The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck

by Harold H. Martin

The Black Hatters and the Book

THE LIVES of a brave crew depend on more than the quality of the aircraft. Jack Jackson's tough inspectors, who make sure that the airplane is built to specifications, have their Air Force counterparts in a hard-nosed cadre of flight examiners who see to it that it is flown exactly by the book. Known, irreverently, as Black Hatters or MAC Weiners to the hard-pressed flight crews of the line squadrons, they are authorized to board the airplane without notice anywhere, any time, to fly a mission with the crew and observe their flight procedures,

Like Jackson's inspectors, feeling for cotter keys and peering into dark corners with mirror and flashlight, no element of MAC's flight operations escapes their notice. Two of them, Majors Jack Ritter and Fred Luethke, were test pilots on the Star-Lifter and authors of its training syllabus. They had much to do with writing the book to which the flight crews must adhere.

"We poke our noses into everything," says Lieutenant Colonel Frederick L. Hodgkins, Chief of Crew Standardization at MAC headquarters. "When we go into the system, we are not only looking for flight procedures, we are looking for anything that might have an adverse effect on flight operations. We want the crews to be standard in everything they do, from the uniforms they wear to their procedure on the intercom. We check on the cleanliness of MAC cafeterias in foreign countries and make sure they are putting out a standard hamburger. We take a look at remote airfields all over the free world, checking on the condition of the runways, the effectiveness of the communications.

As beady-eyed hatchet men from headquarters, having the power to ground and send back for retraining any airman or flying officer caught deviating from SOP, the Black Hatters, though respected, are looked upon with something less than warmth by the crews, who feel that they have enough troubles already without having somebody breathing down their necks as they fly.

"We never quite know what to expect when we climb aboard," said Major Luethke. "Some crews are cold and quiet-I've had the intercom mysteriously go off so I couldn't hear what was being said and couldn't talk to anybody. Some, on the other hand, are friendly and cooperative. As for us, we try to be neither buddy-buddy nor hostile, just businesslike. If we feel like we have to rip their tails off about something, we do it, but we don't do it just for pleasure."

Some crewmen are hard to convince of this.

"Those guys," said an unhappy pilot who had just been detailed, "don't even take time to wash. They chew your butt and then hit the ground running for another plane so they can get started chewing some other crew."

They do move at high speed throughout the system, the Black Hatters admit, and they sometimes leave bruised feelings in their wake. It is not because of malice, though, but the magnitude of their jobs. The three officers who make up the crew standardization office at MAC headquarters are at the point of the pyramid whose broad base is at the squadron level, where each examiner is responsible for eight pilots. One problem facing the Air Force today is the shortage of experienced flight personnel. About the time a MAC flying officer begins to learn his trade and becomes a dependable pilot or navigator, he trades his baggy green flight coverall-and his military pay-for the handsomely tailored uniform and the equally handsome monthly stipend of a commercial airline. This means a constant departure from the service of experienced aircraft commanders, pilot instructors, and flight examiners of all types.

MAC, therefore, is often forced to put a relatively inexperienced aircraft commander in the left-hand seat of its multimil-lion-dollar StarLifter and send him off on a global mission with the prayerful hope that, whatever emergency may arise, he will handle it by the book. Prayerful hope is not enough, of course, and to insure that he does do exactly what he is supposed to do, he is kept under frequent but intermittent surveillance by standardization officers from his own squadron, wing, or numbered Air Force. These examiners may also lack experience, and to be sure they know their jobs, the Black Hatters from MAC must continuously check them. "Sometimes," says Ritter with a grin, "we all end up on the same airplane checking each other- a highly hazardous situation."

The main thing the flight examiners are interested in is how well the crew members know their flying jobs. The engineer flight examiner shows up at the aircraft early to watch the crew's engineers as they get the plane ready for flight. In the air, he quizzes them mercilessly on emergency procedures. The load-master's examiner watches him as he takes the cargo pallets aboard, and fills out his weight-and-balance forms. The pilot examiner takes his place in the straight-backed, uncomfortable scanner's seat between and just behind the pilot's and copilot's seats. He clamps the headset over his ears and listens without comment as they run the preflight check lists. He watches for the smooth professional touch, or the lack of it, with which the man in the left-hand seat gets the plane off the ground, gear up, flaps up, squared away on the proper heading on the climb to cruising altitude. All this is done in watchful silence, the examiner taking notes in a little loose-leaf book. Once at cruising altitude, when the loadmaster has brought up coffee and everybody is relaxed, his questioning begins. What's the procedure if ----? He runs through dozens of possible emergencies, ranging from the ingestion of a sea gull into an engine, to sudden depressurization, to the failure of the empannage de-icing system. No engine failure or other malfunction that might endanger the plane is actually cranked in, of course, except on local training flights.

Occasionally, if the flight examiner and the pilot being checked are from the same squadron, there is a certain amiable give-and-take between them.

"Say something in copilot," the flight examiner said to the young pilot in the right-hand seat.

"Duh," said the copilot, dutifully.

There are also arguments which can only be settled then and there, by reference to the bible of the StarLifter, the holy but ever-changing writ known as Technical Order 1C-141A-1 with its multitude of safety supplements. A huge black loose-leaf notebook, it opens with a cartoon of an anxious-looking mother eagle, telling an eager eaglet that has just burst from the shell, "There's a lot to know before you fly." This well might read, "There's a lot to know by heart before you fly," for flight examiners expect crew members to be able to recite from memory any tech order directions having to do with safety.

At the end of the flight, the examiner debriefs the pilots before they ever leave their seats. While everything is still fresh in their minds and his, he reads off from his notebook his list of their sins. He then puts his evaluation down in writing, signs it, and hands it over to the aircraft commander. It has happened, though rarely, that a flying officer has had to be downgraded and retrained.

All standardization has for its ultimate purpose the safety of the airplane and its crew, and for this reason the examiners insist that each member of the crew goes exactly by the book, that he use the right terminology, that he refrain from adding his own personal touch to the way he does his job.

"This doesn't mean that we aren't willing to listen," says Hodgkins. "Sometimes we run into a crew member who says, 'Look, the book says do it this way, but it works better if you do it this way,' so we tell him, 'O.K. That's fine. But you do it like the book says until we can put your way through crew standardization and check it out.' "

The cult of personality is not encouraged among MAC crewmen. In the struggle to standardize, the stress is on the procedure, not on the virtuosity of the individual. MAC's crews are not integrated as were the old SAC crews who flew together on the same plane, on the same missions, year after year. MAC scheduling officers make up a crew for a single mission by drawing from a pool of aircraft commanders, copilots, navigators, flight engineers, and loadmasters. Though one or two of them may have flown on the same crew before, the likelihood that all six men have ever flown together is as remote as the likelihood that an honest poker player will draw a royal straight flush. It is important, therefore, that each man be able to do his particular job so well that he can substitute professional pride in his own competence for team spirit and crew loyalty.

"The idea," says Major William Rawlinson, Jr., standardization officer of the 437th Wing at Charleston, "is to develop a strong system and then make the men conform to it. A weak system, plus a tired crew, can end up in a crashed plane. In the old short-haul days, a fresh, strong crew could save a plane in an emergency, even with the handicap of a weak system. On the long flights the jets make today, you have to have a very strong procedural system-one that can carry a tired crew through a crisis. They may do the job blindly, but they will do it right, out of sheer force of habit."

Though something of inner value may be lost in making Star-Lifter crewmen as faceless and interchangeable as the plug-in black boxes of the ship's electronic system, something is also gained-a sense of confidence in the other man's expertise. It is a source of crew morale to know that under MAC's drive for a standardized human product, six men can be picked up from six different squadrons and put into a plane chosen at random from any flight line anywhere, and everything-plane, pilots, engineers, navigators, and loadmasters-will merge immediately into a team, each man doing what he is supposed to do, at the moment he is supposed to do it, with the same degree of professional finesse, and with the aircraft responding exactly as expected.

"The strength of the system," Rawlinson explains, "lies in the fact that each man not only knows his own job, he knows what the next man is supposed to do. If he's distraught about

something, family trouble, money trouble, a hangover, or whatever, and he flips a switch out of sequence or gives a wrong response on a check list, the pilot in the next seat, the engineer, or somebody will notice it. Part of the AC's standard crew briefing, in fact, is to remind them to speak up and challenge him if they see him doing anything that is not standard. This gets away from that old situation where the investigating officer says to the crash survivor, 'Well, for God's sake, when you saw him turn the aircraft over on its back and nose it over in a dive, why didn't you say something to him about it?' And the guy says, 'Well, I thought he knew what the hell he was doing.' "

The problem of the weary crewman, or of the man whose worried mind affects his flying proficiency, is of much concern to MAC. Flight examiners, therefore, not only evaluate such tangible things as knowledge of the book; they also concern themselves with more subjective things, subtle signs that give a clue to crew spirit and morale. This is important, for a sullen and dispirited crew can be as dangerous as one that is ignorant or careless.

"You watch a crew climb aboard a plane," says a veteran flight examiner, "and if the baggage drill is listless, and there's no kidding, no wisecracking, just a bunch of silent guys, you can bet there's something wrong back home at the squadron. And it's your job to find out what it is. That's not hard if you have the knack of getting along with a crew, so that they have confidence in you. You can be sure that before the flight is over, somebody is going to get you aside and bleed his guts out.

"Much of the bleeding stems from the conviction, firmly held by all crews, that they are working their tails off. And, as a matter of fact, they are. There is a tremendous pressure from higher up to keep those planes in the air. The average crew member goes out on a trip that lasts five to six days, and when he comes home, he gets one day off for every three days he's been away. That free time is supposed to be his own. But somehow he's got to find time to keep up his proficiency in the simulator, or he can't fly, and he's got to have his annual physical by a certain date, or he can't fly. And he also has to fill in on certain jobs around the squadron, such as adjutant, or operations officer, or safety officer, because there just aren't enough people to go around. So, just about the time he gets his sleeping and eating back on schedule, he gets a call from the Airlift Command Post and he has to tell his wife, 'Well, honey, here I go again.' And that can cause a lot of static from the other pillow after they go to bed at night. It's not so much the flying, though one hundred and twenty-five hours in thirty days is a lot of time in the air. It's not being able to plan anything ahead. When the guy gets alerted, he doesn't know where he's going. He may go west to Japan or east to Africa or south to Easter Island or Antarctica. All he knows is that twelve hours from the time he gets the call from ACP, he'll be on his way. But there's no way he can know when he'll get back. So he can't plan anything, like taking a little weekend trip with his wife and kids, or having friends in for dinner, or laying on a fishing trip, or going to see his folks. He's tried it too often, and on the day he'd planned to be on a picnic with his kids, he was offloading cargo in Pango Pango or somewhere."

A bachelor officer will moan even louder than a married man. He can't make any progress with his courting, for his girl gets fed up with having him call up and say, "Look, honey, about Friday night. I'm sorry. . . ." Pretty soon she says, "Yeah, I'm sorry, too, Buster. Get lost."

So the unhappy bachelor rambles on for a long time, bending the flight examiner's ear with the story of his troubles. Then gradually the talk drifts on to the happier side of flying for MAC. The way a crewman feels when he comes into Yokota, for example, after the long flight down the Aleutians, to find the stag bar full of his buddies and the Happy Hour in full swing at five o'clock in the morning . . . the look of unbelieving happiness on the face of the wounded, coming aboard the plane at Tan Son Nhut or Da Nang or Cam Ranh Bay, and realizing all at once that when they leave the plane they will be home . . . the memory of the places a MAC crewman sees as part of his routine flying job . . . the glamorous places that many people spend a lifetime saving up to visit. And they think of the things they have brought home for their wives and daughters and sweethearts from these far-off places-the perfumes and the silks, thefo6/STARLIFTER

brass and silver and ivory and the camel saddles and oil paintings and the carved-wood screens-things that will be handed down in the family for generations.

And they also remember things that are part of the lore and legend of MAC but which they don't talk about too much at home: the places around the world where a lonely bachelor can find an LBLM-a Little Brown Loving Machine-to comfort him . . . strange Oriental night clubs and restaurants where both the rituals and the dishes are exotic . . . and for the faithful Straight Arrow with a crick in his neck, the bathhouses where the tiny girl attendants, once they have steamed and soaked and scrubbed a journey-weary crewman, will then walk giggling up and down his spine until he goes to sleep.

Soon day brightens the dark face of the sea with a pearly light, and there ahead lies Africa or Alaska, Spain, Italy, Japan, Australia, or wherever. The plane comes alive with the stir that precedes a landing, and the flight examiner puts on his Black Hat again and climbs back into the scanner's seat, to listen and watch as the landing gear rumbles down, and the flaps, and the navigator and the flight engineer report, "Check completed," and the loadmaster calls in, "Cabin secured," and the pilot, feeling the presence of the flight examiner at his elbow, eases the throttles back to be sure he brings the big plane over the threshold at exactly threshold speed and threshold height and the main gear touches first, and the pilot pulls the throttles back and very gently the nosewheel touches, and the plane, a land vehicle now, speeds down the runway arrow straight, the pilot delicately using first the rudder, then the ailerons, then the nose-wheel steering, and then the brakes, until with a great whoosh and a roar and a rumble the spoilers and the thrust reversers come into play and the plane slows to taxi speed. The flight is over. The Black Hatter gets ready to make his little speech, and if everything has gone by the book, the Happy Hour that lies ahead will be just that.

StarLifter Index Previous Chapter Next Chapter