STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Retired General Wesley Clark made news last week when he said John McCain's experience getting shot down as a fighter pilot isn't a qualification to be president.

Today we look back at another lesser known chapter of McCain's life - the year he spend commanding a Navy air squadron in the mid-1970s. As General Clark also pointed out, this was not a wartime command and McCain wasn't responsible for ordering bombs to fall, but the experience is instructive. It was the only time McCain actually ran something bigger than a Senate office or a presidential campaign. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY: 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, but eventually he was cleared to fly again. And in the summer of 1976, he was given command of the Navy's biggest air squadron, at Cecil Field in Jacksonville.

It was an unusual assignment since McCain had never led even a small squadron. But men who served under him, like Ross Fischer, say the first time commander rose to the challenge.

Mr. ROSS FISCHER: I learned a lot from him. I'm a CEO of a charter airline and I run my company pretty much like John McCain ran his squadron.

HORSLEY: McCain ran the 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. Former flight instructor Carl Smith says when McCain took over, nearly a third of the planes were grounded. Some senior lieutenants said there was no way to change that.

Mr. CARL SMITH (Former Flight Instructor): That, of course, was not good enough for McCain. 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.

HORSLEY: 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 the ranks to key positions. He convinced his superiors to let him cannibalize parts from idle aircraft. And mostly, Smith says, he acted as a cheerleader, egging on the maintenance crews with the same outsized personality that's helped him on the campaign trail.

Mr. SMITH: He would usually start out by kidding the chief petty officer in there, just giving him a hard time and maybe going up and saying, all right, chief, what are you up to? What about your drinking, huh? What have you been up to? Come on. Come on. And the guys just loved it. It changed the whole atmosphere in the squadron. The attitude was one of excitement. Prior to him, I think most of the people in the squadron had a sort of 9-to-5 mentality. Attitudes really changed rather quickly.

HORSLEY: Thirteen months later, just hours before McCain turned over the squadron, the last of the balky A-7s took off, with Lieutenant Smith at the controls.

Meeting that goal was largely symbolic. From military records, it does not 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. The Secretary of the Navy noted that while McCain was in charge, VA-174 set a safety record for hours flown without an accident.

Mr. BOB STUMPF: And he put the fear of God in the pilots, including the student pilots, and said, look, you better do it by the book, do it safely, because if you don't, you'll be seeing me personally.

HORSLEY: Bob Stumpf was a student pilot under McCain who later went on to command the Blue Angels. He chuckled at some of the TV ads this spring asking which presidential candidate is best prepared for that 3:00 a.m. phone call. Once, while standing watch, Stumpf actually had to call McCain at 3:00 a.m.

Mr. STUMPF: I woke him up, but he was right on top of the issue and took care of it. 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. So he says, let him stay there awhile; go get him tomorrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: 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. Carl Smith hints at both the power - and the limits - of McCain's personality-driven leadership, when he says six months after McCain gave up command, the squadron had fallen back into its old, average habits.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow we'll look at a little-known line on Barack Obama's resume - his short stint researching and writing about international finance.

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