In 1978 I was the Chief of Safety at Vance AFB, OK. One morning we received a call from the Command Post telling us that one of our T-37s (Tweets) had crashed. My first concern was for the condition of the pilots. As it turned out, they were fine. So then we began the investigation…

The aircrew, a Tweet flight commander and his assistant, were on their way to the auxiliary field to serve as runway supervisors for the morning. It seems they engaged in somewhat of a “game.” The rules were simple: Upon beginning the descent for landing once the throttles were retarded they could not be advanced and once a drag device was extended, it couldn’t be retracted. The idea was to see who could begin the drill the farthest out from the field. On this particular day the flight commander, who was flying, came up 19 feet short of the runway overrun. Damn-near made it!

When this accident occurred Vance had gone 4½ years without a T-37 accident. We were in one for a coveted 5-year accident free award for the Tweet squadron – that is, until these 2 Bozos pranged 19 feet short. This accident certainly didn’t have to happen…

Aside: When our wing commander called the ATC 4-Star (Commander) he told him (rightfully so) that he was sure of what happened and requested to investigate the accident “in house.” He agreed, and we investigated it ourselves – it wasn’t hard. At one point, over a few beers, we considered hanging it on Civil Engineers – for building the runway 19 feet to far to the South…

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You Can Have Too Much Grapefruit…

Craig and I were on a T-38A cross-country to Norton AFB, CA (San Bernardino, CA) one weekend. We flew out there and spent the weekend visiting my Aunt Jan. She and her husband lived in Indio at the time.

On Sunday morning she invited us to head out back and take as much grapefruit and oranges as we wanted. Her trees were loaded that year. As it was, Craig and I packed 5 or 6 grocery bags of grapefruit and lemons.

When we got to the jet we packed most of the fruit in the travel pod we had. We got the grapefruit and all of about 3 or 4 lemons in the pod, and stored the remainder in the cockpit. Give up a lemon? Oh, hell no!

Start and taxi were normal. Actually, there was no indication of any problems at all until takeoff. It was my leg and I was flying from the rear cockpit. As we neared 130 knots I began pulling back on the stick, as I had done hundreds of times, and nothing happened! I relaxed back pressure to continue accelerating, then tried again. This time the nose came up, very slowly. Very slowly, matter of fact. And when the jet (finally) became airborne it flew like mush! Very uncharacteristic of the T-38. I continued to nurse it, slowly gaining airspeed. It just felt sluggish.

Somewhere during the climb it finally dawned on us – we were over-grossed! The pod had a weight limit of 140 pounds, and we were surely over that weight! This was confirmed when we leveled off at altitude with about 500 pounds of fuel less than what we had planned for. Thankfully we were only going to Williams AFB, AZ, not that far away.

Upon arriving at Willi, we flight planned to Randolph ABF, TX and saw where we could make it – with a grapefruit, and 2 lemons to spare! Willi had a long runway and we had experience with heavy-weight takeoffs now (Idiots, we were!).

As you might imagine, the takeoff and climb were ‘sluggish’ at best. And we again leveled off with a little less gas than planned. But we made it, and ate grapefruit for a month.

Today I cringe at the thought. What we we thinking? Can you imagine losing a jet because you overloaded the damn thing with grapefruit? Twice? Idiots, we were…

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Meaningful Notes

I came into thee squadron one afternoon after flying and found this note:

Throughout my Air Force career I received a few ‘awards and decorations’ for various things but they all pale in nature to the simple personal notes of recognition from the folks I worked with. This was one of those notes… and it still warms my heart.

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A Thud, Out in A Pasture…

A lone man is seen walking up a remote country lane one afternoon, apparently alone deep in thought. Off to the side, sitting in a pasture, is a warhorse from years past – a Thud.

Did the man fly the Thud at one time or another? Did he work on it? Or was the Thud a jet he once wanted to fly? I don’t know; I didn’t want to disturb the moment by asking. There was just something ‘reverent’ about the scene as he walked up that lane, alone in thought…

So I continued to watch him that afternoon, wondering to myself: what was it like, to ‘tap’ the burner for takeoff on an early-morning “go?”…

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I learned a ‘first hand’ lesson on leadership while serving as the Investigator on a T-38A aircraft accident board in January 1979.

A T-38 had crashed at Ellsworth AFB, ND and I was appointed as the Investigator. Typically on a Accident Board, at the time, we would have 5 members: The President, the Investigator, a Pilot Member, a Maintenance Officer and a Flight Surgeons. Others were brought in on an “as needed” basis. Specialists if you will.

For the most part this investigation was proceeding pretty well. We had a few ‘challenges’ but they were being met, and the investigation was progressing. Or so I thought.

One night after our evening debrief we all headed to the bar, as we were inclined to do. We had a few beers then folks began departing – all except the Board President and me.

I liked the man, Col. F, and enjoyed working with him. He could be a bit “high strung” at times, but I got along with him just fine. Somehow, after a ‘few’ more beers that evening the conversation gravitated to ‘leadership.’ It was then that Col. F. hit me, right between the eyes.

“Bob,” he said, “you are, a good officer, but you probably will not go far. You don’t listen to your people!” I sobered up instantly! That hit me right in the chest.

He then continued on, “There have been numerous times when your team members have had something to say, and you have cut them off. That tells them that you don’t care about what they have to say, or contribute.”

Until then I had never thought of myself in that vain. I just sat there that evening, and glared at him – somehow knowing he was “spot on.” And, the longer I sat there the more determined I became to change my ways.

As I mentioned earlier, I sobered up immediately! And later, alone in my room that evening, I had a bit of a “Come to Jesus” meeting with myself. I knew that he had spoken the truth. And so, I became determined to (actually) listen to others, rather than discount them. Furthermore, I committed myself to produce an accident report beyond reproach. I was so inspired with Col. F’s honesty with me – although it was difficult to listen to – that I was determined to put out a product that we could all be proud of. This included a product with inputs from everyone on the board…

An Accident Board in those days was given 30 days to investigate an accident and produce a report. The report was to determine ‘Findings, Causes and Recommendations’ in order to prevent follow-on accidents of the same nature. To this end, once a report was produced it would typically be provided to the assigned Wing, Command then eventually to the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center (AFISC) for comments and concurrence or non-concurrence. It was very rare to see a report reach AFISC without objections of some kind or another – but ours did! And I attribute this to everyone contributing to the effort at hand, not just me…

I will be forever grateful to Col. F for taking the time and interest to have that talk with me that evening. It made a difference, not just in my career, but my Life…

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“Oh, I Dropped the Little Bastard!”

We were ‘night flying’ one night when I was in UPT. Everything was going fine that night until a classmate reported that he only had ‘2 Green’ vs. “3 Green,” with his Gear Check. We needed ‘3 Green’ to be sure that we had 3 (landing) gear ‘Down and Locked.’

So, the the RSU Controller told him to continue through the Final Turn and execute a low approach. They planned to look him over as he flew by on his go-around.

Well, it didn’t work out too well – too dark. So the student was told to clean it up, and head around the (traffic) pattern. Once he was stable at traffic pattern altitude, he was instructed to remove the errant Landing Gear light and replace it with the ‘Takeoff Trim’ green light. (Both systems used the same kind of light; simple enough, or so it would seem).

When the jet arrived back on Initial, instead of pitching out for landing, as expected, he continued straight through and turned once again to Outside Downwind. Okay, understandable, it could be tricky to change out the bulbs. Night, wearing gloves, solo, flying the jet, clearing, and so forth.

The second time he showed up on Initial, once again he continued through. At this time the RSU Controller asked him if he was having any problems. It was then that the student replied, “Oh, I dropped the little bastard!”

Not wanting a solo student to be flying around the pattern, at night, with his head buried in the cockpit, looking for a stupid light, probably under the seat, the RSU Controller told him, “Let’s go ahead and land. It will probably be okay.” And, it was…

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Two Review Rides, and Turn in a New Map

One afternoon this student, from another flight, returned to the flight room after taking his Nav Check. He had failed it. I didn’t learn of it until later when his flight commander was discussing the issue with our section commander. The student’s flight commander was HOT, to say the least.

Apparently the student had flown a ‘flawless’ check ride; a 2-hop out-and-back. Upon returning to check section for the debrief, his check pilot looked the student’s map and discovered that Emergency airfields along the way, had not been circled, in red, as directed by regulation. So the check pilot “smoked” him. Unsat!

The check pilot was a VMI (Virginia Military Institution) grad. A strict by-the-book kind of guy. In essence, because of the governing regulation, there was no arguing with him.

I do remember the ensuing conversation in our section commander’s office. What do we do about this situation? Typically with a failed Nav check, we would authorize ‘review’ out and back, to address the deficient items, followed by “progress” Nav Check. In this kid’s case, it was hard to justify 4 flights to clear up his Unsat. It was then that his flight commander came up with idea: “Let’s give him a review out-and-back ride, and have him turn a new map!”

I don’t know how it sorted itself out in the end. I do know we had to restrain that flight commander from heading down to Check Section and taking the check pilot’s VMI ceremonial sword down off the wall – and shoving it up his ass!

My take-away with this incident was how important “common sense”and “good judgement” is in grading on check rides. It was a lesson that was never lost on me, and I used it frequently when presented with situations like this…

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Because somewhere in me is still the little boy ~ who wants to kick the can down the road, ~ and write on walls, ~ and hitch rides on the tailgates of trucks~ ~ and look up to stare at a jet streaking across the sky ~

And somewhere in me is the still the “go-to-Hell” pilot, ~ in the “go to Hell” hat, ~ flinging an aircraft down boundless halls of space and talking with hands for airplanes, ~ and reliving ‘high flares’ and extended trail — and reaching out to “touch the face of God,” and laughing at those who are tied to Earth ~ and still staring up at jets in the sky.

And somewhere in me is Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse, who philosophize on the here and hereafter in a language I understand, ~ that of kindness, ~ of respect, ~ of loyalty, ~ of honor ~ and of the beauty of Life itself, ~ and of a jet streaking through the sky.

And deep inside me there is that uncompromising realist who knows that this is all a temrribly temporary gift, ~ and that sometime ~ perhaps in this next second, ~ be it the side of a mountain, ~ the slam of a stall in the Final Turn, ~ or that massive grasp of a giant’s hand on a faltering heart — this will all come to an end too soon. And when that time comes, if there is one thing to remember, it will be that sweet memory that transcends them all;

~ of the little boy,
~ of the Go-to-Heller,
~ the Philosopher,
~ the Realist,
~ it will be the ineffably beautiful picture,

…of a jet, streaking gracefully across the sky…

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Teaching A Lesson in Humility

After a check ride one day, this young lieutenant we had in “O” Flight, came back to the flight room, bitching about a couple grades he had received on specific maneuvers. I listened to him “hold court” in the corner with a few of his buddies, then decided to put a stop to it – right now! One of the things I did not tolerate well at all was, “quibbling.” Either from the students, or the IPs in the flight.

So I walked up to him and asked what the problem was. He then proceeded to tell me that he felt the check pilot was too “picky;” too hard on him. (Awww….). After listening to him for all I could handle, I decided to make this a “teachable moment.” I reminded him that he was a 2nd Lieutenant now, an Officer in the United States Air Force. And as an Officer, when we have an issue with someone or another, we don’t just sit back and bitch about them – we approach them, in a mature, respectful manner, and discuss the issue – Officer to Officer. (What I failed to mention was, this really didn’t apply in a student training environment. My bad.). So I suggested, that if he felt strongly enough – that he had been unfairly graded on the check ride – that he take his grade sheet, along with his grade book, down to Check Section, and discuss the matter with his check pilot. I then headed back to my office and soon saw him heading out the flight room door, with his grade book in hand.

His check pilot was a good guy. He had a reputation for always being fair with the students, and I never had any problems with him. So, I just sat back and waited…

When I saw the young lieutenant return, I grabbed my coffee and walked back to his desk. He seemed a little pale in color. I asked him if he was “okay,” to which he replied, “Well Sir, I won’t be doing that again!”

Lesson learned.

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Toledo Airshow – 2019

Last weekend we had an Airshow here in Toledo, OH. A good part of the planning fell to my daughter-in-law in her capacity as member of the Toledo ANG Public Affairs office out at the base. She, in turn, enlisted the help of my youngest granddaughter, Riley. Riley, who currently is in Air Force ROTC, just had a ball! And, she got to see a great deal out there.

I have been attending airshows for some 65 – 70 years now. This one was ‘pretty good,’ but not necessarily from the flying perspective. I enjoyed it because I saw two “old friends.”

The first was Bill Fier, a former student of mine at Vance AFB, OK in 1976. I was his Flight Commander when he went through T-38s. Bill impressed me from the moment I first met him. He really had a “level head” on his shoulders and actually helped a great deal in managing the day-to-day operations of his class during training – as well as performing very well in the program himself.

One of the flying programs was “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a re-enactment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). I knew Bill was flying for the CAF, and on a ‘hunch,’ I sent an email to him, asking if he was in attendance. I was so excited to learn, he was! So we agreed to meet after his show.

Bill Fier, and Me
Toledo Air Show – 2019

The second “old friend” I ran into was T-38, Tail number 8121.

T-38C, Tail # 8121

I flew this jet when it was a T-38A at Vance AFB, OK. It is now based at Laughlin AFB, TX. I knew almost immediately that I had flown this specific jet, and upon returning home and checking my log book, sure enough, I had. In 1975 – ’78!

Explaining the T-38 to my nephew and his sons (Lil’ Gary, Landon and Brady), and my good friend, Tom.

The aerial demonstrations throughout the day were fine, but nowhere near as exciting for me as seeing my. two “old friends!”

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