Breaking Formation

World War II began in Europe long before the Americans began to fight. They watched Germany invade Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia; and then overrun Belgium, Holland and France. They could stand back and say this was a European War as they watched as German planes bomb cities in Great Britain. However, after December 7, 1941 when Japanese planes destroyed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, every American citizen knew the war had come home. It wasn’t long until Bill Stacey enlisted to serve his country.

image0Every Air Force pilot knew he would soon be flying missions in Germany or would be stationed in the Pacific Islands. Month by month their buddies would be taken to one of the war fronts, and many never came back. It made a sober man out of every pilot. Each man training to be at war had to think for himself, plan for the collective success, and be aware of the lives of those around him–which explains what happened one morning at Williams’ Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona.

The commander at Williams’ loved a good air show. Sometimes he would bring all his pilots in the air for a fantastic show of air power and precision. People in the area just accustomed themselves to the idea that there would be an air show once every few months, and that the precision flying would be spectacular. They were flying AT-6 Advanced Fighter Trainers.

image1On one Saturday the Colonel told the men that each plane would follow in a single diagonal line after him. Each plane flew on the right wingtip, about three feet from the plane ahead of him. There were 128 planes in the single line, each flying on the right wingtip of the plane ahead. At first all went well. Bill’s wife and daughter watched as the planes flew in perfect formation above their heads. Bill was in the exact center position with as many planes ahead as behind him.

Knowing the danger of making a turn to the right, he mentally made a note of his concern, certain that the Colonel would remember the danger to the last planes if he turned to the right in formation. A right turn meant every plane following the Colonel’s plane would be required to stay in formation by making a smaller circle than the plane ahead until the last few planes would be required to slow down and make the turn at such a slow speed they would face the very real possibility of stalling and spinning into the ground.

image2Bill in the center of the formation would be able to maintain his air speed, but those following would be slowing down and making such a small turn to stay in formation, the last ones would be in danger. Even as he was thinking about it, Bill watched in horror as the Colonel made a right turn. One by one the planes turned to the right, staying in perfect formation with left wingtips about three feet from the right wing of the plane ahead.

There would be no danger to Bill; yet he knew there would be at least one pilot at the end of the line whose wife and mother would receive letters of condolence that week. No formation was worth the life of the man at the end of the line whose air speed had to be maintained even if the formation were broken.

image3Bill knew if he left the formation and formed a second line all the planes behind would follow him. Their speed would never fall below the minimum 125 mph because they would not be caught at the end of a huge line spiraling ever more slowly to the right. Bill considered for a few moments. If he broke formation he would certainly be called on it, and possibly even court marshalled. But if he didn’t break formation a man or several men could lose their lives.

He broke formation. Instead of following the plane ahead of him, Bill pulled out around to the left, making another long line of planes beside the first line. As the first in the new line, he pulled up next to the Colonel’s plane, knowing his decision would not go unnoticed. Perhaps the Commander recognized what prompted Bill to break formation. Perhaps he was later informed what had happened; but he never called Bill on it, and to this day the man at the end of the line has no idea who saved his life.

Many years later Bill found another occasion to break formation and leave a company in which he was expected to be involved in less than honorable policies. With a large family to support, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. Yet his determination to maintain his integrity helped make the decision easy.

Honor and integrity are never a last-minute decision. One chooses strength over the easy path each day of his life, building over a lifetime a sterling character. Influences in the world and pride about what others think of him will never change his decisions because he has already chosen who he will be.