Under the Top Gun
The Navy Cracks Down on Nevada

  by Tim Findley

Middlegate, Nevada-- You don't usually see them coming, and it isn't something you hear right away.  
"It's 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.

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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.
"Nothing to it," he says. "It was just like Fallon."
What he really meant was that it was a lot like Dixie Valley, some 40 miles east of Fallon, where the world's very best electronic game is played daily by elite pilots flying the fastest and most exotically-equipped aircraft in the world.
The grids of "Threat Emitters" and "Electronic War Centers" laid out beneath them can make it seem in real time like they are attacking Baghdad, or, for that matter, New York City if necessary, and the interceptors they encounter are real fighter aircraft with designated enemy insignia and markings flown by an adversary squadron specifically trained to "shoot down": our own planes.
The attacks and "fur balls" of dogfights go on imperceptibly from the ground most of the time, seen only on the heads-up displays of radar contact and missile launches in cockpits and relayed simultaneously to the control center in Fallon that triggers the action and plays it out, recording it all in three dimensional views from all angles for use in debriefings later.
Much of what goes on in the training flights, and how it's all controlled by electronics that seem deadly real to the pilots, is a military secret, but it's as close to combat as most pilots are likely to get in a "game" the Navy takes very seriously.
The folks at Middlegate are only getting a sense of what is usually near the end of it, when a "Hornet" or a "Tomcat" comes screaming south out of Dixie Valley between the Stillwater and Clan Alpine Mountains, chased by some electronic demon those on the ground will never see.
"You never know when - you're just tense for it all the time, day or night," said Fredda Stevenson, who worries about the way her ten-year-old grandson hunches his shoulders these days when he senses another one coming.
The Stevensons bought the run-down road stop in 1981, intending to begin a long, peaceful retirement among the stunning mountain desert landscape. Military aircraft then were no problem, and the Stevensons accepted the Navy's own soothing advice that they must have been imagining UFO's when they glimpsed those weird, bat-like things in the sky around the Clan Alpines.
Their business puttered along on the fewer and fewer tourists using Highway 50, and on the fairly reliable trade from a nearby mine that produces mostly cat litter. And from the families that came in from Dixie Valley, about 20 miles away.
Dixie Valley used to be an exceptionally quiet and unnoticed community in a part of Nevada where "unnoticed" was once a common civic slogan.
Like other places set aside from the high-speed traffic of post-war "civilization," Dixie Valley didn't particularly want to be noticed. The old mountain mining ghost town of Wonder and the similar remains of Fairview, with its still-unmovable bank vault, lured an occasional bottle-hunter off the lonely two lanes of U.S. Highway 50, but all the serious traffic went away in the 50's when they began opening Interstate 80, a mountain range away to the north.
Dixie Valley was 10 or more miles off the least traveled stretch of highway in the nation and 40 miles or more away in any direction from a place larger than one-pump-and-a-beer Middlegate itself. Time didn't stop for Dixie Valley in the 1950s and 60s, but it slowed down enough to linger over the good parts.
Lost souls with enough gas to burn just to stumble on the valley found a sylvan oasis of about 15,000 acres divided up among less than 50 families growing alfalfa and raising cattle on ground so rich in artesian water that it gushed up in scattered ponds. That was part of the secret to living in Dixie Valley - the easy water. The other part was just being set aside in an almost congregational community of few people who once had their own school and their own meeting hall and didn't pay much attention to even the influences coming from Fallon, a "citified" town of less than 5,000.
Left alone, Dixie Valley probably had no particular place to go and no particular influence it wanted to exert, unless, as was sometimes rumored, people in power got some idea about using the valley's water for some other purposes. In World War II, part of the "town" (which it never was) moved out to make patriotic room for training of Navy dive bomber pilots from the newly established Fallon base. The dive bombers actually practiced missions to be carried out over the Pacific later by dropping duds in Pyramid Lake, well north of Fallon, but even today, you can still find rusted .50 caliber shell casings in the soft soil of the valley where they were expelled by Hellcats and Corsairs practicing strafing runs. Dixie Valley did its duty in the war, and returned to what the residents thought would be their normal, unnoticed, way of living after it was over.
But the Navy base at Fallon didn't fold up and close the way other short strips all over the country did after the war. Despite its paradoxical distance from the sea, the remote and wild-ranging advantages of the Fallon base for unobstructed - and unrestricted - training had apparently attracted Pentagon attention.
But the late 1960's as air war demands of Vietnam concentrated their efforts, Naval authorities were finally beginning to hear mutterings of protest from Dixie Valley residents who were losing their patience with the new Phantoms and Crusader jets cutting through on their way in and out of the bombing ranges, so close to the ground at times that the pilots made jokes of lowering their carrier arresting hooks to cut cattle in half as they streaked by.

Next week: The End of Dixie Valley

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