Navy commander sails out of Vance Air Force Base

Vance Air Force Base, Okla. -- This is the second article I have written for the Airscoop. My first article was a quasi-satire about my initial submersion as a naval officer and aviator into the headwaters of Air Force culture -- Air Education and Training Command. After its publication last fall, the only person to respond in a positive manner was the base psychologist in life skills. Either the doc is a genius, has spent too many days "in his office," or was the only person to actually read the commander's column. This article is a reflection on my tour at Vance Air Force Base and what it is like being "joint."
Prior to accepting this joint assignment, I was forewarned by my Air Force friends that an AETC wing is the most "by-the-book" of all Air Force wings. And since the Navy doesn't even have a "book," I knew I was in for an eye-opening tour of endless meetings, excruciating inspections and suffocating regulations. I arrived here in 2001 under the impression I would lead my squadron "Navy style" while studying Air Force "ways" from a distance. However, this game plan proved to be futile. I would not be an ethnographer, carefully documenting cultural differences but never participating, but rather fully inculcated into the Air Force style of management and leadership. I had a light blue epiphany of sorts. What I did not expect was that over time my Navy blue would fade a little ...
My issues today are a little different than when I arrived here. I'm no longer concerned about my assimilation into the Air Force, but rather my impending re-entry into the Navy's culture and leadership. In June my family and I will fly to Manama, Bahrain, where I will head strike operations for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. This is a hard-core Navy Major Command staff on the tip of the spear complete with an admiral, ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, sailors, P-3s, etc. -- the whole naval enchilada. My main concern now, besides ensuring the 33rd Flying Training Squadron is well-cared for, is to try and figure out how the Navy will react to my new shade of blue. Will they accept the new me? Will they try and send me to one of those clinics that deprogram brain washings? Could they possibly accept that I am bilingual?
Conceptually, it is easy to discern why our two services are so culturally different. The Navy has about 230 years of tradition -- at times unencumbered by progress. Even our most modern warships still have pre-World War II telephonic devices (growler phones). Naval aviation grew out of long-standing naval traditions and shipboard operations and evolved to project power further and further away from the battle group. The Air Force, however, was spawned from the Army in 1947, and it matured during the post-World War II economic boom. Therefore, you not only see elements of the Army Air Corps but also modern corporate practices. There is little wonder why the Air Force and Navy seem so far apart.
So why "Joint" Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training? In the late 1980s, Congress mandated that the two services come together in a joint environment under a common trainer. The Air Force and Navy then stood up joint squadrons at Vance AFB and Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., in order to prepare for the arrival of the T-6 Texan. Additionally, the Navy trains most of the Air Force navigators at NAS Pensacola, Fla., and C-130 pilots at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. The Air Force also trains Navy pilots at Moody AFB, Ga. At the 33rd, our vision is to "seamlessly integrate the individual strengths of Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps servicemembers into a superlative joint squadron whose synergy of effort surpasses any other single-service UPT squadron." In other words, our goal is to take the "best" of the Air Force and Navy and make a better whole. At Vance AFB I believe these joint commands are working out superbly. However, the long-term effect this joint experience will have on the Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots remains to be seen. This was poignantly brought to my attention last fall when a Navy captain (that's an O-6 not an O-3) visited the 33rd from the Naval Aviation Training Command headquarters. I was giving him a brief on our Navy "re-gold" program and how we were preparing Vance AFB-trained Navy and Marines to seamlessly transition to Navy-only training squadrons. On the way out the door, the Captain looked back over his shoulder and said "When are you taking the course?"
So, what are the top things the Navy will need to "re-gold" me when I get to Fifth Fleet?
1. Not saluting indoors. Navy tradition allows saluting indoors only when it would cause unnecessary friction if a salute was not returned. As a commander, I have learned to return a salute indoors because there is always unnecessary friction.
2. Not including references to instructions at the bottom of slides. My favorite example is on a wing stand-up slide that says "must comply with AETCI 21-104 paragraph" Actually, I do not have to worry about this since in the Navy we still use overhead projectors and chalk boards.
3. Remembering how to get on and off a Navy ship. Do I salute the flag before or after I salute the Officer of the Deck? I must remember that on a ship stairs are called "ladders," floors are called "decks," and in the Navy we use the term "head" to refer to a restroom.
4. I must remember that a missed dental appointment should not be forwarded all the way to the Chief of Naval Operations.
5. I need to relearn how to write Navy Fitness Reports (FITREPS -- very similar to OPRs). In the Air Force I learned how to write, re-write and re-re write OPRs until the finished product said exactly what the initial OPR said. I also learned how to invent words and abbreviations just to ensure there is no white space at the end of each line. I've found being a competent OPR writer requires an advanced degree in Haiku.
6. I need to relearn how to fly Navy style. I will need to remember never to "flare-out" a landing again (pulling your aircraft up just prior to touchdown to ensure a soft landing). In the Navy, a pilot sets an angle of attack until he or she touches down (controlled crash) on an aircraft carrier. In the Air Force I would break off the landing gear if I did that. I need to relearn naval aviation terms such as "boat (aircraft carrier), slider (the greatest cheeseburger eaten in the dirty shirt wardroom (meal hall) after a particularly heinous night carrier landing), auto-dog (ice cream that reminds you of ... well ... never mind), charlie (time to land on the big, grey boat), delta (delay your landing on the big, grey boat -- particularly nerve-wracking when you have very little fuel), marshall stack (Navy holding procedures while waiting for a night trap), cat shot (0 to 150 in 1.5 seconds), bolter (missing all the arresting wires on a carrier and having to do the approach all over again), trap (catching a wire on the boat), no-grade (particularly ugly approach to the ship that gets you a personal meeting with the CAG (wing commander)), grape (a particularly easy opponent in fighter combat such as an F-15 or F-16), and Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy (a newly arrived trophy at Annapolis that hopefully will collect a little dust in Crabtown)." A typical letter home to my wife while deployed might read, "Dear Laurel, yesterday I took a cat shot and had a 1 V 1 against a grape and then headed back to the boat for my charlie time. I was looking forward to a slider and some auto-dog in the dirty shirt after the trap, but instead I got sent to the marshal stack which sucked because I needed to use the head, and after a delta I boltered and went back around the boat for another try where I eventually trapped but received a no-grade and had to talk to the CAG." Why Laurel has stayed with me over the years is beyond my comprehension.
7. I will need to forget Air Force terminology such as "closed for PT, closed for training, closed for meeting day, unable due to crew rest, TDY accounts and dental readiness."
8. I will need to discard archaic management practices such as producing pilots on time and resourcing the mission.
But I will never forget the men and women of the 33rd FTS and the 71st Flying Training Wing. No matter what service you come from, it is people who accomplish the mission. The Air Force, Navy and Marines I have had the honor of commanding, working with and working for are truly outstanding leaders, dedicated fathers and mothers, and tireless community servants and a testament to the strength and fortitude of this great country. This has been a fantastic tour, and I will miss Enid America and Team Vance. If you get a chance to drop in Bahrain, I'll buy the schwarma.