There are romantic notions associated with aviation, like the steely-eyed pilot lifting his huge craft into the wild blue yonder, mocking danger, then returning safely to earth.  And there's a little of that, but it's more about training, experience, and perseverance.

My junior year of college I transferred to University of Florida on an AFROTC scholarship, which provided some much-needed cash in exchange for a commitment to the Air Force when I graduated.  I wasn't gung-ho about the military, but an Air Force commission was a good way to fulfill my duty.

I scored well on the pilot portion of the Air Force Officers Qualification Test so my senior year I got an opportunity to learn to fly through the AFROTC Flight Instruction Program.  It also gave the USAF a low-cost way to determine whether I had an aptitude for aviation.  I did.  So I learned to fly a Piper Cherokee and earned a private pilot's license in 1967.

Undergraduate pilot training at Moody Air Force Base was an interesting transition from the civilian world to the military world.  There was plenty of machismo but it was mostly hard work and commitment. Flying the T-38 was like strapping on a rocket.  Every single flight was exciting and challenging--so much to learn and so much to perform.  But I could tell early on that I wouldn't be staying in the Air Force after my five-year commitment.

Flying the C-141 was quite different but there was plenty of challenge.  Early on I remember pulling out onto the runway at Travis AFB for a night flight across the Pacific.  It was foggy--the ceiling was zero and visibility was just a quarter of a mile, but that's enough to take off under Instrument Flight Rules.  As we advanced the throttles to takeoff exhaust pressure ratio the four engines roared and vibrated with 80,000 pounds of thrust and as always there was that excitement in the pit of my stomach.  We weighed 325,000 pounds with a full load of fuel and cargo so our initial movement was painfully slow.  But soon we were accelerating down the runway and trying to maintain visual cues in the dark and fog.  Half way down the runway the edge lights flew by at one a second and we could only see one at a time.  If an engine failed there wasn't enough runway remaining to stop, so our only choice now was to take off.  As we rotated, everything beyond the windscreen turned white as the landing lights reflected off the fog.  We waited for a positive rate of climb, then gear up, flaps up, and accelerated to climbout speed in the soup.  Whew.  Then months later on another takeoff I remember thinking, "Hey, that wasn't exciting; it was routine."

A year later, learning the C-130 was familiar--four engines, cargo ramp, dual rails, crew door, Lockheed, hydraulics, essential AC bus, pilots, engineers, loadmasters, formation, troop drops, cargo drops.  But the challenge in the C-130 mission is delivering the goods to places where pilots of other four-engine airplanes dare not go.

Flying in Vietnam was challenging and interesting, but I'm not an adrenalin junkie.  And after a year I was ready to rotate "back to the world" (even though it was to Pope AFB).  Meanwhile, I experienced the old pilot's adage... "hundreds of hours of stark boredom punctuated by seconds of stark terror".

Aviation is a pretty technical job but not what you would call creative.  Generally you don't want your pilot to do things creatively; instead you want him to do things the same way every time.  I learned that I don't really care for repetition and I remember the moment that I realized that I was not interested in becoming an airline pilot when my Air Force career was done....

We flew long days and nights and we were at our sixth stop of the night, Danang.  We were 12 hours into our crew day.  Tired.  Cranky.  As I taxied out the copilot was reading the usual before-takeoff checklist.  And I remember thinking, "If I have to hear that checklist another time today I'm going to throw up."  And that's when I knew the romance of the air was over.


Vietnam and Cambodia


Taiwan (CCK)



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