Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Flight Line

Marine Corps aviators in fleet squadrons have two “jobs.” The obvious one is their flying job. In my day, the other was simply what we referred to as our “ground” job, an assignment that contributed to the running of the squadron.

When I checked in to HMM-365 in the Fall of 1985, my CO asked me what ground job I wanted, probably just to see where my head was. He was going to put me where he wanted to either way. "I don't care" wouldn't have been a good answer. With my experience as an enlisted infantryman, I wanted to be in a position where I could lead Marines. The place to do that in a squadron is in the aircraft maintenance department, so that’s where I told him I wanted to work. He said that he didn’t put new guys in the maintenance department right away, but he’d see how things worked out. 

He put me in an office pushing paper instead, but when someone told me that the best way to earn my way into the maintenance department was to jump on every post-maintenance test flight I could get on as a co-pilot, I did that. That was great advice. I showed up early and stayed late to be sure I was available when an aircraft needed to be checked out after it was torn down for maintenance or repair.

Normally, the pilot I went out with on those functional check flights was the aircraft maintenance department head, Major Jerry Yingling. Soon, he was teaching me how to perform the functional checks so that I could become a functional check pilot once I had enough flight hours to qualify.

Anyway, flying those flights also got me working closely with the crew chiefs and mechanics who also got there early and stayed late to fix the aircraft and fly those hops. As I watched them work, I soon saw how they earned pilots' trust. Even though we pilots pre-flighted aircraft before we flew them, those guys had the expertise and judgment to spot things that pilots might never notice. They knew the tolerances, the acceptable drip rates, whether safety wire was installed correctly, and more. They knew when an aircraft was ready to go. In fact, they were the ones who signed the sheet that said the aircraft was safe for flight. When I became an aircraft commander, I only signed the line that said I was taking the aircraft.

Before long, the officer in charge of the flight line division where the mechanics, crew chiefs, and ground support equipment technicians worked told me that he was being transferred soon and that I’d be taking his place. Getting that opportunity was great news.

At about the same time that I became the flight line OIC, we started getting a crop of new mechanics, many of whom we’d need to turn into crew chiefs.

To make a long story short, the Marine Corps sent me some very good Marines and, along with the guys who had been there a while, they quickly became an amazing team. They were guys pilots could trust and they were guys who, when the need arose for them to pull a rabbit out of their hat, they made it happen. More than once, I flew a crew of mechanics out to a field in the middle of the night (and in the middle of nowhere) to an aircraft that had made a precautionary landing and they fixed it right there.

I remember one night in particular, an aircraft had to make a landing with an engine problem in a field right around sunset, so I flew some mechanics and a crew chief out to that field so the guys could repair the aircraft. The crew that had flown the broken aircraft took my helicopter and returned to base. I stayed because once the aircraft was fixed, I needed to test it.

I watched those guys change that bad engine in the field that night by lowering it onto a field stretcher. Listening to them talk through it, you could really sense their pride in what they were doing. There was all of the banter that you'd expect, but all eyes were on the job. They finished their work that night, all of it by the light of flashlights, and an inspector signed off on the work.

Since I couldn’t test the aircraft at night, we slept in the helicopter for the few remaining hours until we had some daylight so I could do a legal check flight. Once the sun broke the horizon, I started the helicopter to check for leaks. There were none. Then, with most of the maintenance crew on the ground since they weren’t permitted to ride during the test flight, I did the tests in a hover, then did the rest of the engine set-up work in flight. Everything checked out perfectly. Once the testing was finished, I returned to the field, landed, picked everyone up, and we returned to base. Those guys thought nothing of what they had just accomplished, but it was nothing short of amazing to me.

That was just one of the many times those guys jumped into the middle of a problem and enabled the squadron to accomplish its mission and did it in a way that gave the pilots the confidence that the job was done right. They had mastered the secret to being part of a successful team: trustworthiness. You can't build a good team without trust, but those on the team have to be trustworthy to really build a lasting trust.

I say all of that because I was proud of them the entire time I served with them and today—nearly 40 years later—it’s gratifying to see many of those same guys getting together for a reunion in Texas this weekend. I wasn’t able to join them, but I’m still able to enjoy it through their postings and photos, and a video call a short time ago. Reading what they’re writing and seeing those photos shows that although many of them didn’t stay for a career in the military and many years have passed between then and now, they’ve held onto the camaraderie that bound them together in that squadron. They made those days "the good old days."

Here's to the good old days!