Suddenly all eyes were on me. As crew commander, what would I do?
I reached up, removed my headset and felt blood oozing from the top of my head into my left and right ears. In a flash I relived our crew´s vivid experience the previous day.
Having been alerted and directed to perform an immediate launch scramble mission the day before, our Air Force flight crew hustled to our Boeing 707 in support of operations in Iraq. Our navigator, a young second lieutenant, was serving her first rotation in the “Sandbox” as those of us experienced in the Middle Eastern theater of operations affectionately referred to the area. Not only was this her first deployment to Southwest Asia, but this was her first scramble alert launch.
Consequently, as our alerted crew sped our vehicle to a screeching stop just beyond our aircraft´s left wingtip, the excited newbie navigator pushed past the other three crew members, raced to the crew entry chute, and energetically scampered up the ladder. Close behind her, our burley copilot suddenly and unexpectedly found himself literally catching the navigator´s limp body in his flight suit-clad arms.
“Whoa, what´s happening?” I inquired as I raced to catch up with the other crew members.
By this time, the fourth member of our crew, our boom operator, had parked the car, grabbed his gear from the trunk and dashed into the middle of the commotion reaching the airplane and crew just ahead of me. After observing the copilot catch the navigator in his arms he declared, “Captain, she must have been hit in the head by the crew entry grate at the top of the stairs and passed out! It´s a good thing the copilot was right behind her to catcher her. Otherwise she´d have hit the ground—and that´s a nine foot fall!”
I stepped up to check on the navigator as she regained her composure. As the still stunned copilot set her down on her own feet she exclaimed, “I´m okay! I´m fine! Let´s launch!”
“Lieutenant, are you sure you´re alight?” I demanded.
“Yes, Sir; I´m fine,” she again insisted.
In a flash, my mind played through a myriad of unsettling possible outcomes. What if the navigator experienced a serious concussion and would require medical attention? What if she suddenly passes out in flight? The mission our alert launch was supporting was not an exercise. Hence, this was an operational alert launch. Ground troops´ lives depended on us doing our job—on time. There was too much at stake to delay our takeoff unless the navigator was unable to perform her duties.
My musing was interrupted by the nervous navigator again declaring, “I´m fine, Sir, let´s go!”
“Okay,” I pronounced. “If I see blood, we´re not launching until you get checked out by the medic. If no blood, we´ll press!” With that I quickly examined the navigators head to ensure she was not bleeding. Finding no blood, I hastily directed, “Let´s go!”
Within a very few minutes the copilot and I had started all four engines of our aerial refueling-configured jet aircraft. I quickly taxied our aircraft to the runway and immediately took off to fly our important mission—thankfully, uneventfully.
But, that was yesterday. Now, it was my turn. Today, again alerted and directed to scramble launch, I reached the aircraft first, climbed the crew entry ladder, pushed the metal grate out of my way—and again—the spring-loaded latch designed to hold the grate out of the way during crew loading failed to catch and the grate fell on my head as it had on the navigator the previous day.
Barely acknowledging the stinging pain I put on my headset, jumped into the left pilot´s seat, and immediately began starting our engines. By the time the copilot completed strapping in his seat I reported, “Ready to taxi!”
That was when the boom operator cried out, “Captain, you´re bleeding!”
For a fleeting moment I entertained ignoring the comment and simply pushing up the throttles to taxi for takeoff. As I felt all three sets of crew member eyes burning at me, inside my bleeding head the obvious question they were all wondering screamed: Does the standard you set for the navigator yesterday apply only to her or to all crewmembers—including you—the aircrew commander?
Realizing every second counted, I quickly unstrapped and advised the copilot, “You have the aircraft; I´m going to drive myself to the medic´s tent to get cleared to fly…be sure to complete all before taxi and takeoff checklists so we can immediately taxi and takeoff as soon as I get cleared!” I didn´t wait for his reply as I scrambled back down the crew entry ladder, jumped into our crew alert vehicle, and sped to the medic´s tent less than one half mile away right next to the flight line.
As the medic quickly assessed my injury he asked how I felt. Just like my navigator had yesterday, I replied that I felt fine and just needed to be cleared to fly so I could get back to my alert launch. Understanding the importance of our operational mission the medic agreed to clear me to fly but requested I come back to his tent upon return to base for a more in-depth check-out and possibly stitches. “Thanks, Doc!” I called over my shoulder as I hurried back to my alert vehicle.
Just as the previous day, we successfully accomplished our scramble alert mission and returned to base just before the sun rose in the wee hours of the morning. Upon completing our post mission paperwork and filing a ground incident report the second day in a row, our tired crew looked forward to morning chow before retiring to our crew quarters to get some well-deserved, much desired crew rest.
“Hey, Captain,” my copilot prodded as we walked to our alert crew vehicle, “Aren´t you going to return to the medic tent for stitches?”
“Awe, I´ll go later this morning after a long nap; I´m tired!”
“Yeah; me too,” he agreed.
In my exhausted state as I hit the pillow I winched as my sore head vividly reminded me of the injury I´d sustained barely eight hours ago. Before drifting off to sleep I found myself musing, I wonder how my crew would respect me if I´d not followed the standard I´d set the day before when the navigator injured herself loading the plane?
1 A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, But a just weight is His delight.
2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.