I had just returned from my second tour in Vietnam flying fighters and was spring-loaded to the "go" mode. Now here I was, a "staff weenie" in a fighter wing at Kadena, getting checked out in the base flight T-39 Sabreliner. Although I'd had a lot of quality flying experience in a short time period, I was at the point that I didn't realize how little I knew.
This was our cross-country training flight, from Yokota Air Base, Japan, to Osan Air Base, Korea, to Kunsan Air Base, Korea, then return to Yokota. The mission was going flawlessly, and we arrived at Kunsan ahead of schedule. My Instructor Pilot (IP) was also an ex-fighter pilot, a lieutenant colonel on the colonel promotion list. He showed me all there was to see at Kunsan (base ops and the snack bar) and I was anxious to get back to civilization.
I'd zapped through the preflight and gotten down to engine start. But when I pressed the starter button on the first engine, nothing happened. We rechecked the switches and tried again. Nothing. Transient Alert (maintenance) checked under the cowling and determined that the starter was bad on that engine. Naturally, there were no parts at Kunsan, and we would be stuck there for the night.
Then I got a brilliant idea. I knew my Instructor Pilot (IP) would be impressed with my knowledge of aircraft systems, as well as my resourcefulness. "Why don't we start the other engine, then fast taxi down the runway? When we get enough windmilling airspeed, we go to AIRSTART on the bad engine and get it lit. Then we can take off and fly back to Yokota and get it fixed." The IP took a long draw on his cigarette, looked up at the sky and then leveled his gaze at me.
"What do you see when you look up?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied, "just blue sky."
"That's right. The sky is blue, it's a beautiful day, and we're in perfect health. We don't have a mission that requires us to trade that for an uncertain future and needless risks. The base isn't under attack. We're not taking a critically ill patient to emergency surgery. We're not even carrying passengers. We're on a training mission, and we're stuck at a place that really doesn't have a lot to offer, but that's the breaks no pun intended. It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were back on the ground."
That statement gave me a lot to think about. We spent the night at Kunsan, and by morning the airplane was fixed. We got back to Yokota uneventfully, and I went on to complete my training, and eventually, to become an IP myself. That mission to Kunsan happened in 1973, but it still stands out as one of the most memorable of my career. On that mission I learned a lot more than how to do a flight plan for a T-39. I learned a valuable lesson about "get-home-itis."
Doing It vs. Doing It Right
I discovered that being a steely-eyed fighter pilot, while great in certain areas, isn't the orientation you need to perform a peacetime airlift mission. Having a "can-do" attitude doesn't mean leaning on the bar with 6 Gs. It means getting the job done properly and safely, within prescribed limits and specifications, using the approved procedures. It also means using the appropriate channels to get the procedures changed if they are wrong.
In the intervening years, I've been in several different types of flying operations and accumulated several thousand more flying hours. I can't remember ever seeing a mission that ended in tragedy because the pilot "wimped out" and canceled. If the primary factors the man, the machine, and the weather aren't perfect, you simply get them fixed or abort the mission and wait till they are fixed. But I've seen a lot of missions that went wrong because of get-home-itis, or its variant, "get-the-mission-done-itis." I've seen instances when the crew thought the ops officer would probably want them to take a bad airplane because it would get the mission airborne, no matter what the cost. Well, I was an ops officer, and I can tell you, it's not that way. There just aren't that many missions that can't wait till the weather gets better, or till the plane gets fixed. If the mission were that critical, you'd probably have both the ops officer and squadron commander breathing down your neck to see that it gets off on time; you'd probably be getting more supervision than you want.
There are undoubtedly dozens of times during an aviator's career when he/she is placed in an awkward position and must choose between taking an aircraft with minor problems or canceling. You can almost always rationalize taking the airplane, but that's all it is, rationalizing. You will almost always feel bad if you scrub the mission. But that's the responsibility that goes with flying.
As a sort of postscript to this story, I found myself in the same theater of operations, in the same type aircraft, a dozen years later. I was at Nagoya, getting ready for a dusk takeoff to fly 20 minutes to Yokota, right at the end of my 16-hour duty day. In fact, I would be landing 10 minutes shy of the limit. I really wanted to get home, having a list of personal commitments as long as my arm. When we started engines, the left generator wouldn't come online.
My copilot and I initially started down the primrose path of rationalization: It was only a short flight; we could get it fixed at Yokota, whereas it would be a bear to get parts to Nagoya; the weather was good, the sky was clear and blue....
Wait a minute! The sky is blue! What could I have been thinking? What was so critical about this mission? My personal commitments could wait. We aborted. Once the abort decision was made, we stayed with the airplane to run the engines so our flight mechanic could troubleshoot to determine what parts we'd need. Ten minutes into the engine run the right oil pressure went off-scale high, requiring an immediate shutdown. It hit me like a blast of cold air. Had I taken the airplane, we would have found ourselves ten minutes into the flight with an engine shutdown, no operating generators, running on battery power, at night.
I shut down the airplane and stepped out into the gathering dusk. I looked up. The sky was indeed blue.