When John McCain was finally released, after five-and-a-half years as a POW in Vietnam, he was anxious to get back in the cockpit and resume his Navy career. It took grueling physical therapy to repair his broken body. But eventually, he was cleared to fly again. And in the summer of 1976, he was given command of the Navy's largest air squadron, based at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
It wasn't a wartime command. And McCain wasn't responsible for ordering bombs to fall, as retired Gen. Wesley Clark pointed out last week. But the experience is instructive: It's the only period in his life when McCain actually ran something bigger than a Senate office or a presidential campaign.
"I learned a lot from him," said Ross Fischer, a flight instructor who served under McCain. Fischer now runs a charter airline based in Florida. "I run my company pretty much like John McCain ran his squadron."
Interviews with a half-dozen former subordinates suggest McCain ran his squadron with a clear goal, a lot of listening and the sheer force of his personality. There were about 750 officers and enlisted men in the squadron — VA-174. Their mission was to train pilots and crews for the A-7 light attack jet. The A-7 was plagued by maintenance problems and parts shortages in that period of postwar downsizing. When McCain took over, nearly one-third of the planes were grounded. And some senior lieutenants said there was no way to change that.
"That, of course, wasn't good enough for McCain," said former flight instructor Carl Smith. "So what McCain did was reassign those people. You could say fired them. But we say reassigned. So it was a case of bringing together new people and new ideas to change the course of the squadron."
McCain set an audacious goal of getting nearly all the planes flying again. To do so, he took the unusual step of promoting people from down in the ranks into key positions. He convinced his superiors to let him cannibalize parts from idle aircraft. And mostly, he acted as a cheerleader, egging on the maintenance crews with the same outsized personality that's helped him on the campaign trail.
"He'd usually start out by kidding the chief petty officer in there, giving him a hard time. And the guys just loved it," said Smith. "It changed the whole atmosphere of the squadron. The attitude was one of excitement. Prior to him, I think most people in the squadron had a sort of 9-to-5 mentality. But attitudes changed rather quickly."
Thirteen months later, just hours before McCain turned over the squadron, the last of the balky A-7s took off, with Smith at the controls.
Meeting that goal was largely symbolic. From military records [see documents (PDF)], it doesn't appear to have translated into more pilots trained, or more hours flown. But there were some notable firsts under McCain's command, including the first woman pilot trained in a light attack plane, and the squadron's first Meritorious Unit Commendation [see document (PDF)]. The Secretary of the Navy noted that while McCain was in charge, VA-174 set a safety record for hours flown without an accident.
"He put the fear of God into his pilots, including his student pilots, and said, "You better do it by the book. Do it safely. Because if you don't, you'll be seeing me personally," recalls Bob Stumpf, a student pilot under McCain who went on to command the Blue Angels.
Stumpf chuckled at some of the TV ads this spring asking which presidential candidate is best prepared for that "3 a.m. phone call." Once, while standing watch, Stumpf actually had to call McCain at 3 a.m.
"It had to do with one of our sailors being arrested and put in jail downtown. And I think he knew a thing or two about incarceration," Stumpf said of McCain. "He says, 'Let him stay there awhile. Go get him tomorrow.' "
The stakes are obviously higher when the phone rings at the White House. And it's harder to run a country than it is to charm a hangar full of sailors — or even a busload of political reporters. Smith hints at both the power — and the limits — of McCain's personality-driven leadership, when he says that six months after McCain gave up command, the squadron had fallen back into its old, average habits.
On Wednesday, NPR will look at a little-known piece of Barack Obama's resume: his short stint researching and writing about international finance.