CEO of the Cockpit #50: On Their Shoulders

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There aren't many from the Greatest Generation left -- people and planes -- to remind young folks what flying was like back then ... and what it was like to leave home at a young age to fight halfway around the world. AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit sees parallels to his generation of airline captains.

My 17-year-old nephew Kermit asked me to go with him out to the local airport to have a gander at some WWII bombers that were visiting the aviation museum. It was a good excuse to avoid mowing the lawn and gave him the chance to scare the bejesus out of me with his driving.

I was glad to oblige. Being a student of -- and at my age, damn near a resident of -- that era of flying, I am always happy to go and see the efforts of pilots and aviation enthusiasts who are much more dedicated than me and apparently much better off financially to boot.

Today's display models were a B-24 and a B-17. Exquisitely restored right down to their machine guns, these aircraft really gave the ramp some much-needed class.

"So," said Kermit, "just how many missions during the big war did you fly these babies?"

Wait -- my sides are hurting from your wry attempt at humor, grasshopper. Even though I seem older than dirt to you and in the airline world I am considered both "seasoned" and "too expensive," I wasn't around during the "Big One." And -- with the exception of having the skydiving Cessna 182 I was flying during the turbulent 70s shot with a farmer's rifle -- I have never been in combat.

A Walk Around History

We went out on the ramp and this pilot did something he hadn't done very much of during the past decade or so: I walked around a big airplane.

In the world of airlines where I've spent my professional life, the captain rarely does a walk-around or pre-flight. That is flight engineer or co-pilot territory. For the type rating and subsequent recurrent training sessions we have to display the knowledge and ability to do a walk-around, but to actually see a captain out on the ramp peering up into wheel wells you have one of two situations: Either the captain is one of those "good old boys" who thinks it is necessary to do everybody else's job as well as his own; or his co-pilot is late and he wants to get pushed back on time.

The good-old-boy captain, while being the darling of the flying public, is generally a pain in the butt to fellow crewmembers. You'll find this guy loading passenger bags into the overhead, messing with the flight attendants duties and bothering little children with stick-on wings and almost predatory chatter.

A good captain allows his crew to do their jobs and supports them when they need help. If they are competent, they rarely need help. Because of this, you'll almost never see a captain doing a walk around.

Basic Aviation Knowledge

This was a bright, sunny day and with Kermit in tow I started around the B-17. I noticed that the public, while enjoying the aircraft, didn't seem to get much out of walking around it. I then realized that this is because they didn't know much about the aircraft or what it and others had accomplished.

There is nothing wrong with that. I'm sure that if I was taking a tour of an accordion factory or a mime school, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea of important things that were right in front of my face.

I stopped under the right outboard engine and pointed to the turbocharger that was attached to the bottom of the engine. It was gray and innocuous -- not something that the general public would notice, but I wanted Kermit to see it.

This little device made high-altitude bombing possible. My statement made Kermit give a little "humor the old uncle" shrug, so I gave up on telling him about constant-speed props, fuel vents, hydraulics, ADF loop antennas and rosemont probes.

One of the hardest things about displays like the bombers is that people don't have much context anymore to appreciate what they are seeing.

Most people's perception of flying is that it is a way to get to Seattle in a hurry and on the cheap. I've noticed over the past few years when I'm riding in the back with passengers that one of the first things the window seat people do is close the shades so they can't see outside out but their DVD players are easier to watch.

Imagine: Flying at eight tenths the speed of sound seven miles up is a cause for boredom now and not wonder.

On one hand, it is great that people take the safety of flying so much for granted that they don't even bother to notice it anymore; but it is sad to me that nobody looks out the windows or simply enjoys the ride.

Flying to most people is now a commodity like chicken strips and low-fat sour cream. The magic is gone for them because they have forgotten just how miraculous it is.

This is definitely true of World War Two aircraft and the people who flew them.

Kermit was a victim of this as well and began to fidget as he thought of the hundreds of other, fun things he could be doing right now instead of following his uncle around some airplane.

Teenage Bomber Commanders

Kermit, I said, look around you -- what do you see?

"A bunch of old-looking geeks wearing polyester ball caps," he said.

You're right. Most of the old-looking guys that you are looking at are probably here because either they flew aircraft in the war or knew people who did. It was over 60 years ago so these guys are pretty ancient, but do you know what I see?"

"That girl over there in the tank-top?"

Yes, I do see her and thank you for pointing her out; but what I was going to say is that I see a bunch of brave teenagers who are about to save a planet from the worst of fates -- a totalitarian nightmare. If Hitler and Tojo had actually won the war, we'd definitely still be feeling its effects.

These old guys that you are looking at left their homes when most of them were still teenagers. They didn't have a two- or four-year enlistment like the military guys do today. They signed up for "duration plus six months," meaning they were in the war until we won or they were dead.

After leaving home and undergoing harsh training, they flew these un-pressurized bombers over enemy targets teaming with guns and fighters. Most of them had less than 200 hours total flight time when they became bomber commanders. Their instrument time was limited to whatever training they had gotten and now they were flying through the clouds in formation.

More than 55,000 of these teenagers never came back. Every loss of a B-17 meant that 10 crewmembers were lost as well. If they survived the bail-out over Europe, they faced starvation and worse in a prison camp. If you bailed out over Japan, you faced torture, death and possibly becoming a meal.

Kermit Still Misses the Point

"I haven't seen you so worked up over a subject since they stopped catering trans-con flights with the fish filet you liked so much," said Kermit.

I could tell by the look in his eyes that he still hadn't made the connection between the bombers, the old guys and himself.

Kermit, most of these guys were the age you are right now when they went to war. The odds of them completing all of the missions unhurt or un-captured were totally against them. They knew every morning when they rolled out of their bunks in the pre-dawn to eat breakfast and go bomb Europe that, statistically, they had no chance of going home whole.

When the lucky ones got home from the war there was no flying for them to do. The airlines hired a few veterans but there was no flying gig for the tens of thousands of other qualified pilots returning home. They quietly hung up their goggles, got jobs in factories and the like and raised their families.

Now the ones that are left are out here on the ramp looking at these bombers in a totally different way than you or I ever will.

When I look at a B-24, I might notice that the navigator's station has a temp. probe sticking out of the window. A veteran remembers what it was like to sit in that metal box in the freezing cold hearing shrapnel from flack tearing his aircraft apart.

People look upon these aircraft as quaint reminders of when a B-17 was considered a heavy, strategic bomber. These guys remember washing the blood off of the floors after a mission or watching another bomber crew -- friends of theirs -- spin in over Belgium with no chutes sighted.

On My Own

Kermit nodded and wandered off to talk to tank-top girl. I was left to talk to myself for a while. Luckily, in today's world of cell-phone talkers, nobody thought it strange that I was standing on the ramp speaking to no one in particular.

It is the survivors who always get the last word on a subject. These old guys wandering the ramp can speak of the era and tell you a little bit about what it was like back then, but the 50,000+ guys who never made it home are permanently stuck as teenagers, full of potential that will never be used.

The airline world is in a similar condition. The surviving airlines after the current bloodbath will have pilots to tell the story of what it was like for them, but the tens of thousands of pilots either retiring early, losing their jobs through bankruptcy or simply hanging it up because they can't support their families anymore will fade into the background and will never be heard from again.

The only real constant in either the bomber or the airline world is the aircraft. It doesn't change and the only difference between doing a wheel landing in a B-17 after a mission and doing a CATIIIb approach in a 777 is technique. The magic is always the same.

Kermit came back after I'd been rambling to myself for a while. He had a shy grin on his face. What happened, Kermit, did you get a date with her or something? At least I can still make him blush. "No, of course not," he said. "She told me she was here with her grampa, and he said that when he was 19 he'd just met a girl about her age when he got called up to fly B-29s over Japan. They'd promised to stay in touch, but he'd lost track of her and never saw her again. I got to thinking -- what if I had to go fight in Iraq or somewhere just after I met the girl in the tank top, and then never saw her again? Weird."

I think he's starting to get the picture ...


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.