It had already been a painful day. We had pre-flighted three planes and ‘downed’ all of them. Engine oil leak here, cracked wing there… We were always to be quick and efficient, though to be efficient- it was impossible to be quick. Finally, on the 5th hour of our 3-hour preflight, we deemed the 4th plane good enough to trust with our lives. We relocated our gear once more and took off.
The Mission: Deliver three Commanders to ground forces “In Theater” so they could show how efficient our operations were. It was not a typical day- it was a show-and-tell day. The Skipper trusted his best crew would accomplish the mission with ease.
After dropping off the officers, we took off for the sky. Somewhere in that moment, a gruesome realization struck our unfortunate Technician, Dan. Instantly his face grew as pale as a ghost. I thought him to be ill and quickly searched for an empty bag.
He hesitated, mumbled something and then spit out, “I forgot the antenna!”
Surely I hadn’t heard him right. “What?!”
“I FORGOT the antenna. I left it on one of the other 20 effing planes we pre-flighted.”
I racked my brain for a plan- but fell short. There was no way of transmitting video to the ground without the antenna. I strained to find words of comfort to my poor friend. I had nothing. He shook his head and accepted the inevitable- he was going to have to tell them.
Over the hum of the engines I watched Dan hang his head as he informed our TACCO of the situation. It was like watching your best friend march off to the firing squads.
Big Lovin’ was our beloved TACCO. Rare was a day that this man’s face did not hold a smile, or a song upon his lips. He was the size of a grizzly, but had the heart of a saint. I had never seen him angry.
I watched as Big Lovin’s song stopped. He paused and looked out the diminutive window at the engines. Dan stood next to him. The silence was deafening. He turned back to Dan and instructed him to sit. Big Lovin’ got on his radio and informed our pilot of the situation.
The arms of the man in the cockpit flailed about in a disturbed manner. His lips were moving, but it was like watching a silent movie. After the soundless commotion had stopped, a voice came across the internal radio, “Continue mission as planned.”
I glanced back at Rugged, the other operator, my eyes asking how were we to continue a mission without the vital piece of equipment. He just looked back at me, shrugged his shoulders, and began to work the camera. It was great stuff. We could see everything as plain as day. However, we knew without the antenna, they wouldn’t see anything but fuzz on the ground displays.
“Yes sir, these are great shots!” Big Lovin’ narrated throughout the day, in such refined detail they could have drawn a picture. “You’re not receiving them, sir?” he asked nonchalantly. “Hmmm. Interesting. Perhaps a bad connection?”
And there it was. Our equipment failed regularly, (recall: three downed aircraft) a failed antenna wasn’t a hard concept to believe. The mission wasn’t a detrimental one- simply a show-and-tell. And, we had failed. However, all of the information was recorded, so nothing was lost.
But something else was gained that day.
In a world where making a name for yourself was paramount to making rank, these two officers were men of valor. They never faulted Dan for the failed mission that day. Instead, they took a bullet for their crew. They had his back. They taught us what it meant to be a true leader. Respect was never demanded- it was a by-product of being honorable.
**Each of us on CAC-9 had our fair share of bad days and stupid mistakes. That day just happened to be Dan’s. Still, it didn’t change the fact that we were the best crew in VP-8. At least that’s my humble opinion.
**True to their character, our pilot went on to have a stellar career as a civilian pilot and Big Lovin’ is now the Commanding Officer of one of the best P-3 squadrons in the World’s Finest Navy.