Photo credit www.fly-low.com/ The Guinness Foundation has declared 98-year old Ernie Smith as the oldest living active …
Congratulations on achieving what at times probably seemed impossible. As a member of the legacy class of 1967 I’d like to share some thoughts with you.
As you go out into your first assignment, you’ll quickly learn that an Air Force squadron is truly a family, and your squadron-mates will quickly become your brothers and sisters. And you may notice that many of your contemporaries may not have the same posture, the same bearing, the same crisp salute that you have. That’s understandable – they didn’t have the advantage of being mentored 24/7 for four years by the finest, most highly-selected group of officers in the entire Air Force – your instructors, coaches and AOCs. But I can promise you that if you set the example you’ve learned over the past four years, everyone in your squadron will benefit.
A short story. In my Ready For Takeoff podcast I interview a cross-section of pilots with interesting stories to tell. One of my guests, a pilot named Tony, shared his story. Tony was a Lieutenant in the 1950s, before there was an Air Force Academy. He turned down a Regular commission after ROTC graduation because he didn’t really plan to make the Air Force a career. He described himself as a very mediocre Lieutenant, with equally mediocre Officer Effectiveness Reports. He was going to put in his four years and then become a civilian.
Then Tony was assigned to a squadron where he met a contemporary, an extremely sharp West Point graduate named Mike. Mike was always volunteering for projects, always trying to improve the squadron. Tony was impressed, inspired, and motivated by Mike’s example, and he began to rethink his career plans. He wanted to emulate Mike. Tony was an excellent writer, and started volunteering for projects, like rewriting most of the squadron manuals to remove the passive voice and create readable, concise text. And he became motivated to become a career officer.
As you might imagine, Mike had a great career. In fact, General Michael Dugan became the 13th Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. And, after reorienting his attitude, Tony had a great career also. He became a member of the Thunderbirds. He became a squadron commander as a major. And later, General Merrill “Tony” McPeak became the 14th Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
So be the finest officer you can, and you may find that your civilian-educated contemporaries will surprise you. And realize this: like you, they have all volunteered to serve on active duty during a time of war. And that puts them, and you, in an elite club, the 1 percent of the entire American population that is serving their country. Like you and everyone else who has ever worn the uniform of our services, they each signed a check, payable to the United States of America, in an amount up to and including their lives. I can guarantee you that when you leave your squadron, or lose a squadron-mate, you will appreciate just how special your brothers and sisters are.
The Reader’s Digest version of my career is: after pilot training I flew as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam in the smallest airplane in the inventory – the O-2A, then flew the largest – the B-52, then volunteered for another tour in Vietnam in one of the fastest – the F-4. After my second tour in Vietnam, I went to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, in the F-4 and T-39, then became an O-2 instructor pilot at Patrick Air Force, Florida. At the eleven-year point I separated from the Air Force to pursue an airline career, and served in the Reserves as an Academy Admissions Liaison Officer. I enjoyed airline flying, but quickly discovered that qualities and characteristics we take for granted in the Air Force – character, discipline, cameraderie – are in really short supply in the civilian world. When I was furloughed by my airline, I was very fortunate to be accepted back into the Air Force, and had a great career, serving as an instructor pilot, evaluator, operations officer and squadron commander.
I hung up my Air Force uniform for the last time 30 years ago this July, and returned to my airline job, where I had a very satisfying career, flying outstanding equipment all over the world. But, I’ll be honest, I still miss the Air Force to this day. In fact, about ten years ago there was a program called Retired Recall, where the Air Force brought old far…, I mean, mature officers, back on active duty for four-year tours. I signed up, volunteering to go to Afghanistan for one year, to be followed by three years teaching at the Academy.
But it turned out I was ineligible, because there is a statutory requirement that line officers can only serve on active duty past the age of 64 if they are Brigadier General or higher in rank. I had an easy, obvious solution for that, but the Air Force told me “No, Major!”.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. I had two civilian jobs before I was hired by my airline, and seven jobs after my airline retirement. In every case, my employment in those ten jobs was facilitated by networking. As of today, you have just become members of the Long Blue Line, which is an excellent opportunity for networking, to get help and to help others.
I hope that in 50 years, as members of the Legacy Class, you will have the opportunity to share your thoughts with the Lieutenants of the class of 2067. And I hope I will be able to join you.
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