Recently, I spent a great day at the Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. It was amazing to see all those aircraft — every version of Air Force One from President Franklin Roosevelt’s plane to the 707 aircraft that took the body of JFK from Dallas back to Washington; a B1 Bomber, the XB70 Bomber, various versions of every type of fighter, pursuit, interceptor and Bomber ever made.
Yet it was an unexpected moment that really resonated with me.
I was eager to get to the F4 and was not disappointed. In the SEA Vietnam War zone, Colonel Robin Olds’ F4 appeared in an area that suggested Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where I had been stationed.
I turned the corner to find an F4 crew cockpit on display with a ladder so that you could go up and climb in and sit in the crew positions. Now I have not flown in an F4 since 1978, when I left to teach at the Air Force Academy, but I was compelled to sit in the cockpit. Compelled it exactly the right word. I had to do this. I can’t explain it; it was an emotionally charged moment that drew me into a place that I had spent probably more than 1000 hours of my life in war and peace.
The problem of course was that while I was still 28 in my mind.
My body was 72.
So I mounted the steps and climbed down into the seat. My first reaction was that I didn’t remember it being so far down in the plane. But after gingerly lowering myself into postion, I settlled into a place of great familiarity to me. I truly felt that I had come home.
So hard to explain, but it meant so much to me to be there. It gave me a new appreciation for the men of WWII who flew the big bombers and how they must have felt when they entered a B-17 or B-29 years later after the war. Yes it was a very special moment.
I suspect that many folks have the same moment. There is a time or place in their lives that is special in a way that they cannot begin to share with others. When they think about or revisit the place, they are taken back. Back to a time when their lives were touched in a way no one can ever know.
Being in that cockpit again was such a moment.