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.

— James Albright




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 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.

When I took command of the squadron I was 39 years old and had under my purview 150 men and women with the mission of providing airlift to VIPs and non-VIPs throughout Europe and the rest of the world. But the first time I took command of anything, it was an aircrew. I was 27 years old and reporting to me was a crew of thirteen. I hadn't given that any thought for a while. Today The Lovely Mrs. and I were in line to get some coffee behind a KC-10 tanker crew. I spotted the commander immediately.


The commander waits

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. 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).