TCS Daily

A Dangerous Way to 'Hide'

By Tim Worstall - September 29, 2004 12:00 AM

I hope you'll all forgive me if I reveal that I've never really understood all these stories of President Bush hiding in the Air National Guard. I don't mean Dan Rather getting tripped up by men in pajamas, other varied outbreaks of partisan cat-calling or the astonishing revelation that the current President had something of a privileged youth. No, my surprise comes from something much more basic: since when was flying a jet fighter something done by cowards?

The middle-aged among us might remember Tom Wolfe's book, "The Right Stuff", the younger cohort might have seen the movie based on it. At the heart of the story is the idea that only those who have proved themselves, strapped a jet engine and a little aluminum skin on, lit the touch paper and survived to tell the tale actually have what it takes to lead America into the Space Age. At one point in the book there is an extensive passage about the casualty rates at Pensacola, where the Naval pilots trained, and how with disturbing frequency young wives were met by the Chaplain and an officer to inform them that their husband had not made it, had flamed out or perished in some other manner common in those early days of the jet plane. Wolfe also points out that the first night landing on a carrier is quite possibly the most dangerous single thing (pace Russian Roulette) that a man can do and almost certainly the scariest. That's why I was a little surprised by Senator Tom Harkin and his claims to have flown in Vietnam. It doesn't matter whether you were there or not sir, you passed the naval aviation course and therefore you are a mensch. Period.

As I sit here and type, my blood/nicotine ratio is kept in balance with the aid of a large brass and nickel ashtray, presented to my Grandfather for his work on the Seafire and Spitfire test programs pre-WWII. I therefore, no doubt grossly unfairly, feel a little proprietorial about the reputations of those who flew and fly fighter planes. This led me to try and do some calculations on just how dangerous (or not) it was to learn to fly, and to maintain flight status, on the F-102, the plane that the young Lt. George W. Bush elected as his contribution to the protection of the nation. It might be worth pointing out, again, that his father was a WWII naval aviator so the general risks, if not the exact figures, would have been known to him.

Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Vietnam, some 50,000 or roughly 2% were killed in action. That gives us a baseline against which to measure relative risk. When I did further calculations I made some adventurous guesses which led to the idea that simple peacetime training and regular flying of the F-102 had a 1.3% death rate amongst those who participated. That's a peacetime and training rate, not losses due to enemy action. A Scott Renner, commenting upon my post on Harkin's service, provided a different method of calculation: that the possibility of a Class A accident (one with a fatality or more than $1 million in damage) over a 300 hour flight career would be 4%, or one in 25. I was also more recently pointed in the direction of Lt. Sparky's website where he describes the same sorts of numbers. His, and his commenter's, numbers are of the same order as mine, some 1.5-1.8% chance of killing yourself and 5-6% chance of a Class A accident over a flying career of the length under discussion.

I should note that all we really know about these figures is that they are wrong. There are too many variables for any of us to be able to provide a firm answer accurate to a decimal place or two. All that we can say, and we can say this with at least a 99% confidence level, is that we have the right order of magnitude for these risks. Simply learning how and staying current to fly on the F-102 was around and about as dangerous as being shipped off to Vietnam.

I'm not the biggest Bush partisan on the planet, quite apart from the fact that I'm a foreigner. I would have bones to pick with his trade policy, with the absurd Farm Bill, with some of the moves by social conservatives in his administration, worries over the Patriot Act, there are even some areas where I like the policies of his opponent, John Kerry (only a few, but some). Yet I've become convinced that this "hiding in the Guard" meme simply doesn't work.

Fighter pilots have been known for a number of things since the profession was first invented in WWI. Hot-dogging party hardies most certainly, a fondness for strong drink, fast women and fast cars are a recurring theme, a rather devil-may-care attitude, live today and die tomorrow, we see these not only in all the stories about pilots in WWI, II and the rest, but also in what we know about the life of the younger George W. Bush. But cowards? No, I don't think that's an epithet that we can successfully pin on these men, especially when simply learning how to be a fighter pilot in peacetime was as dangerous as serving in theater in a time of war.

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributor. Read more of his writing here.


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