While many presidents have flown on many planes, Eisenhower was the first to actually fly on Air Force One. He may not have had tequila while onboard, but the guys building it probably did. So, get ready for a bumpy ride!
I was an Air Force aircraft maintainer for 20 years. I know how much those guys drink because I’ve done quite a bit of it myself. Even Air Force One maintainers drink. You work a mid-shift, 2300 to 0700, then get off and head to the closest watering hole. But it’s closed, because who the hell is drinking at 7 AM?!? So you head home, grab a bottle out of the cupboard, and pour a couple of fingers of some good bourbon (because you’re not a savage).
Next morning, you clock out again, but this time your buddy has a bottle, and the hangar’s empty ‘cuz it’s Saturday and f**k-me Friday has kept you there long past when you should have been home in bed. Next thing you know, somebody has pulled out the restraint harnesses and you’re all Supermanning on the fall-restraint system. Don’t tell me you haven’t done it because you were drunk and just don’t remember. Those bruises around your armpits tell a different story…
For anyone not familiar with fall-restraint or fall-arresting systems, they are what drunk maintainers use to “Superman” with. Strap on a harness, clip on to the safety line running the length of the hangar, and WHEEEEEE!! As long as the tool crib operators are in on it, nobody is the wiser. Until the colonel finds the tequila bottle on the flight deck…
Working the massive C-5 Galaxy, we would often find evidence of partying on jets that came back from the depot. Depot-level maintenance is when the jet is inspected nose to tail. Countless hours are spent taking it apart, wringing out systems, and putting it all back together again, hopefully with only a few leftover pieces. Some extra pieces found might include empty cigarette packs, dip cans, and empty liquor bottles and beer cans. I once found a six-pack of pull tab PBR behind a panel of a C-5. Pull tab!
Flight crews are notorious for their alcohol shenanigans. When crews would cross the pond to Asia and Europe, whole pallet positions were left open to accommodate the beer and liquor that would make its way back. Often would an enterprising senior Airman finagle a case of German beer in exchange for quickly unloading the beer pallet into a waiting bus. And even more often would liquid oxygen need replenishing due to overuse in hangover recovery. Aaahhhh… pure oxygen…
Hitting the galley after a Pac-Channel run was usually pretty sweet, too. Pac-Channel is the unofficial name for a Pacific route through Hawaii, Guam, Japan, maybe Thailand, and back again. Sometimes other Pacific islands are thrown in for good measure, and Alaska for when you want a cold beer. The galley would be filled with leftover food, snacks, and beer. Unofficially, of course. I had my very first Sapporo off a C-5 Pac-Channel run.
Fast-forward to my next unit, and free-flow Fridays were on the menu. Those Guard guys knew how to drink. And how to Superman. Now, I have to make clear that no drinking actually took place while maintenance was occurring. No one I have ever worked with thought drinking on the job was cool, and I never saw anyone turn a wrench while under the influence. Severely hungover, yes, but drunk? Hell no! We might have been savages, but not idiots. Anyone who didn’t take that seriously was gone, fast.
Next unit was Spec Ops. I thought I understood drinking, but I was a noob compared to those guys.
“Mike Whiskey in the house!”
I don’t know why, but that quote is lodged in my head since then and the cerebral property it occupies is fortified against removal. That unit is where I gained my love of Scotch, so there may be a correlation. The members of that unit believed that hard work equals hard party. And we worked our asses off, all day, every day. At the end of one particularly grueling exercise, the commander threw a thousand on the local pub’s tab and smoked cigars, threw darts, and drank all night. Oh, the look on the First Shirt’s face when you whip him in cricket while the commander sings karaoke in the corner.
Careen from there to the next unit, and drinking was mandatory. It seemed like the only way to cool the fires of this particular hell. Alcohol-related incidents were on the rise and mandatory fun only increased them.
After you’ve worked 70 hours in a week only to be told you WILL be at the squadron picnic Saturday morning, that cold Keystone provided by leadership is the only thing keeping you from an Article 15. It’s a hell of a lot more convincing than the charred “burger” they would serve you. And even then, it’s iffy. In a town where they roll the sidewalks up at 1100 and your New Year’s Eve celebration ends at 1205, when everyone is kicked out of the bar, getting drunk just makes so much sense.
That was the place I found a bar that opened at 0600 for people like us. Right outside the base’s gate was a hole-in-the-wall place that served cold beer, hot hamburgers, and just the right amount of illicit drugs out the back that you knew you were in a real bar and not a club. Drinking problems came there to feel better about themselves. The people drinking at 0600 are a haunted breed. Sunken-eyed, pale, laughing a little too loud, and looking as if life was just not dialed-in properly. Vampires, living off cold beer and despair instead of hot blood. Eh, it’s a living.
From there to the prim and proper world of Headquarters. By that time in my career, everyone I knew was too afraid to drink at a function or after work with friends. “Afraid” may be a harsh word; “prudent” might be better. No one wanted to be the E-7 or E-8 that got stopped at the gate with the smell of alcohol on their breath. Or the O-6. Instead, drinking was done at home, quietly, with the minimum fuss and muss. Gone were the block parties in base housing, the supply shed with two kegs already tapped, and the chief who comes by with a case on Friday after work. Camaraderie dies as rank increases, but drinking? Yeah, right.
Maintainers are a notoriously rowdy bunch. Always have been, always will be. Whether you’re a pointy-head (avionics), spark-chaser (electrician), or knuckle-dragger (crew chief), you probably know how to drink. Two stripes? Eight stripes? All the same. Screw vodka and Red Bull, gimme the vodka and Rip-It! Contract maintainers are no different. Whether the uniform says Boeing or USAF drinking is drinking, and ripping it up after work is like America’s national pastime. Bet money there were a lot more bottles in the trash than on Air Force One!
Disclaimer: Again, in 20 years of maintenance, I never once saw a drunk or impaired maintainer working on a jet. Hard-partying or not, maintenance professionals are just that: Professional. If you’re not professional, you will be removed, simple as that.