Last week I attended a reunion of my USAF pilot training class, Williams 67-E. How the memories came rushing back!
The T-38 Talon supersonic trainer. It’s hard to believe they paid us to do this.
Almost 39 years ago, a group of American and German Air Force officers met at Williams Air Force Base in Chandler Arizona, southeast of Phoenix. Most of us had never touched the controls of an airplane but, by some arcane divination, we had been selected from among thousands of candidates to be trained at the finest Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) base in the U.S. and thus, presumably, the world. (The U.S. Navy disagreed, but as far as we were concerned, they did not exist, except in the case of a ditching at sea. Besides, they wore brown shoes.)
Williams was The Fighter School. At least it said so on the plaques at the Officers Club and on the cash receipts in the Stag Bar, so it was a story we embraced. “Willy” had a long history of training men to fight in the air, as opposed to the less renowned who, like me, went on to fly cargo planes and tankers: shootees, so to speak, not shooters. That demanding tradition was maintained by holding an auction for the available slots at the eight UPT bases, the most appealing slots going fast, and the highest-ranking candidates invariably went to Willy, since the only currency in this auction was your class standing in whatever program had trained you as an officer. Here were the 8 UPT bases at the time, more or less in their order of attractiveness:
- Williams – Phoenix, AZ
- Reese – Lubbock, TX
- Vance – Enid, OK
- Laughlin – Del Rio, TX
- Moody – Valdosta, GA
- Craig – Selma, AL
- Laredo – Laredo, TX
- Webb – Big Spring, TX
In that heyday of male-only cockpits, the allure of tanned Arizona State coeds was overpowering. It also didn’t hurt that it was one of the few Air Force bases anywhere near a tourist destination.
In keeping with my “gentleman B-” academic record, I got to Willy by a single point. At the meeting where we made our choices, there was one precious slot left when the captain called my name. The lieutenant just after me, with just one point less out of about 1,500, declared, “Reese, dammit!” The captain corrected him, “That’s ‘dammit, Sir!‘.” It was a process immune to gaming, which explains why Dubya took his training at Moody.
So a gaggle of us college kids showed up at Willy in January, 1966 to learn to fly with future astronauts and generals and were taught by the best instructors, who had also won their own fierce competition for the prized slots at Willy. Most of the Americans were destined to fly over, around and, occasionally, into Vietnam. This was long before the Air Force abandoned the romantic tradition that it makes no sense to put an empty airplane in harm’s way.
The German officers were at Willy because the Air Force provided undergraduate pilot training to the young Luftwaffe officers brave and foolhardy enough to fly the F-104 Starfighter “Widowmaker” jet fighters in Germany’s flaky weather. We don’t know why we formed such strong bonds. None of us knows of any other UPT class that holds regular reunions, but the 5th class to graduate in FY 1967 has held three previous reunions, and the fourth was this week in Scottsdale, AZ. Thanks to our German friends, the last one was held at St. Moritz, Switzerland. We remain fond of pleasant venues.
Coming together again after so long, I remembered some great tales, and heard some new ones. Invariably their theme is our general cluelessness in the cockpit and the intrinsic danger of hooking up a 23-year-old with a supersonic fighter, lacking only the weapons, capable of climbing to 40,000 feet in about a minute.
Bill Colegrove didn’t smoke, but his Instructor Pilot (“IP”, a demi-god to us) was a chain smoker and so were the other four students under his IP’s tutelage, so a blue haze hovered over their briefing table. After one particularly disappointing training mission, his IP told Bill, “I gotta level with ya. You might as well start smoking. The way you’re flying, you’ll never live long enough to get cancer.” Bill retired recently from a successful career as an airline captain.
Bill Stokes was as nervous as any of us facing a check ride – an airborne proficiency check that was the mother of all driver’s tests. He was so clanked that he closed the canopy on his little finger, severing the tip. But this was a check flight. Would they wash him out for such carelessness? The pain was great but not stronger than his fear of failure and, at least, his flight glove kept the blood from being obvious. Finally the check pilot asked, “Are you ready for takeoff, Lieutenant?” Stokes asked, “Sir, I’ve just cut off my finger. Will that count against me?“
Our first trainer was a Cessna 172, branded as the T-41. We were bussed out to Casa Grande Municipal Field each day and trained by civilian instructors–a motley crew of lifelong general aviation hangers-on, tough, impatient guys who never wanted to or couldn’t qualify as airline pilots. They collected a paycheck by introducing these aeronautical virgins to the wonders of stalls, spins, needle, ball & airspeed and, with any luck, landings. My instructor, a cynical alcoholic, embraced the time honored training tools of fear, harassment and ridicule. He was particularly impatient with my gradual uptake of flying skills, and the more he yelled, the less likely I was to solo this sucker. Finally, I was scheduled for a dreaded Flying Evaluation Board (FEB), the last formality before washing out, presumably to become a passive navigator.
I was despondent, but Capt. Jack Ferguson, our student flight commander and later my roommate, trusted my sense that I could land the airplane. Why not go rent a plane and instructor and solo before the Board meets? So I went over to the little Falcon airfield near us and signed up as a civilian for a lesson in landing a Cessna 172. Sure enough, once in control of the dynamic – a client whom the instructor wanted to succeed so I’d buy more lessons – I flew well as I shot three touch-and-go landings that this IP found surprisingly competent. On downwind leg I asked him if I was ready to solo and he couldn’t see why not. “Well, why don’t you get out this time and I’ll just do that.“
This was an egregious inversion of aviation tradition. The student never initiates the solo, but humbly works through his drills until the instructor, in the middle of a flight, renders the thrilling but dreaded judgment, “Well, son, ah guess yer ready to land this beast by yourself.” Then he’d get out and watch nervously as the student, generally, survived the required three landings. I guess I’m such a control freak I had to manage even that tradition. The landings were plenty good enough and I procured my solo certificate and brought it with me to the FEB.
“Lieutenant Blaser,” asked the Lt. Colonel, going through the motions before consigning this hopeless peckerwood to a career of flying sideways, poring over navigation charts, “Do you have anything you’d like to say before we make our decision?”
ir. The issue here is my failure to solo in the T-41. Does this make any difference?” I handed him my solo certificate and a big grin lit up his face. “Yes, Lieutenant, that makes all the difference in the world.” Apparently the Lt. Col. appreciated a little entrepreneurial spirit in his charges.
Fortunately, I never had any other issues flying or landing. There was no civilian airfield anywhere nearby that would rent me a jet trainer.
One of our German classmates was having trouble handling the T-38 supersonic trainer. His problem was one we all shared: the T-38’s controls are incredibly light and responsive. If you’re ham-fisted about it, you’ll be all over the sky–this is a fighter without guns that will spin at 450 degrees per second, should you hold the stick against its stop at cruise speed (500 degrees per second roll rate x .9 mach). Instructor pilots could chastise a student by flicking the stick fast enough to hit his helmet against the canopy.
Instructor pilots, however, got through to us with words, not random physical boinks. My friend’s instructor simply could not get through until he finally said in desperation,
No, no, no! You’ve got it all wrong. That’s not a baseball bat or a broom. Hold the stick with your thumb and two fingers only, and touch it as you would a woman’s thigh.
My friend’s flying improved instantly. Like life, flying’s a mind game.
Jim Sheets still has a rapier wit, but has probably never connected two dots so quickly and elegantly as he did one Saturday afternoon in late ’67. At the cocktail party, we were introduced to our first margaritas, a drink not yet served in bars. The sweet-sour taste and salted rim fascinated everybody, especially our dates.
“Can I lick your salt?” asked Jim’s date.
“Said Lot to his wife.” He didn’t miss a beat.
Jet fighters return from a mission all at once, at high speed and usually low on fuel. There’s no time for the leisurely lineup like the airliners you can see at night – bright jewels sliding down an invisible string. Instead, fighters fly at about 225 mph at 1500 feet above the ground, straight to a point halfway down the runway, often in four-ship formation. Then they pitch sharply into a 60 degree banked u-turn, slowing to 170, drop the gear and flaps and spiral down to the landing. From “pitchout” to touchdown takes maybe a minute, and it makes up in efficiency what it lacks in stateliness. When practicing multiple landings, you light the afterburners on touchdown, make a climbing turn back to 1500 feet, enter a big box pattern to line up on Initial Leg again. If a pilot elects not to land, he announces that he’s “carrying through on Initial” and flies the length of the 2 mile runway (about 32 seconds), then turns into the same box pattern as the aircraft climbing out from the runway. It’s a rhythmic pattern, sounding no more dramatic that UAL’s Channel 9, quiet and, in a way, peaceful.
Training college kids to do this requires a lot of repetition flying solo, so one night our squadron was spread over the immense darkness between Willy and Superstition Mountain, drilling the routine and its sensations into our ganglia. I don’t know if Jim Quick missed the call when he carried through or I didn’t hear him, but, just as I was climbing out in a right bank, Roy Bridges announces, “Collision alert on takeoff leg!“
I don’t know why this obvious Murphyism required a meatspace demo. The climbing, turning aircraft can’t see an overtaking, faster airplane behind and above him. The overtaking aircraft may not see the slower plane at 12 o’clock low, since his nose is in the way.
“Takeoff leg, hmm. That would be me,” I mused. “Holy fuck! That’ is me!” I look over my right shoulder and my canopy is filled with the white belly of a T-38, red rotating beacon flashing merrily. I dunno, maybe 15 feet above me, already breaking right. I can picture it still.
Airplanes fly on airspeed, so my reaction has always been, no matter the circumstance, to firewall the throttles and point the nose toward my happy place. So I dumped the stick, gave it the gas, weightless briefly, and there I was, diving toward the desert floor at, what? 330 mph? Well…
Certain I was no longer under an aluminum overcast, I pulled up as suddenly as I had dived, got the plane organized, then tooled around outside the pattern for a few minutes to get my metabolism organized. Seat cushion check: no stains. This is good.
I think I landed full stop at the next touchdown. What the hell, a dozen landings is enough for one night. When I got back to the Squadron room, I learned how our personal mortality affects our emotions. I’ve mentioned before that I’m no hero, but physical danger doesn’t affect me much. It’s pretty dysfunctional, but before that evening I’d already crashed my motorcycle, dinged 2 cars, had some spectacular ski wrecks, several interesting rock climbing moments and descended the highest fixed rappel in North America. Excitement in the presence of danger seems like a waste of bandwidth, as demonstrated by the C-130 pilot who, about a year later, flew into a large Vietnamese mountain avoiding small Vietnamese bullets.
Then Jim Quick stormed into the ready room, blustering and spitting and yelling, apparently sure that I’d been plotting to kill him, even if I had to sacrifice myself to do it. I suggested to him that it was not my intention and that I’d be sure to go after someone else next time, if ever it happened again, and that maybe if he’d just land the fucker rather than waiting for the perfect setup, we wouldn’t have had this little talk. In truth I had calmed down from the near miss, but Jim’s outburst bothered me more, sensitive inner child that I have.
There are more stories, but you get the picture. Most of us were just college kids who spent some time in this amazing environment, then went on to other things, often aviation-related. For me, pilot training was the most intense post-graduate adventure I could have experienced, and for that reason it still seems like the smart alternative to law school. It was a moment in time not to be repeated. We were cannon fodder, for sure, but we knew we were immortal like all twenty-somethings. I hope Vietnam was the last big-time war, with its 58,000 dead and a couple hundred thousand wounded. It was the end of the hard-partying, devil-may-care times for military aviation, and I wouldn’t have missed that for the world, more resonant with WWII and Korea than today’s kids, better warriors, I’m sure, but who don’t go to the bar from the flight line.
I ran into Robin Olds in a Steamboat Springs bar sometime in the 70’s, where he had retired (to Steamboat, not specifically to that bar, only generally). A legend among fighter pilots, he’d been an Ace in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. But he was bitter and tired. “They’ve ruined it,” he said. “They’ve taken all the humanity out of flying, the adventure, the fun.” Here’s Col. Olds, being carried from his 100th mission over North Vietnam in 1967, about the time we were shipping out.
My classmates from 67-E feel pretty much the same way. Military aviation has a different taste today. It’s more precise and efficient, but there’s something intangibly noble about a
pilot in an imperfectly equipped jet, hurling himself at the earth at 400 knots in the pursuit of a precise strike.
We have seen the horror of war, horror that remains no matter how automated the strike. The difference is whether the warrior is also at risk. Our nation has become committed to the sanitized strike and the automatic bomb. I’m not so sure. We’re now faced with door-to-door combat in Iraq, partially because of our reliance on those fictions–fewer soldiers and smarter weapons. General George Patton said it well:
It’s the unconquerable soul of man, and not the nature of the weapon he uses, that insures victory.
And, no doubt, our humanity.