Monday, January 7, 2008


Today, Nathaniel - wonderful husband, best friend, number-1-supporter, biggest-fan, and all those cheesy-other-things - hovered a helicopter. No, he didn't fly, he didn't take-off, he didn't land, he simply hovered.

And in doing so, he took another big step to making his dream of being a Marine Corps Helicopter Pilot come true.


It was about 4 years ago, that Nathaniel mentioned he wanted to apply for the Marine Corps flight program (Field Accession Program or FAP). He had a dream of flying helicopters, and wanted to make the switch from a Marine-on-the-Ground to Marine-in-the-Sky. The FAP was very selective, and extremely challenging to get accepted into. The year Nathaniel made it (2006), he was the ONLY one approved for the pilot program out of the entire pool of applicants. Additionally, he needed to get special permission to delay his entry, because at the time he was in Iraq.

I was blown away, but ecstatic (and no, it didn't mean he got to come home early. He finished his tour with the 22 MEU, Marine Expiditionary Unit). I knew this had been his dream for a long, long, long time - so much, so that he bought a pair of pilot's wings and carried them faithfully around every day. When he would think about flying, when his squadron/ground work was frustrating, when he was deployed, when he was happy, when he was sad, when he wanted to be elsewhere, when he was doing his job, when he saw airplanes and helicopters screaming by overhead - he would remind himself of his dream and clasp those wings. So much, so that a little bit of the gold varnish wore off. (I didn't find out about this until later).

He told me it would be a long road and that in all likelihood, he wouldn't get into the program because it was so competitive. Additionally, making the switch from one MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) to another MOS was hard. Especially in lieu of the fact that he was a ground guy, and there happened to be a shortage of Marines in his specific field.

But in February of 2006, I found out through our neighbor - another Marine Pilot stationed at Cherry Point, NC - that Nate got into the program. I jumped up and down, sent Nathaniel an email titled *IMPORTANT*, and opened a bottle of wine in celebration. In the meantime, he had found out about 30 min before I did, and was trying to get in contact with people on the Board - to let them know he wanted the slot, but that he was deployed with very little communication...

I was beyond excited. I knew how much this meant to him... How hard he worked, all the hours of studying he put in, all the interviews, the BS, the medical exams, and everything in-between. There was no easy way to make his dream come true, but he pushed through, he "dreamt big", hung around for the long haul, and eventually we moved down to Pensacola, FL for Nathaniel's flight training.

After completing IFS (Introductory Flight Stimulus) for 2 months, API (Aerial Pre-Flight Indoctrination) for 6 weeks, and Primary School (where Student Naval Aviators learn how to fly the T-34 aircraft for the purpose of becoming a fighter pilot) for 7 months, Nathaniel has finally started helicopter training. The past 14 months or so (Nate started IFS in September of 2006), have been the most intense, most difficult, most studious of Nathaniel's entire life. Even more so than college. He jokes that if he studied at Wisconsin the way he does now, he would have had a 4.0 GPA.

He would spend 10 hours a day in class, and then study for another 6 or 8 when he got home. EP cards (Emergency Procedures), chair flying (he sits in the ugly green recliner and goes through the motions of flying the aircraft - same chair that he and Tabbitha fight over), "walking the landing pattern" - all became the norm. Times were tough for the two of us, and more often than not, Tabbitha and I did our own thing, and didn't see much of Nate. I did a lot of races on my own (this was pre-blogging days... so at least when I go to races now, hopefully I'll know some people... yea!!!), helped Nathaniel in any way possible, and for the most part, felt a bit lonley.

We were like two ships, passing in the night. We wanted to be there for each other, and were in as many ways possible. But it was still very trying, very frustrating at times. But we both knew that this is what it would take to make Nate's dream a reality. And more than anything, I wanted him to be happy (and safe... remeber I've got a fear of flying...fear of crashing).

We both realized this was part of the deal, part of what flight school was about. Even though it was hard on both of us (and the cat!), our relationship eventually grew stronger. And we learned to enjoy the precious time we had together. Saturday's became "our day", as Nathaniel flat-out refused to study. WE looked forward to that day each and every week.

It took a long time, as many dreams do, but finally Nathaniel has arrived.

Through all of the "blood, sweat, and tears", Nathaniel made it, completed all of the courses before helicopter training, and is now well on his way to flying the helicopter.


You can imagine my surprise, when after his "big day" (first time controlling the helicopter), he said that all he had done was hover.


Nathaniel explained that "hovering" was the most difficult thing to do in a helicopter. Remaining stationary, while the pitch of the blades, the rotor, the updrafts, downdrafts, side drafts, and just about everything else are all counter-balancing and whatnot - is damn near impossible. His IP (Instructor Pilot) flew him out to one of the OLFs (Outlying Landing Fields), and demonstrated the hovering technique. The IP managed to hold the helicopter - in this case the TH-57 - steady, with about a 1 foot give either way (meaning the helo only shifted about 12 inches in any direction... front, back, left, right, up, down...).

Then Nathaniel took the controls... And almost grounded the thing (apparently, because of some physics thing or another, the helo is top-heavy, and Nate swung the frame, not the rotor blades, forward - so that the tail rotor pitched towards the ground, while the cockpit pitched upwards. Think of a big pendulum). Thankfully, there's an EP for that, and Nate knew it. Also, he was only 10 feet off the ground, and the IP was right next to him (sort of like training wheels...).

After a few tries, Nathaniel became more confident in his hovering skills, and his technique improved tremendously. He had a feel of the aircraft, and was steadily becoming more familiar with its demands. But it wasn't anywhere near what the IP could do. Nate said that he had a lot of "drift" - meaning that when he controlled the helicopter, it would drift side-to-side, back-and-forth, and whatnot. Not 12 inches, more like 5 or 10 feet.

"Practice makes perfect," was my response.

He grinned at me and replied, "And I can't wait to do it again tomorrow!"

Nathaniel's helicopter "hovering" prompted me to contemplate triathlon, and life in general. Hovering, in essence, is breaking down more complicated skills needed to fly a helicopter, and bringing it "back to the basics." By breaking down the hard stuff into manageable bits, we are able to build a solid foundation. With that foundation, our actions become ingrained, what seemed hard becomes easier, and we move forward with greater proficiency because the skills we took time to develop become second-nature.

I suppose we could all use a little "hovering" practice.

And to a large extent, we do.

Every time we practice swim drills, bike drills, run drills, transition drills, drills up-the-wazoo, we refine our technique, we bring our training "back-to-the-basics", and we contribute to our own foundation. True, we may not go as fast, may not seem quite so speedy as our counterparts who are streaking by us over and over again; but we are putting in the work to make what we do second nature and ingrained habits.

And that, my friends, means that when we are given the green-light to fly, we'll already have laid a solid foundation. Our fluid movements, our refined techniques, our "hovering", will make what we do simply an extension of ourselves and our bodies. We'll be fluid in the water, have a steady and smooth cadence on the bike, and our run turnover will promote effective energy expenditure.

And all because we took the time to establish our foundation, go back to basics. To hover.

Crawl before walking, walk before running, and, well, you get the point.

Not only do I connect "hovering" to triathlon training, but what makes me really sit back and think, is the amount of work it took for Nathaniel to make his dream come true. He spent years studying, practicing, chair flying, going over EPs, planning, and taking the necessary steps to make his dream a reality. He knew there was no quick fix, no easy way out. If he wanted this, then it would be on HIM to go out and get it (along with the support of a wife and cat...Tabbs and I are great at going over EPs with in point, if you're ever in a T-34 and the canopy blows off... the first thing you do is lower the seat... :). It took time, it took a lot of effort - but today, for the first time, Nathaniel took control of a helicopter.

And he's living his dream.

I think that triathlon and pursuing our dreams, are similar to Nathaniel's helicopter dream. If you want to achieve a certain result, meet a goal, train for a specific race - you need to put in the time, the energy, the effort required. There is no easy way, there are no shortcuts. It takes time, dedication, work, sacrifice... but the rewards, the end results are so much sweeter because of what you have done. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But it's not - and you have a choice. What will you do?

Nathaniel went after his dream - and now he's living it.

This entry is dedicated to Nathaniel: I love you sweetheart. Way to go! You had a dream, had a goal, went after it, and made it yours - you did it! Hurrah! Today you not only hovered, but soared. And Tabbitha and I couldn't be prouder. We love you!


Pedergraham said...

Congrats to Nathaniel! I could just picture him "flying" the helicopter from the green chair. (I will show this post to Andrew--he always wanted to fly helicopters rather than drive a tank! He'll be glad to see someone else accomplished his dream...)

Anonymous said...

Oh, this was soo nice of you Marit! Congrats to Nathaniel! I want to say NATHAN all the time b/c that is my brother's name. :) Yeah Nathaniel! Jen H.

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Thanks you guys! I love reading your comments!!! It's pretty funny - Tabbitha watches Nathaniel and when he gets up for a break, she jumps on. As for the Nathan/Nathaniel thing... it's totally okay. Everyone called him "Nate" until the day I met him. He introduced himself as "Nathaniel" - because he wanted to sound "more distinguished"... a choice he had made a few hours before we met. Ha ha. So whenever we see his old friends, they always call him "Nate" and tease me for calling him "Nathaniel". Go figure. Your intentions were pure!

Beth said...

Just to add my 2 cents - congrats to Nathaniel from me too! I think it's a pretty amazing thing to watch someone realize their dream. Very pleased for you guys!