Perspectives: Jon Mickley, Delta/USAF (ret)
Written by Jon Mickley   
ImageWhere to begin? How about the beginning?

My first taste of aviation came when I was five. My father arranged an airplane ride with our family doctor. It was a Stinson Voyager and my Dad, my brother and I all flew together in that day in 1948. About the only thing I remember was when my Dad announced we were going to fly was wondering how we could get into such a small plane, my concept being how little they were when I looked up and saw them!

Interestingly enough after that day I had no interest in aviation, or any thoughts of being a pilot, military or otherwise for a long, long time. And when I did it had nothing to do with that first flight. It's funny how we all got started in this business of flying.

When I entered Purdue as a freshman in 1961 I was enrolled in Air Force ROTC. Not by choice, but by chance. Purdue, being a land grant college had to offer ROTC, and by policy then it was mandatory for the first two years. With no more interest in the military than I had in aviation, I didn't make a preference for Air Force or Army ROTC, I just ended up in the Air Force side of the house. Funny how simple chance choices can affect ones life for many years.

During the second semester of my freshman year I came under the influence of one Captain (the Air Force rank type) Harry R. Ensey as he was the instructor for Air Science 102 as the course was designated. For whatever reason, still unexplained to me to this day, I made a decision to apply for what was called advanced ROTC. This was a third and fourth year in ROTC and led to a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Prior to this I had not had any interest in the military any more that I had any interest in aviation. No one in my family, immediate or otherwise had been in the military, with the exception of my brother who had enlisted in the Army earlier that year. So my decision to pursue a commission in the Air Force was again one of those odd choices we make that we never really understand why.

My first thoughts of aviation came when I took the battery of tests, including a flight physical, and found out I was qualified for flight training. Partly due to Capt Ensey's influence and partly because I figured if I was going to become an officer in the Air Force, I might as well become a pilot. This was the first real decision in my life that resulted in a long career as a pilot. Again, funny how a simple thought like, 'gee, if I'm going into the Air Force and I can, I might as well become a pilot", ends up as the "start" of my aviation career. None of this, "I wanted to be a pilot ever since I took that first plane ride", or "I always had thoughts about flying", just a whim of mine that headed me down the road to becoming a pilot.

That being said, despite the simplicity of the decision, it was the singularly most monumental one I have made, even to this day, in my life. For that decision put me in a profession that I have been blessed to have. That of becoming a pilot. A profession that a small percentage of the humans who inhabit this earth can claim membership in. A profession that has given me the opportunity to do things few have done or will do. But more importantly it has given me the opportunity to meet others who for a variety of different reasons have chosen the same profession. And it is those individuals, way beyond the actual act of flying that have made this such a rewarding career. As I look back on the past 40 plus years I can say without a shadow of a doubt it is my fellow aviators, those individually who also chose a to become a pilot, that I came to know have made that choice I made many years ago so rewarding.

So much for the reflection on how and why I got started. Now on to what I have done during the past 40 years.

My first real taste of becoming a pilot was during FIP at Purdue. FIP is simply Flight Indoctrination Program. Something the Air Force came up with to separate those who had two left feet from those who could be trained to have one left and one right! Those of us who were qualified and selected for eventual pilot training slots after commissioning were enrolled in the Purdue School of Aviation Technology private pilots course. At the time Purdue had a fleet of brand new Cessna 172s, right off the assembly line. The first year that particular plane had the back window. They had some of the older ones, but we fledgling aviators quickly learned how much better it was to have that back window. It was in a word, "cool"!

I like most other pilots will always remember my first instructor. Jean-Paul Arthur Goad. His first instruction to me was, "It's Goad, not God"! I have no idea where he is today, or if he's even alive. But I will always remember him and his teaching, for without it I wouldn't be here writing these words.

The second most monumental event in any pilot's career is that first solo. When we first, alone and unafraid, to quote John Gillespie Magee, a man who's simple poem probably graces the wall of every Air Force Pilots home, "slipped the surly bounds". When we first took to the air, by ourselves, with only our skills as a pilot, rudimentary as they may have been, to get us back to the earth we normally stood upon, safely, in one piece, and alive! I remember that very day, November 17, 1964 when Jean-Paul put that certificate #1481784 on the line, stepped out of that Cessna 172, said something about "luck", closed the door and walked away! And off I went, alone, unarmed, and unafraid. Well, two out of three aren't bad! But off I went, got those three touch and go landings and returned safely. Just like every other pilot in the world before me, just like every pilot in the world after me will do. But on that day, it was me, and me alone that, at least in my simple mind, became a pilot! I stll have that faded, simple piece of paper. That solo certificate. And although there were other "first solos", this was my "FIRST SOLO!" and always will be. The day I consider as the start of my pilot career, my life in aviation.

I managed to, thanks to the efforts of Jean-Paul convert that extra left foot into a right one, during the next 36 hours of flight training. And in the end I was one who was lucky enough to be recommended for an FAA check ride. I'll digress here for a moment, something that will become commonplace as I travel down this recollection road. The Air Force funded our training in Purdue's private pilot course. But it didn't guarantee a FAA check ride, nor a private pilot's license. As was explained to me, a failure of one of the ROTC cadets counted against Purdue's flight training program, and could jeopardize their operating a private pilots program that only had 36 hours vice the normal 40, since in order to operate such a program they had to maintain a certain minimum percentage passing rate. For this reason not all the ROTC cadets got a shot at the FAA check and a private pilot's license. Purdue was obligated to offer the FAA evaluation to all students who were actually enrolled in, and were paying for the private pilots course. As a result, only six of the 15 ROTC cadets got an FAA evaluation. Why I was one of the chosen few remains one of life's mysteries to me, to this day! But I was, and with the Good Lord's help, I passed.

And on that day, which I can't remember to this day, I became a pilot. Not only in the eyes of the FAA, but in the eyes of God and in my own. I was given a certificate, a license, number 1629450. I was now SOMEBODY! About to embark on a long career as a pilot, although at the time I didn't realize just how long, or where all it would take me. But like every other pilot, it was a start! Another digression. I have often thought about checking with the FAA to see if they have a record of when I got my very first pilot's license. But like all pilots know, or should know, one does not ever contact the FAA voluntarily, and one never, never, never does contact them with a question! This is probably the first truth of aviation! As for other truths of aviation, read on.

After graduation from Purdue I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, and given a pair of shiny gold bars. For those who are not familiar with military rank, Second Lieutenants are at the bottom of the commissioned officer rank structure, the bottom feeders so to speak. As for gold bars the old story goes that they give them to Second Lieutenants so you can tell them apart from officers! But I digress, after the fact so to speak.

Off to UPT, which is Universal Pilot Training. This included a drive from my native Indiana, where I had lived since I was born to West Texas, a place I didn't even realize existed on the face of the earth. I remind the reader I had never even been across the Mississippi River until I drove from Indiana to West Texas and Webb AFB. None of this driving has to do with aviation, but it was a necessary part of my career. It was the first time I traveled a great distance for some type of pilot training, and as I would discover, it wasn't the last. There are times when I think I spent more time getting to and from pilot related training that I actually spent using the skills I acquired at that training!

After the legendary 53 weeks, as it was then, I became God's gift to the aviation world! I was a newly minted United States Air Force pilot! I was now more than just SOMEBODY as before, I was now an anointed SOMEBODY! Or at least that's what I had been told every minute of every day of everyone of those 53 weeks! Air Force pilot training does more than train pilots, it shapes minds and creates egos! Trust me on this one. Again I must digress. This is not a slap at anyone who acquires and practices their pilot skills though the civilian side of the house. And in fact the vast majority of the professional pilots have done just that. And they are every bit as qualified and capable as anyone who comes through the military ranks. It's just that my career included 28 years in the military and as such many of my experiences came from that environment.

As a newly minted Air Force pilot, one of the "universal" types that UPT created I was now off to learn to fly something other than the trainers of UPT. I was off to the "real Air Force" whatever that meant. In my case it was more travel, this time all the way to the end of the earth, at least as far as the United States was concerned, geographically speaking. California, here I come.

If UPT graduation was a rush, a high, KC135 training was a dose of reality! I quickly discovered that while I was SOMEBODY in my eyes, from the Air Force "needs" perspective, I was just another one of "them" that needed to be trained, again, and again, and again! I was quickly brought down to the world of being a "co-pilot". A right seater! A raiser of gear! A reader of checklist! A small cog in the juggernaut of Strategic Air Command. None of this "Gathering of Eagles" stuff. Not the "High and the Mighty". Just the day to day job of learning what to do, when to do it and how! But at the same time I was achieving that which all pilots need to survive. That hard to define thing called experience. The things that are not taught in a formal training course. The things that are not written in a checklist or a technical manual. The things that come to each and every pilot, each and every time they take to the air. The things that in some cases are the only thing that keeps that pilot alive when some event happens. That event called an emergency!

I was starting to learn what all pilots must learn, if they ever plan to make it to the point where they can look BACK on a career in aviation, look BACK on a life of being a pilot. There is no substitute for experience. None! The only hope for someone starting a life as a pilot is that they acquire enough experience to deal with that emergency before they are confronted with it. Yes, training is important, it is more than important, it is vital for survival. For without that training, there will be no opportunity to gain experience. But experience is what expands that training to the real events of aviation. For all aspiring aviators I would offer a simple piece of advice. Learn from experience, just like you learn from training, only a thousand times more! Each and every moment you spend flying, every moment you are gaining that experience, you should learn from it. The day you stop learning, the day you stop improving your skills as a pilot, is the day you stop becoming a pilot. Think of that each time you take to the air. It is important. So much for soap box 101.

I will pass on one thing I did learn during my KC135 training. It came from one of those wise old instructors at Castle AFB. One of those who took us starry eyed Second Lieutenants and began the process of imparting skills that would permit us to live long enough to also become a wise old instructor. It was quite simply, "The first thing to do in any emergency is wind the clock"! Now let me explain that a bit, as modern technology has changed a lot. In the old days the clock was a simple wind up mechanism. If you didn't wind it, it wasn't a clock as it stopped, and no longer told time. So the ritual each time you flew was to wind the clock to make sure that vital instrument kept working. OK, so what does clock winding have to do with emergencies?

When confronted with an emergency, there are choices. Sometimes many, sometimes not so many. But choices do exist. What to do? See? A choice must be made. And in an emergency, the right choice, the proper course of action is necessary to survive. The key is then make the proper choice. Pretty simple stuff. But all too often the wrong choice is made for the simple reason it was a hurried choice. A quick decision. The old "snap" decision. The idea of "winding the clock" is one of taking a moment, of spending some time NOT making that quick or snap decision. Because as you are taking the time to wind the clock you are taking the time to think. To give all that training and experience to come into your thought process before you take that action, before you make that choice. And history has shown that taking a little time to make a critical choice, more often than not, results in making the right choice. So, "wind that clock"! ALWAYS!

This same wise old instructor brought the point home with a bit of statistics. He pointed out that if you have an engine fire condition in a KC135, you have a one in four chance of selecting the right engine to shut down, but a three times greater chance of getting the WRONG engine and now instead of one of three engines on fire to deal with, you still have an engine on fire, but now only two other good ones! It was one of those things I've never forgotten in the 35 years since I first learned it. WIND THE CLOCK!