The Man My Mother Fell in Love With

When the Navy retired the Tomcat, my father went with it.

Gilbert Hooker, right, with navigator Ron Dunn and F-4 Phantoms, on Hooker's first Vietnam cruise. (Courtesy The Hooker Family)
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“Instead of the nose popping up for the launch, like on the F-4, it dropped down like a dragster,” he says. “It was a much smoother takeoff.”

The F/A-18E/F is a sleek strike fighter, designed for battles like those in the Gulf War but not the dogfights and air superiority of my father’s era. In the mid-1990s, Super Hornets began appearing over Virginia Beach, and by 2006, the Navy had enough of them to retire the Tomcat four years early.

After 16 years of instructing pilots on F-14 simulators, the Navy rushed Dad through a training program. Within weeks, at age 60, he was on brand-new simulators for the legacy F/A-18C Hornet. Each night, he thumbed through manuals thicker than a phone book. Then he would show up at the simulators the next morning pretending to understand the airplane. “They just gave me the manuals and said: ‘Have at it,’ ” Dad says in a low voice. Once the new Super Hornets debuted, the old Hornets Dad worked with were only a sideshow. “I hoped I wasn’t teaching those kids something that was unsafe,” he says.

He had not felt this degree of stress since his early days of flight training. Then, a year into teaching, his mother died of a heart attack. Over the following year, his father faded from Alzheimer’s before eventually passing away as well. For years, Dad had lost friends in the Navy through aircraft accidents. But never had death been this close. Over the following months, the Navy gave my father fewer and fewer hours. In 2007, after three years with the Hornets, his boss stopped putting him on the schedule.

Young F/A-18E/F pilots, veterans of more recent wars, were now scrambling for my father’s job. Then his best friend and fellow F-14 instructor, Sam Flynn, succumbed to cancer. When Sam had trouble operating the controls, Dad would lend a hand. It was a camaraderie lost with the new pilots. My father wished that one day someone would do for him what he did for Sam. But retirement came early. With full-time instructors on staff, the management no longer saw a need for Dad and his part-time colleagues. His schedule, along with others’, was continually diminished. Finally, after two months without work, Dad called the office and left a message: his official resignation.

Since then, Dad’s life has idled. The family worries about his health. When I come home to visit, my parents and I gather in the kitchen. We hug and chat about my trip home. Dad offers me some leftovers. I grab a beer from the garage fridge. We talk about my life, their grandchildren, and anything new. Within minutes, however, Dad’s gaze returns to the television. He watches the same news that’s been on all day, even though Mom has made him turn off the sound. If we want Dad’s attention, we ask twice and receive a short answer before he retreats into seclusion. Sometimes he lashes out at my mother. “I don’t know, Constance,” he shouts as she races through the house, trying to keep order in their lives while raising my sister’s five-year-old son, Khamani. Retirement for my mother is a new life as a caregiver.

We drive to the airport, and my parents and Khamani walk inside with me. I wave goodbye at the security checkpoint, Khamani waves back, and I turn away. Along the narrow hallway leading to the terminal, posters of F/A-18s hang on the walls. Each time I leave, I look to the posters and wonder if next year, when I return, my father and his memories will still be here.

Brad Hooker writes about aviation, adventure travel, and the environment. He is also a science writer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

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