Archive for Aviation

Cultural Placeholders…

I’ve been thinking about generational differences lately and how each generation anchors itself with a set of creative icons, go-to figures, that serve as reference points on a timeline of cultural awareness.

What do you say or who do you think of when people ask you for your favorite movie, book, painting, or rock group? Who’s on that playlist? What music pops to mind? What paintings do you think of? What writers do you refer to and re-read? How you answer those questions most likely depends on the artistic/creative imprinting of your generation.  read more

Rite of Passage…

Every culture has rites of passage, those ceremonies or events that mark important transitions in a person’s life. Birth, puberty, and death are generic passages. Baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings are more specific, but the most important traditional rite across all societies is the passage from childhood or youth to adult. Native American boys endured strenuous ceremonial tests to prove their manhood while African girls often suffer grisly genital mutilation to cross over. Most modern societies have less ritualistic rites to mark important the transition.

The first tests in my personal rite of passage were surviving Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class at Quantico, Virginia and Naval flight training in Florida and Texas. When the golden wings of a Naval Aviator were pinned on, I thought that was it. I was puffed up and ready to go. All the boxes were checked, all the tests passed, and Jack Jet was set to roll.

But, that wasn’t “it.” The rite of passage wasn’t complete until a true American hero scolded my sorry ass and made me grow up.

For years, since my time as a Marine pilot, I’ve entertained friends by telling the story of my last flight on active duty. The length and drama of the story often depends on the number of tequila shots I’ve had, but at the time I was flying the F8 Crusader at MCAS El Toro, loving the airplane and the esprit de corps of my squadron mates. We were young, full of testosterone, and had a self-confidence that came from flying the world’s hottest fighter at speeds up to 1000 mph. Pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old.

In August of 1962 I was just wrapping up my active duty obligation and about to start law school. On that last day at El Toro I was scheduled for an air-to-air tactics sortie with a squadron mate – a dogfight – the thing we most loved to do. As we were briefing for the flight, we learned that one of the aircraft was down for maintenance and the flight was going to be canceled. We were both disappointed, but, the Ops officer intervened and told me to take the good plane out alone and “wring it out and have some fun.” This was his gift to me on my last day in the squadron.

Without going into detail, I did “have some fun,” flying high, low, and everyplace in between – enough fun that when I returned to the base, Ops radioed to warn me that the skipper was pissed, and staff cars were pulling into the squadron parking lot in droves.

The next day the Santa Ana Register reported an F8 Crusader was seen “at car top level on 17th Street” and I carried that clipping around in my wallet until it turned from white to yellow and eventually to powder. Local citizens reported an airplane flying through backyards and one threatened to sue because the airplane had singed the leaves on his orange tree.

It was the beginning of a miserable self-inflicted three weeks for me. I was held on active duty, kind of like house-arrest, while “the episode” was under investigation and a decision made about whether a court-martial was the appropriate punishment. All complainants were to be interviewed and their stories duly recorded.

In the end, the investigating officer recommended a formal 40-page Letter of Reprimand, forfeiture of $180 ($1530 in today’s dollars) fine, and indefinite grounding, no more flying, but no court-martial.

I was released from active duty with barely enough time to load the car and drive to Berkeley for the start of school. I had been planning to pay for school by flying with the Marine Reserve squadron at Alameda, but the grounding kept me from joining the squadron. Money was so tight that I lived on Kraft Mac and Cheese and an apple a day ($17 worth) the last month of my first year in school, but in June my grounding ended and I was allowed to resume flying with an A4 squadron at Alameda.

It’s always fun to tell the story, but over the years and many moves the Letter of Reprimand was lost. Last summer a squadron mate told me how to get a copy, and last week it showed up in my mailbox.

I remembered it as something like the police report in Alice’s Restaurant, complete with diagrams, maps with arrows, and hyperbolic descriptions of “willful and wanton disregard for human life” etc. What I found was a well-documented description of my airborne transgressions along with my own apology for embarrassing the service and putting lives in danger. The story is still funny, but I had a humbling epiphany when I read through the file and decided to Google the name of the steely-eyed general who signed and delivered the Letter.

General J. P. Condon was the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, and it was he who summoned me to receive the Letter of Reprimand. I arrived at base headquarters, and after what seemed like an eternity his adjutant told me the General was ready. I entered his office and had to walk across what seemed like an acre of carpet to stand in front of his desk. My heart was pounding when he looked up. His elbows were on the desk and his gnarled hands were clasped under his chin. He paused and stared at me before delivering the line I will never forget, “Son, that shit when out with V-J Day.”

That was it. He handed the Letter of Reprimand and returned to the paperwork on his desk. I said, “Yes sir” took the Letter, did an about face, and left his office. I never saw him again, but I will never forget thinking he looked like a movie general – someone out of central casting – blue eyes, close-cropped white hair, leathery brown face, and two big stars on his collar.

At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what General John P. Condon had done for me. I thought he was simply going through the pro forma steps of scolding a junior officer for engaging in a stupid ill-conceived testosterone fueled “episode.” The truth is he saved my sorry ass.

At first, I thought the Captain in charge of the investigation was kidding when he mentioned the possibility of a court-martial, but he wasn’t. General Condon could have ruined my life. Maybe he saw a version of his younger self in me –young, brash, and aggressive – something he thought a Marine fighter pilot should be that dictated the choice of the reprimand rather than court-martial. Or maybe he may simply wanted to get rid of me and hoped a Letter of Reprimand would take care of the matter at Marine Corps headquarters and the Santa Ana Register.

What I didn’t know, quaking before his desk, is that I was in the presence of greatness. I didn’t realize that Major General J.P. Condon was a true American hero, and as a young Commanding Officer in a Corsair squadron on Guadalcanal, it was Major Condon who developed the plan that succeeded in intercepting and shooting down Admiral Yamamoto, Japan’s Navy Minister and Commander of the Japanese fleet, a turning point in WWII, and that later on that he commanded a Marine Air Group at Okinawa during the last major battle of WWII or that in Korea he commanded the last Marine Air Wing to fly the Corsair and transition to the jets in combat.

These are pictures of John Pomeroy Condon, USMC. The picture on the far left is Condon as a 1st Lt., about the same age and rank I was when I flew through Santa Ana. On the far right is General Condon before his hair turned white and he handed me the Letter, and in the middle is Major J.P. Condon when he was serving in the Pacific and credited with bringing down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane.

General Condon retired from the Marine Corps in 1962 shortly after delivering his “Son, that shit went out with V-J Day” showstopper line to 1st Lt. John D. Bernard. Following his Marine retirement he became an executive with North American Aviation and later President and CEO of the National Alliance of Businessmen in Washington DC. In addition to his other accomplishments, he earned a doctorate in Public Administration from UC Irvine and wrote a history entitled Corsairs to Panthers: Marine Aviation in the Korean War. Another hero of the Greatest Generation, he lived a remarkable life. He died in December 1996 at age 85.

I will forever be grateful to him for his generous treatment and for delivering the final lesson in my rite of passage. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to meet him under different circumstances. I’d like to have thanked him.

Semper Fidelis

How I Became a Pilot…

I’m always looking at ideas for a book. I don’t have trouble with the writing; no writer’s block… but I’m deathly afraid that it will sound like “What I did on my summer vacation.” My friend, Laura, thinks a story I told her years ago should be my jumping off place. It involves what turned out to be my career path, although a career wasn’t part of my thinking at the time.

I became a pilot, it’s that simple, but the backstory Laura likes is “how” I became a pilot. It strikes me that nothing demonstrates American progress better, more tangibly, and more personally than what’s happened in aviation. The world recognizes the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 as the launch event in the history of human flight. It was 120 feet from start to finish at an altitude of 10 feet. I was born thirty-four years to the day after that first flight and the same year that Amelia Earhart was lost at sea during her attempted circumnavigation of the globe. 22 years after Earhart disappeared, I received a lapel pin from the Chance Vought Company for flying their F8U Crusader 1000 miles per hour. 10 years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. From Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years.

Growing up, I was curious about airplanes but no more than I was about boats. There were kids my age who were consumed with all things aviation. They’d hang out at little airports hoping to catch a ride and could name all the aircraft models (commercial and military) and tell you how high and fast they flew.

That was not me. I thought fighter planes were muscular and cool – as were the pilots who flew them, and maybe that’s what subliminally led me there. The story Laura likes, however, is how I chose my branch of the military (and in my day everyone served in the military). I chose Naval aviation – the Marine Corps to be more specific – because I liked the white scarf and Ray-Bans that were standard issue and came with the job.

On a more serious note, I probably would have bypassed the military and missed the whole white scarf/Ray-Ban experience if military service hadn’t been a requirement under the Selective Service Act. Mandatory service and conscription ended in 1973, but for years, partly because of pressure on the all-volunteer military and volunteer programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps/Vista, and Teach for America, there has been talk of formalizing a new universal national service requirement for both men and women.

My friends, Bob and Juanita Watt, who met while they were serving as Vista volunteers have been married for over 50 years, and Bob, a retired Senior Vice-President at Boeing and former Deputy Mayor of Seattle is currently working with General Stanley McChrystal (US Army, retired) on a new national service program. ServiceYear.org is their NGO and though the ServiceYear program is voluntary it’s a good first step toward something more expansive.

Mandatory national service is a much bigger step, and it will take time to convince Americans and Congress that it’s the right step. We may not be ready to take it now, but ServiceYear could be the model for a program that helps young adults transition from school to work to the full-on responsibilities of adulthood and citizenship. It’s the kind of program that could move people out of their insular bubbles, introduce them to geographic and human diversity and teach them team building, civics, community service, personal finance and other skills to assist in their personal growth in addition to serving the nation and building a sense of pride in having served a purpose greater than self.

Maybe Laura’s on to something… I’m sure Bob and Juanita are, but it’s hard for me to let go of the white scarf and Ray-Ban days.

Celebrating a Long Friendship…

I’m not a fan of surprise parties, but when Bonnie Moon called me to say she and daughter Taylor were planning a surprise party for husband Ed’s 80th birthday I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

I snapped this on Saturday night as he was arriving at the party.

Ed and I met on January 2, 1967, our first day as Pan Am pilots. Ed was the third African-American pilot hired by Pan Am. We’ve been friends for 52 years. Through work, marriages, divorces, the birth of children, bases in New York, Berlin, and Miami, promotions, furloughs, stolen pensions, a company bankruptcy, illnesses, and unwanted retirements we’ve stayed connected. On Saturday night I saw Ed through different eyes – in his other world – surrounded by friends I had never met. read more

A Real Fighter Pilot…

“We just love our pilots.” Marine Sgt. Major TC Crouson (VMF-323 Reunion)

History’s most famous fighter pilot, the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, offered the following description of how a fighter pilot approaches his job:

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

Since the death of Senator John McCain last weekend, a number of journalists have seized on his days as a fighter pilot to describe his personality and character. The conventional wisdom is that fighter pilots are aggressive, competitive, work-oriented, cocky, conscientious, extroverted, risk takers. Looking back it’s clear that the life and career of John McCain was faithful to both the Red Baron’s and conventional wisdom’s summary of attributes.

The fighter pilot Senator from Arizona lived his life and prepared for his death in the best traditions of both fighter pilot and senator. I like to think John and I would have been friends had we known each other. Not that I, in any way, am comparing myself to this national hero, but I’m proud to have shared some friendships, airplanes, and history going back to our days in Pensacola and beyond.

McCain graduated from Annapolis in June of 1958 and went straight to pre-flight training in Pensacola. I graduated from the University of Washington in December of the same year and went to Marine Officer Candidate Class in Quantico, Virginia, before going to Pensacola in May of 1959. Our paths didn’t cross there, except possibly at an aspiring aviators’ bar on South Palafox called Trader John’s or on a Friday night at the Mustin Beach Officers Club where young working girls from town came to meet pilots-in-training. I’m sure we were in those rooms together more than once.

Among Naval aviators there’s always six-degrees-of-separation. John and I shared a couple of friendships I know about, maybe more, including my friend and Marine squadron-mate, Carl Vogt, who went through flight training with John and later knew him in Washington DC as the senior partner at the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. In 1992 George H.W. Bush appointed Carl Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and Senator John McCain presided at his installation ceremony

This is the official photo of Carl Vogt the lawyer, not Carl Vogt the fighter pilot (although, if you look closely, those are Navy wings in his lapel).

Carl and I joined VMF-323, an F8 Crusader squadron at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, after getting our wings. Then, following our active duty service, started law school together at UC Berkeley. If you met Carl today you’d be impressed by his courtly, dignified manner, but beneath that smooth surface is the fighter pilot who once ejected from a Crusader and who, during a break from our law school studies, saved my sorry ass by taking out a guy in a dive bar on San Pablo Avenue when the guy thought I was getting too familiar with his girlfriend. One punch. Fighter pilot friendship. That’s another story John McCain would have smiled about.

So it goes with fighter pilots… but back to John McCain. In addition to the mutual friendship with Carl, McCain and I flew some of the same airplanes, F9s, F11s, and our last airplane, the A4 Skyhawk, the airplane he was flying when he was shot down over Hanoi’s West Lake.

The version below, in Marine colors, carries markings that designate it as part of the USS Forrestal contingent, coincidentally the carrier McCain was stationed aboard when his A4 caught fire on the flight deck during the tragic accident that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

John’s post-Vietnam history is well documented, but a new story caught my attention this week. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, his Chief of Staff talked about a visit the senator made to the Yukon. As a congressman, he actively supported measures to combat climate change, and on this trip to the Yukon to observe its effects he met the mayor of Whitehorse. Upon meeting McCain, the mayor mentioned that Whitehorse was the home of the poet Robert W. Service, whereupon McCain, to everyone’s surprise, began reciting Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

It seems that during his days in the Hanoi Hilton, the prisoner in the cell next to his was a Canadian, and as they were unable to speak to each other they developed a code they tapped out on the common wall between their cells. During their long stay as POWs, the Canadian taught McCain the Service poem which he never forgot. In fact, as he was reciting the poem to the mayor of Whitehorse he began tapping it out in code, and soon after that they left the delegation behind, and in his unique and unconventional way, went to visit Robert Service’s home.

I didn’t share John McCain’s political views for the most part. I’m a Berkeley-educated liberal and the son of an insurance salesman. He was an Academy-educated conservative, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He made mistakes (so have I). He wasn’t afraid to admit them (neither am I). And, he did his best to correct them (I hope I have too). While we didn’t share the same politics, I have the utmost respect for him and I’m proud to have served as a fighter pilot and shared those experiences with him.

I admired McCain for his independence, self-deprecating sense of humor, and highly tuned bullshit detector – the one that set off alarms when Donald Trump emerged as the Republican’s nominee in 2016. McCain knew immediately that he was a fraud and needed to be stopped.

This week’s ceremonies honoring McCain’s life has brought about a national period of mourning and highlighted the differences between a man of courage, integrity, and character with those of a pathological liar and draft dodger who famously had the audacity to question McCain’s status as a war hero.

McCain always laughed when he acknowledged his fifth from the bottom finish at Annapolis while Trump never tires of puffing himself up to tell us he graduated at the top of his class at Wharton – The truth, of course, is that he transferred to Penn to take classes in the Wharton undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham. Character is destiny. We’ll see whose legacy lives longer.

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

RIP John McCain