Sunday, February 18, 2007

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger

I know you may be wondering why in the world I am writing about President Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. No, it doesn't have anything to do with his integral participation in the Strategic Defense Initiative (STAR WARS) nor does it have anything to do with his participation and subsequent indictment in the Iran-Contra Affair. His support for our military and the complete restructuring of the country's defense systems under his monolithic budgets will not enter into our conversation. He was a publisher and later the chairman of "Forbes" but it is not relevant here. Secretary Weinberger died last year at the age of 88 years and for all intents and purposes his service to the country was over by 1990 save for his various written works on military issues and as a guest commentator on cable news programs.

I sometimes mention my addictions only in close company but this one I'll share in the open and expansive blogosphere. I love airplanes. I love to fly them, study their flight characteristics, and I especially like to drive my wife nuts by dragging her to the approach end of a runway and forcing her to watch the takeoffs and landings. The medication intended to help me cease this behavior works infrequently and the therapist gave hope the boot long ago. I am an aviation nut and this one little thread ties me to the secretary forever.

The other day I was watching a local airline's Beechcraft 1900D turboprops ferry passengers up, up, and away from the terra firma. A few years ago I too flew a 1900D for an express airline on the east coast. I spent most of my time flying passengers from Bar Harbor, Maine to and from Boston's Logan International Airport. One evening while filing a flight plan for our return leg to Bar Harbor, a gate agent informed me that Mr. Weinberger and his wife had tickets for this particular leg of the flight. Having grown up in eastern Montana this certainly became a big deal to me. As a Reagan loyalist I knew all about Weinberger and I wondered how or if I should approach the former secretary. I mean come on. This man was privy to the nation's secrets, presided over defense and CIA briefings on the Cold War with Russia, and dined and sipped coffee with the Gipper himself! This was as good or better than a chance encounter with any movie star (except perhaps Rachel McAdams or Charlize Theron, I digress). Caspar Weinberger was at the center of all the cloak and dagger activities mentioned in a Clancy novel. He held the office of Secretary of Defense in the mightiest country in the world and was a breath away from the red button! I had to at least say "Howdy."

The airline's staff escorted Mr. Weinberger and his ailing wife to the plane ahead of other passengers in the gate area. As he approached the ramp near the aircraft's entrance he didn't look as large and didn't seem as powerful as he had in all those televised briefings and press conferences. His wife needed a motorized cart and airline personnel including the flight crew needed to provide assistance to get her seated properly in the cabin. I remember shaking his hand and telling him it was nice to meet him. His handshake was firm and his voice resonated quietly in humble tones. He thanked me for helping him and I noticed that while his physical appearance and presence diminished with age he still possessed that twinkle in his eyes.

"Well, that was neat," I thought to myself. "Dad will flip when he finds out I met Caspar Weinberger and am actually piloting him to his home in Maine." Then that uneasy twinge tweaked me in the gut. It's my leg to fly the airplane. It's my takeoff and my landing in Maine. God, I don't want to screw up and make this a rough flight in any way. I'd been greasing the plane onto the runway like butter this past week. It shouldn't change now, or should it?

I usually did not break out into a sweat when flying but this night I did. In some sordid way I wanted to ask the other pilot to land just in case of a botched landing. I could then smile and just shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes behind the other pilot's back. At the same time I wanted the glory of a hearty "thank you" from my esteemed guest after another flawless approach and touchdown. The pressure was on but I thought my skills and confidence surely would save the day. We broke through the clouds on our descent and slowly but surely the lights of the city and later the airfield came into full view. The air was smooth and we seemed to be ahead of schedule. A short sigh escaped me as I banked onto our final approach and adjusted the glide path at three degrees. The flaps and gear were down, locked, landing lights on, and all other items on the landing checklist complete. This is easy. The ATIS weather indicated light and variable winds on the field. Caspar will not remember a flight and touchdown this smooth even with his recollections of flights on Air Force One with President Reagan.

BAM, BOINK, HOP, HOP, and SCREECH went the 1900 as the weight came off the wings and onto the wheels. I think I knocked two of my own fillings loose. I almost didn't have the heart to engage the reverse thrust and brakes used to slow us down. As professional airline pilots we usually didn't comment on bad landings while still in the aircraft. It is kept strictly business and we proceeded with after landing checklists and the like. I could see the captain's smirk in the afterglow of the instrument panel. I only prayed that Mr. Weinberger and his wife suffered no fractures or concussions during my less than perfect arrival. The degradation and humiliation stifled my breathing. How could that happen? I might complete a landing like that once a month and usually in some sort of heavy weather. Oh, the humanity of it all!

My mind raced to find a way to quickly pen a note and tape it to the captain's back indicating "he did it." To my surprise and blessed relief Mr. Weinberger smiled and thanked me for the flight home. The other passengers thrust daggers into my torso with the wicked looks of displeasure cast upon me while they exited. The Weinberger's would deplane last and the captain and I would help him retrieve his wife's motorized cart from the baggage hold at the rear of the plane. The orange fluoresence of the sparsely separated street lamps cast a dim, glazed, and utterly inefficient amount of light on the process at hand. The motorized cart now stood on its wheels but Caspar and I continued to fiddle with the key and small ignition sequence used to make the small machine whir to life.

It then hit me like a brick or at least a hard landing. Here I was with a man who at one time was one of the most powerful men in the world. He held the ears of presidents; ears straining to decipher complex military secrets. He planned some of the most covert operations of military and intelligence professionals. Here I stood in this dimly lit parking lot with a now quiet and soft-spoken gentleman trying without success to unravel the mystery of the starter of a motorized cart. There were no red buttons, special forces personnel, no sophisticated rocket technology or state of the art missile hardware; just me and Caspar Weinberger on a cool, breezy, and all but deserted Maine tarmac. It kind of reminds you of just how small the world really is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And I have faced it.