AF history, progress, future determined by risk takers

By Lt. Col. Mark Camerer | 6th Airlift Squadron commander | May 10, 2006

MCGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. — “Any organization that wants to grow has to take risks,” said retired Gen. Chuck Horner, the air boss of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. “And the more you stick your neck out, the greater the opportunity for failure.” 

That was true for the early pioneers of U.S. military aviation. They had to be idea men, risk takers and aviators. They made mistakes, but they also made great strides in developing what is now the world’s premier air and space force. 

Still, each time they flew, the chances of a crash, or crash landing, were real. As a test pilot, General Chuck Yeager noted, “In the business of aviation, you only get one mistake. And, unfortunately, you don’t get to learn from it.” 

Over time, these risk takers built an Air Force legacy; one where ingenuous and visionary Airmen used their experience, brains and courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable risks to forge today’s Air Force. 

Three months after arriving at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers were finally ready to give their creation a try. They tossed a coin to determine which brother would make the first attempt. Wilbur won and climbed into the pilot’s position. 

John Daniels, one of the crewmen for the Wright brothers, recalled the moments before their first flight; “After a while they shook hands, and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.” 

Forty feet down the rail, the Wright Flyer lurched up, stalled and smashed into the sand, slightly damaging the forward elevator. Three days later, with the damage repaired, the Flyer was again ready for flight. The Wrights arose Dec. 17 to freezing temperatures and a 27-mileper- hour wind. At 10:35 a.m., the Flyer lifted off with Orville at the controls. The overly-sensitive elevator control caused the Flyer to dart up and down as it sailed slowly over the sand, coming to rest with a thud, 120 feet from where it had taken off. The flight was short — only 12 seconds — but it was a true flight nevertheless. 

Later, Wilbur Wright commented on learning to operate a flying machine, “If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” 

Second Lt. Henry Arnold, the fourth military pilot trained in the Wright Flyer, became acquainted with the risks associated with aviation. He flew his first flight from a cow pasture in North Carolina in 1911. Before taking off, he asked his instructor about a man with the black derby hat who was sitting on a wagon at the edge of the field. His instructor told him, “That’s the local undertaker, he comes out everyday and drives back empty … let’s keep it that way.” 

During the next several days, Lieutenant Arnold flew 28 sorties. Logging nearly four hours, averaging eight minutes per flight, Lieutenant Arnold was appointed an aviator in the newfound Army Air Corps. 

Later, General Arnold led the charge as the Air Force became a separate service—both endeavors were seen as dangerous, somewhat crude and abundantly risky. Each delivered unprecedented rewards to the growth and security of our nation. 

War brought with it the advent of an entirely different perspective on aviation risk. Early in 1942, the memory of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh in our nation’s mind, and we were hungry to strike back. Aviation provided the perfect tool for a daring offensive. 

In early 1942, a small fleet of naval ships in the Pacific Ocean set sail for Japan, accompanied by aircraft carriers loaded with 16 B-25s. The plan called for the aircraft carriers to approach to within 400 to 650 miles of the Japanese coast, where they’d launch a fleet of B-25s to bomb targets across the Japanese homeland, then recover at several bases in China and Indonesia. 

Plans changed when the aircraft carriers were sighted by an enemy patrol boat while still more than 800 miles from Japan. Although the enemy patrol boat was sunk by American war ships, it was unknown if they had been able to radio a warning to Japanese defenses. 

Continuing to the planned launch point was deemed too risky, and all 16 aircraft were directed to launch from their present positions. This change in plans left nearly no hope of the bombers being able to reach their planned recovery airfields. The decision to launch carried insurmountable risk, yet all 16 B-25 crews launched as ordered, dropped their ordinance on their Japanese targets and went on to either crash land or bail out over China. Only one aircraft made it to a divert base in Russia, where it was held for the interment of the war. 

The raid was led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle. His formation of 16 B-25s included one other field grade officer, two captains, 48 lieutenants and 29 enlisted troops. 

Each man answered the call heroically; and despite four fatalities, the loss of 15 aircraft and numerous injuries; the missions flown by the famous Doolittle Raiders were viewed as a resounding success. It left no doubt about America’s resolve or its ability to project power deep into enemy territory. 

General Horner was a modern-day, courageous risk taker. He flew more than 100 combat missions over North Vietnam before becoming the leader of the coalition air force during Operation Desert Storm. When asked to comment on our nation’s early aviators, he said, “Aviation pioneers tackled hard jobs because it was what they had to do … Jimmy Doolittle could have been a glamour poster child, but instead, he took hard jobs and got them done.” 

General Horner realized we are expected to take risks and we’d consider ourselves failures – not for making mistakes, but for not trying. 

With great pride, I see today’s Airmen as risk takers continuing a fine Air Force legacy; where ingenious and visionary Airmen use experience, brains and courage to confront seemingly insurmountable risks to forge tomorrow’s Air Force.