Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How to Sell the Air Force to the Easily Converted

At first it seemed to me that Kirk was recklessly accepting the Air Force. It was all going just a bit too well. The pleasant people, the promises fulfilled were all part of some nefarious master plan. While Kirk happily made friends at the detachment and took his leadership classes I lurked on the fringes and waited for the other shoe to fall. It never did.

I still think it's remarkable that Kirk had enough faith and trust to just jump in the way he did. Now I can recognize that the culture of the Air Force is vastly different from that of the post-cold war army, but Kirk was able to see those differences at once, and believe that they were fundamental and pervasive.

It didn't hurt that the first real comparison to be made was basic training. Kirk went through army basic in 1988 - I believe some serious reforms have happened since then. He was at Fort Dix, NJ, and had been told right from the start that failure in anything at all, for any reason at all, would mean he would lose his intel job and be assigned something else at the whim of the army. The suggestion of latrine scrubbing and toothbrushes apparently breathed through the threat. I don't know how serious it was, but Kirk wasn't going to take a chance. He sustained a compression fracture in his heel less than halfway through the program, but was told he wouldn't be given any consideration for it. He finished training with the injury, running, going on full-pack hikes of 15 miles and more, and then spending the evenings literally crawling in pain. He finished with his unit, and with double expert (marksmanship and handgrenades I think - how can you miss with a handgrenade?), but he nearly destroyed himself doing it.

The Air Force however sent him off to Florida. Granted, officer training isn't a strenuous event anyway, but this was more of a tropical vacation. They had a 'survival' trial of a few days which just meant they were dumped on a beautiful beach and told to fend for themselves. Kirk and the handful of other cadets promptly dug up a large number of shellfish and had a wonderful picnic - swimming in bdu's (the only drawback of the place was an infestation of jellyfish - the bdu's solved the problem) while they waited for their dinner to finish cooking. They were finishing up when a 'rescue' crew came by with steaks, assuming the pathetic officers would be starving.

While he was out there he opted to take a parachute course, and got in about six jumps. The first time they went up, the instructor said, 'Now, about this time all of y'all are thinking "why the hell should I jump out of a perfectly good airplane?"' The guy next to Kirk shook his head. 'Not me man, I used to work on these things.' The instructor said it was the easiest class to get out the door on a first jump that he ever had.

But the real deal maker came the following summer. Kirk was selected to go up to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and go through soaring school. The school is run by Academy cadets who spend their summers as instructors. The glider planes are taken up on tow, then released to soar for as long as they can find thermals to keep them up. For the first week or so Kirk always had an instructor with him until he had proven himself enough and could solo.

He said the most terrifying moment is when the tow cable is released - a sort of clunk and a shock when you realize there's nothing but air keeping you up. But then there is no noise from an engine, no throb or sense of the spinning pull through the plane body - just absolute quiet and the response of the little glider to the rudder controls or the rising air. The Air Force couldn't promise him a pilot's slot, but they did give him wings.

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