The Fighter Pilot Podcast provides military aviation-themed information and entertainment and, as the name implies, podcasting is our primary medium. But many in the audience still find value in the written word, so when longtime FPP listener Kevin Drummond emailed the show last summer saying he happened across an article from the October 1981 issue of the U.S. Air Force’s Airman Magazine, I asked him to explore options to repurpose the article on our platform since it provides such an insightful look on crew chiefs.
Despite extensive attempts, Kevin was unsuccessful in reaching either Airman or the author. Regardless, we are taking the liberty of republishing the article here. We hope the magazine and author will appreciate our intentions (as well as the fact that our musings are not monetized).
Several months ago, I was working on the flight line when I noticed a young lieutenant walking past me, probably towards debrief. It seemed to be especially hot that day. A few minutes earlier, I had wiped the sweat off my forehead with my hands before I remembered the grease and soot that was all over them. This, of course, left a black smudge on my forehead that had now started to run down my cheeks with a fresh crop of sweat. I’m sure I must have presented quite a sight to the pilot who was proudly wearing his highly shined boots and bright squadronAn aviation organization composed of aircrew, support personnel, aircraft, and equipment. ascot.
The pilot stopped and, in a friendly way, peered into the panel I had removed from the side of the aircraft I was working on. He looked around and gave an approving nod. Then he stretched a bit and squatted down. It was plain to see that he had something he wanted to say, and I did my best to divide my attention between our casual conversation and the work I was doing. We discussed the weather and the squadron party that was coming up the following weekend. Then he said, “Sarge, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure sir. What is it?” I asked as I began to put my component back into the aircraft.
”Why do you folks do it? What is it that keeps you in the service? Why do you stand out here in the heat or snow or rain or whatever to fix these airplanes at all times of the day and night?” he asked.
I wasn’t really sure how to answer his question. As it worked out, that was okay because the shuttle truck came, and the lieutenant jumped up, quickly gathered his helmet and flight case, and hustled toward the truck. He poked his head out of the open back doors and hollered, “Sorry, Sarge! Next time.” We watched each other as the truck drove away, until the heat rising from the ramp caused us to disappear from each other’s view.
I thought about the lieutenant and his questions all that night and much of the next day. I finally had formulated an answer to his honest questions and was set for our next unscheduled meeting. I never saw him again. I found out he had been transferred overseas. The following is the answer I think I would have given him, had we ever met again:
I know that I’ll never “slip the surly bonds of earth,” but I can fix your “laughter-silvered wings.”
I know I’ll never strap a fighter on my back or travel those “footless halls of air,” but when I walk down the flight line, you come to me to see if you can do those hundreds of things I’ve never dreamed of.
I’ll never “soar where neither lark nor eagle dare,” but my spirit is with you on each of your flights.
When I go home in the morning and go to bed, when most people are getting up, I sleep well. Screaming children, chatting people, doorbells, and street sweepers do not disturb me in my well-earned rest. However, the distant roar of your engines will wake me from my deepest sleep. A sure and certain smile comes across my face as I hear and feel your engines push your aircraft skyward. I know that I’ve done my part, and now it’s time for you to do yours. As the sounds of your engine are replaced by the sounds of garbage trucks and school buses, I drift back to sleep; and I dream of the things that you must be doing, not in an envious way, but almost as a flying mechanic.
When you raise the gear handle, you feel a slight change in control pressures; but, in my mind’s eye and ear, I see squat switches close and uplocks move; I hear the pumps wind to a halt as the limit switches are engaged. A checklist is run in my sleep, and I monitor each gear, cam, seal, and limiter that is tucked away under those panels now securely fastened down.
I’ve read that you imagine you become a part of your aircraft; that man and machine become one; that your airplane practically reads your mind and seems to react almost before your gloved hand moves the controls. You imagine that steel, aluminum, titanium, and plastic become muscle, bone, nerve, and sinew. If you can feel the pulse of your aircraft by placing your feet on the rudder pedals, then I’m the surgeon that replaces the cables, valves, motors, and bell cranks that are the imagined strength that moves your living rudder. I’m the specialist that has serviced, topped off, drained, filtered, purged, and pressurized the fluids that you imagine to be the life-blood of your friend.
I’ve tweaked and peaked, tightened, torqued, and tuned, milked and measured, routed and rerouted, fitted, fixed, filed, beat, bent, banged, and buckled each vital part of metal and plastic on our companion.
Sir, I am not belittling you for the things you feel about your airplane, because I feel things about it too. Most of the time I feel less than happy about the location of a certain part, and I’ll call it a “bucket of bolts” or holler at it when it comes home broken and it’s my anniversary. I’ll gripe and groan and tell it that it’s just thousands of rivets flying in close formation.
There are, however, those other feelings that can’t be explained as you watch a sunset reflected on its polished aluminum skin. I’ve sat on a toolbox and watched the moon rise, twisted and distorted, through its canopy. There is also a satisfaction I get as I work on or service a part on the airplane you’ll never see. Perhaps it’s a rivet high on the tail, or a clamp somewhere under your seat or a rib or stringer; a screw or bracket, in places you didn’t even know existed.
It’s hard for me to imagine that you think of this airplane as being yours when I think of the blood I’ve left in the engine bay and the skin off my knuckles up in the wheel well. I remember the rib I cracked when I hit the pitot tube the wet morning I fell off of your airplane. As an aircraft mechanic, I don’t have to worry about being ejected or passed over or bird struck or mid-aired. If I get punched out, all I have to worry about is a loose tooth, and the last time I was grounded was when I was 12 years old. I am happy turning wrenches in our Air Force.
I am grateful to be an American and proud to wear the U.S. Air Force blue. You see, sir, I know that in other parts of the world there are enlisted and officers who wear a different uniform than we do, and they work on aircraft that have markings different than ours. Their views on right and wrong and God and family are also different than ours. If my having to stand out in the snow once in a while helps to ensure that those men and their aircraft pose no threat to me or my way of life, I will do it gladly.
So, sir, I promise: if you’ll keep flying ’em, I’ll keep fixing ’em.
Ssgt. Stephen Moriset
Holloman AFB N.M.