By Doug Routt
Former fighter pilots and weapons systems operators (WSOs) from the 136th Fighter Squadron at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station held a get-together to celebrate Oktoberfest 2017. The assemblage was a far cry from the once-virile stud muffin group of hard-bodied aces that had slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but you could tell the spirit and camaraderie were as strong as ever.
It has been said that there is no such thing as an ex-fighter pilot. Your soul has been imbued with the thrill of soaring through the heavens and pulling high g-force turns while you engage an adversary in the spiraling dance of combat.
Your psyche is forever etched and formed. This attitude was obvious and readily apparent as conversations were punctuated with hand gestures, with your right hand the good guy and your left hand the bandit. Unfortunately, our hands being joined to the wrists did not allow us to replicate the elaborate moves that our fighter planes performed.
Numerous groups huddled around one another and remembered old deployments to Iceland, Canada and Europe and various bases around the United States. Our recollections may not be as sharp as they once were, but we seemed to lose far fewer engagements then likely occurred as we retell the stories of the mock battles.
The assemblage might be considered an eclectic group as it includes college professors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, some CEOs and a host of airline pilots. However, the one common bond is that they are all fighter pilots or fighter WSOs.
They have all been faster than the speed of sound and broken through drab, dull, gray rain-filled clouds to emerge into a brilliant blue sunlit sky with dazzling white clouds below them. They have all felt the grip of fear as they attempted to land on a dark stormy night with low ceilings and lousy visibility and a snow-packed runway. Yet somehow through skill, luck and the grace of God we survived.
The hairlines are definitely different; many have receded and some have adopted the shaved-head motif. Others look more like Q-tips and are far more shaggy than they were allowed to be while in the military. The bodies are bent with age and misuse, but we all stand straighter when we are with our peers as we try to replicate the days of yore.
It is an arrogant, loud, boisterous and politically incorrect crowd of the nation’s warriors whose job was not to be fair to everyone and enhance everybody’s sense of well-being. Rather, our job was to be the best, most well-prepared guardians of the skies and to stop everyone who threatened us.
If you weren’t good and you couldn’t hack the mission you were culled from the pack. The debriefings after missions were brutally honest and if you erred you were held accountable and had to acknowledge it and improve. Status was earned by ability, not seniority. If you screwed up you were held accountable and had to brief everyone about your errors in the hopes that they might not replicate the mistakes.
Squadron mates died from their mistakes and you learned how to cope and compartmentalize. Ours was not an equal opportunity, everyone’s-a-winner organization. We pointed out your flaws to make you a better pilot. So the bond is unique.
I was formed amid harsh, confidence-shattering but well-meaning critiques. In spite of the age, we all stand a little taller for what we did. We are all proud to have served.