“This Is Captain Minimum Speaking . . .”


I made it through college by adhering to the premise that if the minimum wasn’t good enough, it would be the minimum, would it?

That at least let me survive four years of fascism and “military rigor” as it’s more pleasantly termed, in “college.”

Actually, the “minimum” theory conspired to keep me there: my GPA was just high enough to stay enrolled (I was on the Dean’s “other” list) but too low to transfer. So as my fellow bottom dwellers termed it over 150 years of minimal academic performance, I was “flunked in.” Nonetheless, the college degree and class ring were of the same material as everyone else’s. I think.

Beyond that, I believe the minimalist approach actually worked in my favor when it came to the intense competition for Air Force flight training. We had hundreds of cadets who wanted to go, but only four of us were selected. I have a feeling that the hard academic work by my peers at the premier engineering school that VMI is forced the Air Force’s hand: they knew what to do with engineers and needed them badly. So they snapped them up and put them to work in serious stuff like aerospace and civil engineering. Boring.

Me, on the other hand, and one of my best friends who was also selected, both of us having a degree in English therefore had no real potential in the serious stuff of the Air Force. I envision the Air Force personnel managers throwing up there hands and saying, “What the heck–they have no useful skills; send them to Flight Training.”

Good deal. In flight school, I once again employed the “minimum” principle with just a slight modification: probably we could say I established an economy of effort just short of being killed in the process. There was little danger of death in the study of English lit, but starting that year there has been a regular litany of flying colleagues who don’t live through the day’s work.  But even with that additional caveat, I still managed with minimal effort to be in the exclusive flight trio known as The Shit Brothers for the next year.

The Wolfpack’s “Shit Bros.:” Animal (now an AA 777 Captain), me (Landshark), Father-O (Fedex A-300 Captain)

We didn’t overdo the whole “studying” thing to the detriment of our health or recreation, certainly. In fact, in retrospect I would have to say that we emulated the finest trio in the history of teamwork: lots of laughs, some of them painful, but still.

So of course there were those who were amazed not only at our successful completion of the program, but also that we didn’t kill ourselves in the process (some did, every year).

Fresh breath in the afterlife.We stayed minimally clear of that razor’s edge–especially flying in formation–and defied the odds which were clearly against us. Nonetheless, our wings were the same material as everyone else’s. I think.

So in gratitude for the trust plus the millions of dollars the Air Force spent on us, and for their letting us fly their multi-million dollar jets around solo and supersonic like we knew what we were doing even though we barely did, we swore we’d serve the United States Air Force to the death, or to retirement, whichever came first.

That lasted about five years. Then, the call of the airlines became too great to ignore: of the original 17 Wolfpack pilots, all but 3 ended up in airline cockpits. And it’s a different world.

Different, because now the minimum is you–the passenger. My world revolves around the minimum when it comes to you.

What’s the minimum visibility I can tolerate and still land you safely where you want to go? How much fuel must I hold in reserve to escape the holding pattern and even the weather at our destination, to keep you safe?

How much clearance can I get between us and the weather? What’s the minimum stopping distance on that rainslicked runway we’re heading towards at 200 miles per hour?

How quickly and safely can my crew get back out to the airport after a 14-hour day with minimum rest time (the industry standard: 8 hours behind the door of a hotel room) and more challenges ahead?

How long will this de-icing last for us, given my own judgment of the snowfall rate and quantity? Sure, someone else will give you an answer to all of these questions–but whose responsibility is it? Who really needs to know and better find out the correct answer without relying on anyone who isn’t also putting their ass on the line.

Yup, that’s the minimum these days: how do I keep you safe? Why shouldn’t we take off now? What do I need as a safety margin at our destination–or we don’t land and instead divert?

I know you have a schedule to meet, that you have a destination with appointments and people waiting. I really don’t care though, when it comes to the minimums of safety and common sense. That’s what you pay for and that’s what you’ll get: a safe trip. Maybe missed meetings or disappointed families or lost opportunities or vacations or whatever. But the important thing is you will arrive.

That’s the new minimum, because I will never accept anything other than that, and certainly nothing less. And when you’re on board and upset over delays and diversions, let me remind you: if the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum, would it?

Really, I’ll bet you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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High altitude oriental salad.

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5 Responses to ““This Is Captain Minimum Speaking . . .””

  1. What were you flying in your AF days? I turned out to be a “Lifer”. No regrets. But I sure am glad someone like you is taking care of the minimums for the ones we love.

    Happy trails

    • After -38s, EC-135J’s out of Hickam; Kadena before that. Now with such questions about medical benefits and retirement, the lifer choice turns out to be a wise one. I’m “flunked in” again: 24 years here now. We’ll see . . .

  2. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Glad to have guys like you behind that mysterious door. I’ll try to keep these things in mind next time I’m delayed.

  3. The only way I got through engineering school — as grades would come out I would remind myself that ‘D’ stands for D-ploma.

    And now I get to put ‘design engineer’ on my business cards, just like those smarty-pants-know-it-all’s who wrecked the curve.

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