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Fighter Pilot Porn

by brittb on July 7th, 2007

This is a long post, and I apologize for that. It concerns that interesting sub-species of Homo Arrogantus, the military fighter pilot. The timing of this post is based on the raucous and obligatory bacchanalia held a week ago to celebrate the amazing life of Robin Olds, Fighter Pilot Extraordinaire. After Robin Olds, they broke the mold. Not just his mold, but the mold for the entire way of life that made our ways necessary.

Background

One of the many adventure camps of my fortunate life was a 6-year stint as a USAF pilot, which sounds more impressive than it is. But the core of that experience is instructive: If you attend USAF Pilot training, you want to be a fighter pilot. That’s as obvious as saying that, if you attend Julliard, you want to perform at Carnegie Hall. And if you want to be a fighter pilot, you embrace all the values of that curious species.

Haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff? Your loss. Go read it, because he discovered a secret subculture while setting out to analyze a cultural phenomenon. He contracted to write a book about the Mercury astronaut program. All those early astronauts were test pilots, a superset of fighter pilots. He found that the fighter pilot story was far more interesting than the astronaut story, because he stumbled on a guild of singularly disciplined people with singularly undisciplined lifestyles.

Here’s how he described being a fighter pilot in The Right Stuff. Remember: he had set out to scrutinize the Astronaut program, but he discovered a fraternity, and that became his real story:

A young man might go into military flight training believing that he was entering some sort of technical school in which he was simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he found himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity. And in this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite–and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.

Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

None of this was to be mentioned, and yet it was acted out in a way that a young man could not fail to understand. When a new flight (i.e., a class) of trainees arrived at Pensacola, they were brought into an auditorium for a little lecture. An officer would tell them: “Take a look at the man on either side of you.” Quite a few actually swiveled their heads this way and that, in the interest of appearing diligent. Then the officer would say: “One of the three of you is not going to make it!”–meaning, not get his wings. That was the opening theme, the motif of primary training. We already know that one-third of you do not have the right stuff–it only remains to find out who.

Tom Wolfe knows that it went beyond that. The drive and values that would stratify your competence in the air were also played out on the ground: there’s a reason Tom Cruise is required to introduce himself in Top Gun riding a crotch rocket at 150 mph, racing F14 Tomcats in afterburner on departure leg. At pilot training at Williams AFB, AZ (“The Fighter School”) we were about 45 minutes away from Tempe and Scottsdale Arizona, a Nirvana of tan coeds from ASU and more bars than we could master in a night. Here’s how Tom Wolfe described it:

The holy coordinates for fighter pilots are
Flying
& Drinking and Drinking & Driving.

So: What was our obligatory expression of fighter-pilot-in-waiting? It was a mad dash back to Williams AFB, Chandler, Az, in the middle of the night. As young lieutenants, we all had mid-sixties GTOs and Corvettes and Dodge Chargers and other muscle cars of the period. By a curious accident, I was driving a 1964 Jaguar XKE. coupe. Yeah: British Racing Green, magnificent worked-metal instrument panel, electrics by Lucas, Prince of Darkness and no capacity for air conditioning in the Arizona desert, so I left the A/C compressor at home, since it was dead weight.

One night, after the Scottsdale bars had all closed, I realized I was racing Tom Barrett’s 1966 GTO at 135 MPH, eastbound, on Baseline Road, long before it became a freeway. Side-by-side we flew on the two lane road, more committed to getting home first than to public safety. I actually think I won.

Shootee. Not a Shooter.

No one is a fighter pilot in pilot training, but we each considered ourselves one, for the reasons that Tom Wolfe describes. Like everyone else, I logged 120 hours in one of the Air Force’s coolest airplanes, the T-38 Northrop Falcon. This is the little white jet that you see accompanying every space shuttle landing. It’s supersonic, briefly held the world’s climb record, and it rolls at 450 degrees per second! It even taxis well. In summary, it’s a supersonic sports car.

I was not to be a fighter pilot. Although I received orders to proceed from Survival School to the F4C fighter pilot training program at George AFB, CA, my orders were replaced by an urgent assignment to C-130 cargo planes, making me a shootee rather than a shooter. I regretted it at the time, but it was better for me and my karma wake.

What’s most interesting about my six-year Air Force career is that it made me look like a hero when I was really just a college kid. Yeah, I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times, which is nominally a big deal, but I always considered it three examples of bad timing requiring me to do what I was trained to do, desperately so, in order to save my sorry ass. I gave little thought to those around me. Please do not confuse those arbitrary awards with great competence or generosity of spirit. Most medal winners agree.

The truth is that, until robots are a lot better, this is why we put pilots in the front of the airplane, so they arrive at the accident first. In the estimation of whether an autopilot is better than a human, never disregard an appreciation of mortality as a motivator and inspiration.

I have experienced at least one instance where five 25-year-old anal sphincters, properly applied to aircraft seat cushions, kept a C-130 in the air for moments longer than it should have. I have no proof, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Like those seat cushions.

For your own safety, back slowly away from the metaphor . . .

Fortunately, our moments ran out that day as we crossed the runway threshold. Notice the non-standard landing configuration: the “feathered” #1 prop and the unusually clear viewing angle, showing the fire on the top of the left wing, due to the fact that only the left main landing gear is down. The fuselage is just beginning to scrape on the runway, dragging us onto the dirt. Nervous young pilots can be glimpsed in the cockpit. Why is it called that? Things are about to get real noisy:

But there’s a more important message buried in my personal college kid-to-combat pilot meme, that the elitists in any society would like to hide from us common folk: Almost anyone can become exceptional, because most kids are itching to be a rock climber, a cat burglar or a fighter pilot, if the parents don’t keep them too safe. And, yes, video games make better pilots.

The Prime Directive for a fighter pilot is ripped right off the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Don’t Panic!

To conform to that Prime Directive, one must constantly reinforce one’s nervous system’s unnatural passion for the Don’t Panic rule. For most of aviation history, the best place to do that was to repair to the stag bar after the mission. Which leads us to the critical importance of the phenomenon known as Dead Bug!, as described in the Robin Olds Memorial, below.

“Two Bags”

Though any of us with a reasonably dispassionate mindset, good reflexes and immense drive could, starting at age 19, evolve into a fighter pilot, there is some physicality involved. The following was sent to me by my Pilot Training roommate and first Best Man, Mike Cowan (they say you never forget your first wife or best man).

Mike flew fighters his entire career and was one of the best “sticks” I knew. He retired as a full Colonel from the Air Force. His last assignment was as Commander of a squadron flying A-10 Warthogs. On his last mission before retiring, he scored five out of five “shacks”–perfect hits on the practice range. That was back before they put electronics in bombs. But was Mike a natural? Well, he became one. On Mike’s initial solo, we all watched in horror as he over-controlled the little Cessna 172 trainer, disappearing once below the higher cactus on final approach. Mike will be the first to tell you that not all fighter pilots are naturals. Another myth to discard.

Here’s a description by Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, remembering the lucky day he got to fly in the back seat of an F-14D Tomcat:

Someday you may be invited to fly in the back-seat of one of your country’s most powerful fighter jets. Many of you already have. John Elway, John Stockton, Tiger Woods to name a few. If you get this opportunity, let me urge you, with the greatest sincerity…

Move to Guam.
Change your name.
Fake your own death!
Whatever you do, do Not Go!!!

I know. The U.S. Navy invited me to try it. I was thrilled. I was pumped.

I was toast!

I should’ve known when they told me my pilot would be Chip (Biff) King of Fighter Squadron 213 at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.

Whatever you’re thinking a Top Gun named Chip (Biff) King looks like, triple it. He’s about six-foot, tan, ice-blue eyes, wavy surfer hair, finger-crippling handshake — the kind of man who wrestles dyspeptic alligators in his leisure time. If you see this man, run the other way.
Fast.

Biff King was born to fly. His father, Jack King, was for years the voice of NASA missions. (“T-minus 15 seconds and counting …” Remember?) Chip would charge neighborhood kids a quarter each to hear his dad. Jack would wake up from naps surrounded by nine-year-olds waiting for him to say, “We have a liftoff.”

Biff was to fly me in an F-14D Tomcat, a ridiculously powerful $60 million weapon with nearly as much thrust as weight, not unlike Colin Montgomerie. I was worried about getting airsick, so the night before the flight I asked Biff if there was something I should eat the next morning.

“Bananas,” he said.

“For the potassium?” I asked.

“No,” Biff said, “because they taste about the same coming up as they do going down.”

The next morning, out on the tarmac, I had on my flight suit with my name sewn over the left breast. (No call sign — like Crash or Sticky or Leadfoot. But, still, very cool.) I carried my helmet in the crook of my arm, as Biff had instructed. If ever in my life I had a chance to nail Nicole Kidman, this was it.

A fighter pilot named Psycho gave me a safety briefing and then fastened me into my ejection seat, which, when employed, would “egress” me out of the plane at such a velocity that I would be immediately knocked unconscious.

Just as I was thinking about aborting the flight, the canopy closed over me, and Biff gave the ground crew a thumbs-up. In seconds we were firing nose up at 600 mph. We leveled out and then canopy-rolled over another F-14.

Those 20 minutes were the rush of my life. Unfortunately, the ride lasted 80. It was like being on the roller coaster at Six Flags Over Hell. Only without rails. We did barrel rolls, snap rolls, loops, yanks and banks. We dived, rose and dived again, sometimes with a vertical velocity of 30,000 feet per minute. We chased another F-14, and it chased us.

We broke the speed of sound. Sea was sky and sky was sea. Flying at 200 feet we did 90-degree turns at 550 mph, creating a G force of 6.5, which is to say I felt as if 6.5 times my body weight was smashing against me, thereby approximating life as Mrs. Colin Montgomerie.

And I egressed the bananas.

And I egressed the pizza from the night before.

And the lunch before that.

I egressed a box of Milk Duds from the sixth grade.

I made Linda Blair look polite. Because of the G’s, I was egressing stuff that I never thought would be egressed.

I went through not one airsick bag, but two.

Biff said I passed out. Twice. I was coated in sweat. At one point, as we were coming in upside down in a banked curve on a mock bombing target and the G’s were flattening me like a tortilla and I was in and out of consciousness, I realized I was the first person in history to throw down.

I used to know ‘cool’. Cool was Elway throwing a touchdown pass, or Norman making a five-iron bite. But now I really know ‘cool’. Cool is guys like Biff, men with cast-iron stomachs and freon nerves. I wouldn’t go up there again for Derek Jeter’s black book, but I’m glad Biff does every day, and for less a year than a rookie reliever makes in a home stand.

A week later, when the spins finally stopped, Biff called. He said he and the fighters had the perfect call sign for me and said he’d send it on a patch for my flight suit.

What is it? I asked.

“Two Bags.”

What “Biff” King does is trainable. FWIW, I generally get airsick in a small plane if I’m not flying. I puked during both of my “dollar rides” in T-37s and T-38s in pilot training, as I had as a kid in a car during WWII gas rationing.. It’s a control thing with me, and I never had a problem while flying acrobatics and simulated air combat tactics.

The same might be true for “Biff” King, so there’s another myth dispelled.

Biff King would speak of Robin Olds with far more respect–reverence, probably–than Rick Reilly speaks of King. Robin Olds was the fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. Among his many qualities, he compelled his pilots–ordinary men doing extraordinary things–to become as extraordinary as the things he asked them to do.

And that is the lesson I’d like us all to “get” from this over-long post. Any of us can become extraordinary if we are mentored the right way and brought along carefully. I have friends from pilot training who flew with Robin Olds. To us civilians, every one of them seems extraordinary, but I knew them when they were not.

Let’s never stop striving to be extraordinary.

Robin Olds closes down another bar. Olds’ Last Call

Here’s Col. Olds, being carried from his 100th mission over North Vietnam in 1967. He’s about to be thrown into a tank of water, kept expressly for such celebrations.

I ran into Robin Olds in a bar in Steamboat Springs bar about three decades ago, where he had retired (to Steamboat, not specifically to that bar, only generally). A legend among fighter pilots, he’d been an Ace in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. But he seemed bitter and tired. “They’ve ruined it,” he said. “They’ve taken all the humanity out of flying, the adventure, the fun.

Most of us who flew in Vietnam feel pretty much the same way. Military aviation has a different taste today. It’s more precise and efficient, with perfectly targeted explosives launched from an invisible platform, perhaps controlled by a joystick back in the US. Ferchrissake! The frickin’ Air Force Academy has been hijacked by born-agains!

Here’s how the impending, bureaucratic Air Force was described on the compilation CD recorded by USAF A10 Warthog pilots stationed at Alconbury RAF Base, UK in 1989. (all of the songs are available free as MP3s, but Order the CD to support their misbegotten ways). Here’s We Fly in the Purple Twilight, from The gutsy guys who flew F-105 “Thuds” over North Vietnam. They’re celebrating the truth that so many of them died, and another would die tomorrow:

We fly in the purple twilight
We fly in the silver dawn;
With smoke trails following after
To show where our comrades have gone

So stand by, your glasses ready
Don’t let a tear leave your eye;
Here’s to the dead already
And hurrah for the next who dies.

For we are the boys they send to fly
Bosom buddies while boozin’ are we.
We are the boys they send out to die,
Bosom buddies while boozin’ are we.

The boys up at seventh they scream and they shout
They scream about things they know fuckall about
But we are the boys they send out to die,
Bosom buddies while boozin’ are we.

What military aviation has lost is ineffable: there’s something intangibly noble about a pilot in an imperfect, too-heavy, ground-loving jet, named for the sound it makes when it hits the ground, hurling himself at the earth at 400 knots in the service of a precise strike, flying coolly while surrounded by hot lead.

We are seeing again the horror of war, horror that remains no matter how automated the strike. The difference is whether the warrior is also at risk. Our nation has become committed to the sanitized strike and the automatic bomb. I’m not so sure that’s good. We’re mired in door-to-door combat in Iraq, partially because of our reliance on the twin fictions of the military-industrial complex–fewer soldiers and smarter weapons. General George Patton said it well:

It’s the unconquerable soul of man, and not the nature of the weapon he uses, that insures victory.

And, no doubt, our humanity.

Leaders like Robin Olds bring out the best of us, which explains the reverence in the following description, written by one of the many men he mentored into excellence.

Most leaders don’t do that, because they’re more worried about their future than their followers.

Citizen’s Guide to Robin Olds’ Last Party

I received an emailed report today from my Pilot training Student Commander and, eventually, housemate, Jack Ferguson. (The last time I saw Jack, one of his war stories involved a mission over North Vietnam in his F4 Wild Weasel, looking for SAM missiles. You could hardly say he was “over” North Vietnam, flying so low that he had to pop up from the treetops to avoid a missile as it was being raised for firing. That was not the recommended procedure for taking out a SAM. This is the kind of shit we all have stories about).

Jack’s email contained an After Action Report about the Robin Olds Memorial held at the AirForce Academy a week ago today. Since it’s written by a fighter pilot for fighter pilots, I’ve annotated it so we all can appreciate some of the less obvious humor and irony. Killing people for a living is not a pleasant business, and I’m frankly glad I never did that. My job was to carry cargo in Vietnam, including bombs and wounded, and later I refueled spy planes.

Some might be put off by the state of mind that the fighter pilot requires in order to do his or her work, but that’s like being repelled by a cop’s pledge to kill a hostage-taker. Fighter pilots often do the dirty business of misguided leaders, but that blind willingness is far better than having fighter pilots start deciding whom they will kill or not. Think about it.

Some might be equally put off by the drinking. Here’s how it’s described on the Alconbury compilation CD, Fight’s On:

I’m not apologizing, mind you. I’m just giving you a few guidelines to enhance your enjoyment. These songs are sung by fighter jocks throughout the free world. They reflect the manners of men at war, those who drink to forget, for an evening, the combat missions they must fly at dawn. Most of these lyrics are from World War II, and were popular among the same warriors in Korea and again in Vietnam.

These are not the songs of a bunch of degenerates, although they may sound that way. They are an integral part of the fighter fraternity.

Robin Olds Memorial
written by a comrade

It began as it ended; the hospitality suite at the Silverwood Hotel. Most arrived in town Friday and stopped by to have a drink or two; or three. And pizza. And renew old acquaintances. And start the war stories. But it was a relatively early evening because the next day started early. A lot of people heading to the Air Force Academy!

Citizens’ Interpretation

You do realize that the preceding “drink or three” is code, right?
I’m glad we could get that straight.

When one approached the Cadet Chapel on Saturday morning, the first thing encountered was an honor guard of some 50 Patriot Guards lined up across the piazza leading to the Chapel steps. These are the men and women that voluntarily provide an honor guard at the funerals of all veterans. And they’re the ones who showed up at the funerals of those killed in Iraq and placed themselves between the fallen comrade’s families and the liberal protesters who came to disrupt those solemn services.

Citizens’ Interpretation

Quoting Tom Wolfe again:

“ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

To the fighter pilot, it’s not inconsistent to combine deep reverence with scandalous irreverence.

After passing through those fine Americans, one then walked up the Chapel steps under the swords of the Cadet Honor Guard.

At the appointed hour, the family of Robin Olds and a party of close compatriots formed up under the honor guards. Then six NCOs of the Air Force Academy Honor Guard marched to the vehicle, which was at the ready, and, with slow military precision, removed the urn that contained Robin’s ashes. The urn; a large, beautiful object hand-built by one of Robin’s daughters, with an eagle atop, wings spread!

The Honor Guard, with the urn in hand, led the procession into the Chapel and up to the altar, where the urn was placed alongside a folded American flag and a large picture of Robin. All this while the choir sang: “Lord guard and guide the men who fly….”

Citizens’ Interpretation

The lyrics:

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces of the sky;
Be with them traversing the air
In darkening storms or sunshine fair.

Thou who dost keep with tender might
The balanced birds in all their flight,
Thou of the tempered winds, be near,
That, having Thee, they know no fear.

Control their minds with instinct fit
What time, adventuring, they quit
The firm security of land;
Grant steadfast eye and skillful hand.

Aloft in solitudes of space,
Uphold them with Thy saving grace.
O God, protect the men who fly
Through lonely ways beneath the sky.
__________________________________________

I didn’t really know Robin Olds, but my guess is that the last time he was in a house of worship was in his youth.

The so-called “Greatest Generation” was a pretty secular bunch. Two world wars and a great depression will do that to you. But, as the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, so any sane pilot will hedge his bets. I suspect that, in this circle, public worship is as much civic duty as core commitment.

The remainder of the altar was adorned with flowers, one with the River Rats plaque embedded in it. And more pictures of Robin! Great pictures! The Memorial began with the presentation of the colors! Then the National Anthem! The posting of the colors! Opening words by the Chaplain! And then the words of remembrance!

First, Robin’s daughter Susan led off the remembrances with stories of being a teenager, living at the Academy while Robin was Commandant of Cadets for 3 years.

Citizens’ Interpretation

I mean, isn’t that enough to earn a girl’s undying appreciation? Just asking…

And then she read a poem she had written last March while visiting her “Papa”, believing he was on his deathbed.

And the tears began to flow. If they hadn’t already started!

Then General Ralph “Ed” Eberhart approached the altar, saluted Robin’s urn and then began to tell of his experiences with Robin. Ed was the Cadet Wing Commander the year when Robin became Commandant. He told of the famous incident of Robin’s first meeting with the Cadet Corps. Robin had previously removed his handlebar mustache, his trademark as leader of the “Wolf Pack”, at the direction of the Air Force Chief of Staff. At the end of Robin’s speech, 4000 cadets, with Ed Eberhart out in front, whipped out and donned handlebar mustaches and began stomping and shouting, “Olds, Olds, OLDS !!!” Robin rose to his full height, jaws clenched, eyes blazing – then extended his long middle finger and flipped them all a big sweeping bird – with a huge grin on his face.

Citizens’ Interpretation

There’s a possibly apocryphal story about the first cadet graduation after Robin Olds had been brought to the Academy to acquaint it with the real world they’d be fighting in. As the story goes, Robin called on his buddies at McConnel AFB, Wichita, KS, to perform a supersonic flyover, to impress on these kids what this man’s Air Force was all about.At the appointed moment, the squadron of immense F-105s banged across the parade ground, as requested. Such huge fighters leave a heavy sonic footprint. The story says that, as the F-105 “thuds” passed over the middle rank of the the three Cadet divisions assembled, four distinct events happened:

  1. The hats of the cadets in the first rank flew forward.
  2. The hats of the cadets in the the third rank flew backward.
  3. The knees of the cadets in the middle rank buckled.
  4. A high fraction of the windows in the Academy chapel blew out.

Then it was JB Stone’s turn; The approach to the altar, the salute to Robin’s urn; then more remembrances!

JB told of the first time he met Col. Olds, who as the new Wing Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, called a meeting of all the pilots. At the time JB had about 60 or 70 missions North, had an engine shot out from under him and several bullet holes here and there on some pretty hairy missions. Robin told the pilots, “I’m your new boss. I’ll be flying your wing for a couple of weeks and at the end of that time, I’ll be better than any of you.” JB muttered under his breath, “We’ll see.” Unfortunately, it came out a little louder than JB intended. Robin heard it, immediately fixed on JB with those steely eyes, and repeated his statement forcefully again. And, as JB noted, Robin did exactly as he had said he would.

Next, Brig. Gen. Bob “Earthquake” Titus! Another salute to our hero’s urn and then more words that captured the life of Robin Olds. Earthquake spoke of how Robin transformed the 8th Wing into the Wolf Pack. He told of a Wolf Pack pilot who, while gleefully celebrating a successful mission, proceeded to rearrange or destroy some of the Officer’s Club furnishings. He was ordered to report to Col. Olds office at 0800 hours. He was there promptly. Robin, however, was dreading the chewing out he was going to have to administer for an act that he himself had been guilty of many times. He stalled for some 15 minutes, then braced himself, put on his sternest visage and entered his office, where he found the pilot standing at attention. The pilot saluted smartly and, before Robin could speak, said to Robin: “Sir, you’re late.” That cracked Robin up. The damage to the Club got paid somehow. And another tale was added to the lore of Robin Olds.

And Earthquake told of other experiences the two had in their long and illustrious careers together. And in the end, with a choking voice, Earthquake said goodbye “to the best friend he’s ever had”.

Capt. Jack McEncroe, USMC Fighter Pilot, was next to salute and proceed to the lectern. He told of his close friendship with Robin living in Steamboat Springs. 30 years of watching Robin’s God-awful back swing on the golf course, 30 years of skiing through the trees in fresh powder up to their knees, 30 years of listening to Robin telling the Cross-Eyed Bull story! And more words that captured the spirit of Robin Olds!

Next, Verne Lundquist, Hall of Fame Sportscaster, tried to demonstrate Robin’s back-swing, which featured a couple of contorted pauses on the way up, then a mighty downswing. Vern recalled one occasion playing golf with Robin when they came to a par 3. Robin’s tee shot carried the green, bounced a couple of times and went into the cup. Vern, all excited, shouted “You just got a hole in one! It went into the cup!” To which Robin calmly replied: “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?”

When Robin was selected for induction into the College football Hall of Fame as an All American on offense and defense at West Point, he asked Verne, “Is this a big deal? Do I have to go?” Verne told him Yes, and he went and made a gracious acceptance speech.

On another occasion Vern and Robin found themselves in the Tugboat Bar late one night and started getting harassed by a rather drunk, obnoxious guy who wanted to pick a fight with Robin. Robin stood up, squared his shoulders and said, “I’ve killed more people than you will ever know, for less reason than you are giving me right now! So sit down and SHUT UP!”

Verne told of another experience with Robin. They were touring Germany and stopped at a tavern where there were some pictures of Luftwaffe aircraft on the wall. When they asked the proprietor about them he said he had been a pilot, but had been shot down. He and Robin started comparing notes on location, time of day, cloud formation, tactics, etc., and after several drinks they were convinced that, indeed, it was Robin who had shot him down. A few months later, Verne and Robin were watching some of Robin’s gun camera film being shown on TV and Robin suddenly jumped up and exclaimed, “That’s the GUY!” And Verne noted, “If it’s not true, it should be.”

Then, interspersed between tears and laughter, all joined in and sang “God Bless America”.

And the tears continued to flow.

Then Christina, Robin’s daughter, came to the lectern. She spoke of her father and their interactions and special times together, especially in those last months that she spent with him in Steamboat Springs.

And finally, Robin’s granddaughter Jennifer told of her grandfather helping her, as a young child, set out a bowl of salad to feed Santa’s reindeer. Sure enough, the next morning the salad was gone and reindeer tracks were in the snow all over the porch. A long time later, she came across some wooden reindeer feet that Robin had carved to make those tracks.

And then Jen talked of her vision of how her Grandfather must be now, soaring up in the sky among the clouds. And in unison with her last words, the choir, joined by all present burst into “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…”

And it was over! All exited, down the Chapel steps under the swords again. And on to the cemetery!

More words by the Chaplain! Colors posted! Robin’s 1 star flag retired! The 21-gun salute! An American flag unfurled over the urn and then refolded and presented by the Superintendent of the Air Force Academy to Susan. And a 2nd flag presented to Jennifer. And then the last flag… presented to Christina? No! It went to JB. It had to be one emotional moment for him.

And then the flybys!

First a T-33, representing the F-80 Robin flew as part of the first all-jet acro team. Piloted by an infamous Barstooler, Big Dog Cary, with Waldo King, Aspenosium 1st year guest, in his back seat. As they passed over the gravesite, climbed out and executed a beautiful aileron roll, a 2nd T-33 passed over. And then a P-51, with those pistons putting out that sound that made you feel like you’re back in Europe, 1944. And then a Mig-17, an aircraft which accounted for two of Robin’s kills in Viet Nam. And then a 4-ship of F-16s from the Colorado Air National Guard!

And then the finale! A 4-ship of F-4s, with ET Murphy in the lead, appears on the horizon, heading straight for the crowd. Perfectly executed at precisely the right moment, ET, as lead, pulls up and executes the missing man formation just in front of the gathering. And as the remaining three pass over the throngs, ET climbs straight up into the sun directly over the gravesite. The best missing man formation this old fighter pilot has ever witnessed! And yes, LEAD did the pull. It was discussed and decided on based on the leadership role Robin always played and, it was asked: “What would Robin do?” Maybe something rebellious? Not the norm? It couldn’t have been better!

Citizens’ Interpretation

The explanation is not obvious to we who aren’t fighter pilots. The missing wing man fly-by is how fighter pilots honor departed brethren. The norm is that the no. 2 ship pulls straight up out of the fingertip pattern, leaving a symbolic gap in an otherwise perfect formation. But when the missing man is Robin Olds, well, the norm had to be violated, which is how Robin Olds led his whole life.

Any formation with Robin Olds would be led by Robin Olds. So the ship to depart the formation had to be the lead.

Similarly, when Arturo Toscanini died, His CBS orchestra performed a flawless concert with no one at the podium.

Then it was time to pass by the urn to say goodbye to him. And toss a nickel on the grass by his ashes. (For those that did so, the nickels were later deposited in the vault with Robin’s ashes to remain with him into eternity.)

And the formal proceedings came to an end.

Citizens’ Interpretation

How fitting that the formal proceedings would end with his comrades throwing a nickel on the grass next to Robin’s ashes. Here are the lyrics to the Korean war-era “Throw a nickel on the Grass”, from which the tradition grew:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot’s ass
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass and you’ll be safe!

Well, I’m cruising down the Yalu, doing six-and-twenty per
I cried to my flight leader, “Oh, won’t you save me, Sir!
Got two big flak holes in my wings, my engine’s outta gas!
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Got six MiGs on my ass!”

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot’s ass
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass and you’ll be safe!

Well, I shot my traffic pattern, to me it looked alright
The airspeed read one-ninety, I really racked it tight
The airframe gave a shudder, the engine gave a wheeze
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Spin instructions please!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot’s ass
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass and you’ll be safe!

The crosswind blew me sideways, the left wing hit the ground
I firewalled the throttle, and I tried to go around
I yanked that Sabre in the air, a dozen feet or more
The engine quit, I almost shit, the gear came through the floor

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot’s ass
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Throw a nickel on the grass and you’ll be safe!

Oddly, enough, this is a description of a good landing. This fighter pilot walked away from the drama of an F-86, shuddering to the ground from 12 feet Above Ground Level (AGL), driving the gear through the aircraft’s floor. Nothing in that description kept the fighter pilot from heading to the bar.

Now it was time to do what Robin did best – PARTY!

Back to the hotel for a LARGE reception! Pictures, banners, including Aspenosium, the Ratsand the Barstoolers! flowers! Lots of food and many, many bars! T-Bone MC’d, as Dick Jonas sang “Throw a nickel on the grass..” and all the other fighter pilot songs we’ve grown to know and love. And interspersed with that, Suzan showed many old photos of Robin and his family and described to the crowd each piece of Robin’s history that Kodak had captured. And the party went on and on.

And when it wound down, it was time to return to the place where it all started-the hospitality suite.

The keg was drained. All the other beer was drunk, as was all the wine. And the whiskey…
Flowed from telegraph poles!

Citizens’ Interpretation

The song is another from the Korean War:

Korean Waterfall

Beside a Korean waterfall on a cold and cloudy day
Beside his busted Sabre jet the young pursuiter lay
His parachute hung from a nearby tree, he was not yet quite dead
Listen to the very last words the young pursuiter said

“I’m going to a better land where everything’s all right
Where whiskey flows from telegraph poles, play poker every night
There’s not a single thing to do, but sit around and sing
And all the crews are women; oh death, where is thy sting?

“Death where is thy sting, ting-a-ling
Oh, death, where is thy sting?
The bells of Hell will ring, ting-a-ling
For you! But, not for me!

“So-o-o, ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling; blow it out your ass
Ring-a-ling-a-ling-
a-ling; blow it out your ass
Ring-a-ling-a-ling-
a-ling; blow it out your ass
Better days are coming, by-and-by!”

And bottles were emptied! Every bottle! Multiple restocking runs were made to keep it all flowing. And it did. Long into the night!

And fighter pilots serenaded Jennifer out by the pool with “The Balls of O’Leary”.

Citizens’ Interpretation

The lyrics are:

The balls of O’Leary,
Are wrinkled and hairy,
They’re stately and shapely,
Like the dome of Saint Paul’s.
The women all muster,
To view that great cluster,
Oh, they stand and they stare,
At the bloody great pair,
Of O’Leary’s balls.

And those dreaded words were heard to shout (paraphrased) “Deceased Insect”. And bodies hit the floor. Glasses flying, bar stools flying! And we were all young again.

Citizens’ Interpretation of Dead Bug!

I sure want to see that video, old farts throwing themselves backwards onto the industrial carpeting! If you don’t know about the Dead Bug tradition, there’s a wonderful sequence in The Great Santini. Rent it. The movie also covers most of the traditions described here.

The ritual: You fly a mission. You land and repair to the Stag Bar. You order a round. The glasses become empty.

This is serious, far more serious than the fact that you just landed with several holes in your airplane, streaming fuel, #2 engine out, no oil pressure on #1. That’s just part of the job. What’s at stake here is that . . .

SOMEONE BETTER BUY A FRICKIN’ ROUND!

AND THEY BETTER BUY IT NOW.

The obvious solution is that a seemingly mature officer, devoted husband, father of 3 and Defender Of Our Freedom, cries out DEAD BUG! at the top of his lungs and immediately throws himself and his chair straight back onto the floor, wiggling his feet in the air. Last guy similarly wiggling on the floor buys. It’s a reflex test.

I have seen a Rhodes Scholar do this.

You think it’s stupid. But it’s central to being a fighter pilot.

Baseball players and fighter pilots value fast reflexes. But fighter pilots are just sillier.

The reason our loyal narrator paraphrases the game as “Deceased Insect” is that every fighter pilot, wherever he is, regardless of circumstances, must execute the maneuver on hearing the phrase or, on strict interpretation, reading it. He doesn’t want to obligate you at home to throw your barca lounger over backwards.

In the end, long after this old fighter pilot hung it up, none other than Fred Olds, Robin’s brother, closed the bar for the night.

It was quite a party. Fitting for the likes of Robin Olds. And you know he was up there looking down, laughing and saying: “Now that’s the way to go out!”

And so it was. If you were there and wish to expound on this, please do so. If you were not there, you missed one hell of a party. I hope this gives you an idea of how it all went.

The Academy videotaped much of the Memorial and cemetery proceedings, which will be available eventually. I’ll pass that on when known. But, in the meantime, I hope this goes a little way in letting you know how the party went.

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