From Staton West: US Army PIC, Instructor Pilot, Instrument Flight Examiner, and good friend of anyone who loves aviation:
I recall, not that long ago, a period in my life when all I could think about was how to get another hour of flight time – another rating – anything really that would make myself more marketable to the airlines. I consulted a very good friend of mine – my aviation mentor – about my goals and my plans and my timeline and how I would attain all the ratings and flight hours and experience necessary to one day arrive at this lofty destination I had in my head. His response: “Staton, it doesn’t make one bit of difference whether you are flying an airplane with two people sitting behind you or two-hundred. Flying is flying, so enjoy it. The time and experience will come. The ratings will come, so just get out there in your airplane and enjoy it.” I’ve logged many one-liners throughout my life – statements from respected confidants that have stuck with me over the years. This one in particular is counted among my favorites, for it is so true and real. As an Army aviator I half jokingly remark often that my dream is to fly an airplane in which I can stand upright, particularly one that has a stand-up lavatory, and one that is decidedly younger than me. This will most likely not happen during my Army career, but perhaps one day post-retirement I will find myself in such an aircraft. I count my blessings though, for now I have transitioned from Army helicopters to Army fixed-wing aircraft, and I am thrilled to shed that hot and stinky helmet and burdensome flight gear for a fantastic Bose headset and a relief tube. But still the idea of commanding a large aircraft with lots of elbow and head room – particularly in the lavatory – beckons me to what I believe to be greener pastures. Something in the back of my mind tells me that I have yet to succeed in my career unless I can stroll the aisles of a massive, sexy aircraft while savoring the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and Jet-A exhaust. Then – just recently – I watched a documentary film entitled ‘In the Shadow of the Blade.’
This film forced me to take pause and rethink my thinking. ‘In the Shadow of the Blade’ was produced in 2004, and though I’ve known about this film since its debut, I have never seen it in its entirety until just a couple of days ago when it was featured on the Pentagon Channel – a broadcast courtesy of the American Forces Network where I live and work in Wiesbaden, Germany. The film showcases the Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ and its many variants, but particularly its role in the Vietnam War. While I have always been well aware of this aircraft’s importance and status as a true workhorse in Vietnam and subsequent endeavors, I had the faintest clue how an aircraft – a helicopter – could have such an impact on Veterans on such a deep personal and emotional level. Veterans from all military services; their parents, their spouses, and their children are featured in the film, and they all have stories to tell – some triumphant and some tragic – but in the center of all the stories and their lives is this one constant – the Huey. During the Vietnam War the Huey transported the wounded, rescued the living or half-living, as well as the newly born – such as the infant child of a Vietnamese mother who died of wounds and who was rescued by a particularly noble and loving Army Nurse Corps Officer who cared for the baby girl until she was adopted by another U.S. service member. Stories of heroic rescues, life-saving extractions, and agonizing death and heartache….the stories are many and real and monumental.
I am one of the few and last Army Aviators in my generation to have flown the UH-1 before it was ultimately removed from the Army inventory just a few years ago. I served as a MEDEVAC pilot in a unit at Fort Rucker, Alabama known as FLATIRON. The name comes from the concept of the old cast iron flatirons from days long gone by when while one iron was being used to straighten the crease on a pair of trousers, a second iron was set aside by the coals heating up and readying to take over the job. So too was the role of the medical evacuation Huey at the height of Army flight training at Fort Rucker during the Vietnam era. The Rucker Commanding General demanded that during flight training periods a MEDEVAC helicopter be airborne and ready to respond to any and all emergencies. And when that aircraft had to return for refuel or a crew change, another MEDEVAC Huey would simultaneously depart in its place to provide evacuation oversight. The General used the analogy of the old flatiron to emphasize his concept. The name remains to this day.
During my time as a FLATIRON pilot, I recovered many, many aircrews from precautionary landings and responded to some devastating civilian auto accidents in support of the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST) program. I logged about 400 hours in the UH-1V, including a trip from Fort Rucker, Alabama to Galveston, Texas where the aircraft was displayed as the centerpiece of a gala event honoring Major General Spurgeon Neel.
“Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Spurgeon Neel was a pioneer in the development of the principles of aeromedical evacuation of battlefield casualties having chaired a board which tested, evaluated, and recommended the use of the helicopter in medical evacuation (MASH) roles. His recommendations were put to use in the Korean War and, based on further experience during this war, he developed medical evacuation policies, procedures, and organizations which are the foundation of current aeromedical operations. In 1954, Major Neel became the Army’s first Aviation Medical Officer, and in 1955 he served on the Department of the Army board which conducted a design competition to select the new standard Army utility helicopter, which ultimately became the UH-1. The same year he established flying status for Aviation Medical Officers and was the first Aviation Medical Officer to receive flying status. In 1956, he established the Aviation Branch within the Office of The Surgeon General and became its first chief, later designing the Aviation Medical Officer Badge and becoming its first recipient. Further, he established a formal program for Board Certification of Army Medical Officers in Aviation Medicine and laid the groundwork for the Army Aviation Medical Training and Research Program.” (DUSTOFF Association Website, 2012)
During this event, I had the privilege of meeting Major General Neel’s widow, who was one of the most gracious women I’ve ever met and one who so appreciated our efforts to honor her late husband. Thinking back on that occasion and reflecting on the stories showcased in the film ‘In the Shadow of the Blade’ I realize now more than ever just how lucky I am. I am lucky – no, I’m blessed – to have been given such a tremendous gift and opportunity to fly an incredibly capable and historic aircraft.
The point of this wordy recount is this: I have always been thankful that God has given me this tremendous opportunity to be a pilot, yet I am more thankful now more than ever after a healthy dose of perspective courtesy of ‘In the Shadow of the Blade’ for the opportunities I’ve had to fly the aircraft I’ve flown. Aviation is all about people and aircraft and the experiences that transpire when the two entities meet. I’ve met some great people along the way in my career thus far. And I’ve flown some great aircraft with a great history that always hearken back to….well….great people.
Regardless of size, capability, age, or accommodations in the lavatory – every aircraft has a story to tell and, therefore, a history. If you ever find yourself taking delivery of a brand new aircraft fresh from the factory, take note: You just became a part of its history. If you look over your shoulder and see two individuals sitting behind you just remember that you just became a part of their history. While flying over the Atlantic with 250 people sitting behind you – pause and take note of the fact that you are an integral part of their lives at this particular moment, for many of them are embarking on a never before imaginable journey to another part of this world…so take note.
As lovers of anything aviation related, we all have dreams, desires, and hopefully good stories to tell about aircraft, the characters that fly them and the adventures we or they encounter by proxy.
Staton can be reached by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note from Joe: Staton and I met in 1997 as we were both assigned to the 377th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), at Camp Humphreys, Korea flying UH-60 Blackhawks. We became fast friends and have remained close over the years since. He has progressed in his military aviation career having served in many various units and positions with multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the globe. One of my best friends and a real aviation aficionado, Staton is as good an Instructor Pilot as he is a writer…and that is a true compliment.