The Blind Landing
Washington, D.C., February 15, 2016
He was blind. He was hurt. He was bleeding, without a way to stop it. And he was flying a plane.
Ensign Kenneth Schechter was a 22-year-old pilot in U.S. Navy Fighter Squadron 194 in 1952 and he was asked to fly a mission over North Korea. The mission was routine – his 27th in North Korea – when an enemy antiaircraft round suddenly exploded in the cockpit. "I couldn't see a thing," Kenneth recounted the details in a personal essay published in Naval Aviation News. "There was stinging agony in my face and throbbing in my head...I called out over the radio through my lip mike...'I'm blind! For God's sake, help me!'"
Schechter was alone desperately attempting to control a plane over enemy territory when Lieutenant Howard Thayer heard the call for help come over the radio. He could see Schechter's plane rocking around in the sky and heading toward a thick patch of overcast where, he knew, Schechter's plane would go hidden to any possibility of help.
Thayer called out to Schechter over the radio, "Plane in trouble, rock your wings!" Schechter did as he was told. His plane came to order. Then Thayer told the blind pilot to put his nose down. Again, Schechter listened.
Over and over again, Thayer commanded him. Push over. Pull back. Level off. Thayer was soon flying side by side with Schechter. The two flew straight as Thayer gave the blind pilot a chance to calm. Rather than evacuate and enter the water blind, Schechter said he wanted Thayer to continue to radio instructions to get him safely on the ground.
It was an improbable feat, but still they flew on. Thayer commanded. Schechter listened and responded. Left wing down. Slowly. 25 yards separated the two planes. Nose over easy. Flaps down. Thayer could see the deserted dirt airstrip below. Hundred yards to the runway. 50 feet off the ground. Pull back. Schechter listened fixedly to the cool, steady voice on the radio. You’re O.K. Thirty feet. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. O.K. O.K. O.K. Cut! Schechter's plane hit the ground, lurched and skidded until he came to a stop.
Schechter calls it the best landing he ever made.*
What I love about this story isn’t the near-perfect blind landing. What I appreciate most is that the story isn’t about one hero. It’s a story about partnership, and it’s a good reminder for us today.
We’re living in a time when many Americans feel the country is slipping through their fingers; many believe we are facing improbable feats and they see our nation, in some ways, heading straight for a thick patch of overcast. In the midst of it all, I sense that there is a hunger not only to find our way, but to be reminded that we are in it together – citizens and leaders alike.
Schechter and Thayer's story is one of incredible teamwork. They worked hand in hand to get a blind pilot out of enemy territory and safely on the ground – the pilot trusting the voice of his comrade; the comrade giving clear, calculated instruction. Schechter was blind, but he wasn't really alone. Thayer had been his eyes.
The success of this blind landing rested solely on the pair’s ability to listen. What trust it must have taken for Schechter to listen to a voice while he was 10,000 feet in the air. What courage and compassion it must have taken for Thayer to listen when Schechter said evacuation wasn’t an option.
In this story, I am reminded of an important truth. It is not the threats and challenges we face, but how we face them that define us. For us as a nation and Virginians it starts, as it did in this story, with a willingness to listen.
Throughout my time in Congress, I’ve worked hard to build partnerships with citizens and leaders alike across industries and party lines. Together, we have forged working relationships that have allowed us to fight for our national defense, provide for our veterans, and speak up for taxpayers and Virginia businesses. For these partnerships to work, we have to be willing to listen. That’s why I regularly cultivate conversations and create avenues for listening – whether it’s conducting tele-town halls, soliciting feedback through weekly polls, or engaging in real time updates via emails, Facebook, and Twitter.
We’ve seen time and again, throughout our nation’s history, partnerships built on listening and trust. Our Founding Fathers championed a government that depends on the voices of individuals, families, and businesses. It’s the thread that allows our model of citizen-centric government to remain operational. It’s the type of leadership we need to move this country forward.
Sometimes our nation might have to make an improbable landing. Sometimes the stakes may feel especially high. But thankfully, it doesn’t have to be a blind landing. We just have to listen.
*Congressman Forbes’ retelling of the blind landing story, including details and quotes, is adapted from Kenneth Schechter’s personal essay featured in Naval Aviation News in 2004.
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