Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Tradition Gone

I was awed when I saw it. Decades ago when I first started up a USAF A-7D, pushed up the power, heard that big Allison turbofan whine and eased out of the parking spot, I looked down at my crew chief and—to my utter amazement—saw him standing at attention holding a perfect salute. I had not seen this done in pilot training, because back at Vance AFB, civilians worked the ramp.

I wondered who he was saluting, me or his plane. He had a slight smirk on his face and I knew he was thinking: I hope that snot-nosed lieutenant brings my jet back in one piece.

That was my first exposure to a long and rich traditional practice in military aviation: the send-off salute. I liked that. It was a class act. I knew the crew chiefs were proud of their work. I saw that salute every time I flew the A-7. And when I got into the Reserve forces and pushed up the tall throttles of a C-130 or a C-141, I saw it again. Sometimes stripped above the waist to a t-shirt, they stood perfectly rigid, elbow straight-out, forearm angling and flat hand glued smartly to their brow. I always returned it. It was a matter of professional pride and mutual respect.

A drawing from our manual.
I rarely saw one this sharp.
And when I got into the airline world—to my happy surprise—I saw it again. It was standard procedure at my company for the push-back marshaller to salute the captain after the tug disconnected. The salute meant that the push crew was clear of the aircraft and the captain was free to taxi. The protocol required the captain to flash his taxi light to acknowledge the salute and release. Most marshallers saluted only because the rules required it. They were mostly lackadaisical about it.

But some—those I suspected were former military crew chiefs—rendered a a sharp, military-style salute. Those, I returned. Sometimes, after the salute, I would even see a flourishing Navy carrier deck style launch signal, which is an artful whirling of the body down onto the knees, arms stretched forward toward the launch direction. I loved it.

Here's how it's done.
But, as it always does these days, change has come. We have now adopted the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) release procedure. The push marshaller now only holds a thumbs-up. The salute is forever gone.

It's gone the way of many of the old traditions in this industry. No more water cannon salutes for retiring captains. No more pride in uniforms. No more special caring for passengers. It's just a job, now.

Every day it seems a light at the exit door glows brighter for me. It beckons: Come on. Your time is almost done. Count your blessings; you've tasted the golden years. Step on through.

I willin due time. And when I do, I'll render a final proper salute, not the limp-wristed crooked Clinton salute, nor the hacking-arm Obama salute, but the real kind. The snappy, pride in your job, and respect for the person your saluting kind of salute. I'll turn and salute the plane.

One of my favorite places on the planet:
Spanish Peaks, Colorado. I've climbed the
west peak (far one) 4 times.
Quote of the post: There has always been a certain romanticism associated with the airline business. We must avoid its perpetuation at Eastern at all costs.
— Frank Borman


D.B. said...

I'm not ex-military, but I have always appreciated the salute for all the reasons you espoused in your post. Pride and mutual respect.

I see something similar every time I fly through Tokyo. The ground crew all line up and wave to the departing aircraft. I know it is hokey PR stuff, but it also somehow conveys the same thing - "we did our best job for your flight". I sometimes see the pilots respond with a salute (probably the military trained ones).

A "thumbs up" just isn't the same.

Brent said...

I kind of think the ground crew will come up with a unique and special send off for the crews and aircraft showing the registrations ending in alpha in the months to come.

wayne in louisiana said...

AHHH, the good ole days of the A7. And the meaningful salute. What will this planet be like in another century. Hope you enjoy your retirement in HSV and Moontown, when the time comes (no alarm clocks).

Mike & Jean said...

Every day of the week will be Saturday except, of course, Sunday ... the Lord's Day. It's waiting on the other side of the door and I salute you!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog. You have a gift with words and convey a message that, I think, is unique and deserves to be heard.

But I have to say -- it seems incongruous, and perhaps a bit disrespectful, in a piece dedicated to honoring our armed forces, to take a jab at our current and a former commander-in-chief.

Alan Cockrell said...

All of our Commanders-in-Chief need to learn how to render a respectful salute. They, of all people.

Should Fish More said...

I'm retired now, but I was one of those blue-shirted, blazer-wearing types that crowded onto your plane on Monday morning, and again on Friday afternoon. I never really liked flying, but I always felt better when I saw the ground guy give a military salute. And even better when the captain mentioned that he was ex-military.

Chris said...

When I taxi out to depart a flying event and see a fellow friend / aviator I will salute...likewise when they depart. I was only in the military as a brat, but I understand the respect shown when a salute is given and I have that respect for most of my fellow aviators who have earned their place in the cockpit. It is sad how many times the salute is returned as a wave...maybe that says something about their respect for me, but I think it has more to do with the lack of knowledge as to the significance behind a salute. As you mentioned, it is another in the long list of traditions that has taken a backseat to convenience and self satisfaction.