Observations of an ObserverIFR Flight & SIM Center™
Observations of an Observer
by Dr. Joe Fenley — OV-1 Mohawk Association Historian
Mohawk flight crews remain a rare, if not unique, phenomenon in contemporary military aviation. Belonging to separate realms on the ground, commissioned pilots and enlisted observers share a cockpit, a mission, and common risks in the air. This shared experience tends, with time, to dissolve distinctions of rank, age and background. It also frequently creates bonds.
Although officially schooled in skills and techniques for observing an enemy, those in the right seat inevitably spend much of their time consciously and unconsciously observing the men in the left seat. Recalling time I spent in the right seat during training, while assigned to the 73rd SAC in Vietnam, as an infrared instructor at what was then called the U.S. Army Combat Surveillance and Electronic Warfare School Training Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, I’ve reached some conclusions about the men I met in OV-1s. Observers obviously learn much about the technical knowledge and skills of the men with the stick.
Neither God nor the Army made all aviators (or observers) equal. Among the ranks of the Mohawk pilots, as anywhere, there have been those who inspired confidence in their abilities and those who aroused cautious doubts. In retrospect, however, I find the level of proficiency and professionalism I observed from the right seat remarkable. Becoming a pilot myself confirmed this conviction. In my youth the technical knowledge and skill of the men I flew with earned my respect on these grounds alone.
However, time, experience, and greater maturity have changed this. Today, while memories of the names and faces of the men in the left seat are growing indistinct, I believe I see them more clearly than when I was twenty. At twenty I saw them as accomplished “officers,” “pilots,” and “friends.” At forty-three, it is their “character” which comes to mind. I now see clearly the intangible qualities of inner strength, courage, and moral integrity which they possessed. These were good men. One could count on them in adversity. They demanded much of themselves.
I “left” the Army in 1971 “to get an education.” Like others, however, I never really left my military experience behind me. I took important parts of it with me. A bachelors, three masters degrees, and a doctorate later, I have the education I sought, but I’ve also come to realize that I learned some of the most important lessons of my life in OV-1 cockpits from the men in the left seat. It’s what I observed there that I most hope to instill in my son.
Personnel folders, logbooks and histories do not contain the most meaningful elements of one’s military experience. They do not explain the bonds knowingly and unknowingly formed which constitute our lives. I’m sure that my experience is not unique.