Member Stories: Kern River Valley Ride


Having just returned from my first deployment flying Operation Southern Watch over Iraq, with the allure of two fresh port calls in Perth and Hobart Australia still on my mind, the stand-down from adrenaline was taking its toll on me.  I had left for this deployment with very little time in NAS Lemoore’s playground, Restricted Area 2508.  What follows is a brief explanation of my misconduct and the reason for my lack of remorse, which unfortunately resulted in new over flight restrictions subjected to all future F/A-18 pilots flying in the range.  All my fault.

“Time for a 1vO”, said the Ops O.

Getting the keys to take a jet solo was such a liberating feeling of bad-assery.  I really couldn’t believe I was being paid to do the things the Navy was calling me to do.  I sped out to the range in CAVU weather and put the jet under appropriate strain and buffet, to tighten up my weakened G tolerance from paltry flying on the way home from the Northern Arabian Gulf.   After some ill performed squirrel cages, high alpha slow flight work and generally exploring most of the range, it was time to go home.  I had a padded Joker number, a safe fuel state to depart the range to keep me honest.  Being solo with such a good deal, I didn’t want to mess it up.

As I headed west toward NAS Lemoore, the beauty of the Sierra mountains captured my attention.  While flying along at 20,000’ MSL, I passed Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US.  On my left I spotted a deep gorge that ran North/South from the Sierra’s down to Isabella.   We have all heard those little voices.    One image in white wearing a halo, while the other holds a pitchfork and has horns.  The latter was louder: “No one has told me NOT to fly down there.”   The temptation was irresistible.   I set the radar altimeter to 450’, EMCON button (Emissions Control), Split S, followed to the minute to live rule.

What followed was five minutes of the most exhilarating flying I have ever done: 500 knots at 500’.   The canyon walls stood on either side of me with only 30 degrees of blue above me.  The rest was all granite walls and huge waterfalls.  I was riding over a crystal-clear winding river (Kern) easing my machine to match its arcs.  Little did I know that my disappearance off the radar was noted by Joshua Control.  A Tomcat watched me descend and followed me from 3000’ above the mountain range, providing lots of laughter in their cockpit.  A park ranger with “binos” was somehow able to get my “side number” as I was disturbing the tranquility of this beautiful gorge.  It wasn’t long before I popped up, checked in at the precise end of the gorge, and asked Joshua for a clearance home.  I could not have handled more adrenaline than what was running through my veins.

A day or two later, it was time to talk to the Ops O.  At first, I was less than forth giving.  Though it wasn’t long before they broke me.  They mentioned how “black box tells all”.  At the time I didn’t even know the Hornet had one.  Skipper made me write an apology letter to the park ranger.  I kept my wings because back then mistakes were allowed.  Our Ops O made sure that after deployments we gave course rules briefs to all pilots, especially those without any experience in the range.

Subsequent to this debacle, every time I flew over the Kern River Valley, I could hear the Kern River welcome me.  I could only hear these voices when I had wingman.  In fact, the River would change its voice each time to sound like my wingman that day.  “PMÜGER, come to me.”

Thanks to that one great ride, no F/A-18 is allowed to pass over Kern River Valley below FL180 anymore.

It Was So Worth It!


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