Never just a captain

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Rhatigan
  • 92nd Air Refueling Squadron commander
Promotions are a significant event in an Airman's career and life. When a person is promoted, the Air Force is saying we have trust and confidence in his/her abilities to serve in the next higher grade. Many are filled with pride - they invite friends, coworkers and family members to their promotion ceremony to thank them for their support in getting them to this milestone. For others, their attitude toward promotion could best be described as cavalier. In the officer ranks, many see the rank of captain as an automatic promotion - nothing to be proud of or to recognize. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I recently had the privilege of officiating a promotion ceremony for numerous officers in our squadron who were promoted to captain. Some had family in town, bought food, put on their service dress uniform and carefully orchestrated the script for the big event. These officers were working hard on putting together a classy, memorable event, so I was shocked I overheard someone say, "What's the big deal, he's just a captain?"

Just a captain? From the beginnings of powered flight, captains have made some of the most important contributions to aviation and victory through airpower. In World War I, for example, our nascent Air Force in the Army Air Corps had an officer named Eddie Rickenbacker. He not only showed that airpower could change the course of a war, but he finished the war with more than 300 combat hours and 26 aerial victories, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But he was just a captain.

In World War II, a pilot named Harl Pease from Plymouth, N.H., volunteered with his crew for a B-17 bombing run in the South Pacific. Attacked by 30 Japanese Zeros, he fought his way to the target in Rabaul, New Britain, and bombed it successfully. But his crippled aircraft never returned. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics on this mission. 

And he was just a captain.

Also in World War II, a young hotshot pilot named Chuck Yeager racked up 11 kills in the European theater in a P-51, despite having to bail out once into enemy territory. After the war, his desire to push the limits of technology led him to test pilot school, where he would become the first person in the world to break the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947.

He was just a captain when he did that.

In the Korean War, John Walmsley developed tactics for searchlight attacks from B-26s on communist convoys that travelled at night. After lighting up a train and successfully bombing it with 500-pound bombs, Walmsley ran out of ordnance. Instead of leaving, he called in another B-26 to finish the job. He used his searchlight as a beacon to guide the other aircraft to the target area, which unfortunately also highlighted him to the enemy. Walmsley twice flew his B-26 through heavy flak, refusing to take evasive action. The attack was successful, but he was shot down as a result. His completion of a top-priority mission in the face of almost certain death earned him the Medal of Honor posthumously.

But he was just a captain.

In 1959, as the U.S. entered the space race, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose the first astronauts in our history, called the "Mercury 7." These were the select few who endured tremendous trials just for the honor of being considered as one of the first astronauts.

Three of the original seven selected were Air Force officers - Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper.

All captains.

Probably one of the best known Medal of Honor winners from Vietnam was Lance P. Sijan. All he did was get shot down by the enemy, suffer crippling wounds, manage to escape captivity and continue trying to escape before finally succumbing to his injuries.

But he was just a captain too.

Captain is the rank where in most career fields we add the word "commander" to your duty title - as in "flight commander" or "aircraft commander" for flyers. It is the first rank where we ask you to not only apply your technical skills, but use your judgment to lead others.

There are about 300 million people in the United States, and approximately 300,000 people in the U.S. Air Force. That's less than one percent of the population charged with defending the entire country. Of those 300,000, approximately 65,000 are officers, with 22,000 in the grade of captain. Indeed, captains comprise the flying force of our Air Force.

Our history is full of famous captains. If you are fortunate enough to wear the same rank as they did, remind yourself of what they accomplished and the limitless horizon before you as you make your own mark on our Air Force. Remember, every promotion is an honor that comes with great responsibility. Good luck ... captains.