There I Was… A Moment – The Hale Bopp Comet

As you may have noticed in these stories, that during my military career (and before), I was driven with an intense focus and commitment to flying jets and military officership. This was often to the detriment of “the moment”. As a kid, I probably had Attention Deficit Disorder, but I used it well. I had purpose and was always focused on the next most important thing, and when that thing required waiting, I got anxious or impatient. My wife would say not much has changed, but I use a Mantra I recite in the car …“I am Calm, Patient, and Kind;” and occasionally, I am.

But the moment was in April 1997. I was bored. I had been given the task of being a training aid or “red-air adversary” to support a combat mission upgrade at night. The fighter weapons school instructor briefed us of his mission parameters and we were released to discuss our “red-air” tactics. He was upgrading a young Lieutenant on his first night mission.

We launched. We flew up the East Side of the Air Combat Range over the North Sea. There was little ship activity in the water making it hard to see the horizon. The North Sea at night is eery, being cold and dark. We set up into our holding formation while the instructor and his Lieutenant wingman were getting into position in the west. Over the radio, the instructor called “Fight’s on”.

We turned toward the “good” guys and presented them with a formation to decipher. They did well and our flight realized we were all targeted. “Good Job Lieutenant – I thought, although sarcastically.” This was easy for him, so at a pre-calculated distance, we all maneuvered (aggressively). I don’t remember the specific tactic we executed. All I know is that I executed a “hard” turn to break their radar lock. Then I climbed vertically to about 50,000 feet. Based on the training parameters, that is all that I was allowed to do. I rolled-out and leveled-off and returned to training mode… “
This sucks!”

But then I had the moment. I looked up, and in the dark moonless sky, and at the edge of the Atmosphere, I saw the billions of stars lighting up the sky like it was daylight. Constellations abound with the Milky Way stripped from horizon to horizon; no visual pollution from below… I heard my radar warning receive light up, I was being targeted, fine; I was focused on something else.

There it was, the Hale Bopp Comet; enter our sky for a few months before returning to its 2000 year orbit. And at this altitude and in this darkness it was streaking loud; with a six-inch tail as I imagined seeing pieces of a meteor falling out from within. I have never seen anything so clearly or so visible. I sat in awe. How was I to be given this moment? A moment I have and will never be able to recreate.

A moment that lasted a moment.

Then – “Bandit at 50,000’, you’re dead.” “Three’s Dead” I pushed into the radio. I gently turned the aircraft toward the East and descended to rejoin the “bad” guys as we reset for the next tactic.

Years after the Air Force, I spent months creating a personal purpose statement to help me find purpose again. Part of that statement includes the words “Revel in God’s Majesty.”

And, for one moment, I did.

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