Lonely at the Top (2019)
The year 2019 seems to be carrying a fair amount of emotional significance for me. It is 40 years since I started my path as a professional pilot, as of this year. Twenty years as a civilian, as of this year.
I was the commander of the 76th Airlift Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, twenty five years ago. This year is the 76th Airlift Squadron's 76th year in existence, after having been stood up as the 76th Ferrying Squadron during World War II in 1943. They currently fly Gulfstream GVs (C-37) and Learjet 35s (C-21). Many in the squadron follow www.code7700.com and invited me to speak, which I happily did this week. So here I am at Ramstein, reflecting. But more on that another time. I'd like to reminisce about being a crew commander at the ripe old age of 27.
Crew Assembly Time
There were at least fifteen queued in front of us, six in flight suits, three of those in the familiar "green bag" and the other three in a new style of "desert cammo" that came in vogue sometime after I last had a flight suit on. The person directly in front of us had the "boom operator" patch on his left sleeve that I recognized from my days flying the KC-135A tanker, thirty-nine years ago. So he was either a KC-135 or KC-10 crewmember.
As the line advanced by one I looked around to spot several Army troops in their battle fatigues, several German nationals, one or two retirees, and one solitary crewmember in the same green bag as the boom operator. The crewmember was wearing the two dark green "railroad tracks" on each shoulder, making him a captain. On his left sleeve was his squadron patch. I shifted my position in line to see the same patch on the boom operator's shoulder. Ahead in line, the other two green baggers had the same patch. Ah, a crew of four. There is a flap on the left side of many flight suits that covers a pocket designed for pens and pencils. The flap is secured with a strip of Velcro about a half-inch high and an inch and a half wide. Some crewmembers cut the flap off as a nuisance (I did) and put on some kind of decorative patch over the Velcro (I did not). Two of the crewmembers up front had a patch of a "three holer's" front view silhouette. That meant they were probably from a KC-10. Now it was time to play, "guess the crew position."
So, the boom operator was an easy pick. Both versions of the tanker gave up navigators long ago, so that left us with the aircraft commander, copilot, and either a second boom operator or a load master to identify. Shifting in line again I noticed the person one short of the front of the line was also a captain. Directly behind him was another enlisted crewmember without the boom operator patch. So probably a load master. Two down, two to go.
Looking at the seated captain I could tell the young man was just that, a young man. In his middle twenties. He had a serious look about him. Every now and then he would scan the line to check on the rest of the crew. He was "mother henning," as we used to say. He had obviously showed up first, hence the fact he was already seated, his tray of pastries finished, and by the looks of it, his coffee already finished as well. He was probably the aircraft commander but I wasn't yet certain. Perhaps he was a prematurely serious copilot.
The captain at the head of the line turned, carrying a tray of cinnamon rolls and a cola lite. He smiled easily and shot the boom operator a look. "It's chow time, bro!" Ah, obviously a copilot.
Once we got our pastries and coffee I noticed the foursome split into officer and enlisted tables. The aircraft commander quietly read from his iPad while everyone else busied themselves with food. The Lovely Mrs. Haskel accused me of stalking the crew and I attempted to mind my own business for a change. But I was captivated by this group of twenty-somethings. Yes, I was once one of them so many years ago.
When our breakfast was done I noticed the aircraft commander had made it downstairs and was sitting quietly. Every now and then he looked up to check on the crew. But they too had moved off. He returned to his iPad and pretended to read. He had the look of worry. Where was his crew?
From our perch on the second floor we had a clear view of what the aircraft commander had missed. He went downstairs to the lobby in a move I fully recognized from my past. It was getting close to the time the crew bus was going to pick them up and he wanted to move the herd to the bus. But he didn't want to blatantly order his minions to quickly finish their breakfasts. He wanted them to take the hint that their boss was ready to leave, so he left. But, from his perspective, there he was alone in the lobby. But we saw that the crew did indeed take the hint, but they left from another exit. They were, in fact, already outside wondering where their commander was.
The aircraft commander eventually left the lobby and discovered his missing crew. I am sure he felt a little embarrassed and perhaps the crew had a laugh at his expense. I've made the same move and had the same embarrassed realization. I've been there. With my added thirty years of experience, I know that sometimes you cannot be subtle in the way you lead a crew (or anyone, for that matter).
"The old man"
Ramstein Air Base has changed quite a bit since I was stationed here, twenty-plus years ago. In that time the base once known as Rhein Main, near Frankfurt, Germany, has closed. That base used to be the hub for all incoming U.S. military personnel, where they would arrive via military or airline transport, be processed through the system, and then be sent on to their final assignments somewhere in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, or parts further away. Cargo and other supplies also arrived through Frankfurt. All that now happens at Ramstein and the base now has a magnificent billeting office that overlooks the runway and ramp. From our room on the seventh floor I spotted the KC-10.
It is a large airplane, once beautiful but now less so because of its drab, gray paint. The crew will be at base operations now, I knew, so the crew could collect their flight plan and other paperwork. They will be either heading home or off to war, I imagine. While I would have liked to think they were bound for the U.S., I knew it would be just as likely they were headed east to refuel fighters or bombers on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Each member of the crew will have their own tasks to accomplish at Base Operations and later at the airplane. But none other than the 27-year-old aircraft commander will have the responsibility of saying, yes, we are headed to the war zone. What must it be like, to have that responsibility?
It used to be common to call the aircraft commander "the old man," especially in a large crew. During my first time at bat, my crew consisted of two pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer, three radio operators, three crew chiefs, and three security police. Though most were older than me, I was "the old man." The crew on the KC-10 is much smaller, but these days the old man's worries are much greater.
When I was an aircraft commander at that age my biggest worries were keeping the crew focused and headed in the same direction. "Herding cats," I used to say. My first copilot was actually older than me, but his entry into the Air Force was delayed for two years as he sought to "find himself." My navigator was prone to mistaking his left from his right and I had to bail the flight engineer out of jail twice in the first six months. Drunk and disorderly, the official charge. I never had to fly into a war zone until much later in my career.
Off to war
Photo: A KC-10 and her "chicks" (FA-18s) over Afghanistan, 13 Oct 2009 (USN Photo)
Click photo for a larger image
There are rarely combat losses of tanker aircraft, but the Air Force has lost a lot of tankers because the airplanes are old, the missions can be tough, and the experience levels of the crews are very low. Knowing peers who have been killed weighs heavily on all who fly. And yet they continue to fly.
It reminds me of the last scene in a Korean War film based on the book "The Bridges of Toko Ri," by James Michener. Admiral Tarrant, having just been told one of his pilots had just been killed, observes more on the deck taking off. These pilots are willingly going into harm's way because that is their profession, even knowing the risks. The admiral looks in wonder and says, "Where do we get such men?"
I wonder the same thing. But now we have women on these crews as well. Where do we get such men and women?