A small point I skipped over in the last chapter. My trip to Lackland Texas was actually four months not three. For a month prior to Officer’s Training School, I went to the Air Force’s Flight Screening Program. Unlike the technical schools I was familiar with, the screening program was just that, a screen test, meant to weed you out. After a brief introduction by some high-ranking Officer in a flight suit and leather jacket, we were sent off to show the Air Force that we already knew how to fly. All I remember from that initial briefing was how we were told how proud we should be. “For every one of your butts in these seats, there were a hundred other applicants who didn’t make it.” These words would haunt me. My date to start OTS was delayed almost a year as I waited for a start date to Undergraduate Pilot Training. Pilot training classes start only once a year. I was now a year behind my High School classmates who had graduated college and a year after graduating college myself.
Looking back, I should have spent that lost year learning to fly. Looking back, it was the best thing I didn’t ever do. I’m not sure how many hours it takes a civilian to earn a basic pilot’s license? For the Air Force’s screening program, soloing needed to be accomplished in nine hours of flight time. A private pilot’s license was required in eleven hours or less. Ground school was on your own time. Every week we were tested, I guess I picked up the ground part of flying fairly well. Now the good Lord has blessed me with many talents. Chief among them is not coordination. I’m a bit mixed up in the hand-eye coordination department. I throw a ball with my left hand, but I write with my right hand. I do neither very well. I’m not ambidextrous, that would imply that I can do things with either hand. To this day, I can barely chew gum and walk without falling over. Next time we’re in your town, we’ll get together and throw darts. I give throwing like a girl a bad name. Apparently, coordination is required for becoming an Air Force Pilot. I’m not sure these skills are required for those in the Navy.
My basic problem was landing. I guess it’s important to land and actually touch the ground. If you stall six feet above the runway, they deduct points. If you land six feet under the runway, they inspect the plane for damages and you guessed it, deduct points. So, with a little over eleven hours in the pilot seat, my career as Steve Canyon superhero was over.
The “Flight Screening Board” was an official procedure. I was required to “report” to a panel of three Air Force Officers. Everyone was polite, professional and believe it or not, they all wanted me to succeed. Did I need more time? Maybe they could make an exception? Did I want to give up pilot training and go to school to become a Navigator? The eleven hours of flying taught me a valuable lesson, but it also made me confront failure for the first time in my life. If I continued on as a pilot, I would never be very good at it. I also found the highly procedural regiment a bit boring.
My lesson and biggest understanding came from recognizing I wasn’t very good at something. Somehow, if I made it through pilot training, I knew from the start that I’d never be very good. If I did fly, it would be only the slowest planes and the ones which flew around the world. Nights at home would be rare as those pilots were often deployed for months at a time. Neither Lillian or I wanted this kind of life. I’d never have the coordination and split second decision making skills to be a fighter pilot. What I learned in that month of my failure was that if I was going to do something I wanted to do it well.
Finally, one of the Screening Board Officers said, “Cadet, you’re not picking this up very fast.” “No sir, I said.” “You’ve come a long way, your military record is excellent. We want you to be successful. But maybe becoming a pilot is not for you.” “I agree, I said.” “Would you like us to recommend that you attend Navigator Training?” “No, I said. I worked really hard to get here, I put myself through school, I just don’t want to spend my entire career flying the back seat.” At that, the three pilots on the board smiled. The Board President, then said, “Son, we agree, you’re going to make a good officer, you’ve got real leadership potential. Go talk to the clerk in the other room. Pick any job you want, just please pick something away from airplanes, far away from airplanes.” This could have gone much different. Had there been a navigator on the board, he’d have seen things and what I said quite different. But the pilots had a heart, or at least a sense of humor.
Finding a non-rated job proved more difficult than you would think. To work in Public Affairs, I needed a Journalism Degree. To work as a Weather Officer, I needed a Meteorology Degree. So, what would my newly minted bachelor’s degree in Psychology yield? Turned out, not much. Luckily, because of my experience with film processing, I qualified and was accepted as a Photoreconnaissance Officer. Another panel, one I never met, decided that my experience overcame my lack of approprriate academics. The concept and theory of film processing was the same whether you were the one taking the pictures, or they were taken by an SR-71. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just entered the second world I had always loved. I was now going to be connected, however slightly to my heroes. The astronauts of Apollo.
After crashing (figuratively) out of the Pilot program I was more than a little depressed. I’d never really been in this kind of hole before. Lillian must have sensed it. She took a few days off work and flew from Las Angeles to San Antonio. If I was a failure, Lillian and Jennifer didn’t know it. For them, I was just choosing a different path. I remember talking about our future like it was now really important. I remember talking about the future we both wanted and were willing to make. I also remember Jennifer, all of one years old. She wore a pink dress, we laughed, played and after many months, I slept.