I was a cautious, safety-minded aircraft commander when I flew KC-135 tankers. I read all the pilot bulletins and Strategic Air Command safety magazines, so I knew how a moment of inattentiveness could lead to tragedy. And if my aircraft went down, it would not just kill me, but also my crew, others on board if we were hauling passengers, maybe the aircraft we were refueling, possibly people on the ground.
I combated inattentiveness with a few tricks including good habits. If you do it right each time, no matter what, then when you are in a hurry you will do it right. For instance, the old tanker was a “water wagon”. It needed de-ionized water injected into the engines at take-off to get off the ground. During the aircraft commander’s walk around, one of the things we looked at was a fan recessed into the engine cowling. I would give that fan a twist at each engine to make sure it would turn. Sometimes, in very cold weather, that fan could freeze and that would mean no water and no extra thrust on takeoff. I would check that fan even if I were in Okinawa on an 85 degree day. So when I was in RAF Mildenhall in the winter, I would remember to check it. On every engine. Every time.
One of those habits was to deliver the best pre-flight briefing possible for my crew and end it with my own little safety briefing. It seemed to me from my safety bulletin reading that after an accident (ones where there is a witness talk to) there is usually one crew member who saw something funny but didn’t say anything. Thus, an inattentive crew is an accident waiting to happen. So I would end my pre-flight briefing with: “…and if you see me doing something that looks odd to you, or strange, or you just don’t understand it, say something, because I MIGHT BE TRYING TO KILL YOU.”
This proved to be an effective way to get attention, motivate, and improve safety since we all had friends who had died in aircraft accidents.
My regular crew got pretty used to this. So I would look forward to using it when I was a substitute aircraft commander on another crew. Or when I had a substitute co-pilot, navigator, or boom operator.
In retrospect, this might have not been the best plan for my regular crew. It wasn’t so bad for my co-pilot, since, as a fundamentalist born-again Christian, he never tired of telling us he was ready to meet Jesus at any time. But my navigator, it turned out, was deathly afraid of flying.
“Nav, why did you get into this line of work?”
“My recruiter said that if I signed up I could teach dance at the Air Force Academy.”
What do you say to that? I guess he probably got over being naïve about what the government tells you pretty quick after joining the military. He was indeed qualified to teach dance. He also was a very accomplished cello player, which was nice that he was a navigator in a tanker where there was plenty of room for him to take his cello along when we went to forward operating bases. No, I did not inquire about his sexual orientation. I practiced “don’t ask” back when it was just polite, not the law.
I might also mention my co-pilot had a terrible habit of exclaiming or loudly gasping at the least little provocation. For instance, we could be in the midst of a long cross-country leg of our flight in excellent weather and everything going fine, and he would shout and jerk about because he dropped his pencil.
This did not go over well with the navigator.
It got to the point where I expected our little pre-flight tete-a-tetes: “Charlie, you’re not gonna let the co-pilot fly this time, are you?”
“Nav, you know he’s got requirements for so many take offs and landings each month. And he’s always in training to upgrade to aircraft commander…”
“But, BUT! HE’s READY TO MEET JESUS!”
I need to complement my co-pilot for not proselytizing the boom operator, Tom. Tom was the sort of fellow that, when we were deploying overseas to forward bases, he would keep an eye on the terrain and, as soon as we “coasted out” or crossed the costal boundary of the US, he would remove his wedding ring. I suppose that made sense to him as a purely civil ceremony was performed in accordance with the laws of the US. I don’t know what his wife thought of it. Other than that, he usually kept his exploits to himself. But from passing remarks it was clear to me he was “meeting” a lot of people and not always one-on-one.
Anyway, while flying, it was usually the Nav who took the most advantage of my pre-flight invitation.
“What does the cabin altimeter say? The air feels a little thin here.”
“7,500 feet, Nav. Normal. But thanks for asking.”
“What’s that bumping?”
“Just normal turbulence, Nav. It’s OK.”
“Is your flap handle in the right position?”
Looking and touching the flap handle: “Yep, all the way up. That’s OK for cruise.”
Well, you get the idea. It wasn’t constant. But he would dole out a few questions each flight. Like I said. He was deathly afraid of flying.
Eventually, we got the Nav a desk job in the mission planning department and I got another born-again Christian for a replacement Nav. This must have made the boomer a bit less comfortable, or maybe he just found more compatible mates on the crew he made his way to. I got a new boom operator who was very allergic to cigarette smoke, so that was actually quite nice given the number of flight crews who smoked in those days.
Kinda of sad to see the team split up. That was always my favorite crew. It is only recently I started wondering what each one of them thought of their very conservative Roman Catholic aircraft commander.