|Snakes On A Plane||
One of the most experienced pilots in the SR-71 community, Bernie Smith had taught both Walt Watson and me a great deal when we had gone through our initial SR-71 training, and we liked him not only for his expertise in the airplane, but for the straightforward way he could communicate that expertise to the younger crews. Flying this airplane required a conglomeration of techniques not printed in the flight manual. Each pilot had to find those techniques that worked best for him. Passing this knowledge on to the new crews was vital, and somewhat of an art form, and Bernie was one of the best. Bernie understood the concept that there was book knowledge and then there was having a certain feel for the jet, and putting them together was what kept you alive. This was something most guys in fighter squadrons learned quickly, and when it came time to go to war, these were the kinds of guys you wanted on your wing.
Bernie had a great sense of humor too - an important ingredient to any squadron. When Walt and I were slugging it out in our SR-71 simulator training,
Bernie had made learning a little less painful and introduced an element of fun - something we always remembered. When I would perform some difficult action correctly in the front seat of the sim, Bernie, sitting directly behind me in the instructor's seat, would stick a wooden pointer into my cockpit with a piece of candy affixed to one end. He would gently drop the candy on the console to my right, and the stick would disappear. When a less-than-brilliant action was seen emanating from the front seat, a hand would enter the cockpit and remove the candy.
Walt and I tried to play a joke on Bernie once, but it backfired. Bernie had been tasked to fly a jet from Beale to March AFB for an air show, and Walt and I were the mobile crew that day. Walt had this terrifically real-looking rubber snake - a souvenir HABU viper from our Okinawa det - that he thought we should put in Bernie's cockpit. Walt had already gotten me really good with that snake, placing it on the seat of the mobile car as I was about to sit down, so of course I thought it was a great idea to get Bernie. While setting up Bernie's cockpit, I carefully draped the snake across the circuit breaker panel on the left console.
This way, he wouldn't see it when strapping in but would find it when checking those troublesome circuit breakers behind his left arm, prior to engine start.
We didn't worry about the snake actually making the flight, as it was a good-sized piece of rubber and would easily be seen.
Well, as we waited in the mobile car expecting to get some response on the radio from Bernie concerning a certain rubber reptile, nothing was said. He took off normally, and at first we simply thought he hadn't found it funny enough to mention.
Then we really began to worry.
A few hours later Bernie called the squadron to let us know the jet was all bedded down for the air show. Relieved, we now couldn't resist asking him about the snake, and to our surprise found out that he had never seen it. I asked him how he could possibly miss it when he checked the circuit breakers. His reply was a classic: "After a thousand hours in this jet, do you think I check those circuit breakers every flight?"
You had to love a guy like Bernie. He had honestly never seen the snake on the whole flight.
We later did hear that the crew chief who was doing the post-flight checks after Bernie's flight did get quite a shock.
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