It was in the early 1980’s and the cold war was as hot as ever. I was 18 years old and at my first duty station serving in Germany in the United States Air Force. I was an aircraft mechanic in training and loving every moment of my job. I was learning new things every day and I was anxious for a challenge. Like most young people that age we thrive on being challenged with meaningful and rewarding work. I was there, I was enjoying my job, my friends and the opportunity I had to travel.
It was at this time that a leader in my life stepped forward and issued yet another challenge. He was our Maintenance officer and he was not one to just sit by and watch people work. Our Captain (very soon to be major) was as involved in the mission and the day to day work as any of us young new troops. His challenge was to our entire wing of pilots maintainers and even to our aircraft themselves. He wanted to see if we could get all 44 of our assigned aircraft airborne all at once. Not only that but he challenged us to not only do that monumental feat, but he dared us to do it four times in one day. This type of accomplishment was researched and it was found that no wing assigned to Europe had ever done this kind of a demonstration of power and capability.
The logistics of such an accomplishment were incredible. We had to schedule aircraft that would normally be undergoing major renovation, upgrades and scheduled maintenance to all be out of their maintenance bays and fully mission capable all at the same time. This by itself seemed to be impossible. But never tell a leader what cannot be done; find a way to do it. I had read stories that have become legend in my mind of General Curtis E. LeMay and the Berlin Airlift, and how he later went on to transform the Strategic Air Command. And other stories that I had read about the airlift over the hump in China during World War II. I had read these heroic stories about Airmen of the past doing impossible tasks and I was sold from day one. This could be done! I was not joined by everyone in my unit however. I was told that this was a stupid idea. This could never be accomplished and we will all be looking stupid after we fall flat on our faces.
Thus it is, and probably will ever be with leaders. Those with visionary ideas often must bear the criticism of the nay-sayers. But we had one thing that these naysayers were not counting on. We had a leader. Like many in our countries past, this leader stepped up to attempt the impossible, or so it was said. Our Captain had the full support of his bosses and of a handful of the supervisors and workers on the flight line. Would that be enough?
It finally came to the week of the attempted event. I was recently given my own aircraft. I got to have my name painted on the canopy rail of this aircraft and all who saw it knew that I was the primary “Crew Chief”, the one who ensured that this aircraft was ready to fly whenever it was scheduled. The aircrew would show up and ask me very directly; “Chief…Is she ready to go up?” I would typically reply with; “You bet you’re a$$ she is ready to fly.” As I gained a little maturity I would rephrase that answer without the liberty of the colorful language.
I was on the night shift, I came into work at 1600 hours (4:00 PM) and the flying day would be dwindling to a close as the sun went down, and I would have to fix those things that may have broke on my aircraft and ensure that it was ready for the next day. As I came in that Monday night I knew that come Wednesday morning our ability as a team of mechanics and pilots would finally be put to the test.
As I went through the duties of my evening I came to about 2300 (11:00 PM) when the shift supervisor for the “mid-shift” came to me with a concern and a request. The Mid-shift is that very small group of tunnel rats who rarely see the light of day. They come in at mid-night and work till the next morning and their job is to ensure that all the aircraft scheduled to fly the next day are ready. If there is last minute fuel or oxygen that the night shift could not get to, they ensure it is finished. The shift supervisor told me that one of his crew members had some medical issues over the weekend and she would not be able to work her shift. So he asked if I would stay and cover for her absence. I was at the time a convinced believer that our Air Force was not just an all-volunteer Air Force in name only, but that we who were proud members should not shy away from those opportunities to “Volunteer” to go that extra mile to ensure the mission is accomplished, so I agreed to stay for the double shift.
After I had completed the second shift and the aircrews were arriving at their aircraft for the first take-off, I decided I wanted to stay a little longer to prep my aircraft and launch it. So when the day shift relief truck came by with my replacement, I waved them off and told them that I would like to launch the aircraft that bore my name. After watching my aircraft taxi to the end of the runway and take off, and then disappear into a beautiful blue German sky, I felt a great sense of pride in my work, I loved my job. As I tidied up my aircraft’s parking spot, preparing it for the eventual return of my aircraft the maintenance truck came by again and informed me that there was a final planning meeting for the attempt to launch all of our aircraft which was only one day away. I jumped into the truck and went to the meeting. I noticed at the meeting that the nay-saying was almost non-existent. It seemed most if not all people were on board with this vision. We were becoming a team.
When I got back from the meeting they yelled at me and said, “Let’s go, your aircraft just landed.” So I went back out to my parking spot and marshaled my aircraft back into chocks and proceeded to do an inspection on it to get it ready for its next flight. I had not realized yet that by this time I was approaching 20 hours at work without a break. I finished and then realized I had not eaten since about 2000 hrs (8:00 PM) the night before. So I grabbed a quick lunch at the flight line kitchen and went back to the flight shack where all the mechanics went to do their paperwork, eat, and wait for the aircraft to return from their missions. After eating I found a comfortable couch and proceeded to drift off to sleep. I had slept about 2 hours when the co-workers from my normal shift began to drift in. I realized, I needed to be ready to work. After a couple cups of coffee, and sleeping through the shift briefing, I went out with the rest of the crew and headed to my normal duties. I felt refreshed and motivated. I knew that our shift would be the final preparation before our attempt to be the first to ever have all of our aircraft in the air at the same time.
My shift went on fairly smoothly, I had a small crack in one of the panels from my engine cowling which I took to the specialist shop to have a fiber-glass patch installed to repair it. As we began to do an inventory of all of the 44 aircraft that were to accomplish momentous task just hours from then, we all recognized that it was my aircraft, with my small crack, that was the only one not ready to fly. But we still had 8 hours, so I stayed to monitor the progress of the repair of the lone panel that stood between our team, and history. I offered all the help I could to the specialists who were repairing the panel, and so I stayed again for the entire mid-shift. At about 0530 in the morning I finally got word that my panel was ready and I could come pick it up and re-install it on my aircraft. After installing it and clearing the forms of all of the required documentation, my aircraft was finally ready.
As the crews began to show up, and the cameras from the base newspaper were gathering the time of testing had finally arrived. I resolved there and then that I was going to be there standing in front of my aircraft, ushering it and its crew into the sky to accomplish what we all had worked so hard to do. And then as my aircraft taxied to the runway and became airborne and those ahead of it and behind it did likewise, the aircrews began to form into a formation. Four aircraft in each flight passing overhead of the airfield, all 44 aircraft, eleven different formations of four.
We had done it!
We shut the mouths of the naysayers, but oddly enough, there were no naysayers in the crowd at that point. There were only proud members of a team. A team that had a leader with a vision. As they completed their airborne tasks, they all began to land, and this team of maintainers got to work inspecting, refueling and doing minor repair so as to see if this incredible feat could be done a second time. You guessed it, we did it again. All 44 flying in formation again, proving to the world that the capabilities of the United States and her Air Force are incredible. I am not sure what political or global impact this had, but a show of force and strength during those cold war days was always a heady and impressive thing. It was at this time that my the day shift supervisor asked me; “Airman, how long have you been here?” I looked at my watch and did some quick math in my head, and realized for the first time, that I had been at work for over 38 hours. Sensing it might not be good to have one of his workers operating on no sleep around spinning propellers, he ordered me into the truck and told me I was not to be launching any more aircraft that day.
I did not care, I had already seen the capability of a motivated and greatly lead team. I had been a cog in the wheel, and I do not think that I have ever felt more a part of a team before or since that day. Our team launched all 44 aircraft two more times, and out all of the scheduled sorties of thet day, only one aircraft failed to get off the ground due to an engine problem, and one had a late take-off but joined the formation eventually.
To this day, I always think of this accomplishment in my Air Force career when I read the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 12:12-20
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body.”