“I Still Have that Map, Sir”

In the mid-80s I was the Chief of Check Section in the 560th FTS.  It was our job to give check rides to students as a quality control measure.  For the most part they were all fairly straight forward, but on occasion…

One nice, sunny afternoon this ‘kid’ shows up for his Nav (Navigation) check.  This check was the usually last ride in the T-38 PIT program and was typically conducted as an ‘out-and-back.’  I had seen this kid around the squadron and he always impressed me with his smile and positive attitude.  He was always ‘upbeat.’  Refreshing.  So we brief and off we go.

As a check pilot, I’m flying in the front seat, and am in the role of a student.  It’s the kid’s job to teach me how to fly on a cross-country/navigation ride.  Our profile this day included a mid-level altitude (15,000 feet) ride to Barksdale AFB, LA, followed by a low-level (500 feet) mission on the way home.  The ride to Barksdale was uneventful.

Upon arrival at Barksdale ‘the kid’ briefed me on the low-level we were going to fly on the way back to Randolph.  He gave an excellent brief, and his map preparation was outstanding.  There was just one little problem: the route ended at the ‘target,’ which was at the edge of his maps.  (He had prepared one for me also).  I didn’t say anything; I’m a ‘student,’ right?  So, when he asked if I had any questions, I replied none that I could think of, and he went off to get something to drink.  I, in turn, plotted a rough route from the target to Randolph, and looked up the appropriate frequencies.  Soon we were on our way.

His instruction and performance on the low-level was outstanding; until we got to the target.  We hit the target on time, at 360 knots, then I asked “What next, Sir?”  I was looking in the mirrors, and I could swear I saw his eyes ‘cage’ straight ahead, and two ‘off flags’ drop in view!

Now we weren’t quite ‘legal.’  We were at 500 feet and about 360 knots or so.  We may have been “temporarily disoriented” (lost) but we were making good time!  I could almost feel his heart sink…  If I took control of the aircraft, it would have been “out of my hands;” he would have failed the ride – by the Regs.  But I decided to see what he was made of.  I chimed in, “Sir, my ‘other IP’ told me if I was ever lost on a low-level, I should climb so I could see more,” and up we went!  The ensuing climb also allowed us to dissipate our airspeed back within the legal limit.

With ‘minimal prodding’ we soon picked up Austin, then I-35 – and South we went.  The subsequent recovery into Randolph was uneventful.

I had a “crew-duty” issue I was dealing with, and had to (physically) get out of the squadron.  So I told the kid to grab his grade book and a grade sheet, and meet me at “Mr. B’s” (the cafeteria across the parking lot).  Being told to grab your grade book, along with a grade sheet was not usually a good thing.

When he came into Mr. B’s, he was a bit ‘down.’  He knew ‘he was toast.’  However, I sat back, and asked him what he had learned from the experience.  I was impressed with his demeanor, and maturity.  So, I told him, “Son, if you take this map back to your home base, and put it under the plexiglass on your desk, I’ll pass you on this ride.”  His eyes lit up, and he said, “No problem, Sir!”  I went on to tell him if any of his students ever asked him about the map, he was to tell them if was just a simple reminder how fast things can ‘go to Hell’ in flying…

I gave him a “Good” on the ride, and sent him on his way.  Legally, and ‘by all rights,’ I could have, I should have failed him on the ride.  But I certainly wasn’t going to say anything about it; and I doubted if he was.  And besides, what was the ‘corrective action?”  Give him two review rides, and have him turn in a new map?

About 18 months later I was at Columbus AFB, MS on a staff assistance visit to the T-38 squadron when I felt a tugging on my flight suit.  I looked around, and there was ‘the kid’; only I had forgotten all about him.  He told me, “Sir, I have something to show you.”  So, with him in the lead, off we went – to his flight room.

We walked over to his desk, and there it was; that damned map!

“Sir,” his face beaming, “I still have the map, Sir,” he said.  Incredible.

(Now, some 26 years later….the rest of the story.)

The 560th FTS holds a Dining In (formal dinner) for the North Vietnamese POWs every year.  That’s one function I make an effort to attend every year.    Two years ago I saw ‘this guy.’   I thought I knew him; but I didn’t know where from.  That happens.  But I knew I knew him…  Then, this year (2011) I saw him again.  “Who is that guy?” I asked myself…

During the honored guest’s speech, this guy’s name was mentioned, and the “light came on!”  It was ‘the Kid!’  Damn!  I couldn’t wait until the speech was over.

When the Mess was dismissed, I walked over and asked the colonel now standing there if he was indeed “the Kid.”  (Actually, I used his name.)  He looked at me for a moment, running my face through his memory bank, then came to attention, and saluted.

“Col. Holliker,” he said, “how good it is to see you!”  I was somewhat ‘uncomfortable;’ it is not often a junior raking officer is saluted by a senior officer – whether on active duty, or retired.  And the conversation began.

As we got caught up with each other, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of pride in him.  He had gone on to have a great career flying F-16s.  I was just mesmerized with him…  as our conversation came to an end, he said, “You know Sir, I still have that damned map – somewhere!”  And we both had a good laugh over it.

I never harbored any doubts about “my call” that day; nary a one.  And seeing “the Kid” that evening bolstered my conviction evermore…

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