wild blue yonder for this bird.
Average working life: 40 years. No more wild blue yonder for this bird.

Coronado: you’d think we’d be pretty jaded when it comes to Top Gun planes thundering overhead in this town. Happens every day, right? Especially when a carrier’s returning from a WestPac.

And yet I can’t resist looking up, every time. If only to guess what the noisy bird is. They always seem to come in so slowly; I don’t understand how they hang in the air. I sort of hold my breath for them.

So when a couple of huge trucks with the cannibalized corpses of two F-18 Hornets stretched out on their flatbeds rumble by on their way to some military wrecker’s yard, I get a wave of sadness. Like finding a dead gull. These incredible machines aren’t going to fly any more. They have had their moment. I get it: their whole raison d’être was to kill people and destroy things. Yet you can’t help feel for them, for what fantastic lives they had, under the guidance of their Top Gun pilots, streaking through the air just 30 feet overhead — or 40,000 feet.

The second plane has print still visible on its side. “Danger. Jet intake.” And below where the canopy was, “Cdr. B. C. Shoemaker. ‘Doc.’” I wonder who he was. Where he is now. What he felt about having a million-dollar — actually, $66 million-dollar — warplane with his name on it? If he felt sentimental about it, if he still felt the thrill of the jerk of the catapult launching him into the air, or the grab of it halting him improbably on the deck when he landed? Of suddenly being way high off the earth and trying to keep his marbles together as the blood fought its way back to his head?

One or two passers-by, here on Orange Avenue, fumble for their cell phones to get a picture. As this truck has to stop for the light at 10th Street, one gent walks around to the driver’s side. “F-16? F-18?” he asks the driver. The driver looks straight ahead. He ain’t giving no info to unauthorized parties. My friend shrugs. “Think it’s an F-18,” he says. “Those wedge tail fins. Just think where they have been!”

He’s right, of course. Has this hunk of metal swerved through the missile-rich skies over Baghdad? Or Syria?

With all the systems pulled out and the engine spaces gutted, it feels like a naked prisoner lying there, indecently exposed. For some reason, I think of Antoine de St. Exupery, the French pilot who pioneered night flights over the Andes and Africa, but also wrote children’s classics like The Little Prince. He was killed flying in WW2, but people across the world still love him. Folks still quote from his books. The one I remember goes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

I see the tractor-trailer is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Is it going to drive this plane carcass all the way back there? Is that where this creation of human brilliance is going to turn into Bud cans?

Me, I head on towards The Tavern for a beer. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be drinking from some F-18.

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Average working life: 40 years. No more wild blue yonder for this bird.
Average working life: 40 years. No more wild blue yonder for this bird.

Coronado: you’d think we’d be pretty jaded when it comes to Top Gun planes thundering overhead in this town. Happens every day, right? Especially when a carrier’s returning from a WestPac.

And yet I can’t resist looking up, every time. If only to guess what the noisy bird is. They always seem to come in so slowly; I don’t understand how they hang in the air. I sort of hold my breath for them.

So when a couple of huge trucks with the cannibalized corpses of two F-18 Hornets stretched out on their flatbeds rumble by on their way to some military wrecker’s yard, I get a wave of sadness. Like finding a dead gull. These incredible machines aren’t going to fly any more. They have had their moment. I get it: their whole raison d’être was to kill people and destroy things. Yet you can’t help feel for them, for what fantastic lives they had, under the guidance of their Top Gun pilots, streaking through the air just 30 feet overhead — or 40,000 feet.

The second plane has print still visible on its side. “Danger. Jet intake.” And below where the canopy was, “Cdr. B. C. Shoemaker. ‘Doc.’” I wonder who he was. Where he is now. What he felt about having a million-dollar — actually, $66 million-dollar — warplane with his name on it? If he felt sentimental about it, if he still felt the thrill of the jerk of the catapult launching him into the air, or the grab of it halting him improbably on the deck when he landed? Of suddenly being way high off the earth and trying to keep his marbles together as the blood fought its way back to his head?

One or two passers-by, here on Orange Avenue, fumble for their cell phones to get a picture. As this truck has to stop for the light at 10th Street, one gent walks around to the driver’s side. “F-16? F-18?” he asks the driver. The driver looks straight ahead. He ain’t giving no info to unauthorized parties. My friend shrugs. “Think it’s an F-18,” he says. “Those wedge tail fins. Just think where they have been!”

He’s right, of course. Has this hunk of metal swerved through the missile-rich skies over Baghdad? Or Syria?

With all the systems pulled out and the engine spaces gutted, it feels like a naked prisoner lying there, indecently exposed. For some reason, I think of Antoine de St. Exupery, the French pilot who pioneered night flights over the Andes and Africa, but also wrote children’s classics like The Little Prince. He was killed flying in WW2, but people across the world still love him. Folks still quote from his books. The one I remember goes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

I see the tractor-trailer is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Is it going to drive this plane carcass all the way back there? Is that where this creation of human brilliance is going to turn into Bud cans?

Me, I head on towards The Tavern for a beer. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be drinking from some F-18.

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