Assessing Our Flap at Three Months In…

When I was teaching at the Naval Academy, midshipmen would often ask me about my experience in the naval aviation community as they were wrestling with whether or not they wanted to Fly Navy after graduation. While there are plenty of positives to cite, I would always share the one drawback as well: “Living by the Flight Schedule.” Although it was kinda fun as a junior officer not knowing what I’d be doing any given day until 1800 the night before, the inability to plan anything eventually wore on me. I definitely wouldn’t prefer to live that way now, especially given Flight’s schedule and with three monkeys in tow. Even after explaining how challenging it might be (e.g. your best friend asks you to be her maid of honor in eight months and you can’t commit to it until maybe a week prior to the wedding, if then…), I would still get a unconvinced eyebrow raise from most midshipmen until I shared the following sea story.

Back in the day our squadron was on “surge” status, which meant we were within the six-month window prior to deployment and, if our assets were needed anywhere in the meantime, we should be prepared to pack our bags and go. It just so happened that a new Russian submarine, one on which our Navy had yet to collect any intelligence, had just pulled out of port and was near enough to Alaska for us to trap, or record its acoustic signature. As the “surge” squadron, we quickly launched to establish a detachment site in Alaska to run a “flap,” which meant we would schedule round the clock operations to maintain overhead tracking of this target of interest while we simultaneously gathered data on its gear aboard.

Motivational P-3 picture
Motivational P-3C picture from a Google search – awe-inspiring, no?

For those of you unfamiliar with Navy P-3 squadron (VP) operations, such a flap requires three aircraft to be airborne at any given time (one crew on top of the target, one flying home having just turned over with the “on station” crew, and one flying out to relieve the crew “on station”), another crew pre-flighting a fourth aircraft to launch shortly and another crew debriefing their mission, along with all the maintenance and crew rest requirements in between. As you may imagine, there are a lot of moving parts (literally) and all operational planning must have redundancies built in to account for some of these parts not functioning as advertised (usually due to operational wear and tear). This particular flap was such a big deal that the whole VP community was salivating at the opportunity to participate. No kidding, squadrons based in Hawai’i wanted in on the action – even squadrons who were currently deployed to Japan (where we would be deploying in a few months) were scrambling to see how they could be part of the flap back home.

Curious as to what my crew would be tasked to do the following day as the squadron geared up for this detachment, I popped into Schedules to see if that had yet been decided. As of 1400, we were on tap to go to Oahu the next day for about a week so that one of the Hawai’i squadron’s crews could get in on the submarine action. Sweet!  I had this vision jump into my head and was suddenly far less interested in the submarine…

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After mentally reviewing my packing list (did I have to pack my sandals and/or my flip flops in addition to flight boots?) and being seasoned enough to know how quickly things can change, I stopped in Schedules again just to double check the ever evolving “rough” (schedule draft) before I departed for the day. I learned that Hawai’i was off the table. Bummer. Instead, my crew was staying home while I was navigating a logistics run up to Alaska. “Well, that’s sounds considerably less fun,” I thought to myself as I headed home and went about my plans for the evening.

When I got home from Scottish Country Dance Class at 9ish, there was a message waiting for me. “Call the duty office ASAP.” Oh geez. That’s never good. I made the call and was told, “Pack your bags. You’ve got a 0800 preflight for an 1100 go. Your crew is flying to Japan tomorrow. We don’t know for how long, so pack for three weeks.” Um, what?! Roger, Semper Gumby. So I packed. And we went to Japan. Two months early for deployment. (Spoiler alert – it was only for ten days). Yikes. At least I got to do some pre-deployment reconnaissance…  Like I said, that crazy inability to plan even tomorrow due to shifting world events really got old after a while, however it did prepare me well for life as an airline family in general and for this deployment in particular.

One of the privileges of being married to an airline pilot is that we are able to travel fairly easily, although we must be extremely flexible when we do so. Often we can fly to most places we’d like to go either for free (with Flight’s company) or deeply discounted on other airlines, but always, always, always as standby passengers (meaning we’re never sure we’re actually on a particular flight somewhere until we’re airborne and the plane’s wheels are in the well). As such, our plans must always be malleable enough to accommodate changes and we will travel to the airport with plans G, H, I, J, and K in mind (typically we’ve already moved through a few plan modifications by the time we get to the gate), because we expect things will continue to rarely go as planned. Being in that practice has set us up well for this current deployment, which is far more like an extended flap than I had first realized. We have easily rolled with any schedule changes necessitated by events well beyond our control (e.g. wildfires ravaging Oregon) or additional requirements due to our own self-induced drama (see Captain Crunch).

Our general flight plan has been to make a wide sweeping counterclockwise trek circling the United States as we chase mild weather. We pulled chocks in Maryland and got on the road at the end of July, only nine days after committing to actually doing so. Early into our travels we found that locating campsites last minute, especially those in desirable locations, was rather tricky in the summertime and nearly impossible on summer weekends. It became especially critical to lock in sites at those key times as well as reserving places that readily fill up regardless of the season and, fortunately, Flight has been all over that. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in late August come to mind, as do several choice California coastal towns throughout September and October.   Aviation-trained to be Semper Gumby, our trip has flexed to meet those critically scheduled campsites while making the best of a few other destinations loosely along our planned route.

Another variable for our route planning is Flight’s work schedule. Unique to the airline industry is Flight’s ability to continue to work from wherever we are on the road, as long as we are near a reasonably sized airport so he may commute to Boston to start his work trips. Additionally, his seniority in the company is such that we can usually plan his schedule around our intended path (taking into account where we might find commutable airports near by) or, once his schedule is published (typically a month out), we can modify our travel route to make his commuting to work a little easier, if necessary. We’ve also been very fortunate in that Flight has had several weeks of vacation over late summer/early fall, meaning his work schedule has been relatively light. Starting in November it’s going to get real and our travel tempo will need to shift to accommodate his more frequent commutes and absences so we can maximize what we get out of this experience as a family.

How do we plan to make it so?   Great question, I’m so glad you asked. If Flight has a trip, we can plan to stay put a little longer so he can still see some of the environs. Wherever we are, we do research on the top ten things we’d like to see in the area, discuss what his priorities among these are and try to schedule our “Field Trips” accordingly (e.g. we plan to drop Flight off at the Las Vegas airport and the kids and I will head directly to the Hoover Dam to study agriculture, water maintenance and hydroelectric plants without him, and he’s good with that). Amazingly, we are handling the planning and execution of our macro schedule reasonably well, yet, as with any deployment, the manifestation and impact of the human factors aspect can’t truly be known until you’re actually executing flap operations.

In aviation “human factors” is the term encompassing all aspects of being human while doing things a human was not necessarily designed to do, and includes everything from crew rest to mid-mission bathroom accommodations to what might be taking up mental real estate and can’t be compartmentalized to post mission impact (e.g. PTSD). When planning an evolution from an operational perspective, it’s easy to solely focus on how to best accomplish a mission without taking into account how the completion of said mission (or failure thereof) might be experienced by those executing the flight schedule.   Flight and I have been guilty of doing just so, although not intentionally in a “Suck it up, Buttercup” kind of way. Instead, it has been mostly due to our not knowing exactly what we were getting into. Don’t get me wrong, that’s part of the fun of this whole adventure, but really we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We probably still don’t. Again, part of the challenge and joy of this nomadic lifestyle.

Flight and I did know that this deployment would affect each of the kids (and us) differently, but as to just how we had hypothesized at length before we departed and most of our musings were not quite correct. Keeper is at the age where he is feeling every aspect of our year on walkabout most acutely. However, given the transitional phase of adolescence, that may have been the case anyway. He has been holding strong to online connectivity as that is the main tether to his friends back in Maryland. When we are without that social lifeline, he feels its absence most. Because we all live in such close proximity to each other, Flight and I are keenly aware of any of Keeper’s shifting moods and are working to meet him wherever he is, which often necessitates giving him some space and allow him to retreat to his “room” and close his “door” (curtains) until he’s willing to read us into his state of mind. Probably sounds a lot like parent-adolescent behavior anywhere. So we’ve heard – we’re not sure as he’s our first to reach this transition.

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Firebolt is an interesting mix of opposing characteristics. While she is above and beyond our most social member of the family, she has recently self-proclaimed her shyness, all the while chatting away with any kids we encounter which, unfortunately, has been fewer than we’d hoped. In her daily existence, she seems to prefer to live life far from the edge, yet will surprise us by being the first to volunteer for a crazy hike like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park – !!! She is a most compassionate and caring individual and feels everything deeply, but has an almost hardline justice streak and can quickly get her Scottish ire up when her sense of fairness is breached. Firebolt seems to be taking to our travels well, constantly reading and singing, but when pressed rates the experience with a lukewarm “okay.” I guess time will tell on how she chooses to remember our trek.

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WoodSprite is just a sponge, soaking in every experience, as well as being a constant source of entertainment. She is one funny kid and I think we’ll probably see her on stage at some point. No kidding, I have a deadpan video from last year of her saying, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night.”  We often overhear evolving improv between her and Firebolt and are blown away by their witty repartee.  When I think back to my own memories from the Kindergarten years, I can produce distinct snapshots of people and some places, but the storyline behind each of those is likely more based on family narratives instead of my own fuzzy recollections. As Flight observed at two months into this adventure, I too am hoping that WoodSprite will fondly recall this journey as a joyful play list of family memories.

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One of the unforeseen positives of this adventure is that the kids have really grown close. Believe you me, there’s still plenty of sibling picking at each other in the back of the Subaru (makes us very thankful for the motorhome during long transits!), but they have become very good friends who kindly support and encourage each other and play together well.   I am thrilled with that unintended side effect of our travels.

Probably the most significant oversight we made that Flight has already touched on in his summary at two months in has been our lack of involving our kids in the planning and execution of this deployment. We started out pretty well getting their inputs as we prepared to go (see here for a run down on our departure), but, as soon as we got on the road, the training and operational plans have been unintentionally kept between me and Flight.

One of the common recommendations I’ve read in raising children is to be sure to give them rules and boundaries so they feel safe and can therefore thrive. We have neglected to define our kids’ daily existence by failing to appropriately manage their expectations. Shame on us. In our defense, we are just now figuring out exactly what we are doing with enough lead time so that we can coherently communicate those plans to the rest of the clan. It has also helped that we have transitioned to the academic year and can routinely give them more concrete assignments to focus their mental energy. I’ll give another (better, I hope…) update when we’ve made it through the transition and I can draw some conclusions on how the roadschooling adventure is going in earnest.

To better help us communicate the big picture, we purchased a small dry erase board calendar with a stretch of corkboard at the bottom and it is now firmly posted on the outside of the bathroom door. Although it may seem odd, this location is the center point of Davista and has now become a Combat Information Center (CIC) of sorts. Posting pertinent scheduling info has been a huge improvement for everyone involved – I’m not sure why it took us so long to figure that out.

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In addition to having a picture of where we’ll be in the upcoming weeks, the kids know when it’s a travel day, how long we’ll be underway while driving, how long we’ll be at any given campsite, etc. The not knowing had made a tricky existence for them – they’ve all expressed how much they now appreciate having a map and a list of where we’ll be when, so they can plan appropriately, although I don’t know what exactly. Maybe their calendars are thick with social obligations on which I have yet to be briefed.

One thing I have noticed is we have had to modify most family rules, or I should say we’ve had to provide more specific guidelines because non-compliance has far greater potential for catastrophic outcome. One such example: not putting laundry actually into laundry bags can interfere with the slide’s operation as we expand or retract our port-side wall and break our house. That would be bad. Another would be not putting the lid to the commode (the toilet seat is a given) down means any towels or articles of clothing drying in the bathroom now has the opportunity for a swim in the bowl whether we are driving or not. Not necessarily catastrophic but certainly gross. Closing all cabinets and drawers is critical not just so we don’t bonk our heads or shins, but the contents of which might (proven) become projectiles as we wind our way down any road.

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One last observation before I close (whew, this is a long post!)… One aspect of daily life has become far more efficient out of necessity: our ability to plan what we eat and eat what we plan. While living in Maryland the concerted effort to efficiently meal plan was usually overcome by the ease of running to one of the nine grocery stores nearby after wastefully throwing out what wasn’t used in time. Now that we’re on the road, everything needs to be thought out well before we’re at a campsite, which is sometimes located in the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Some observations:

  • The offered hook-ups at intended campsites drive much of our meal planning efforts. Whether or not we’ll have access to electricity to: run the Instant Pot, the microwave, or the electric hand-mixer will dictate much. If so, great, those meals are good to go and will pepper our upcoming week’s menu. If not, will we be able to run the generator? If Generator Ops are feasible, we’ll try to minimize that necessity. If Generator Ops are a no go, then, alas, we must grill or use the indoor stove-top or oven. Or leave our kids with grandparents to luxuriate in Healdsburg’s newest culinary mecca (unfortunately cost prohibitive to repeat more than almost never again).
  • We are getting much more adept at grocery shopping for our space limitations, then planning for and making the most of any and all leftovers. The few items we’ve had to pitch before using include mushrooms (I just don’t trust them when they’re moldy and Flight and I are the only ones who might eat them…) and avocadoes (I swear it’s tricky to get good ones in some states).
  • Water limitations (both what we can carry to Far, Far Away and how large our grey tank isn’t as it catches all the post dish-washing drainage) are not something I previously had to consider. Sorting out what pans to use to cook meals depends on whether or not we have a readily available dump receptacle at our specific campsite. If not, tidying up after meals requires reliance on skills I learned at Girl Scout Camp. (e.g. Boil water in the lone pan/pot used for cooking, add soap, and then wash the other dishes in said cauldron, before dumping the wash water outside and allowing only the rinsed soapy water to go down the drain and into the grey water tank).

So, overall how is our flap going? Pretty well, all things considered. From an Operations perspective, I am stoked that we have now roped the kids into the experience as we try to make the most of our travels. Sure, we can always improve how we do business, but I’m hoping our constant (sometimes obsessive) self-assessment will inform the ways we better move forward. As we continue to streamline processes and roll with the impact of our human factors, we may just figure out how to live on the road, at which point, true to our Navy training, it will be time to shift gears and assume a new posting.   What that might look like is a discussion for another time…

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