Sunday, January 07, 2007

So Ya Wanna Be an Air Force Pilot?

(The author, Bill Critch, a USAF veteran, lives in Oro Valley, Arizona. Born in California, he and his Australian parents returned to Sydney before the World War ll. His father, a veteran of World War l, died soon after. Orphaned at 13, Bill returned to the United States at age 22.)

It’s 3.00 AM on the Graveyard Shift at United Airlines San Francisco Maintenance Base.

The “Move Crew” is making conversation just to stay awake. We keep one eye on the clock and the other on the foreman, a good guy but a company man. John Blackwell, a tall, quiet, Jimmy Stewart look-alike who has recently left the Benedictine Monastery across the Golden Gate Bridge, is walking on the ramp in the morning chill meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary; Jerry Mukai, an amateur judo wrestler, is leaning back in his chair staring into blue collar airspace; Jack Brown is reading a crumpled Chronicle he found on a DC-6 coming in for overhaul. The shift's half over and there are no more planes outside on the ramp to move into the hangars. It’s the ugly hour when you don't want to be farmed out for some grunt job with another mechanic who's behind on his work and all that's left is his cleanup – lock-wiring nuts, checking clamps, returning unused parts to the storeroom and tools to the crib or even worse, mopping up the hangar floor.

Todd, who has recently joined the crew is an ex-Air force mechanic. He says to me, "Hey Aussie, 'ave ya seen Don?"

"No," I say. "He's probably sleeping in the seat storage room. He was flying with his instructor this afternoon. He looked beat."

"When's ‘e gonna get his Commercial license?"

Don Sather is another ex Air Force mechanic. He has a fiancée and is looking to the future. The Commercial license with an Instrument rating is the key to a flying job.

“Todd, what's Sather have to pay for his flying time?" I ask.

"I think Cessna 140 time's about $14 an hour solo," Todd says.

Like the rest of us, he too would like to be learning to fly.

Brown, his critical eyes just clearing the top of the broadsheet newspaper and who is always ripe for an argument says, "No way. A guy I know only pays $12." Brown always knows a guy.

"Critch," says Todd, "when I was a mechanic in the Air Force they had a program called Aviation Cadets – they’ll teach you to fly. It takes about 18 months and when you're done, ya got yer wings and they make you an officer."

"Oh yeah? Where do you sign up"

"Nah," interrupts Brown, "you'd never qualify, Todd. You gotta have two years of college and they only take the really smart guys." Once again, Brown knows all about it.

"Bullshit, my buddy in the Air Force didn't have any college and ‘e got in! Dunno if ‘e made it all the way, but I do know that only 50% get through. It's tough - the college-level stuff, the military chickenshit. It's a real 'Tiger' program.”

I wonder what a Tiger Program means. “What’s that, Todd?” I ask.

“Ah, it means there’s a lot of hazing and in-your-face yelling, memorizing stupid stuff, studying college level aerodynamics, Air Force history, public speaking and military law. It’s like being a West Point plebe but doesn’t last as long. They only take the top 2% of applicants and then ‘wash out’ half of them before graduation."

I think, “Well that lets me out. I'm no Tiger and I bailed out of school on my sixteenth birthday to earn a living, so the academics might be a problem.”

"Hey, Aussie, wanna go down and check it out?" asks Todd.

"Sure, why not. I’ve got nothing on after the shift's over."

Don't have anything on? I've been in the USA since Christmas last year and my horizon is empty. What are my chances of getting an Airplane & Powerplant License? Go to college? How and where and with what? I don’t have any money saved but perhaps if I joined the Air Force I could get something out of it without shelling out any dough.

Shift over, dead tired, coveralls dirty and sweaty, we hit the morning commute traffic on Bayshore Freeway and head north toward the City in Todd's new Ford Victoria. After a quick breakfast somewhere in the Mission district, we climb the wooden stairs to the Air Force Recruiting Office at the corner of Market and Van Ness Streets.

Todd takes over.

"Good morning sergeant, we'd like to take the exam for Aviation Cadets."

The six striper in razor sharp khakis, condescendingly eyeballs us the way Burt Lancaster eyed Private 1st. Class Prewitt in “From Here To Eternity.” He figures if he can talk us into signing up as enlisted swine, he just might make his weekly quota.

"Aviation cadets? No way," he thinks.

"Well, you have to fill out the detailed application, take a physical and pass the written test. It'll take all morning, do you have the time? Can you two stay awake?”

"You bet," we say.

I look at Todd, he’s half asleep and his eyes are like two pissholes in the snow.

Now, thanks to the good sisters of St. Joseph, I've always been good at tests. All you have to do is figure out what the test writer or the prospective employer wants and give it to him. I always been a quick study and smart enough to stay out of trouble.

I begin filling out the application.

Education: Hmm. My first high school in Australia was called a college, so I fill in the blank: three years at St Ignatius' College Riverview, Gunnedah High with passes in Physics, Chemistry, Math I and II, English, History, Geography and Latin.

Work Experience: Mechanic, Clegg and Tyrrell (well that's stretching it a bit because all I did was pump gas and fetch parts, but they'll never check that out,) QANTAS Sydney, Aero Engineer and Mechanic (another job I talked myself in to but I have a certificate proving that) and finally, my current employer United Airlines – Airplane Overhaul Mechanic.

"Here y'are sergeant."

I hand him the application he is surprised. Perhaps he thinks I’ll enlist as a mechanic.

He hands me a multiple choice test, twists his head and points to a small, wood framed and windowed room nearby.

“O.K. Complete this and bring it back when you’re done.”

The test looks fairly straightforward. It’s mostly general knowledge, basic math and science; identification of small, black silhouettes of recent and historical Air Force airplanes; questions on world geography – what’s the capital of Chile; what’s a magneto and a distributor, ‘How do you drive on a bumpy road.’ There are also some basic arithmetic calculations and a few trigonometry questions on sines and cosines; some elementary algebra; interpretation of graphs; a puzzle in interpreting train schedules. This is really fun stuff and not too hard. I’m sure I could have done it in the 8th grade.

An hour later, I emerge from the test room. Ex Airman 2nd Class Todd is still in there chewing on his scoring pencil.

The sergeant runs the test through the scoring machine. ‘Zip’, and it’s done. He is impressed but tries not to show it. I’m smarter than he thought I was. Perhaps the Aussie accent had him confused.

"Take this paper over to that office across the room and give it to the nurse. We'll give you a physical this morning."

A physical at this hour? I don't know if I can even make water. The white-uniformed Air Force nurse hands me a bottle and I manage to drain my sump. I fill out the medical form: Childhood sickness? The usual. Parents? I'm not sure of the details of their illnesses and cause of death, but I’m truthful about their passing in their fifties. Venereal Disease? No, never.(I’d be embarrassed to tell the Air force that except for a couple of quickies, I'm almost a virgin.) Physical restrictions? Nope. Strip off down to my shorts, see the doctor, turn, cough, get a 'finger wave up the rear. Touch the toes, look left, look right, can you see my fingers? How many? Say aaah!

Back to the Recruiting Sergeant and still no sign of Todd.

"Am I in?" I ask.

"Well, no. Your physical is O.K. but this is just the beginning. You'll have another two day written exam up north of here at Travis Air Force Base and another more extensive physical. You'll get a letter setting it up."

He smiles and wishes me good luck as I head out and to find Todd. He’s in the waiting area sitting in the cheap chrome and leatherette seats.

"How'd you make out?" I ask.

"I didn't pass the written test. Aww. I really didn't want back in the Air Force anyhow. Wanna beer?"

A spur of the moment decision in the early morning hours, a little prompting and your whole life is changed forever. And I never really got to thank him, for when I returned to United Airlines after I was commissioned and flying one of those DC-6s, Todd had left the Move Crew and moved on.

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