Salute Smartly (1985)
After I left my Hawaii Boeing 720 squadron in 1986 I knew there was a part of the United States Air Force that was forever changing and that my experiences there were unique, never to be repeated. Air Force pilots back then were expected to live a bit on the wild side, drunken and disorderly was the normal mode, and death in the cockpit was just the cost of doing business. All that has changed, thankfully, but I still valued the experiences. I thought I should write some of them down and did so in this fictionalized story. The good guys have been made into composite characters for the sake of story telling. The bad guys, though their names have been changed, each represent a real evil doer. Those who shared the experience with me will recognize them instantly for who they really are.
1. Leper Crew
As told by Captain Mark Honable,
Boeing 720 Navigator
Third Military VIP Squadron (3MVS)
Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii
At last I knew. It was him. The reason they called this the Leper Crew was the lunatic in charge. In a squadron filled with lieutenant colonels and majors, there were only two flight crews with captains in charge and this had to be the one with the leprosy problem.
Captain Benjamin Hunt wasn’t more than two years older than I and we were both captains. But by virtue of the fact that he was the aircraft commander and I was the navigator meant that when he said jump, I jumped. Jumping, that morning in base operations at Osan Air Base, Korea, meant doing my navigation log backwards. “Backwards?” I asked.
“I didn’t say backwards,” Hunt answered, “In reverse. I’m more interested in how much time I have to go than I am with the time I’ve already flown. I did them for you on the flight over here; I don’t have time to do that now. That’s your job. Do them in reverse. Now.”
I don’t know who I was madder with, Hunt or the squadron for putting me on the Leper crew to begin with. After two months of training and passing the hardest checkride of my career, I was finally an operational Boeing 720 navigator with the most prestigious squadron in the Pacific Air Force. After flying KC-135 tankers for four years and the RC-135 spy plane for another three, I thought I knew my job backwards and forwards. Certainly better than any pilot. Why didn’t anyone warn me about this guy? I was even then planning my sob story for the squadron commander. Lieutenant Colonel Gutlach would see it my way, I was sure. No way I planned to stay on the Leper crew.
The Leper crew. The squadron was filled with majors and lieutenant colonel pilots who had years of experience on Hunt without his pushy attitude. I’d seen hundreds of pilots like Hunt. The post-Vietnam Air Force was filled with young hotshot pilots trying to live up to the war hero images of their elders. It was just my luck to get assigned to the only hot shot captain aircraft commander in the squadron.
Line-by-line I erased the forward looking time and figured a backward time. I felt my face flush with the ignominy of it all. Worse yet, I felt the stares of the other crew sharing our workspace in the flight planning room. The fact we, the 720 crew, were in civilian coat and tie made us conspicuous to begin with. Now I’ve got my pilot berating me in front of these guys in flight suits. They were dressed like a thousand other Air Force crews: green bags with their names under their wings, colorful scarves, rank insignia on their shoulders, and menacing patches with words like “death from above.” Nothing like that for us in the VIP airlift business. I tugged at the fifteen-inch Van Husen collar biting into my fifteen-and-one-half-inch neck.
“There,” I reported back, “the entire log with the times backwards.”
Hunt scanned the thirty or so entries. “Very nice,” he said, handing the log back to me. “Now one last thing and we can fly. Where is the en route chart for Northern Japan?” We searched the room for the chart and found the cubby hole marked “Japan HI” empty. Hunt spotted the chart still neatly folded on top of a stack of papers on the table the other crew was using.
“Excuse me,” Hunt said to the short black major hovering over the table with our chart, “mind if I borrow that Japan High for a minute?”
“This chart is for American military use only,” the major answered.
“We are U.S. Air Force,” Hunt said, “we’re flying that blue and white 720 out front.”
“If you are Air Force, where is your uniform? How do I know how to address you?” The major held the chart, as if holding it ransom.
“We fly in civilian clothes because of the diplomatic status of our passengers,” Hunt answered. “I am Captain Ben Hunt of the Third Military VIP Squadron and I just need the chart to check one way point. Won’t take more than thirty seconds.”
“Well, captain,” the major said while putting the chart beneath a stack of papers, “I’m using the chart and you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, you might take a refresher course on military courtesy. You will address me as ‘Major Paulson,’ ‘sir,’ or simply ‘major.’ Got that?”
“Loud and clear, Paul.” Hunt grinned at the major and walked out of the room. If looks could kill, the scowl on that major’s face would have made corpses of us both. The name under his pilot’s wings was “Paul Paulson” and the major’s oak leafs on his shoulders made it plain to me Hunt had crossed a line he shouldn’t have. I picked up my brief case and left, too embarrassed to say anything. One more flight and I’ll be off the crew, I promised myself.
I raced to catch up, wondering if the short major would follow in pursuit. It was a striking confrontation. Hunt was tall, lanky, and too thin. Except for the tan, he could have been mistaken for a chemotherapy patient. Wearing a two-sizes too large suit with sleeves well beyond his knuckles, he looked more like a boy pilot than an Air Force captain.
“Mark,” Hunt said while handing our flight plan to the sergeant sitting behind an elevated counter, “when we get to the jet make sure the way point we filed leaving Korean airspace is at least ten miles south of any North Korean airspace. Don’t want to give the commies any excuse for target practice with the Deputy Secretary of Defense on board.”
We walked down the stairs from Base Ops to the red carpet waiting for our passengers and up the airstairs to our airplane. Captain Vince Giovanni was already sitting in the copilot’s seat going through his checklist as I sat down behind him and started unpacking my gear.
“Ben is in a fighting mood,” I said while handing the navigation log forward, “I had to redo the log again.”
“Ops normal,” Vince said with his usual lack of interest, “Ben is anal about the details, but the passengers like him.” Vince carefully folded the navigation log into a rectangle just wide enough to wedge securely between the number three and four fire shutoff switches. I gave Vince a blow-by-blow description of the morning’s events, never getting anything but a “that’s Ben all right” in return. Hunt finally came forward and lowered himself into the pilot’s seat. He balanced a stack of charts, books, and logs on his lap and methodically filed each into a predetermined nook or cranny. The terrain charts went to his left between the seat and radio panel, the instrument charts to his right, the flight plan between the throttles and engine start switches, and so on.
“My buddy, Paul!” Hunt said, pointing to a blue bus in front of base ops. Sure enough, we all spied Major Paulson sitting in the crew bus waiting to take them across the ramp to where the dirty, green C-130s were sitting. Even from our cockpit, we could see the major’s scowl.
“Death from above,” I noted, “their patch says ‘Death from Above.’”
“The only death they can cause,” Hunt said, “is if they crash on top of you. Their motto ought to be ‘Death from a four-fan, trashcan.’” I was getting ready to confront Hunt about the wisdom of making an enemy of a higher ranking officer when Staff Sergeant Packard came forward and took his position, the flight engineer’s seat.
“We got all the luggage loaded, bottom of the airplane is buttoned up, and the cabin crew reports ready for show time, boss.”
“Okay.” Hunt turned in his seat to face the copilot, flight engineer, and me. “We’re ready to go, show time at thirty. Here’s your paperwork, Bob.”
“Domo Arigato,” Packard said, retrieving a stack of weight and balance forms.
“Kahm sah hahm nidah,” Hunt returned, “in Korea you say Kahm sah hahm nidah.”
“Show time” to most aircrews means the time you showed up at the hotel ready to catch your ride to the airport. In the VIP airlift business, show time was the time you were ready to put on the “show.” In the Third MVS, show time began thirty minutes before the passengers planned to be at the airplane. I looked at my watch and saw we had five minutes to spare.
Five early turned into ten late.
“VIP in sight,” Bob Packard announced, pointing at an approaching limousine, “standing by the checklist.”
“Proceed,” Hunt said while fumbling with his headset, “let’s go to work.”
In the next five minutes, all forty passengers were strapped in, the red carpet retracted, and our engines were started. Saluting the ground crew, Hunt pushed the throttles forward and we lumbered towards the runway. We weaved our way through the many narrow taxiways and passed a variety of fighters tucked away in revetments and four or five C-130s out in the open.
“Airborne at oh-five,” Hunt announced as the landing gear cycled up, “Bob have the radio operator pass oh-five off and oh-nine-thirty down. Vince, get us direct routing to cut some time. Mark, give me a target time for abeam Tokyo. I want to be on-time by coast out.”
“What?” I asked. Vince and Bob were happily carrying out their orders and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Packard pointed at my log and showed me how to take my backward times and figure a new ETA for Tokyo, giving Hunt a sense on how easily he could make up for the VIP showing up late. Just great – I had the flight engineer showing me how to navigate.
* * *
“Mark, the tailwind is a bit soft,” Hunt said looking back at me between bites of steak, “I can give you another ten knots.”
“I think we’re okay, Ben.”
“Run me another set of ETAs with ten knots less ground speed for the next three hours.”
Flying at night isn’t usually a lot of fun. It is even worse when the pilot bugs you every five minutes with another silly request. I opened my pocket calendar to remind myself to talk to Colonel Gutlach on Monday. “Get off Leper Crew!” I wrote in bold letters.
“That would be a big mistake, sir.” I turned to see Sergeant Karen Shields holding a dessert tray and looking over my shoulder.
“Didn’t mean to spy on you, sir. I just wanted to know if you needed anything else for dinner. We’ve got extra apple pie.”
“No, thank you.” It was probably the best airborne meal I had ever had and I should have complemented her. “Why do you say it would be a mistake?”
“Because Captain Hunt gets the best trips in the squadron,” she answered, “he always takes care of the crew, and he keeps the passengers happy. Happy passengers mean passengers that aren’t bitching the entire flight.”
“You left out the most important part,” Sergeant Packard interrupted. “Captain Hunt will keep you alive.”
“That too,” Shields agreed.
* * *
“No way in hell,” Giovanni said, loud enough for everyone in the cockpit. “No way in hell we are going to make an oh-nine-thirty block time.”
“APOC,” Hunt answered.
“A Piece of Cake,” the flight engineer explained. We called in the 0930 block time about eight hours ago and Hunt refused to adjust it. The rule book allowed one adjustment, but he wouldn’t budge. Even when our forecasted tailwind disappeared, he still clung to the original block time. “I’ll make it up on the descent.”
“Starting descent,” Hunt announced as he disconnected the autopilot. I watched as the altimeter started to unwind from 35,000 feet and the airspeed indicator crept higher.
“Nose getting heavy?” Giovanni asked.
“Yup.” Hunt was flying with his left hand on the yoke and his right lightly resting on the throttles.
“Mach tuck will do that to you.” Giovanni noisily tapped the airspeed indicator.
“The mighty Boeing 720 flies just fine at this speed,” Hunt answered. “You break that gizmo, you buy it.” Just like they said during my training last month – this kind of hurry up is almost routine for a midmorning arrival into Honolulu International Airport, which shares its runway with Hickam Air Force Base. Either way early or way late. The worst thing you could do was arrive early. You couldn’t have your VIPs walking off the jet with nobody there to greet them. But you didn’t want to be late either.
“Passing 10,000 feet,” I called aloud, “still five minutes late and above 250-knots.” The airspeed indicator showed us flying at 320-knots, 70-knots faster than permitted at low altitude.
“You gonna slow down for flaps?” Giovanni put his hand on the flap handle.
“Not yet,” Hunt answered, “thanks for asking.”
“Five minutes late ain’t bad, you know,” Giovanni muttered. Hunt only grinned.
“Passing 5,000 feet and now three minutes late,” I reported. “And still above 250-knots.”
Giovanni looked left and caught Hunt’s glance. “Not yet.” I could almost sense the copilot and engineer squirming in their seats. As we dived below the bottom layer of clouds and Oahu appeared before us, we all knew important events were left undone. Seconds later, Hunt pulled all four throttles back. After another slight pause he looked to his right and calmly said, “Landing gear down, flaps as speed permits, begin the before landing checklist.”
Giovanni rotated the gear handle to its downward position and the loud rush of air over the ten wheels announced that our airplane was no longer the sleek aerodynamic machine it once was. I could feel myself lean forward in the shoulder straps of my seat as the airplane decelerated. Every few seconds Giovanni would lower yet another increment of flaps.
“Final approach fix,” Giovanni said over the interphone, “landing gear is down but we still have two notches of flaps to go.”
“Two minutes late,” I added.
“Checklist waiting for flaps.” The flight engineer held his thumb over the last line on his before landing checklist.
Crossing the Pearl Harbor channel, the airspeed finally crept down below whatever limit Boeing had imposed on our airplane and Giovanni lowered the flap lever all the way. As the needle hit the “50” marker he announced, “flaps 50.”
“Before landing checklist complete,” the engineer said while cinching his seat belt tighter. “Ain’t this fun?” he whispered, looking at me with a too wide grin.
The touchdown was a beauty and was followed by applause from the cabin. “Got to like that,” the engineer said while reaching for his checklist.
“Time?” Hunt asked over the roar of the engine reversers.
“Ninety seconds late,” I yelled, looking at the squadron’s cheat sheet for Hickam arrivals.
“The key to living life in the fast lane,” Hunt lectured as he took the second turn off from the runway, “is to do all your speeding out here where the brass band can’t see you. We’ll make sure we’re down to a tolerable crawl when we get within visual of the red carpet.”
And that’s the way it happened. I counted down the seconds as Hunt brought the airplane to a stop. “Five, four, three, two, one, hack.”
As the passengers descended through the door just behind the cockpit, Hunt stood at the cockpit door to say goodbye. Vince, Bob and I were left to clean up the cockpit and complete the post mission paperwork. I entered "On time" in the appropriate column in my navigator's report. "How the hell did he do that?" My question wasn't directed to any one in particular, but the engineer and copilot answered together: "Hunt's Rule of Life Number One: Attitude determines altitude."
"Rule of life number one?"
"How many of these rules are there?"
The man is insane. My first mission with the Leper Crew was complete.
2. The Home Front
“The commander will see you now,” the secretary said, leading the way to Lieutenant Colonel Gulach’s office.
“I’m very busy today,” Gutlach began, “What can I do for you, captain?”
“It’s the Leper Crew, sir. I had my first mission with them last week and would like a crew change.”
Colonel Gutlach wasn’t too sympathetic at first, but listened. I tried to paint the situation as a mismatch of personalities, Hunt was just a different kind of person, and we just didn’t get along. He thought it was fun to give the navigator one meaningless task after another and thought he knew more about the job than I did. I’d rather work on a crew where my contribution was respected. The more I talked, the more I spilled my guts.
Lieutenant Colonel Gutlach was an old pilot from yesterday’s Air Force. Overweight and balding, he looked more like my father than a fellow crewmember. Squadron commanders are supposed to look like father figures, I guess.
“I hear you, Mark.” Gutlach sat back in his chair, wrestling for his next words. “I get that complaint from a lot of navs. Ben has a huge ego and is a thorn in my butt; that’s for sure. But the passengers love him and the Admiral asks for him by name. As long as he keeps the passengers happy and stays safe, what can I do?”
“I didn’t feel too safe on final approach, that’s for sure.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. I’ve just never seen anyone fly 300-knots below 10,000 feet, that’s all.”
“You mean Hunt violated 60-16?” Gutlach’s face lit up as if I’d just delivered the Christmas present he’d been hoping for all his life. Air Force Regulation 60-16 clearly says you cannot fly above 250-knots when below 10,000 feet. That’s for sure.
“Yes, sir” I answered.
“Thank you, Mark. I’ll take care of it.”
* * *
The rest of the week was a blur. That day, Monday, Hunt’s wife invited Joyce and I and the rest of the crew over for dinner on Friday; Joyce accepted. On Tuesday, Hunt was grounded and taken off the flight schedule pending an investigation into his violation of an Air Force regulation. On Wednesday, I was told I wouldn’t be getting a crew change, but we might be getting a new pilot. On Thursday our crew was scheduled for its next mission without Hunt and I saw him for the first time that week.
“Mark,” he said as if nothing had happened, “do me a favor. Look up the PACAF supplement to 60-16 and tell me what the definition of ‘domestic airspace’ is. Might be instructive. Thanks.”
I immediately went to the squadron library and dug up the Pacific Air Forces supplement to Air Force Regulation 60-16. Domestic air space was defined as the airspace over the continental United States, Alaska, and all air space within five miles of the Hawaiian Islands landmasses. Only then did I understand Hunt’s point. My heart raced as I flipped the pages to the offending passage in AFR 60-16. Sure enough. The 250-knot speed limit below 10,000 feet only applied to domestic air space. Hunt was legal.
* * *
Ben and Ginny Hunt lived on base in a very small two-bedroom house crowded with cheap wicker furniture and children’s toys. Between Vince and his wife, Bob Packard and his wife, and Karen Shields and her husband, it was a cramped dinner. Joyce and I had wrestled all week with the go/no go decision. In the end, we went.
I managed to corner Vince before dinner and asked the question burning on my lips. "Is the boss sore at me?"
"Hell no," Vince said, "a month without a grounding would upset his karma. He told me you are going to work out fine." The look on my face must have begged for an explanation, which Vince provided. "Ben expects these kinds of things and I've never seen him get upset. Don't forget Hunt's Rule of Life number two."
"Optimism takes work and is rewarded."
After dinner I found Joyce and Ginny in the kitchen chatting over an overflowed coffee carafe, with Ginny doing most of the talking. It was unlike Joyce to be the quiet one, but we were in my boss’s home so she played her assigned role.
“Mark is the first navigator Ben has really respected in many years,” Ginny was saying as I walked in, “he needs him on the crew.”
“You ladies talking about me?” I asked.
“Mark,” Joyce answered, “Ginny was telling me how Ben is the best pilot in the squadron and you’d be a fool to leave this crew.”
“Have you had a mission with one of the Air Force generals yet, Mark?” Ginny asked.
“Ben is the only pilot in the squadron with the balls to take the airplane from one of those ass holes.” Ginny let her words hang while Joyce and I stared back in dumb silence. She was a dainty wisp of a woman, barely five feet tall. Unlike her half-Japanese husband, Ginny was an exotic looking full-Japanese. Somehow, the profanity seemed out of place coming from her.
Ginny filled the silence with another jolt. “When General Skelton is in the left seat trying to kill you, the only guy on the airplane with the power to save you is the instructor pilot in the right seat. The first time Ben saves your life, you’ll know I was right.”
She told us about the tanker that blew up over Northern Maine when a fuel pump shorted out and about the copilot who refused to fly the airplane and had to be replaced before the ill-fated plane took off. I knew the story; I just didn’t know the copilot’s identity. Until now.
“Ben says you work well under pressure,” Ginny added before disappearing with a tray of coffee cups and the carafe, “he needs you on his crew.”
Joyce and I stood silently in the kitchen, not knowing what to say. We had already wrestled with the jump ship or stay decision and had all but decided Ben Hunt was evil incarnate. Now we began to second-guess ourselves.
We rejoined the rest of the dinner guests in the living room, where the topic of discussion was last year’s B-52 crash in Washington State. The pilot was showing off in front of an air show crowd and hit the ground almost inverted, killing everyone onboard.
“I knew two of the guys in back,” Vince said, shaking his head. “Nine people dead. The squadron commander, group commander, and wing commander all knew this guy was a loose cannon and still let him fly for the hometown air show. All three of those guys have been promoted like nothing happened. What an awful way to die.”
“Kind of like the day with that fighter pilot general at Barbers Point,” Bob Packard said, breaking the silence. “Remember, boss? We were at 100 degrees of bank, at least!”
“Had to wash some laundry that day,” Ben joked, “I’ve never seen a 720 roll so fast.”
“What are you talking about,” I wanted to know, “you mean recently?”
“No, not recently,” Hunt said. “Last year. Or was it this year? I don’t remember.”
“So what happened?”
“The PACAF vice commander,” Hunt answered, “or someone like that. A three-star I think. Real big guy. He wanted to see what an engine failure after takeoff looked like, so I showed him. I told him which engine I was going to pull, when I was going to pull it, and I gave him the speech about how you don’t have to rush the rudders – I made it easy for him. Right at 200 feet, just like the regulation says, I pulled the number four engine and he smashes down so hard on the right rudder it threw my leg into my lap.”
“That was the wrong rudder?”
“Yeah. By the time I got the left rudder in and the throttles back we were standing on our right wing. That general was too dumb to be scared,” Hunt said with a grin, “but I had to sit in a holding pattern for ten minutes before I had the nerve to let him try another landing. That’s what you’ve got to look forward to Vince. Just another month or so, eh?”
“We should change the subject,” Vince’s wife said. “I get enough of this at home.”
“Vince is upgrading to IP?” I asked. “I thought you were just a copilot.”
“No,” Vince answered, “I’ve been an aircraft commander for over a year. The squadron teams all their IP candidates with Ben for a few months. Figure if they can survive his abuse, they can survive anything.”
“Stay with Ben,” Ginny said to me with a wink, “he may piss you off, but he’ll keep your pink body in one piece.”
3. Death Before Delay
Lieutenant Colonel Gutlach quietly ungrounded Hunt the next week when the squadron ran out of instructor pilots and the red grease pencil across his name on the scheduling board was erased as if nothing had happened. The Leper Crew was scheduled for another trip.
It was an easy two-flight mission; out to Yokota Air Base, Japan and back. I had all my navigation logs done with the ETAs written in reverse and familiarized myself with the approach plates for Yokota. I was ready for anything. Hunt studied my logs silently.
“Too slow,” he finally said.
“I planned it at best range mach,” I answered, “just like the regulation says.”
“Very good, Mark. The problem here is we’ve got an Air Force four-star who doesn’t believe in fuel economy. He’ll push the airplane as fast as it goes, so we might as well have enough fuel on board to do that.”
Two hours later I was done and Hunt signed off my paperwork. The extra speed reduced our total flying time from 16 hours to 15 at the cost of over 15,000 pounds of extra gas. “What’s that come to in dollars?” I asked.
“Fifteen-thousand pounds, divided by 6 pounds per gallon, times a dollar, twenty a gallon,” he answered. As I entered the numbers into my calculator-watch Hunt came up with the answer just a second later, “Three-thousand dollars.”
* * *
We sat in the cockpit with electrical diagrams spread across the flight engineer’s lap and the airplane’s Minimum Equipment List on Giovanni’s. With less than fifteen minutes before show time, the crew chief told us our airplane’s number three generator was broken with no spares on base. That only left us two generators.
“What’s your call, Ace?” Hunt asked. This would be Giovanni’s last mission before his upgrade evaluation and Hunt was throwing every decision his way.
“We can’t go,” Giovanni answered, “the MEL clearly says you are only authorized a one-time flight to the first point of repair. I’d say we’re scrubbed until we get a generator.”
Hunt turned to the maintenance supervisor. “Chief, doesn’t this jet use the exact same generator you have on the C-141?”
“Yeah, captain. It does.”
“And don’t they keep a supply of these generators wherever the C-141 goes?”
“Already thought of that, sir.” The maintenance chief flipped through a few pages on his clipboard, “MAC supply says they’re out too. We’ve checked every stinking hole on the island.”
“What about Japan?”
“Now you’ve lost me, sir.”
“Me too, Ben.” Giovanni started to close the minimum equipment list until Ben took the thick manual from him.
“Let’s call ahead to Yokota Air Base,” Hunt explained. “If they’ve got the generator, why can’t we call this our one-time flight and Yokota the first point of repair?”
“I don’t think that’s what they had in mind when they wrote the MEL,” Giovanni said. “It doesn’t say we can do this.”
“It doesn’t say we can’t.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
The maintenance chief made a call on his two-way radio and within minutes we had our answer. “Maintenance control says Yokota has a generator with your name on it, captain. The command post approved your flight for release.”
“Declare us ready for show time?” Giovanni asked.
“Yup,” Ben said as he went back to inform the cabin crew. Once he was out of earshot, the copilot and flight engineer exchanged sly glances.
“And with the clock clicking down,” Giovanni said with the exaggerated flare of a sportscaster, “the quarterback fakes out even his own team and comes up with the winning play all by himself. The hometown hero, Captain ‘never take a late takeoff’ Hunt, runs it in for a touchdown!”
“Kind of amazing,” Packard added, “how much our on-time launch reliability depends on the flight crew’s attitude towards doing without.”
“Just like the squadron patch Ben had custom-made last trip to Korea.”
“Yeah, the patch that sent Gutlach through the ceiling.”
“I never saw that patch,” I interrupted, “what was so special about it?”
“Gutlach made us destroy them all,” Giovanni answered. “It was the standard 3MVS patch with the squadron ‘safety, comfort, reliability’ motto on the bottom replaced.”
“Replaced? With what?”
Giovanni and Packard answered together. “Death before delay.”
* * *
“Lead foot in sight,” Giovanni announced, leaping out of the right seat. I looked forward to see the blue and white sedan with the four stars on the license plate. Hunt lowered himself into the right seat and called Hickam Ground Control for our engine start clearance.
As Hunt and Packard started the right engines I got my first up close look at the Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, General Marion S. Skelton. He was fairly tall, thin, with bony cheeks and pale white skin. As he approached the line of colonels at the bottom of our airstairs Hunt was yelling into the interphone.
“We are on internal aircraft power, you are clear to disconnect all external equipment,” he yelled with a frantic tone I had never heard him use. “Chief, get them out and away from the airplane and run like hell!”
Giovanni was standing aft of the cockpit watching the General approach the airstairs.
“On the stairs,” Giovanni yelled forward, “clear one and two!”
Packard reached to the instrument panel over Hunt’s head and threw the ENG 1 STRT and ENG 2 STRT switches forward and I heard the whine of our left engines. I had never heard that before since the passenger doors were usually closed when we started the engines. The General was just passing my seat when Hunt requested and received clearance to taxi.
“Good morning, General,” Hunt said, “Our Call Sign is PACAF Zero One and we are cleared to taxi whenever you are ready.”
Without a word, Skelton pushed all four throttles forward before he was even strapped in. The airplane lurched forward and I felt myself hanging against my shoulder straps as we took the first turn out of parking. My eyes were glued to the cockpit window and the tarmac racing by at unbelievable speed. I instinctively looked at the Inertial Navigation System ground speed readout and saw we had already hit forty knots. That’s when I first thought of my one and only checklist responsibility after engine start: “INS 1 and INS 2 switches to NAV.” I looked up to the panel and saw the switches in the correct positions.
“Relax,” Giovanni said while holding onto my seatback for balance, “I got them for you.”
“Thanks.” If we had moved even an inch without those switches in the NAV position, we would have had to stop the airplane for fifteen minutes to realign the gyroscopes that made the inertial computers better navigators than I could ever hope to be. I cursed myself until I felt the airplane jerk to almost a complete stop.
“Sorry, General,” Hunt said over the interphone, “I’ll try harder to keep my big feet off the brakes.” General Skelton didn’t acknowledge and we were soon off to the races again.
In another thirty seconds we were approaching the taxiway, which joins Hickam Air Force Base with Honolulu International Airport, designated “Tango” on our airfield diagram.
“PACAF Zero One at Tango,” Hunt reported to tower, “ready for sequence.”
“PACAF Zero One,” Honolulu Tower replied, “you are number one for takeoff, report ready at the reef.”
“Your lucky day, General.” Hunt looked back to Packard who returned a thumbs up.
In seconds we were racing down the reef runway and a minute later we were airborne. As the Hawaiian archipelago disappeared beneath us the General unstrapped and left the cockpit. He hadn’t said a single word. I tried to avoid eye contact as General Skelton passed my seat and left the cockpit. As soon as the cockpit door was closed behind him I exhaled for the first time since engine start.
“How fast were we going into that last turn?” Giovanni asked.
“I saw sixty,” Hunt said.
“Sixty-five,” Packard corrected, “when you hit the brakes.”
“One of these days,” Hunt said, still grinning, “Skelton is going to make that turn at full speed. I wonder what will happen first. Will the gear collapse or will the right wing hit the ground? Vince, let me know, won’t you?”
“Eat me, Ben. Eat me.”
I could only shake my head in wonderment. "We almost break the airplane while the general is playing Indy 500 with our jet and they're joking about it." The engineer's response was almost predictable.
"Hunt's Rule of Life number three: a practiced calm will always serve you well."
* * *
“Two-thousand-feet in fog,” the radio operator reported over the interphone, “the only thing flying in Japan today is them harry carry guys.”
“Harry carry, sir. You know them guys who don’t have an equal number of takeoffs and landings. The suicide bombers.”
“Kami kaze,” Hunt said, “you mean kami kaze. Harry Carey is a Chicago sportscaster, kami kaze is the name given the Japanese suicide pilots.”
“Whatever, sir. I’m just telling you what the Yokota weather shop said.”
“Where do you want to land?” I asked. “I’ll pull the approach plates out.”
“Yokota,” Hunt answered.
“Ben,” I said while grabbing the Yokota approach plate, “minimums at Yokota are twenty-four hundred feet visibility.”
“Ben, I’m looking at the approach plate.”
“Look at the Jepp.”
I pulled the brown Jeppesen notebook from my flight bag and turned to the Yokota Instrument Landing System page. It said 610-meters. We never used these civilian instrument approach procedures in my previous squadrons. Reluctantly, I thumbed through the squadron’s inflight guide to the page marked ‘visibility meters-to-feet.’ The answer was two-thousand.
“You gotta be shitting me,” I said, “the civilians are allowed to fly to lower mins than the military?”
“No, Mark. The military reg says we can fly this ILS down to eighteen-hundred feet with the right kind of equipment and the blessing from our major air command.”
“And we’ve got that?”
I pulled out the strange looking Jeppesen approach plate from its binder and studied the lines, arrows, and other symbols designed to get us onto the runway in one piece without killing ourselves or anybody on the ground. For years I had flown only Department of Defense approach plates and had learned to read at a glance what took minutes when I began my career as a navigator. It looked like I was going to have to learn an entirely new approach plate language.
“Check this over please,” Hunt said, handing me a blue arrival card, “then pass it to the head steward for General Skelton.” The blue card contained our arrival time, weather conditions, and a block labeled “other items of interest.” Hunt had written “Block time: 0900 (local – set your watches back five hours), Weather: 2,000 feet visibility, thick fog down to the deck, Other Items of Interest: Looking forward to your landing!”
I had never seen a landing at such a low visibility. Most Air Force pilots were legally restricted from landing with the visibility below a mile. No fighter pilots ever saw weather that bad. Transport pilots were typically limited to twenty-four-hundred feet, about a half-mile. At our landing speeds, that meant you got your first glimpse of the runway ten seconds before your wheels touched the ground. And now we were going to land with even less visibility.
I double-checked the times and passed the card back to Sergeant Shields. Five minutes later she came back, closed the cockpit door, and spoke for all to hear: “The General is busy catching up on paperwork and says – and I quote him here – tell the captain to land the fucking plane himself.”
Giovanni and Packard hooted in glee and patted Hunt on the back. “Cheated death for another day!”
* * *
Hunt and Giovanni poured over the airfield diagram and handed me a new taxi timing diagram, saying the visibility would be so bad we wouldn’t be able to taxi at normal speeds. Giovanni and Packard exchanged bets on whether we would be able to land at Yokota or would have to divert to another airfield. It was a toss up; they were giving fifty-fifty odds.
As soon as we descended through 10,000 feet all chatter in the cockpit came to a halt. Hunt was flying the airplane from the right seat and Giovanni was talking on the radio from the left. I started to ask but remembered the regulation requirement: the aircraft commander had to land the airplane whenever the visibility was at minimums.
Passing 3,000 feet the ILS glide path and course needles on both sides of the cockpit were centered exactly, the landing gear was down, the flaps were in their full down position, and the altimeter was unwinding itself.
I did my part as the faithful navigator and divided my time between Hunt’s instruments and looking out the cockpit window for the Yokota runway. At 2,000 feet I noticed Hunt’s airspeed had crept up fifteen knots too high. His left hand was resting lightly on the throttles but I hadn’t seen him move them since we started down the ILS glide path. I waited five seconds and spoke.
“Fifteen-knots hot, Ben.”
“You look outside, I’ll fly the plane.”
One-hundred feet above the runway I saw a single light, directly in front of us.
“Lights,” Giovanni announced.
At seventy-five feet I saw the second light, right behind the first.
“Landing,” Hunt announced. And three seconds later, the wheels were on the ground.
* * *
We had four days off in Tokyo and spent most of it listening to Hunt drone on about his Japanese mother and her troubles after the Atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
“Did her hair ever grow back?” Giovanni quipped.
“Vince, you keep hurting my feelings, but I’ve decided to let you live,” Hunt said in return. “Between my Japanese mother, your Italian father, and Mark’s German parents, we’ve got the entire Axis here. We should be allies.”
It took me another day to get over having my head bit off over the airspeed issue. I turned a cold shoulder to Hunt at first. He didn’t notice, but Giovanni did. While Hunt hunted the local groceries for the perfect Osenbe – a Japanese rice cracker – Giovanni and I window-shopped and discussed the finer points of airspeed control.
“The airplane flies and lands twenty or thirty knots fast just fine,” he explained. “In fact, better. Did you know that if the needles on the Instrument Landing System are off even a needle width in that kind of weather you’ll never see the runway?”
“I guess I’ve heard that.”
“Well, moving the throttles even a little bit that close to the ground is enough to throw you off the approach completely.”
“So why do they teach us the importance of being on speed?” I asked, remembering the years of instructor navigators harping on our role in backing up the pilot of final approach.
“Because many older airplanes have fragile brakes and too fast is a bad thing too. But in our business, fast is okay, slow will kill you.”
Vince explained the flight manual gave our pilots a tolerance of up to twenty knots fast and zero knots slow. Too slow and the wing no longer produces enough lift to keep the airplane in the sky. Five knots slow was enough to ruin the stability of the wing; ten or twenty knots slow could be fatal. “At that speed the airplane becomes a rock and rocks don’t fly. They fall.”
“Okay,” I admitted. “He’s right and I’m wrong. But does he have to be such a dick about it?”
“Don’t let him bother you,” Vince said. “Sometimes Ben goes out of his way to stir things up. But he usually has a good reason. Hard to argue with someone when they’re right.”
* * *
The return trip to Hawaii was a replay of the earlier flight, except the weather in Hawaii was CAVU, ceiling and visibility unlimited. “Clear and a million,” is the way Hunt wrote the blue arrival card. Skelton was in the pilot’s seat for landing.
The General sat hunched in his seat and fixated on the runway as soon as we were visual with the island of Oahu. He had flown here many times before and seemed to have the airplane pointed in the right direction. His eyes never left the cockpit window.
As for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the airspeed indicator.
We were ten knots slow.
“Bob,” Hunt said to the flight engineer in a loud, exaggerated Southern drawl, “look at them heat waves off the pineapple fields. You can bet them warm thermals next to them cool thermals off the water will suck the airplane down a couple hundred feet, at least.”
Packard grunted as Skelton ignored Hunt’s hints.
“General, runway is in sight and you’re cleared to land.” Hunt spoke across the cockpit without the interphone. “General, you know how them swept wing fighters you fly for a living have a tendency to fall out of the sky once you get them into any kind of sink rate?”
“Yeah.” It was the first thing I’d heard the General say all week.
“Well,” Hunt said as if shooting the breeze with his best buddy over a beer, “the Boeing 720 has a higher wing sweep than the F-15 and it sinks like a rock if you get her too slow. We might want to fly another twenty, thirty knots faster.”
General Skelton didn’t react and the airspeed indicator hovered around 120, fifteen knots less than the triangular marker on his airspeed indicator called for. I looked forward and saw the pineapple fields west of the Pearl Harbor Channel close up for the first time. We were three-hundred feet low and getting lower. And slower.
“Bob,” Hunt said, looking back to the flight engineer, “you see that?”
“Yeah boss, sure did.”
“General,” Hunt said, this time over the interphone, “we’ve got a generator problem here. I just need to move your inboard throttles for a second.”
General Skelton took his hands off the throttles and Hunt abruptly advanced the number two and three engines forward. I felt the nose of the airplane pitch up and the kick of acceleration from the racing engines.
“There,” Hunt announced while pulling the throttles back, “that did it. Thank you, sir.”
We were on speed and on the glide path.
General Skelton landed the airplane. It was a beauty.
4. Time Off For Good Behavior
Back in those days, the Third Military VIP Squadron was hidden away in the bowels of an old World War II hangar where nobody could find it. Hardly anyone on Hickam Air Force Base even knew the unit existed, since the squadron’s blue and white airplanes were identical to the more famous aircraft flown by the First Military VIP Squadron in Washington, DC.
A much smaller squadron, the 3MVS owned only two airplanes and five flight crews. Even so, the most important event at the end of each year was naming of the squadron’s “Crew of the Year.” Anyone who was a member of that crew during the year won a free week off, a nice bronze trophy, and a few extra lines of praise on their annual evaluations.
“You’re a lucky guy,” the squadron scheduler said as I updated my calendar off the grease pencil scheduling board. “You’ve been on Crew Five for a total of two months and you’re already getting the crew of the year award.”
“Really?” I didn’t think any crew given the Leper moniker had a shot in hell.
“Really,” he said. “I’ve got the figures right here. Hunt’s crew has the highest passenger satisfaction ratings, the lowest number of passenger complaints, and the highest on-time takeoff rating. Nobody else is even close.”
I scanned the scheduler’s spreadsheet and saw Crew Five was tops in every column. I had already decided the Leper Crew wasn’t such a bad place to be, now I was a convert for sure.
“Besides,” the scheduler added, “everyone knows Hunt is the Admiral’s favorite.”
“I heard that, but I don’t understand it. How can someone so disrespectful of authority be a four star’s favorite? Does the Navy have a different idea about military courtesy?”
“Not at all.” The scheduler reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a file and tossed me an official looking memorandum. It had a blue flag on top with four stars and was signed by Admiral Charles T. Blair, Commander in Chief of the Pacific. CINCPAC, as he was called, was the number one US military officer from Hawaii to Africa and every place in between.
“I was again highly dissatisfied,” the Admiral wrote, “with the performance of the pilot and crew during my flight with the 3MVS last month. Unless we see an improvement, I will consider bringing in a Navy crew for all of my future CINCPAC travels.”
“Holy cow!” I said. The letter was dated Dec ’83, exactly two years ago.
“Nobody wanted to fly the Admiral after that,” the scheduler said, “and so the lowest ranking aircraft commander in the squadron became the CINC’s personal pilot. And that’s when the Admiral’s complaints stopped.”
“He likes Ben?”
“Yeah. The Admiral is a white knuckle flier and Hunt has the knack for making passengers feel safe. Ain’t it ironic?”
“Hunt can’t stand Air Force generals because he thinks they are all out to kill him. He likes the Navy Admiral because he’s not a pilot and sits in back. At the same time, Colonel Gutlach hates Hunt with a passion and grounds him every time Hunt mouths off. But he has to unground him every time the Admiral wants to fly! That’s why Hunt has nine lives. The Admiral always rescues him.”
At last I understood. “So that’s how he gets away with being a Leper?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” The scheduler leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Nobody knows where that name came from. Some say it’s because he spends so much time grounded. Some say it’s because he can’t hold on to a navigator. You’re his fifth this year. Maybe it’s because he’s so scrawny. I’ve always figured it was because he likes the name. He likes to think he’s a Leper. Every time he gets in trouble, he brags about it. Wears it like a badge of honor.”
* * *
The monthly commander’s call is an Air Force ritual designed to give the squadron commander a pulpit to communicate with the men and women under his or her command. At the 3MVS, no two commander’s call were alike. They were schizophrenic, like Gutlach. Some months he would be up, others he would be down. The only constant was the endless stream of sweat from his armpits to his extra wide belt whenever he had to speak in front of a crowd. “Entertainment enough,” Hunt would say, “to make sure you have a ringside seat.”
We didn’t need that encouragement for the December commander’s call – we had all heard the Crew of the Year rumors. It wasn’t just Hunt, Giovanni, Packard, Shields and I who stood to win. Over the year Hunt had gone through four other navigators and three copilots. We all looked forward to the free week off and even I was learning to give the standard crew five answer to being lucky: Hunt's Rule of Life number four: "The harder I work, the luckier I become."
Colonel Gutlach began the meeting with his usual admonitions about haircuts, parking tickets, and three or four passenger complaints. These ranged from late arrivals to cookie crumbs on the seats. At last, it was time for the award.
“You all probably think you know who the winner of this year’s award will be,” he said, clutching the proverbial envelope. “Don’t be so sure. I’ve decided to make the competition fairer this year. It seems to me this is a crew award and ought to be given to a crew. Not just a collection of guys who rotated through a particular crew number. So, effective now, in order to be eligible for the Crew of the Year award, the majority of the crew must have been assigned to the crew for at least half the year.”
The hush over the squadron indicated all bets were off. With five different navigators and four different copilots, Crew Five didn’t have a chance.
“This year’s winner,” Gutlach continued, “is Crew One, led by Major Peters.”
After a polite round of applause, a gray-haired major stood to accept the award and then accepted handshakes from the entire squadron. Including Hunt.
We later sat around the crew lounge and toasted to Crew One’s health with beer from the squadron keg, a normal post commander’s call treat at the 3MVS.
“You really deserve this,” Major Peters said to Hunt, holding the bronze trophy. “Feel like I stole it from you.”
“Rules is rules,” Ben said with a half-hearted smile and half-filled plastic cup.
Conversation became animated with the latest stories of football, the local surf scene, and the latest airline hiring trends. Lieutenant Colonel Gutlach entered the room – clutching his own beer in a frosted mug with the word “Commander” emblazoned on one side – and added combat stories from his own career. Most in the room dutifully listened, providing the obligatory oohs and ahs at the appropriate moments. Ben left for the scheduling office and I followed.
“Looking for a trip?” I asked, seeing only a series of training missions to the right of his name.
“No, just thinking about taking a week of leave.” We sat together in the office pondering the next two months as the scheduler worked quietly translating mission requests into cryptic marks on the big board. After a few minutes a boisterous crowd entered, led by the Squadron Commander.
“You politicking for good deals, Hunt?” Gutlach asked in his loud, jarring voice.
“Don’t give me that, Hunt.” Gutlach grabbed a clipboard from the wall and sat on the scheduler’s desk. “I’ve been going over the end of year stats, captain. Guess who has more flying time this year than any pilot, flight engineer, or steward in the squadron?”
“You,” Gutlach said, answering his own question. “In twenty years I’ve never seen a bigger stick hog. Why is that? Why are you getting so much more flying time than everyone else?”
“I’m just guessing,” Hunt said with his usual nonchalance, “but it just might have something to do with all the times my leave was cancelled so I could fly CINCPAC. I’m also guessing that your clipboard will tell you I’m about the only guy ever scheduled to fly Skeletor.”
“Skelton,” Gutlach said angrily, “You will address him as General Skelton. I don’t want to hear anyone in this squadron giving senior officers denigrating pet names. You got that?”
“Sorry,” Hunt said, “that one slipped by. I’m just trying to answer your question, sir. If you check your records, you’ll see about the only missions I ever get are the ones everyone else turns down. Nobody wants to fly the Admiral, which I don’t mind. But I’m just as unhappy as everyone else about flying General Skelton. Just not as gutless.”
“What did you say, Captain?” Colonel Gutlach jumped to his feet and his fleshy jowls turned beet red. “Are you calling me gutless?”
“No sir.” Hunt knew he was in trouble and stood at attention.
“Well I think you did,” Gutlach continued as before, “and you aren’t getting away with it, you insubordinate, poor excuse for an officer. You are grounded, as of now. Not only that, I’m gonna look into formal charges.”
With that, Gutlach stormed out of the room.
“Grounded until the Admiral wants to fly again,” somebody finally said.
“Afraid not,” the scheduler answered, “Admiral Blair just got orders to the Pentagon. He leaves next week.”
* * *
By the end of the day, Hunt’s name on the scheduling board was wearing its familiar red diagonal. By the end of the week, his name was completely removed. It was the year’s biggest mystery.
5. Hell on Wings
January of 1986 was a frustrating month for the 3MVS, there wasn't a trip on the scheduling board as far as the eye could see and all we could do was catch up on training. Of course that was good news for Giovanni who upgraded to instructor and inherited the reins of leadership for Crew Five. In the same month, the squadron’s first-ever lieutenant showed up and became our copilot.
The boy pilot, as Vince took to calling him, was a product of the Air Force’s latest philosophy towards aviators. Instead of training as many pilots as the system could handle, the Air Force began to ration pilot positions and sent many of its newly minted pilots into desk jobs. Only the best of each class found themselves with airplanes to fly. Lieutenant Dave Johnson finished at the top of his class and got his pick of assignments. He picked the 3MVS.
He was slender and had a young, freckled face. He always wore a smile and never had anything bad to say about anyone or anything. In short, he was the polar opposite of just about every other pilot in the squadron. He immediately got on Vince’s nerves.
“When do we get our first mission, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir,” Vince said over and over again, “I’m just a captain.”
“I was always taught to address my elders…”
The look on Vince’s face was enough to stop the youngster in his tracks. Like the rest of the squadron, Vince had lost his sense of humor. Maybe it was the lack of flying, maybe it was the continuing mystery of our missing Leper. For whatever reason, attitudes had gone south.
“There aren’t any missions to fly,” I said, thumbing through the printed schedule. “The only thing at all is a Skeletor trip and they’ve already got Crew One on that.”
“Don’t let Gutless hear you say Skeletor,” Vince said. “You could get disappeared. One day you are here, bad mouthing the leadership, the next day you don’t even exist.”
“Road trip?” I asked.
“Road trip,” Vince agreed.
The three of us piled into the lieutenant’s convertible – I won the crawl space behind the two seats as any good navigator would – and drove to our old boss’ house. It was in the ancient part of the base in a row of houses that divided the general officers from the enlisted troops. “The buffer zone between the degenerate swine and our valuable sergeants,” Hunt often said.
We pulled right into the driveway and the empty carport. The usual array of children’s toys and bicycles were gone. We went to the front door and knocked. A short stroll through the bushes gave us a chance to look inside the house. It was empty.
* * *
The only movement in the scheduling office the following week was the mission line reserved for General Skelton. It was a weeklong affair visiting the Philippines, Korea, and Japan. With only a week to go, the mission was all over the Plexiglas board nailed against the scheduling office wall. The mission itself wasn’t changing; it was the crew.
The mission started at the top of the big board and gradually migrated its way to the floor. Crew One’s instructor pilot had come down with a rare kind of testicular cancer and was crossed off the calendar for at least six months. The mission then fell to Crew Two, but only for three hours. That crew’s pilot grounded himself with severe back pains. Crew Three managed to hold onto the mission for two days, until their pilot broke his leg water skiing. Crew Four ended up with the honors with one substitution. Since General Skelton expects the pilot’s seat and Crew Four was not commanded by an instructor pilot, the schedulers put Lieutenant Colonel Gutlach in the line reserved for the Aircraft Commander’s name.
“Sir, why don’t we volunteer for that mission?” Lieutenant Johnson asked. “Isn’t the squadron commander too busy to be gone from the squadron an entire week?”
“Hell no,” Vince answered. “Gutlach grabs every long trip he can get his hands on. Besides, I can’t supervise a general in the seat until I get 100 hours as an instructor.”
* * *
“Read this,” Vince said between bites of Base Ops Snack Bar burrito and handing me a typewritten letter. I first scanned the signature on the bottom, Hunt’s, and then I read.
“Vince, Congratulations on your upgrade, I knew you would do well. You must be wondering where the hell I’ve been, or maybe you’ve forgotten me like the bad dream I must have been. In any case, share this with the crew. I only ask that you all keep this quiet.
“Gutless called in the lawyers and they read me my rights. Or lack of rights. In any case, they made the choice easy. I had to find an assignment and never show my face in the squadron again, or face insubordination charges. (Big rocks into little rocks.) What could I do? I called Admiral Blair. So guess what I’m doing now? What is the lowest form of military officer you can think of? Now think lower. You got it. I am the Admiral’s aide de camp. You know all those stories about how much the Pentagon really blows? They are all true.
“On the plus side, Ginny and the kids love our Virginia house.
“See you in another life. Don't forget rule five. Laters – Ben.”
"Hunt's Rule of Life number five: not every battle is worth fighting."
* * *
The interesting thing about Air Force regulations back then was their amazing rigidity and flexibility. It just depended on who you asked. Many officers believed “you can only do it if the reg says you can.” Gutlach usually fit this mold. Other officers – Hunt comes to mind – preached “you can do it if the reg doesn’t say you can’t.”
The 100-hour rule had been a perfect example of the rigidity. In PACAF, you couldn’t upgrade to aircraft commander until you got 100 hours as a copilot. Aircraft commanders needed 100 hours before they could command a mission without an instructor. Nobody could become an instructor until they logged 100 hours in their basic specialty. And finally, instructor pilots were forbidden from supervising a general officer’s takeoffs and landings until they’d flown 100 instructor hours.
The other interesting thing about Air Force regulations back then was the mystery of who could waive what. With the stroke of a pen, various levels of commanders could waive just about anything. That’s how Crew Five found itself on the Hickam Air Force Base VIP ramp on a Sunday morning with a brand new instructor pilot in the right seat and General Marion S. Skelton in the left.
“Why aren’t the fucking engines started?” the general said as he strapped into the seat.
“Most generals like to start the engines themselves,” Giovanni said.
“I’m not ‘most generals,’ and I don’t have time to waste.”
Giovanni and Packard started the engines and we were off to the races. I got the Inertial Navigation Systems to the NAV position and held on for the ride. Our lieutenant copilot was strapped into the cockpit jump seat and kept looking at me for some kind of reassurance.
The ramp was empty as were the taxiways to the reef runway. In minutes we were airborne and on our way to the Philippines. General Skelton stayed in the seat all the way through our level off at 35,000 feet. As the airspeed approached our target, 0.77 Mach, Sergeant Packard pulled the four throttles back to cruise thrust setting. Skelton turned, looked at Packard, and slapped his hands away from the throttles.
“Get your fucking hands off my goddamn throttles,” Skelton yelled. “Nobody touches my throttles. Especially an ‘E’ for chrissakes!”
We sat in silence as Skelton let the airspeed needle creep up to the red and white needle which indicates the maximum allowable velocity at any altitude. As the two needles merged, Skelton pulled the throttles back and the airplane settled on about 0.86 Mach, about nine-tenths the speed of sound. The ground speed indicator had us doing better than 500 miles per hour.
“Sir, we don’t have the fuel to fly this fast all the way to the P.I.” Giovanni tried to show General Skelton the bottom line of our navigation log. “We need to slow down.”
“Nobody touches the throttles.”
“Really sir,” Giovanni pleaded, “we’ll be swimming an hour east of the Philippines unless we slow down.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you load more gas?”
“We took off with a full load, sir. This is just a very long leg. We’ll get there as fast as we can, but not this fast.”
“No.” With that, General Skelton got out of his seat and left the cockpit, slamming the door behind him.
Giovanni sneaked the throttles back slowly and I went to work figuring just how fast we could fly without having to take swimming lessons. The answer came to 0.79 mach, quite a bit slower than the General wanted. With each passing hour, we rechecked the fuel and hoped Skeletor wouldn’t come forward to check on us. Thankfully, he didn’t. Sergeant Shields gave us hourly progress reports. “He’s eating dinner.” “He’s doing paperwork.” “He’s having a staff meeting.” “He’s taking a nap.”
Almost ten hours later, as we began our descent, General Skelton came forward a new person. He had changed from his blue uniform into a green flight suit. He was smiling and even slapped me on the back as he passed by to the pilot’s seat. Giovanni gave a short overview of the weather, the DOD approach procedure, and the air traffic control instructions.
“Clark Air Base in sight,” I announced, pointing out the General’s window.
“Thanks,” General Skelton said, putting his hands on the yoke and throttles. “I’ve got the jet.” He disconnected the autopilot and sharply banked the airplane towards the runway.
“Clearance?” the copilot asked from the jump seat.
“PACAF Zero One,” Giovanni said on the air traffic control radio, “canceling and proceeding direct to Clark.”
The general’s airspeed on final approach stayed about ten knots low, but no lower. After our last mission, Giovanni explained that ten knots low was okay as long as the winds were steady. As long as the winds aren’t gusty, ten knots was okay.
After a beautiful landing and uncharacteristically slow taxi in, we put the airplane to bed. General Skelton thanked us and ran off with the Clark Air Base wing staff. Left on our own, we celebrated our first night off with a well deserved round of San Miguel beers. Even the next day of humidity and pushy salesmen couldn’t dampen our spirits. We had survived our first Hunt-less flight with Skeletor.
On the morning of our next flight, we showed up at the airplane two hours early. Giovanni talked through the engine start and taxi out procedure three times. We reviewed an airfield diagram of Clark Air Base to make sure we knew where each turn and obstacle was.
“Nothing can go wrong now,” Giovanni said. “Ben used to say that before every flight. Kind of a superstitious thing for him.”
The base dignitaries started showing up about an hour before our scheduled departure time, standing perpendicular to the red carpet. The routine was established years ago. The highest ranking officers and wives greet our VIPs on arrival and see them off on departure. When the airplane pulls into the chocks they salute, not dropping the salute until the airplane comes to a complete stop. The VIP gets off the airplane first and greets each member of the arrival party. On departure the reverse takes place. The VIP shakes everyone’s hands and boards the airplane. During engine start, the departure party stands at attention. As soon as the airplane starts to move, indicated by the rising pitch of the engines, the departure party salutes, dropping the salute once the airplane pulls away.
Pretty soon we had about fifteen people on the departure line, including a few general officers. Right as the last general took his position at the head of the line, General Skelton’s car pulled onto the flight line. Dave Johnson watched from behind the cockpit and gave me a thumbs up when Skelton’s shoe touched the first step of the airstairs.
“Clear to start,” I yelled forward. I watched as Giovanni and Packard started the right engines and waited for the number four generator light to switch from red to green, indicating I could switch my Inertial Navigation Systems from ALIGN to NAV.
Both engines slowly accelerated in the humid Philippine air and by the time they were at idle RPM, Skelton was in his seat. He looked at the engine gages and then to Giovanni.
“I thought I told you I wanted the engines running by the time I got in.”
The ground crew reported the passenger door was closed and external equipment disconnected while engines one and two were still half-way through their start sequences. As soon as the ENG START lights above the first two columns of engine gages extinguished, Skelton shoved all four throttles forward and we lurched forward.
Skelton saluted the departure party with his right hand and abruptly turned the nose wheel with the tiller in his left hand. As I watched the departure party through the left cockpit window, I thought I saw one of the ground crewmen fall. I wasn’t sure, it all happened so fast.
Once we were airborne and pointed towards Korea, Skelton got out of the seat and patted Giovanni on the back. “You got it, buddy.”
About thirty seconds after Skelton left the cockpit later, a metallic ping sounded in our headsets and the RO light illuminated on my interphone panel. This was the signal our Radio Operator – sitting ten feet aft of the cockpit – wanted to talk with us.
“Yeah?” I answered.
“Go ahead,” Giovanni answered.
“I’ve got the Clark Command Post on the phone. Their safety officer wants to talk at you on line five.”
I quickly pushed the “RO 5” button on my interphone panel to listen in.
“This is Lieutenant Colonel Barnum, Clark Air Base Chief of Safety. Who am I speaking to?” the voice asked.
“Captain Giovanni, the aircraft commander.”
“Well Captain, I’ve got a sergeant with cuts on his face and a broken arm. He’s lucky to be in one piece. I heard your left engine passed inches above his head and would have ingested him had he not fallen while running away. Who was driving that plane. I need a name.”
There was a pause, followed by “Spell that please.”
After a long pause of his own, Giovanni finally answered. “Sierra, Kilo, Echo, Lima, Tango, Oscar, November. Is the ground crewman going to be okay?”
“Yeah. I guess so.” The safety officer’s voice softened considerably and he ended his inquiry with a “thanks and you guys be careful out there.”
Even with a four-star general driving the bus, the instructor pilot is in charge of the airplane. Giovanni and I spent much of that flight talking about officership and our responsibilities to operate the airplane safely. We couldn’t focus on anything else until we got our first weather update. The RO handed it to me on a standard weather form which read: “3OVC 3/4RS 2020G30 RWY WET 995” and was followed by “TSFWP.”
I knew the first codes. Translated, they meant we had an overcast sky with a 300 foot ceiling, ¾ miles visibility in rain showers once out of the clouds, winds from 200 degrees at 20 knots gusting to 30 knots, the runway is wet, and an altimeter setting of 29.95 inches. I handed the weather report forward and asked Giovanni, “What does TSFWP mean?”
“That’s a Hunt code,” Giovanni answered. “Too shitty for weak pilots. I guess the RO is hinting Skelton shouldn’t be landing the airplane today.”
The PACAF regulation that specified 3MVS pilot weather minimums also covers every other pilot in the Pacific Air Force. Most fighter pilots, like General Skelton, were limited to weather no worse than a 500-foot ceiling and 1 mile visibility. If the visibility was less than a mile, they couldn’t even start the approach. If they didn’t see the runway by the time they had descended to 500 feet, they couldn’t land. A really good fighter pilot, an instructor with lots of hours, could take it down to 300 feet and ½ mile. All 3MVS pilots were cleared down to 100 feet and ¼ mile.
“Is the general going to land?” I asked.
“Dunno.” Giovanni pulled out a blue arrival card and started writing. I hadn’t considered the possibility the general would ignore his own landing limits specified in the regulation that bears his own signature on the back page. Giovanni handed the card forward. His weather report was the same as the one our RO had written with one addition. “Expect buckets of rain on final, everyone should strap in tight for approach and landing.” I handed the card to Sergeant Shields.
Minutes later the general’s aide came forward. “General Skelton is behind on his paperwork and won’t be coming forward for landing.”
Giovanni’s approach through the worst weather I’ve seen in years was straight out of the textbook. We crawled into our parking spot and saw the arrival party standing in their customary position, drenched from the sheets of rain. As soon as the passenger entry door was open, General Skelton leaped down the airstairs and into a waiting vehicle. The arrival party dispersed and we were left alone to put the airplane to bed.
Mercifully, the weather front drove through the Korean peninsula that evening and onward to the Sea of Japan. We had two full days of shopping for five dollar shoes, eating Kobe beef, and drinking Oscar, the local liqueur.
* * *
After rehearsing our engine start twice and hearing Giovanni repeat “nothing can go wrong now” each time, we felt ready for the next flight. We almost had all four engines started when General Skelton made it to cockpit, flanked by his aide hurriedly taking notes. The general strapped into his seat, still dictating. By the time he was finished, all four engines were started and he shoved the throttles forward. It was our best departure of the trip.
The flight from Seoul, South Korea to Misawa, Japan takes just over an hour. The general stayed in his seat the entire time and sat impassively as Giovanni and I gawked at the northern coast of Japan. “Descent checklist,” Giovanni commanded.
Item by item, Sergeant Packard cited a checklist step and Giovanni responded “set,” “checked,” “on,” or whatever was required.
“Airspeed bugs,” Packard called out.
Giovanni rotated a yellow knob on his airspeed indicator while saying, “Reference speed set to 137 knots.” Skelton silently reached forward and set his airspeed reference bug to the same speed.
“Descent checklist completed,” Packard announced, then looked to me.
“Sergeant Packard,” I said loud enough for the two pilots to hear, just as we had rehearsed the day before.
“What does that reference speed mean? They never taught us that in nav school.”
“Well, sir,” he answered in an equally loud voice, “reference speed is one point three times the stall speed of the airplane at a given weight and flap setting. Today it is 137 knots. Boeing designed it as a minimum speed. You can go a lot faster, but you can’t go too much slower. Especially with any kind of wind gust.”
“What happens if you go slower than reference speed?”
“You stall the airplane.”
“I guess that’s why we don’t fly slower than reference speed, huh?”
Our song and dance complete, we anxiously watched Skeletor for a response. Anything. Giovanni came up with the idea after I had asked – again – for a non-pilot’s explanation about reference speed. After he had explained reference speed was the slowest recommended speed on final approach, I asked why Skeletor kept insisting on flying slower. He hypothesized that most fighters have very small and fragile wheel brakes, and believed slower is better. If they ever got too slow, they could light off their afterburners and be back in the flying game instantly. Of course, that wasn’t an option on a 300,000 pound airplane like the 720. I felt certain our playacting would have the desired impact.
Giovanni spotted the single Misawa Air Base runway first. As soon as General Skelton could make out the fifty or so F-16 fighters on the ramp, his face lit up with excitement. Skeletor was coming home, to be with his own kind.
At two miles out, we were fully configured with the landing gear and flaps extended. The airspeed indicator needle rested comfortably on 137 knots, “reference speed.” At one mile, he was about ten knots slow.
“Need to pick up the speed,” Giovanni said over the interphone, “we are ten knots slow.”
Skelton didn’t acknowledge. At a half mile I felt the airplane sinking and instinctively looked out the forward window. We were diving at some point well short of the runway. As I lowered my eyes to the airspeed indicator I saw Giovanni’s left hand grab the throttles underneath General Skelton’s right hand. He pushed them forward a few inches only to have Skelton pull them back.
“Get your fucking hands off my fucking throttles.”
The airspeed accelerated above 130 – still five knots slow – Giovanni retracted his hand. I watched in disbelief as we continued to aim short of the runway and the airspeed again deteriorated. As the first brick of the runway’s overrun disappeared under our nose, I felt the airplane hit with a jarring thud and bounce at least fifty feet back into the air. With two more bounces the airplane was finally glued to the runway and we came to a stop.
Skelton turned off the runway as if nothing had happened and taxied us to the red carpet. He leaped out of his seat and disappeared from the cockpit to the ramp of waiting colonels.
“They don’t pay me enough to do that more than once,” Packard said while completing his checklist. “We probably ought to do a hard landing inspection. I bet we broke something.”
Giovanni simply nodded his consent and sat quietly in his seat. I left him alone and went aft to help the cabin crew with their normal post flight cleanup duties.
* * *
Dave Johnson and I spent the rest of the day touring the local villages while Giovanni and Packard searched the base for what they called a weight on wheels switch. The WOW switch on our left landing gear cracked into three pieces during our first bounce. They found the first piece in the unusable part of the runway called the overrun. The second piece was about a thousand feet further down and the third piece was hanging from a wire attached to the airplane.
That night we met up again at the Misawa Officer’s club and took a table against a wall underneath a painting of an F-16 shooting at a Russian MIG. The caption on the painting said “Eat Death.”
“Find our part?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Giovanni answered, “in Yokota. They put it on a helicopter that makes the trip up here everyday. Supposed to be here by ten and installed by midnight.”
As we sipped at our beers the bar filled up and soon there was standing room only. Giovanni pulled a dollar from his wallet, folded it over on itself so only the last two digits of the serial number were exposed. He hid the number with his thumb and announced, “Next round brought to you by the person with these two numbers in his head.”
“Fifty,” I said.
“Seventy-Five,” Packard offered.
After I explained the rules of the dollar bill game to Johnson, he timidly said, “Sixty.”
It was back to me. “Sixty-eight.”
Giovanni revealed the six and four underneath his thumb and smiled at our flight engineer. “Congratulations, you buy the round.”
We nursed the last drops of round one until Bob Packard returned with four beers and the biggest grin I had ever seen on his face. “Ever seen a full colonel make it with two women?”
“Over there,” Packard said, pointing to a table on the other side of the bar. “He’s got his arm around both of them and they’ve got their hands in his flight suit.”
I discretely turned around in my seat and saw the flight suited male with a woman under each arm. He had a beer in one hand and a breast in the other.
“Stop gawking,” Giovanni said to our lieutenant, “you don’t wanna piss him off, do you? Besides, Bob, are you sure he’s a colonel?”
“Yup, I saw the eagles on his shoulders. Besides, I even saw his nametag. A good one.”
“He’s ‘Big Dick.’ That’s what it said, ‘Big Dick.’”
Half a beer later, a major with the word “Hooter” on his nametag walked to our table and asked, “You guys civilians?”
“No,” Giovanni answered, “we’re Air Force. We are in from Hickam.”
“Hey guys,” Major Hooter said with a pained look, “I don’t mind you being here but tonight the bar is restricted to members of the Barstooler’s Drinking Club. The wing commander is here and if he sees you, he’ll go postal. I’m afraid you will have to leave.”
“Okay,” Giovanni said, “we’re going.”
“Typical fighter pilot bullshit,” I said as soon as Hooter was gone. We got up and headed for the exit. I stopped by the restroom while the rest of the crew waited out front. At the urinal there was a corkboard with the day’s copy of the Stars ‘n’ Bars newspaper right where you can read it. Thumbtacked on top of that paper was another called the “Drink Booze News, the Official Barstooler’s Weekly.” Below the masthead was the line, “We Stand for Nothing.” The lead article was headlined “Blowout Party at Big Dick’s.” Underneath that article was another, “How to Charm the Pants off any Air Force Female.” No doubt about it, these guys lived in a different Air Force.
* * *
Giovanni wanted to show up at the airplane a little early, hoping to get the final flight of the mission off to a good start. Just as we pulled up to the airplane the overcast sky darkened and a large raindrop landed on Vince’s rather large nose.
“Terrific,” he said in frustration. “Skeletor driving on these narrow taxiways is hard enough, but on wet taxiways!”
Without a second thought, he commandeered a base operations truck and drove the taxi route to look for possible obstructions. He was back in thirty minutes after asking the chief of the airfield to move three airplanes because they came within two-hundred feet of our taxi route. When the airfield chief refused, Giovanni phoned the wing commander directly. The airplanes were moved.
Giovanni and Packard practiced starting the engines with the Misawa ground crew to ensure they knew what to do and when. The dry run seemed to go well.
“I met the wing commander,” Giovanni said as he moved from the left seat to the right. “Turns out I’ve seen him once before. So have you.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“Last night. He still has the same name tag on.”
“You officers have all the fun,” Packard howled, “I’ve seen enlisted troops thrown in prison for less.”
“Speak of the devil,” Giovanni pointed to the growing procession of colonels and wives standing in the rain off our left wing, “there’s Big Dick at the head of the line.”
“Who’s that lady standing next to him, holding the umbrella?”
“It sure isn’t either of the women he was sitting with last night!”
“Okay let’s get serious,” Giovanni interrupted, “Skelton in sight.”
I watched as General Skelton stopped to shake hands with each colonel and wife in the departure party and turn towards the airplane. I returned to my seat to catch Dave Johnson’s thumbs up and relayed to Giovanni and Packard, “Clear to Start!”
Engines three and four started quickly and one and two were just starting to wind up when General Skelton arrived just behind the cockpit. Sergeant Shields handed him a towel and he took a few seconds to dry the rain from his head and leather jacket. That gave Giovanni and Packard the time they needed to get the left engines started. At last! We had the engines started before Skelton even got into the cockpit!
Skelton entered the cockpit and hopped right into the left pilot’s seat. He pushed the throttles forward and the engines started to spool up.
“Air stairs on the left wing!” Dave Johns yelled.
I looked forward and saw Giovanni standing on the brakes and reaching for the throttles.
“Get off my fucking brakes, captain!”
“Sir, we still have ground equipment in front of the airplane!”
“Get off my fucking brakes and that’s a fucking order!”
“Sir, that ground equipment will not pass under the wings! The ground crew needs more time!”
“Listen, you insubordinate shit!” Skelton was yelling loud enough to hear over the noise of the engines. “I’ve got colonels saluting in the rain! You get off those fucking brakes now!”
I looked out the left window to see the saluting colonels and two ground crewmen pushing the airstairs frantically away from the airplane.
“Airstairs clear left!” Johnson yelled.
“Power cart clear right!” Packard added.
Giovanni relaxed his legs and the airplane lurched forward. We shot through the taxiways and were airborne in minutes. Giovanni made all the necessary radio calls but said nothing else. Even after Skelton left the cockpit, we remained silent for the next couple of hours.
* * *
The sunrise was spectacular, as it usually was over the Pacific at 35,000 feet. The radio operator called forward to the squadron to confirm our schedules were clear for the weekend and there wasn’t any reported carnage from our departure escapades at Misawa.
“Once upon a midnight dreary,” Giovanni sang, “while I flew, weak and weary.”
Packard joined in, “Where other crews would shrink from such a dangerous chore, I nodded, nearly napping. Suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my cockpit door. ‘Tis some visitor, I feared, tapping at my cockpit door, it is none other than – Skeletor.”
It was a song I heard our previous pilot sing many times. And now he was gone. I had to throw my own line in. “Quote the Hunt, nevermore.”
We enjoyed our first laugh of the flight and agreed to meet over the weekend for golf. Over the years I’ve always noticed that nothing brings an aircrew together like adversity. We decided, that morning we would keep our identity. We were, after all, the Leper Crew.
The fun was short-lived, however. There was no tapping. Skeletor just threw open the cockpit door and marched forward, glaring at Dave Johnson sitting in the pilot’s seat. Meekly, Johnson relinquished the seat and Skeletor strapped in.
“Sir,” Giovanni said, “weather is okay with a 1,500 foot broken cloud deck, good visibility, and very gusty winds, out of the north zero-one-zero at fifteen gusting to twenty-five. If Honolulu Tower even mentions a gust, you know it’s windy.”
Skeletor ignored the advice and studied the DOD approach plate in front of him. We had him set up for the Instrument Landing System approach to runway 08. He’d flown this many times; it would be a piece of cake. APOC.
Descending through 10,000 feet we briefly saw Barbers Point on the southwestern corner of Oahu. Passing 8,000 feet we were back in the clouds and the ride became rough. The general did a good job getting us onto the ILS course and glide path and we found ourselves at 3,000 feet fully configured and on speed. Skeletor kept looking out the cockpit window for a peek of the runway, but there was nothing.
At 2,000 feet the ILS indicated we were a degree low and the airspeed indicator showed us ten knots fast. Still no runway.
“Need to level off,” Giovanni cautioned, “we are too low.”
Skeletor grunted in acknowledgement but continued to descend. At about 1,000 feet we broke out of the clouds and got a birds eye view of Pearl Harbor and an aircraft carrier crossing the channel right in front of us. Skeletor was looking right at the ship and still we descended.
“Unless you want a carrier landing,” Giovanni commanded, “you had better level off!”
Skeletor pulled back on the yoke and we got our first glimpse of the runway, just beyond the aircraft carrier.
I shot a look at the airspeed indicator and saw a mile of space between the needle and the triangular bug. We were 20 knots slow. “Airspeed!” I yelled on the top of my lungs.
“Need more speed,” Giovanni added, “now!”
For some reason, at that very moment, I thought of the aerodynamics lesson Hunt gave me right after the first time I was facing this situation over the Pearl Harbor channel. “Aerodynamics,” he said, “is the science of cheating gravity. Even if you manage to do that, gravity eventually wins. It is the pilot’s job to give in to gravity gracefully. All swept wing jets do a great job of flying until they get slow. The battle is lost abruptly when the wings no longer have the kind of airflow they want and the airplane falls to earth. And people die.”
“Add power now!” Giovanni was no longer asking.
I felt my stomach plunge as the airplane dropped suddenly. Giovanni shoved the throttles forward and the engines roared with a vengeance. In a moment we were back on glide path and the roar of the engines fell to their normal whine.
“Your airplane, sir.”
Without any sign of acknowledgement, Skeletor landed the airplane – his best yet – and taxied to the red carpet.
After Skeletor left the cockpit, we sat quietly. Finally, I leaned forward to Giovanni and spoke. “I’m naming my firstborn Vince.”
* * *
Golf in Hawaii is usually great. Golf in Hawaii with beer is even better. The combination proved effective and a week’s worth of stress melted away. When I got home, Joyce gave me a message that brought every ounce of stress back in full force.
“Some colonel from General Skelton’s office called,” she said as if I got those kinds of calls every Sunday. “He said you and Vince have an appointment with the General tomorrow morning at seven.”
We met an hour early, at the entryway to PACAF headquarters. We sat on a concrete barricade looking at the historic building, still in is World War II off-pink color. The bullet holes from the Japanese Zeros of December 7, 1941 were still visible. Bullet holes. It seemed an appropriate thought.
With fifteen minutes to go, we entered the building and told the guard we had an appointment to see the big boss. Ten minutes and three flights of stairs later, we were in Skeletor’s outer office. After thirty minutes, the queue included two colonels, a major, and two civilians. After another fifteen minutes the secretary opened the door to the general’s office and announced, “General Skelton will see you now.”
I followed Giovanni into the office, a rather large office, and marched in step to a point three feet in front of Skelton’s mahogany desk. We both came to attention, and saluted. I tried to cage my eyes directly ahead of me as I held my salute. Skeletor was sitting at his desk, his feet propped up, eating from a can of tuna fish with a toothpick. He returned our salute, the toothpick still clutched in his right, saluting hand. We dropped our salutes and remained standing at attention.
“Captain,” he began, looking only at Giovanni. “I’m going to give you a quick lesson in military etiquette, a lesson you should have mastered after your first year at the Academy. But it is obvious to me you must have been sleeping during those classes, because you don’t know shit about the subject.”
It was awfully hot in that room. Giovanni and I were dressed in our short sleeve blue uniform, and light polyester pants. Skelton had his long sleeve shirt, tie, and leather jacket on. I felt beads of sweat collecting on my brow.
“I am a general,” he continued, “a four fucking star general. You, on the other hand, are a captain. The boys at finance think of me as an O-10. You are an O-3. I am in charge of over 84,000 people in what amounts to this nation’s most potent fighting force. You are in charge of nothing more than your dick. Do we understand our relative importance in the big picture?”
“Yes, sir.” Giovanni answered as I remained silent.
“Fine.” He was standing now, right in front of Giovanni. “I had the personnel boys pull up your record. You’ve been in for almost ten years and have flown nothing but tankers and these goddamned VIP aircraft. Do you realize that by the time I had ten years in this man’s Air Force, I had already completed a combat tour in Vietnam, a staff tour in England, was a Thunderbird pilot, and had a line number to major? Now you may have more flying time than I’ve got, but my time is all fighter. Your time is nothing but fucking heavies. I think we understand who the better pilot is. Don’t we?”
“Good.” Skeletor began to pace, still ignoring my presence. “Your job in that airplane is to do all the stuff I’m too busy to do. You do the preflight, you make sure the airplane is serviced, you talk on the radio. You clean the shitter for all I care. But you don’t touch the fucking controls, the throttles, or anything on my side of the cockpit!”
The general screamed these last words and returned to his seat. “Now that’s all I’m going to say,” he said quietly. “That’s all I’m going to do. As long as you’ve learned your place in the food chain.”
“And you make sure the rest of your heavy toads understand too. If I have any more trouble with you guys, I’m going to replace the whole goddamned squadron with real pilots. You tell your boss I said that.”
We both did an about face and started to walk out. I heard Giovanni say, “have a nice day, sir.”
I don’t know how he did it, but he did. He was sitting at his desk, ten feet away. A split second later, he was standing in front of Giovanni spitting fire.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Attitude! You have a bad fucking attitude! No fucking respect for your fucking superiors! If I want to have a good fucking day, I’ll have a good fucking day! Who the fuck are you, to tell me to have a good fucking day?”
General Skelton is taller than Giovanni and I both. His voice was booming off the walls and resonated in my chest cavity. I could feel the terror in my bowels and worried that my legs would buckle under the strain.
“You are fired! Do you read me? I want you off this base within the week. I don’t want to ever see your fucking face again! Now get the fuck out of my office!”
We rushed out, not risking another word. As we opened the door of the outer office, I heard Skelton command his secretary, “Get me Cooper on the phone, now.” Colonel Cooper was the wing commander, our squadron commander’s boss.
* * *
That’s how it happened. Giovanni was officially fired and Lieutenant Colonel Gutless included the rest of the crew just to be safe. Vince Giovanni and Bob Packard were sent to Washington, DC to fly for the First Military VIP Squadron. Karen Shields and I got one-way tickets to Germany, she to fly for the Second Military VIP Squadron and me to do who-know’s-what for a C-130 squadron I’d never heard of. Dave Johnson was sent to an airlift squadron in New Jersey. The Leper Crew was no more.