MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – There is a long and proud history between aircraft air crew and ground crew. This strong relationship predates fixed wing flight and military aviation as we know it today. Even on the very first powered flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright had to decide who would be first to fly their craft and who would help make the launch historically successful. There at Kitty Hawk, following a coin toss, Orville became the first pilot and Wilbur the first ground crewman. The Wrights’ engine mechanic, Charlie Taylor, remained in Dayton to run the bicycle shop. Taylor, who in only 6-weeks built the 152-pound, 12-horse power, water-cooled, piston engine, made the Wrights’ historic flight possible.
The Wrights may be the first true aircraft launch team, while Taylor may be aviation’s first unsung mechanic hero. The three of them became brothers in flight. The Wrights, together with their mechanic Taylor, continued this team approach as they demonstrated their flying machine to the U.S. military and the world. This team approach continues to this day.
Thirteen years after the Wrights’ flight, the U.S. Army sent Curtis JN-3 Jennies to Columbus, New Mexico to put down an insurrection led by Mexican General Pancho Villa. Aircraft aircrew and ground crew proudly deployed for the first time in U.S. combat history, fighting side-by-side with their mighty fabric covered airplanes.
This team tradition continued with the deployment of the Americaine Escadrille, or “American Squadron,” later known as the Lafayette Escadrille. American volunteers left for France in April 1916, prior to U.S. entrance into World War I, to fly French warplanes in support of the Allies. The life span of those early pilots was so short that the maintenance crews would salute them as they launched into battle for fear that they may never return. That busted-knuckle salute and its subsequent return from those early pilots was symbolic in many ways and represented a level of respect between aircrew and ground crew.
The salute was recognition by the ground crew that the pilot has put an enormous amount of trust in the aircraft maintainers, so much trust that he is willing to take that warplane into the air and into combat with his life on the line. It further identifies to the pilot that the aircraft is airworthy and ready for battle. The return salute from the pilot signifies the ultimate level of trust and recognizes that what the pilot is about to do is inherently dangerous. The returned salute also identifies the recognition from the pilot that the mechanic probably stayed up all night patching bullet holes, repairing fuel lines and restringing aileron cables to ensure the aircraft was ready for battle.
Furthermore, it is a final confirmation that the pilot will do everything possible to bring the airplane back safely into the hands of its proud maintainers.
Not much has changed in nearly 100 years as that tradition continues even to this day. To quote Senior Master Sgt. Christopher McDonald, a proud F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief upon his retirement in 2009, “As a crew chief, I salute the pilot to release the aircraft to them, while letting them know that they are leaving with a good jet. When he returns that salute he is telling me that he will take good care of it and return it back safely. There is that kind of trust between the crew chief and the pilot. I will definitely miss that.”
The salute also signifies a transfer of control, a change of command if you will, from ground crew to air crew; a symbolic salute from maintenance to say; “Sir/Ma’am, you have the aircraft,” and a return salute stating; “Roger, I have the aircraft.” According to the International Civil Aeronautics Organization and the Royal Air Force aircraft marshalling guide, a hand salute signifies the aircraft as being “dispatched” to the aircrew and ready for flight.
This salute exchange tradition has continued from the Lafayette Escadrille, across services and nations through World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as countless operations in between.
Recently, some have elected to change this long, proud history and eliminate the symbol of the team relationship between ground crew and aircrew. Some have taken the position that what is actually being saluted is the U.S. Flag or U.S. Standard in motion, rather than the members of the air crew. However, there are a few issues with that argument.
The Standard was not painted on some U.S. military aircraft until recent years. It is not painted on most Navy, Marine or Army aircraft, as the Star and Bars represent U.S. warplanes. Even though the Standard is not emblazoned on these aircraft, a salute exchange is still rendered between aircrew and ground crew. The Standard is not painted on USAF Combat Air Forces aircraft like fighters and bombers, yet a salute is still rendered upon taxi. The Standard is painted on many remotely piloted aircraft, such as Predators and Reapers, but the ground crews do not salute those aircraft as there is no pilot to return it. Foreign military ground crews launching U.S. aircraft overseas also render a final salute, but obviously they are not saluting the U.S. Standard. Does painting a Standard on U.S. airlift aircraft really make a difference to this tradition? Saluting the painted Standard on airlift aircraft because it is in motion would be similar to saluting a U.S. Mail vehicle as it drives by. What about an aircraft being towed; it is in motion. Why is there no salute exchange in that case? Simple: There is no pilot to return it and therefore, the historic team of proud aircrew member and unsung hero aviation mechanic is not present.
This tradition of a salute exchange between ground crew and aircrew is a long standing one that deserves its place in our rich military aviation history. It is a custom that deserves its’ place right next to the first aircrew and ground crew team of the Wright Brothers and Charlie Taylor. Far be it from us to not recognize the past achievements of our forbearers in aviation.
We all take great pride in our jobs, both as aircrew and ground crew. We continue this salute exchange proudly in recognition of how important each of us is to the safe execution of military flight and the accomplishment of the mission. Too many have died to change that long tradition. Powered flight’s first accident death was U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge in a Wright Flyer. Fittingly, the first individual to respond to the scene of the crash was aviation mechanic Charlie Taylor – yet another testament to the military aviation team relationship.
Recently, with the first crash of a KC-135R, SHELL 77 aircraft 63-8877, we are again reminded of the significance and dangers involved with military aviation. That proud crew’s final salute came from an equally proud aircraft maintainer in recognition of our aviation heritage. The final salute between the crew chief and the pilot is a lasting testament to our commitment to safety, love of aircraft, and the everlasting bond of our aviation team, born on the dunes of Kitty Hawk years ago. Even in the face of adversity and the constant changing of time, we will never forget our 100 year old heritage or our proudly held military aviation traditions.