|Middlegate, Nevada-- You don't usually see them coming, and it isn't something you hear right away.|
a pressure, like something you feel in your chest, and
you tense up for it. Then, there's just an instant before
the walls suck in, and you know to duck before they blow
out again when the air cracks."
In those few ticks of time, according to medical research, the pupils of the eyes dilate; the heart may slow, beating softer in the chest; skin temperature drops and there is a tightening in the gut followed by a glint of cold sweat.
"Some people just instinctively drop to the floor," says Fredda Stevenson.
With her family, she owns Middlegate Station, a roadstop 50 miles from anywhere along the old Pony Express and Wells Fargo trail across the rocky desert of Central Nevada now paved over with U.S. Highway 50.
"They're tourists. They don't know what it is," she said. But the Stevensons never laugh at them. Sometimes they find themselves on the floor with them, uncertain whether they dropped or were actually thrown down when the atmosphere exploded in the shock of a low-level pass at super-sonic speed.
"It's true," Navy Captain Scott Ronnie tells a state legislative committee on public lands. "Those people at Middlegate are really getting beat up."
"Beat up," he says, putting it in a way meant to be apologetic without yet offering any certain relief.
Russ Stevenson remembers that day earlier this year when the sudden pressure spun him around and all the windows in the old road house imploded like the blast from a shot gun.
"When we called them, they said at first it wasn't one of theirs, but they sent out these Navy investigators to check on the damage anyway. I showed them all the glass and pointed out where the walls were cracking and the roof was sagging. They said maybe it was a commercial airliner or something. And they were about ready to leave when I asked them if they'd like to see the video tape."
It isn't a movie epic, and Stevenson wouldn't have gotten it at all if he hadn't guessed that the pilot intended to make a second pass from the same direction. Cumulus, gray etched clouds over the Clan Alpine Mountains, a summer day with possibly an approaching shower. The dark silhouette appears suddenly, framed against the distant clouds, and in the next breath it fills the screen, ripping through too quickly to be certain whether it is an FA-18 Hornet or an F-14 Tomcat, but there is a mike-busting concussion of sound with it and the camera swings crazily with the same force that shattered the windows at Middlegate.
"Sometimes," Stevenson said sardonically, "they ask us if we got the number on his plane. If there had been anybody sitting at the table near the picture window that day, we would have been cleaning up blood along with the glass, and they want to know if we got the number on the plane."
"They're not exaggerating, they're getting beat up out there," said Captain Ronnie. "Those pilots come out from Dixie Valley, and they're really hauling the mail at that point."
"Hauling the mail" can mean speeds in excess of Mach 1, the point at which the sound barrier is broken at about 750 miles an hour. Navy fighters are capable of doing more than twice that, though maximum capabilities of the Hornet are still classified.
Middlegate is supposed covered by a "bubble" that keeps the planes above 2000 feet and below supersonic speed. In Stevenson's video, the aircraft appears to be at 200 feet or lower, though not even as low as some have seen them when they set off waves in the power lines strung at 20 feet or so along Highway 50.
Even Navy authorities admit that Middlegate's "bubble" is frequently burst by as many as 20 sense-shattering sonic booms a day. They sympathize, and promise things will get better. Then they buy more glass.
Captain Ronnie himself is an instinctively likable character, a modern warrior in dazzling white and gold braid with noble good manners and knighthood charm. The base commander of the Navy's TOPGUN fighter school and strike force training center , Ronnie's silver-haired good looks and obvious aviator bearing assign to him of almost classical American military leadership. People want to agree with him. It feels almost unpatriotic not to.
And God knows He neglected to assign such movie-star attributes to the middle age of Grace Bukowski of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability.
Bukowski and the Captain have met before. They seem even to like each other as worthy adversaries in a battle for the skies over the West and over Nevada especially, where the Navy is currently proposing to double its already vast reign of dominance into an aerial empire of more than 21,000 square miles.
Combined and linked to skies controlled by Nellis Air Force Base, the military air space engulfs what seems to be nearly two-thirds of the Silver State in a sound-tearing aerial circus of military combat training operations ranging from unworldly Stealths to dust-whapping veteran helicopters.
The dashing Captain wins most of the crowd's affection at the hearing. It's harder for them to warm to the genial, but overweight, Bukowski. Hard for them even to believe that the daring young pilots, most of whom really do seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to Tom Cruise, could possibly be causing what Bukowski calls "real terror" among the rural residents and random visitors they seldom even sense beneath them.
People pay money elsewhere to see Navy jets flown by handsome young men with call signs like "Viper" and "Iceman" and "Maverick." National pride is invested in them more that ever since they swept the skies over Iraq, daring any enemy pilot who might be fool enough to challenge them.
In the live TV coverage of that
strange short war, one of the young aviators is seen to
dismount from his warbird and be asked by reporters what
it was like in the flak-filled skies of Baghdad.
Next week: The End of Dixie
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