By Jeanne McKinney
This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.The stormy pasts of a historic aircraft and the last pilot trained to fly her run in close parallel. The Marine Corps’ CH46 helicopter and Captain Zerbin Singleton are both testaments to gritty survival — their exteriors pierced with extraordinary trials – their interiors strongholds of extraordinary triumphs.
Singleton lives “open to opportunity.” Like the CH46, he’s seen a rougher side of life. Embracing opportunity has joined him with the legacy of the CH46 Sea Knight, a war horse of the sky that has carried assault troops and supplies and rescued the wounded dating back to 1966. He discovered when he took the plunge to serve his country that he would take on this battle-tested aircraft, which calls for the boldest and brightest to command her controls.
Sometimes life tramps hardest on the boldest and brightest. Even with the most careful piloting, you can be taken down and your remains scattered. There’s a place called Helicopter Valley, Vietnam, where five CH46’s crashed in one day — killing many Marines, dusting the ground with their courage. The footprints Singleton has left throughout his life reveal another kind of bravery as he forged through his own fires.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Singleton grew up with only his mother, a drug addict. He saw domestic violence, drugs in the home and was, at times, homeless. When his mother was in jail, he moved in with an aunt and cousins who lived in Georgia and continued his schooling.
When Singleton finally got the chance to meet his father, who left before he was born, he went in with a positive attitude. “We started growing our relationship and visited each other. I never held a grudge against him.” He believes, “How can I ask God for forgiveness if I can’t forgive others?”
Flying was fascinating for this recently promoted Captain, who always wanted to be a pilot. After high school, “I was looking for schools with Division I football and aerospace engineering – two things that usually don’t go together. I was also seeking a scholarship.”
He gravitated to the Naval Academy over the Air Force Academy because of the excitement of being able to land on a ship. “When I visited there, I loved it.”
Singleton was accepted and played Slot Back for the Naval Academy. He was part of the team in 2007 when the “Mids” beat the Notre Dame “Irish,” breaking a 43-year losing streak. His future looked bright – he was embracing opportunity and chasing his dream, when his war-torn past resurfaced.
While only a freshman (or plebe), his stepmom called around Christmastime saying his father had committed suicide. “It was a very hard thing to encounter.” Then, he lights up the room saying, “I know that God won’t bring me to something he won’t bring me through.”
Using faith as his guide, Singleton made it through a fog of despair – keeping an eye on his horizon, which was learning how to fly.
“Flight school was pretty demanding – countless hours, lots of things to remember and task saturation,” he said.
Instructors train students to be able to perform in stressful and emergency situations. For an average untrained citizen, catching a flight in a CH46 training sequence would be hair-raising. Being a passenger in a combat situation would be unimaginably frightening.
Many hours of practice gives Singleton the “muscle memory” he needs to transition his skills from the training ground to the battlefield.
“Out flying, your worst enemy is probably yourself. A majority of the mishaps in current aviation are pilot -induced. Things like not knowing your weight and balance properly, so you don’t have enough power to execute the mission, not paying attention to the weather, vertigo, or not knowing the limitations of your aircraft all come into play.”
“The biggest adjustment is counter-intuitive,” he states, “you have to rely on instruments. It might look like you’re sideways, but your instruments say you are flying straight. So you have to trust.”
After four years fusing his path with that of the CH46, the Marine Corps is phasing out this well-used servant. The last CH-46’s went out with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) which deployed to Afghanistan only weeks ago. Saying farewell is “almost bittersweet” because Singleton thinks it’s “cool to be able to fly a different aircraft.”
Perhaps it’ll be a Super Cobra attack helicopter or the MV-22 Osprey, an awesome tiltrotor aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter. The Osprey is twice as fast as a helicopter, has greater fuel range and multi-mission capabilities. Whatever new aircraft or assignment, the Captain ultimately looks forward to engaging in “the fight” overseas.
Advanced aviation technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Vietnam. Back then, Singleton says, “We [the military] knew where we were going – everybody was following the Geneva Convention laws of war. Austerely, he adds, “It’s a different situation now. They’re terrorists — they don’t have any rules to follow.”
Zerbin, who’s hammered out his own rules, lives with “no regrets.”
“Everything you go through in life makes you the person you are today.” He believes his stormy past has given him the will to overcome anything that comes in his way. “Whatever you accomplish, ultimately, you are in control of your own destiny.”
My day ends on a lot at 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, Camp Pendleton, with two icons refusing to be taken down. A CH46 (signed “Knight Riders”) is from the Vietnam era and beckons from its resting place in the back corner. Captain Singleton takes me to the metal giant that’s survived 300 bullet holes. I feel an aura of anxious moments, heroic maneuvers and duty at all costs. My eyes rest on Singleton in the cockpit – knowing his flight paths will leave an extraordinary trail.