My friend Dick Herman, in a comment to an earlier entry, asked for my thoughts on the warrior ethic.
For a few years, back when my career was on fire, I was on the staff of a joint command, working with Army, Navy, and Marine officers. Army and Marine officers could philosophize about the warrior ethic all day long. Navy and Air Force officers, particularly Navy and Air Force fighter pilots, didn’t talk about it all that much. I certainly didn’t, and I’m a little uncomfortable talking about it now. But since Dick asked, I’ll try to put words to what I believe about fighting for my country.
The warrior ethic, translated into fighterspeak, is professionalism. You strive, from your first day in uniform to your last, to master your craft and carry out the mission. Your goal is to be the best, not in any sort of prima donna way (which is where a few fighter pilots fail the test of professionalism), but in a subservient role. You serve a master. You do what you’re told to do, faithfully, correctly, and, to the best of your abilities, successfully.
Patriotism is part of the warrior ethic, but not, I think, the biggest part. Certainly, you have to love your country to be willing to fight for it. Die for it? Well, yeah, but not in the sense of throwing your life away as a mere target for MiGs and SAMs. Instead, you accept the idea that you might die for your country accidentally. You have to believe the odds are in your favor, and that if you get blown out of the sky it will only be because you, your team, or your equipment failed . . . or that it just isn’t your day. You have to believe you have the best training, the best skills, the best equipment, and the best experience – and I always did believe that.
Getting right down to it, though, professionalism was what drove me. I wanted to fly – I always wanted that – but I also wanted discipline. I wanted to master a highly-demanding skill, the harder the better. To be perfectly honest, I also wanted to be seen by my peers as master of a highly-demanding skill; to become a respected member of an elite brotherhood at the top of a pyramid few can climb (Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, had that part nailed).
Like all new fighter pilots, I knew little and was master of nothing. Every time I flew I measured my skills, and my progress in attaining them, against more experienced pilots. In time I became a flight lead, an instructor, and a mission commander – a professional among professionals.
That doesn’t sound patriotic at all. It sounds prideful, and it is. But I wonder how many fighter pilots could engage the enemy in a fight to the death – let alone make it through the training program – if they didn’t embrace discipline, brotherhood, and pride. These things are, at least to me, essential parts of professionalism and the warrior ethic. As in: my brothers, because I’ve proven myself and become one of them, will hang it out for me . . . I’ll be damned if I won’t hang it out for them! That’s what it comes down to, whether you’re a fighter pilot, an infantry grunt, a tank driver, or a submariner. That, and being cool on the radio.
Oh yeah, you read that right.
One night in Australia, when I was flying out of Darwin in an exercise with the RAAF, my Utility A hydraulic system failed. This was a reasonably serious emergency in the F-15, because among other things it meant you couldn’t lower your landing gear normally, and once you blew the gear down with the emergency system, you wouldn’t have brakes or steering on landing. I orbited for 30 minutes, burning down fuel while everyone else landed, then blew the gear down and lowered the tailhook. My plan was to land in the first 100 feet of the runway, lower my nose, and catch the approach end cable, which would bring me to a very quick stop. Everything went perfectly, and I’ll never forget the light show in my canopy-mounted rear view mirrors – a two-hundred-yard-long rooster tail of fiery sparks kicked up by the tailhook – and slamming forward in the straps when I caught the cable.
But the best thing happened after I’d landed, when our detachment commander – a fellow lieutenant colonel and fighter pilot, a man I respected greatly and who was bound for greater things in the Air Force – climbed up the crew ladder, shook my hand, and said “Skid, you sure were cool on the radio – I knew you had a handle on it.”
I was a Cold Warrior. It never came my way to fly combat against the Commies. I never killed anyone or had to seriously worry about anyone killing me. Flying fighters was always dangerous, sure, but it was an impersonal danger.
But one thing I observed in my years of flying was that when pilots were cool on the radio, they were cool in everything else. They were on top of it: skilled, disciplined, and professional. That’s the kind of pilot you want to fly into combat with. That’s the kind of pilot you want to be.
And by God, I was cool on the radio! I had a handle on it! I was a professional! I was a warrior!
© 2007 – 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.