"IT IS A CRUEL WORLD, HERR HAUPTMAN. YOU SAID IT YOURSELF."
February 1, 2017 | View PDF
This is my favorite line from my all-time favorite movie, The Blue Max. In this 1966 movie that my dad took me to watch when I was all of five years-old, George Peppard plays a German World War I fighter pilot, Bruno Stachel. After being denied his first aerial victory and being dismissed by his snobby, upper-crust squadron mates, Bruno shoots down a British airplane over his own airfield. When confronted by his angry commanding officer, Stachel walks over to the downed airplane, cuts the registration number off the plane and throws it at the squadron adjutant’s feet. He squares up to his commander, utters that classic line and walks off. I love it. Although in many ways I agree that it may be a cruel world, in many ways life as well can seem unfair. But nobody ever said life was going to be a bed of roses. It is up to us who are confronted with “unfair” situations to do our best to tighten our belts and move on. Many times, the best way to overcome adversity or someone else’s attempts to hold us back is to excel at what we do. The other day I was flying with one of my copilots and we were talking about race relations today in the US. Being someone who is all over the country every week, I will clearly testify that it has gone down over the past eight years. No doubt about it. But that being said, we both agreed that open dialogue and kindness still melts walls of bitterness and suspicion. I see it and practice it every day.
So during our conversation, he asked me if I had ever personally experienced any racism in my flying career. I immediately answered, “Absolutely. No doubt.” He seemed a little surprised because anyone who knows me knows that I DO NOT carry any form of racism or bitterness on my sleeve. I reject it, throw it under the bus and move on. I have to. It is who I am. Holding on to bitterness never does anybody, any good whatsoever. But if you ask me what I have experienced, I will tell you. So I thought I would share a couple of them with you today.
Almost all of the situations I faced were in the Air Force and only two were at Delta. At Delta it had to do with just me and the other pilot. One guy made it clear the moment we met that he had an issue with me. In fact, the first thing he briefed me was that he expected me to be on time. What? This after I was at the jet 30 minutes before him and had accomplished his tasks since he was running late. I left the cockpit and called my wife and told her this was going to be a long trip. By day three of the four day trip, let’s just say it was not an ideal situation in the cockpit. The other, well if you ever get me offline, just ask me. But to Delta’s credit, in my 19 years, I have flown with close to 800 different pilots and only two made it to my hall of shame “do not fly with” list. The Air Force; now that is a slightly different story. By and large, I had no major issues but back in the early 80’s black pilots were still not necessarily an everyday thing. In my entire Air Force career, for example, I never flew with another black pilot and I was always the only black pilot in any squadron I was in. 99.999999999999999% of my squadron mates and commanders were outstanding but I did run into a couple of issues. Here goes.
1. ROTC Summer Camp. Between our sophomore and junior years of college, those of us in the ROTC program had to go to summer camp. Upon our return, we were in the cadet officer corps (POC) and were expected to build our skills and for the most part run the cadet program. I went to Plattsburg Air Force Base and for my Field Training Officer (FTO) I had a Captain Moran from Penn State. The very first day of camp, he had all of us in my flight, about 15 cadets, introduce ourselves. Who we were, our university and our future career field. When it got to me and I said I was going to pilot training, Captain Moran stopped me and asked, “Are you actually going to pilot training?” When I said yes, he rolled his eyes and exhaled loudly. Okayyyy. His reaction was not lost on all of the cadets there. Matters were not helped at all when there was a young blonde cadet, Carol Stoner from Slippery Rock University and we hit it off vey well. You can see where this is going.
Over the next four weeks it was obvious to everyone in the flight that the weasel Moran did not particularly like the future black Air Force pilot. We would come back to the barracks and my bed would be messed up or my shoes would be slightly pushed under the bed. Demerits for T8ermann. But to shorten the story, there is a lot more, it came to a head one afternoon when we had an emergency meeting in the auditorium for all cadets. Apparently, someone found a marijuana cigarette on the parade grounds and one of the FTOs had his Citadel class ring stolen from his room. The sky cops were doing a sweep of the dorms and they brought the drug dogs into the auditorium. Although they found nothing, it was strange that one of the cops brought his dog right to me and had him sniff away. Hmm, 100-pound German Shepherd, his head in your crotch, yeah, very uncomfortable. After the drug search, we were released to go to the dorms and get ready for lunch. Once we got to the dorm, I went to my dresser and opened the top drawer so I could get a change of socks since we were going to change uniforms. Sitting on the very top of my socks, in plain view was the Citadel class ring as if in a jewelry case in a store. No missing it, it was right there for anyone to see. I called my three roommates over to look at it and discussed what to do next. I picked up the ring and walked down the hall to Captain Moran’s office. I went in without reporting and bounced the ring off his desk into his puny, schoolgirl like chest and told him, “I just found this in my drawer and I think you know how it got there.” I will never forget the stupid look on his pasty, face with his lipless mouth hanging open. To this day, I thank God that we got back to the dorm before the cops did. Had they found the ring I would have been thrown out, no Air Force career, no question. Who do you think the higher ups would have believed?
When I got back to UT that September, Colonel Colton called me into his office and asked me how summer camp went. I said good except for Captain Moran. I told him what happened, he shook his head and showed me my final training report. In about ten areas, on a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the best, Captain Moran gave me all 1s. All. Firewalled. They knew something was amiss when even in athletic ability I got a one. They knew I was getting ready to test for my brown belt in Isshinryu Karate, I played Centerfield on the ROTC softball team, wide receiver on the ROTC football team, at the time could still run a 4.5 40-yard dash and would often do 100 push-ups in a minute just because. So they knew Moran was out to lunch. In the end, it didn’t hurt my ROTC career because in my senior year I still became the Cadet Colonel in charge of the entire Corps and graduated with a regular instead of a reserve commission. Dust under my feet; I had other things to do.
2. In the spring of our junior year, we had to take an aviation ground school class so we could start flying the fall of our senior year. It was the first cut for pilot training. If you could not pass this phase, to include an initial solo, you would not make it to pilot training (UPT). The teacher who I will not mention, was an older lady who was well-known as one of the premier female aviators in that region. But she ran the flying school in Knoxville that the Air Force used and taught the ground school class at the university. In the class we had about 6 ROTC guys and 20 civilians. For our grade, there was only one test and that was the private pilots written exam administered at the end of the semester. I studied like a madman and on test day, I finished it in record time about 5-10 minutes before the next guy. The teacher graded it right in front of me and boom, 100%. All the ROTC guys knew my grade, they saw it. Sweet, off to the 3rd Lt. Program at Holloman AFB and flying in T-38s for three weeks and then two summer classes so I could graduate early and head off to pilot training six to 10 months earlier.
Mid-summer and along comes my report card. In my ground school class I got a big, fat juicy “C”. What? I aced the only test we had. I immediately went into the Colonel Colton’s office (again) and asked him what was the deal. The active duty faculty were wondering the same thing and I told him my story. All the other ROTC guys corroborated my story and so he called out to the flying school and asked what happened. Her story? She said after she got back to the airport, she noticed she had lost my test. Only my test. Nobody else’s. Since she “lost” my test, the only fair thing to do was to give me a “C”. The active duty officers fought her but she would not budge. I offered to take the test again, right there but she refused. The officers told me not to worry about it and it would have no effect on me there in the Corps. In the end, this paragon of
aviation could simply not give a black guy an “A.” She simply could not do it.
So those are the two most egregious events where people actively tried to destroy my fledgling Air Force career. Yeah I had an old lady in Portsmouth NH say to me, “How dare you talk to me you %#@% N----r,” when I thanked her for her comments praising the Air Force. Then in 1992, I was flown from Germany to Nebraska for an interview for a special duty assignment. As part of the interview process I had to fly and air refuel in the 747 (E-4B airborne command post). The commander in the right seat had me fly an oddball non-precision approach. It was an NDB full procedure turn with a circle to land to another runway and when I flew it flawlessly, he was clearly angry when I did it. The countenance on someone’s face never lies. Where he clearly wanted me to fail, he failed to realize in NATO, we flew those kinds of approaches all the time (btw, the flight engineer who had been there for about six years said no one had ever been asked to fly that type of approach on an interview before). Then after the interview, the commander, who never even reviewed my carried records, actually refused to take me to the airport the next day and made me find my own way there. The list goes on and on.
The bright side of all this, however, is that through it all, I still do not hold grudges or blame others for anything. I am never responsible for how others act but I am responsible how I act. I will, however, be honest with you. Had I been thrown out of ROTC and had my lifelong dream of being a military pilot dashed because of the “stolen ring” situation, I don’t know what I would have done. I was clearly a different person back then. At a minimum I surely would have traveled to Penn State and beat the snot out of Captain Moran, but then what? I certainly would not be writing this Robservation today. God has me and has always had me exactly where He wanted me. I love people and folks who know me will clearly testify to that. A cruel world, Herr Hauptmann? You bet it can be. But those who let it determine their attitude, their moral compass, their anger, their grief, their blame and their overall situation, are the ones who truly lose in this. I chose not to indulge in those things, certainly learn from them and then move on. It seems to work for me.