Friday, July 9, 2010

Captain Turner ~ a trying time

Captain Turner resting on his army cot during a field problem
2nd Platoon Leader Captain Turner

Korea was a one year hardship tour. I extended for an extra year, so I got to see a lot of people come and go. I had three platoon leaders during my two years spent in Korea: 1Lt Johnson(a temporary interim position for him until a suitable captain arrived to take his place), Cpt. Seiler, and Cpt. Turner.

When Captain Turner showed up on the scene I had long been turned into our platoon's young "superstar" flight leader and BZ checkpilot. I had been functioning in that role successfully for sometime. Since I was his platoon's "superstar" Captain Turner wanted to fly with me and scheduled himself to do so the majority of times he flew during his first three months required in country before a pilot regardless of previous experience and ability could become a PIC (Pilot in Command).

Many of the old guard (the guys that had groomed, mentored, and trained me to the level where I became a "superstar") were now long gone. I had gone from high school, to flight school, to Korea. Many of the old guard when I first arrived were Vietnam Vets, and now in hindsight I clearly see where they had a good, mature, and necessary characteristic I didn't possess; the desire and ability to groom the new guys to takeover the baton and carry on so a unit can continue to function as old guys disappeared from the scene. I think I would have eventually gotten it had I recognized the need and realized it was a role I should have played. I did play it to a certain extent by training new BZ pilots, but when it came to leading flights, I was simply in performance mode where it was all about me and not training someone to take my place. I didn't see it as my job to train new flight leaders. I was still quite young in my aviation career and trying to self-appoint myself to the position that I now see these older guys clearly did for me could have easily been seen as hubris on my part. Also, not every "old guard" pilot I flew with acted in the capacity of passing on the baton, but there were a select few who were very talented in this capacity.

Our unit was a well oiled Air Assault Team. For every training lift we had a pre-brief and a post-brief. The pre-brief laid out what our mission was and how we planned to accomplish it. During the post-brief we discussed how things went and whether or not there were things we needed to improve upon and how we should go about it.

Captain Turner was a Vietnam Veteran, a former instructor pilot, and he also had 3,000 hours of total flight time when he arrived in Korea while I only had 200 hours of total time upon arrival in country. Because of the three month rule, he could not be a PIC in Korea until he had spent the designated amount of time getting exposed to the nuances and peculiarities associated with flying in Korea as well as developing familiarity with the area so that pilots could be safe and not cause an international incident by accidentally overflying the DMZ or something.

The first time I flew with Captain Turner, he was my co-pilot on an air mobil training lift. We flew to the PZ and loaded our troops. I was familiar with the route on this lift, so I chose to fly the first sortie and let Captain Turner observe. The rapport in the cockpit seemed good. Captain Turner was easy going and first impressions were favorable. When it was time to takeoff, I gently increased pitch to effect a smooth takeoff with a slow acceleration to cruise airspeed keeping the flight together just as I had been taught. When the aircraft got to about fifteen feet off the ground, Captain Turner snatched the controls from me. He came over the cockpit intercom and said, "I don't ever want to see you takeoff like that again! They're expecting you to be at cruise airspeed as soon as you leave the ground!"

Oh boy!... Time to tighten my bull rope and hope I can hang on for the ride. How was I going to deal with this? Captain Turner was my "NEW" platoon leader, he was older and more experienced than me, he had more flight time than me, though he didn't have any IP orders in Korea he had been an Army Instructor Pilot, but I was the PIC! (PILOT IN COMMAND by God!)

A simple change of command has destroyed careers that were on track for great things. I have a friend that is ex-Navy who had planned on having a 20 year career but was sunk by a simple change of command that went from one he functioned well with to one he couldn't get along with. My friend was not able to adapt and things went downhill for him pretty fast after this change of command. It is the new command's prerogative to run things as they please regardless of how smoothly and well things worked prior to their arrival.

Also, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, there is a pecking order that exists throughout the animal kingdom of which humans are a part. We are more complex creatures in the food chain and our means of establishing a pecking order often follows more intricate methods other than who is the biggest, meanest, and the baddest SOB in the valley. The military teaches tact as a very valuable and useful trait to have.

In the interest of tact and considering the long laundry list of Captain Turner's bona fides and the fact that I was really just a young kid pretty fresh out of flight school, I chose to yield to his desired take-off technique and now adapted it as my own. This was one argument I didn't want to take part in. Many of the old guard that had perfected the technique before Captain Turner arrived on the scene were now long gone. An honest appraisal of my bona fides told me I didn't have what it took to win this argument without help. I knew the post-brief was going to be interesting.

Left to right: 1Lt. Johnson, W01 Tom Adams, and CW3 Brad Kopp, .

CW3 Brad Kopp was our unit's Instrument Examiner. Brad arrived in country about the time I made PIC and had shared a lot of the history of the unit running smoothly with me, however his expertise was mostly in the instrument flying department and not in the tactical lift department, so I didn't consider Brad as part of the old guard that had mentored me into what I had become. Brad was no dummy though. After the flight landed back at Camp La Guardia, Brad approached me on the flight line and asked with a little concern, "Dog gone Davy! What were you doing? I was pulling max torque and you were flying away from me!" I just looked at him and shrugged my shoulders and said nothing.

It was an interesting post-brief. Captain Turner made his points. He possessed a fairly dominate personality. There was no old guard left around with a bone to pick in this fight to back him down. Crazy Harry was still around, but he was a Cobra Pilot escorting the slicks during lifts, so this was none of his concern. Harry might have been a full time General's pilot by this time also. I spent 2 years in Korea so I saw a lot of men come and go. Harry spent 4 years in Korea, so he watched me come and go. The resolution in the post-brief was that lead would pull the guts out of the aircraft coming off the ground accelerating as fast as possible to sixty knots that would then be held until the trail aircraft announced over the radio that the flight was joined. Flight lead would not accelerate to full cruise airspeed until the trail aircraft made that call. This was a previously unnecessary call that broke radio silence and in a real situation could alert the enemy that something was up. Oh well... Often in life the way it ought to be and the way it is rarely coincide. Even with this minor flaw, my two years in Korea was closer to the way it ought to be than any other place I ever worked.

For the most part Captain Turner and I worked together okay. He wasn't my favorite person to fly with though. He'd question my decisions and I'd have to provide reasonable answers since he was my platoon leader. He also had his own vision of how he wanted to do things, but was constrained by the three month rule before officially getting to be the Pilot in Command.

One day things did come to a head that would prove to be a game changer. On this particular day the aircraft Captain Turner and I were assigned had a minor discrepancy; our VHF radio had no sidetone. Sidetone is a feature in the radio that allows the other pilot onboard to hear inside the aircraft what is being transmitted outside the aircraft. We reached a point of decision on this airlift where flight lead had to transmit instructions to the rest of the flight. Captain Turner and I simultaneously keyed our mikes to instruct the flight. He told them to do one thing, while I told them to do something else. That wasn't good and needless to say caused some unnecessary confusion. Not to mention more fodder for the post-brief... Oh well.

That incident also caused me to make a decision. Even though I was "officially" the Pilot in Command onboard our aircraft and responsible for all decisions, I made up my mind that anytime I flew with Captain Turner from now on I would be the best "copilot" I possibly could be and leave all the PIC duties to him. He'd call the shots and I'd try to prevent or clean up any messes his decisions might have caused. It worked! He was really ready to assume PIC duties, and I was in a position to prevent an international incident if the need arose. As far as the little stuff? A hundred years from now no one would even remember, shucks it would probably all be forgotten way sooner than that.

If I had more aviation maturity, I probably would have put him on the spot and made him call the shots anyhow way before the incident that caused me to assume a "de facto" copilot role. I had previously been in performance mode though where it was all about me. I can see that now. This decision of mine came close to the end of Captain Turner's three month rule where he would become an "official" PIC in country. I was glad when that day came. Captain Turner then began flying with other men in his platoon. He still liked the lead position, and I got to relax in the trail position snickering at little navigational mistakes the lead aircraft made. But, I now recognize the immaturity of my attitude back then. If I would have been more mature, I would have been all about working on passing the baton and doing my best to adequately prepare Captain Turner for the day when he would indeed be an official in country PIC. Live and learn. Sorry Captain Turner, you were a very good platoon leader all in all.

In typical "one more Dave" fashion, here is a side note on "Brand New PICs": It was interesting to see two brand new PICs assigned the same aircraft and mission. Especially new PICs of equal rank. There was usually a little pecking order competition over who would be the actual PIC and who would be the copilot for the mission. A brand new PIC typically wanted to exercise his privileges. While I had a mental block flying with Captain Turner and allowing him to function as a PIC even though he was really just my copilot, I had no problem with which role I played when flying with another new PIC. when placed in that situation I would always ask the other pilot, "Do you want to be PIC or copilot today?" and I'd take the position he didn't want. The possible difference was that with another new PIC who wanted that role as PIC, he also got the responsibility to answer for anything that went wrong. With Captain Turner I retained the responsibility to answer for what went wrong regardless of why it went wrong. Also with Captain Turner, if I played him as PIC while he was my copilot because of the difference between his bona fides, my bona fides, and his dominate personality, I was in a poor position to take over should the need arise and also in a poor position to give him any chastisement he might have needed. It was a trying time. Still, no doubt, a good experience.



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