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

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