Greetings from sunny Tokyo!
Actually, not sunny at all (rather dark and dreary).
In a few days, we in America will celebrate another “eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month” event. It was the final bell of the “war to end all wars”; a span of four years so devastating that it claimed an entire generation of European youth, not to mention many from Down Under. We know it as “Veterans Day”, and it proudly holds a special place in my heart.
Why is that you ask? For essentially one simple reason. Each year on this one day, I ponder my adult life, and I’m left with the same conclusion each time. I feel that a very important part of it has been an abject failure. I know, harsh words to be sure, but none the less brutally honest.
I look back and reflect on the fact that I was raised in the family of a veteran, groomed to love my country (and the liberties and freedoms she represents), and wanted nothing more than to enter military service and do my duty. This would never come to pass, and in that regard, I’ve failed in my quest to repay the wonderful “idea” known as America with time spent “on watch”. My failure to serve would change my life in ways I’ll never be able to fully comprehend.
I wanted to fly. It was my calling and I heard it loud and clear. I yearned to be in the spot where I’ve been fortunate enough to call my “workplace” for almost 40 years…the cockpit of an air machine. Fate would intervene and steer me down a path far different from the one I dreamed of, and wished for, as a young man. This was to be a path that started with the rigors of military service, and ended with the cushy life of the airlines. I worked hard as a teen, kept (mostly) good grades in school, stayed in shape, and was pointed toward a scholarship that ended with a jet that had the initials USAF painted on its fuselage. It was to be, and my Dad and I couldn’t have been more excited. Then it happened… I failed.
To be exact, I failed the vision test of the entrance physical of the Air Force ROTC program that I was to attend (Texas A & M University). Way back in the days we call “the 70’s”, part of the physical exam included a thing called the “near vision acuity” test. This consisted of an Air Force enlisted person placing a ruler on the bridge of your nose, and you reading the letters on the little slide sheet that worked up and back on said ruler. The issue with my vision was inherited from my dear father himself…it was exceptional far vision. I swear my Dad could see a gnat on the ass of mule at 500 yards, and I could too it seemed! Since my ocular muscles were born of him, I was tested at an amazing far vision of 20/15 (meaning that I could see at 20’ what most folks could see at 15’), but unfortunately this meant that my near vision muscles were weaker, and the best I could do was 20/30 (what you see at 30’, I have to be at 20’ to see). The United States Air Force required no less than a rock solid 20/20 for pilots, and I simply couldn’t hack it.
My dream of serving was over. We were both upset, disheartened, and (yes) disappointed greatly. I somehow felt like I had not only let my country down, but that I had let him down too. However, he (being the beautiful man that he was) would hear none of that, and devised a plan to get me to a cockpit sans the help of the American taxpayers. I would attend an “Aviation University”, graduate with a four year bachelor’s degree (the airlines require such), and have a life amongst the clouds after all.
Those that know me, know that’s essentially the story of my life, and interestingly enough, when I was interviewing for the position at Northwest Orient Airlines roughly 10 years (to the day) from my failed USAF physical, my near vision muscles had gotten stronger, my far vision muscles had grown weaker, and my vision was a perfect “20/20”. Such was the plan laid down for my journey by a higher power, and it’s been nothing short of an incredible life.
But on that one day each year, I give thanks to those that have served, admire those that are serving, and feel a tinge of pain that I was never fortunate enough to be a part of that group of most honorable men and women. They deserve nothing less than our undying “thanks” for their sacrifices, what they’ve done for each and everyone of us.
The following piece I penned over 10 years ago regarding a military charter I had recently flown. Part of the addendum that would be the “current one” (not the one at the end of the piece), is that my son grew up to enter the United States Army (through the ROTC system), has deployed to a war zone twice, and is currently serving wearing the twin silver bars of a Captain. The father’s “grip of fear” that I mention in this piece has lived in this Dad’ heart, and it’s a dark place indeed. With all that said, his Mother and I could not be more proud of him. I will add his two sisters to that list…the older no less, married to an Army officer herself…he too, an exemplary young man.
With that, I give you “Driving the Bus”…
“You’re just an overpaid bus driver”
I’ve heard that little quip from passengers, neighbors and yes, even friends and family. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours trying to explain my world as a professional pilot to those that have no idea what it’s like. I’ve told of the many long years of training for all the sundry licenses and ratings, the crappy (and sometimes dangerous) jobs taken to build precious flight time, the frustration of yearning to work for a major airline and (through no fault of one’s own) not being able to land the job. Then after the grueling interviews and actually getting the nod, being faced with many, many hours of training and check rides, all under the jaundiced eyes of the FAA and company check-airmen. Also, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the “endless journeys” on the treadmill (and in the weight room) to stay in shape for that semi-annual trip under the medical microscope. Getting the job is one thing, keeping it can be an entirely different battle.
Strangely enough, even the folks that should (almost) understand what my world is like (the cabin attendants) simply don’t. They see us sequestered into our little closet with windows, but they’re only allowed in when things are at the most dull point in the flight…the cruise segment. I’ve actually heard them say after a long duty day, “But why are you so tired? You just sit there all day?” It can be very frustrating; for it seems the hours I’ve spent trying to let earthbound folks peek into my world, has all been for naught when I hear that “bus driver” comment. But the truth be told, sometimes that is exactly how I feel when at work in the cockpit.
I received my Commercial Pilots License while attending an aviation college in the summer of 1976, and my very first passenger for hire flight was what we called a “Lake Texhoma tour”. I was tasked with loading a couple of locals into one of the university’s mighty Cessna 172s, and then spending the next hour flying them on a sightseeing tour over the expanse of that huge lake. It wasn’t anything on the order of a Grand Canyon tour, but this rather large body of water on the Oklahoma/Texas border offered some cool viewing. These were inevitably sweaty, bumpy days, and the barf bags were known to return filled to overflowing, but it was “professional flying”, and I loved it. I had FINALLY turned the corner in my aviation career, and when I handed the Cessna keys back to the flight school person, there wasn’t a wad of MY dollars attached to them…cool. It was all pretty neat to actually be getting PAID for flying an airplane, and a bit heady for this shy 20 year old.
Nowadays, my “tours” take me from one end of this planet to the next. The jet that I call home flies to several continents, and dozens of cities. I’ve seem most of them…many, many times. I can tell you lots of little tidbits about them. For instance; Milwaukee has the best airport bookstore in the system, runway 33L in Baltimore is so humped that when you’re on one end of it… you can’t see the other end, ATC will ALWAYS keep you “high and hot” on the arrival to the south runways at Orlando…so you better configure early. There’s a good chance you’ll get moderate turbulence below 300′ AGL landing on runway 06R in Anchorage when the wind is out of the south…but 06L will be smooth. Don’t ever..ever…believe the Bejing Approach Controller when they assign you a runway, for it WILL change (usually at least twice)! The hotel in Tokyo can be as noisy as the Super Bowl at halftime, and for God’s sake don’t get the chili at the Bangkok airport…your spouse will regret it. Does this sound like the rantings of a person that’s been to these airports/towns over and over again hundreds of times? Yep, I’m afraid it does. Sometimes I literally have to roll over and pick up the phone book to see which city/country I just woke up in.
A few weeks ago I was able to fly a trip that would put an end to all that for a few days. It was advertised as a charter, but not just any charter flight. We fly all sorts of “off line” flights in the airline business, and I’ve done my share of them. Most have been sports charters, and I can honestly say that picking up a load of “20-something NFL millionaires”, and kissing their (at times) prima dona asses all the way across the country isn’t my idea of fun. Some guys love it…. I don’t. These superstars can be a bit less than nice at times, but I guess that’s O.K. when you feel (and are constantly told) that your feces has no odor. This charter however would be something different, for it was to be a CRAF flight. CRAF stands for Civil Reserve Aviation Fleet, and it’s basically working for the MAC (Military Airlift Command) folks shuttling their personnel across the USA and around the world. One of my first MAC flights was back in 1987 when I was a Second Officer on the 747, and I remembered it as being truly “different”…but in a good way.
What makes these trips so different? First of all, there are the destinations. Mostly places I’ve never been to before. On this particular junket, we left at 0600 on day one ferrying the aircraft from KMSP down to Grey Army Airfield on the Ft. Hood Army reservation just outside of Kileen, Texas. Ever been to the sprawling metropolis of Kileen? Me neither. I spent my formative years growing up on U.S. Army bases all over the world, and my teen years on the plains of north central Texas, but I’ve never had the pleasure of logging quality time in Kileen. After an hour on the ground, we were to deliver the troops to Victorville, California, then ferry back to Ft. Hood. A two day layover was scheduled, then off to take more troops back to Victorville. Following that mission, the F/O and I would ferry the aircraft through the night out to Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington, D.C., arriving at approximately 0430. After a short nap at the hotel, we would be tasked with dead-heading home later that day. So, with the prospect of flying to several new airports, and ferrying the aircraft three out of the five scheduled legs, I was really excited about releasing the brakes on this one.
Ferrying is weird. Maybe it’s the word “ferry”, but I would hope that I’m not that -phobic. I guess I would prefer these legs be called “repositioning” flights. 🙂 I would champion a cause that would require all new hire flight attendants to ride at least one leg in the cockpit during one of these ferry flights, for this would allow them (many of whom have never been around a small airplane, much less an airliner) to gain lots of insight into what running a cockpit can entail. It would show them important things like… when we are busy, how we are busy, why they can’t ring us as the gear is coming up, and why we always seem to be doing nothing when they come into the cockpit at FL350. Plus, it’s always fun to have someone sitting on the jump-seat that isn’t sporting a badge with F.A.A. printed all over, or some sweaty, bad-breathed pilot-type.
With all that said, there’s one other VERY important thing that makes these flights special to me. This “thing” makes these trips super …and it’s actually not a thing at all…it’s the people that I’m fortunate enough to serve. I’m talking of course about the young men and women that serve in our armed forces…in this case, the U.S. ARMY. I feel truly blessed to have been raised in this “family of honor”, and I deem it a distinct privilege to chauffeur these wonderful folks from point A to B.
What makes them so special you might ask? I can’t really put my finger on it, but I’ll give it a try. It’s a look, a walk, and an air about them that most civilians don’t have. My Dad had it, my uncle Wade had it (he wasn’t really my uncle, but he and my Dad were best friends from their early Army chopper days), and these “kids” sure as hell had it. It’s almost as if they know that they’re carrying the history of freedom’s long forgotten battles on their young shoulders. They look you square in the eye when they talk to you, and they aren’t afraid to let loose with a “yes sir, or yes maam” when it’s appropriate. They seem to have a purpose to their existence, and that purpose is wrapped in honor and integrity.
One of the curious by-products of being raised on Army bases is that I can recognize and decipher that bizarre collection of symbols and insignias that every soldier lives by; I’m talking unit patches and rank. I grew up knowing that the beautiful gold shield with the black stripe and horse silhouette is the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) of Vietnam fame. The four green stars linked within the tilted square can only be the deadly 4th Infantry Division, and I know that 2nd Armored Division sports the “Hell on Wheels” patch. And who can forget the “Big Red One”, the “All American” 82nd, or the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne? Most all ARMY units have histories bathed in blood and bravery, and I was teethed on their stories.
As far as the maze of confusion known as rank, I can tell the difference between a Staff Sergeant and his boss the Master Sergeant with the “three up and three down”, a “butter bar” Second Lieutenant from a Chief Warrant Officer, a gold-leafed Major from a silver-leafed Lieutenant (or “Light”) Colonel, and I know that nobody loves seeing a “full Bird” Colonel headed their way. But of course, history has shown us that the most important of all ranks is the “dog face” PFC, or Private First Class, for he/she is the backbone of the infantry. Throughout time, in the heat of battle, it’s been the NCOs and the “dogfaces” that have carried the day, and vanquished the enemy. The generals will always get the glory, while the grunts get the Purple Hearts.
I was also schooled at an early age about tradition and respect, and in the military, one of the primary forms of respect is the salute. I was told that you salute the rank and not the person, and that EVERYONE salutes a Congressional Medal of Honor wearer, no matter their rank or stature. I watched my Dad salute lots of higher ranks, and he always seemed to mean it, but it was truly special when someone snapped off a crisp salute his way, for the respect and reverence that it intoned always made me walk a bit taller next to him. He taught me that serving a cause higher than “self” (one’s country) is the most noble and honorable thing a young person can do, and I’ve never wavered in that belief. I loved growing up in the Army with my Dad, and a few months ago (when we were all glued to our television sets) I had many thoughts of just how proud he would have been to see “his” Army, and how they were fairing in battle.
The last days of my father’s active service were many years ago, and all the soldiers in my life then were much older than me. Now I wear the face of four (plus) decades, and all of the troops on this trip seemed to be young…. very young. Hell, most of them seemed like just kids. Both times we landed in Victorville, I stood at the cockpit door to say goodbye to each of them, and I swear that I saw my 16-year-old son’s face under many of those helmets. As a father, it was scary as hell, but I’m sure their fathers feel more than I the grip of that fear. It has been said many times that “war is a young man’s game”, and I guess it’s a true statement. However, that doesn’t make it any easier for the young widow or the grieving family. These young men and women serve a dangerous profession.
Even “the brass” sitting in first class seemed young. Heck the Captains looked 20, the Majors 25, and the “full bird” looked all of 30 years old. I’m actually not joking at all…they really seemed (to me) to be that young. With the current events in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, there is very good possibility that these folks will be deployed to a combat zone sometime during their time in uniform. If they do deploy, there’s always a chance that some of those young, fresh faced, Harry Potter reading, “I was carrying a Gameboy last year, and now I’m toting an M-16″ kids…. won’t…. well…. you know…. make it back…. and that breaks my heart.
My Father once told me…”son, the Army took me out of the slums of Dallas, got me my High School G.E.D. (my Dad had dropped out of high school), sent me to night school to gain a college degree, taught me a trade, and showed me the world. All my country EVER asked in return was to twice go fight her battles. Once, as a medic in Korea, and once as a pilot in Vietnam…. I think that was a pretty fair trade-off on my part.” I’ve swear that I’ve never forgotten those words.
Many of the kids I flew around have grown up in “soft” America, where they’ve had everything from MTV, Windows XP, and “soccer moms” to make their lives easier, but all that has ended for them now. They are being shown the “hard” world, where bad guys fly airplanes into buildings, where RPGs take off arms and legs, and where your buddy’s life can sometimes mean more to you than your own.
In the last few years, I’ve had my doubts about the “youth” of today. I’ve wondered if they could stand up to the inevitable challenges that evil will throw at folks that live in free, honest, hardworking, and descent societies. History tests each generation, but could these youngsters step up to the plate, like the “20 somethings” that braved the trenches of the Argonne, the beaches of Normandy, the icy hell of Chosin and the jungles of the Ia Drang? I can honestly say that after what I’ve seen from Iraq in the last many months, and my CRAF trip a few weeks ago, I no longer have those doubts. These kids can handle it.
So, when someday a grandchild is sitting on my knee and he or she asks,
“Granddad, what did you do in the war on terrorism?”
“Oh, I flew my airliners around the country and the world, always working hard to fly safe, and protect my passengers from the bad guys.”
“But Granddad…what did you DO during the war against the terrorists”
The real answer will be:
“Oh honey, that’s easy….
I drove the bus that the heroes rode on…. I proudly drove the bus.”
One final note:
God bless all the coalition troops, and special prayers to my two nephews that are serving. Recruit Jason Hobbs just beginning his journey of service, and Specialist Nicholas Stewart, 2/3rd ACR, 7th Infantry Division (Light), United States Army deployed in Iraq. We love you Jason and Nick, and we’re very proud of you and your comrades. Do your duty well gentlemen, and return home safe.
till next time,