Another year and a half seemed a long time to wait to begin flight training. And my less-than-serious pursuit of studies in college had wrecked my already marginal grade point average. So Penn State encouraged me to leave and I enthusiastically agreed.
Off to the Air Force Aviation Cadet program! Flight training will begin after the first few weeks of “pre-flight.” Unfortunately, acceptance of my application was taking longer than I anticipated. My friendly recruiter assured me that my billet would appear soon and that I should enlist in the interim to get some practice by going through basic training. Sounded good to me, and I certainly had nothing better to do, as I found that I was not making my fortune during a few months of selling bibles door to door. So off I went to Lackland AFB in April 1959, my sights set on flying and, hopefully, making Captain some day.
Damn, this is tougher than I thought! It was a lot tougher than ROTC. Early on we march to a large green building and receive an issue of AF uniforms. There is lots of shouting, lots of running to form up, lots of standing at attention. We sloppily eat gulped down meals, but at least the food is OK. Look forward to meal times. Surprisingly when our TI interviewed a few of us it turned out I was the only recruit that did call him “Sir” and did not salute him. He was impressed with my astute knowledge of military courtesies (garnered from ROTC) and, the next thing I knew, I was our Training Flight’s Barracks Chief. Wow! Little did I know that it would be many years before I ever again had as much authority over a group of forty men.
Eleven long weeks later, and a few days short of graduation, my Aviation Cadet appointment really did come in. I walked a few blocks to my new home and, BAM, there I was back to day one all over again. Lots of shouting, lots of running to formation, lots of sweating shadows on the wall! Now we eat SQUARE meals sitting at ramrod attention. The food is better than across the base at Basic, but with all the hassle, it’s no longer a high point of our day. Still, the short Cadet Pre-flight program was full of learning, camaraderie, singing while marching, and sky-high morale. Oh yes, early on we marched to the Green Monster to receive an issue of Aviation Cadet uniforms. But, as short as the pre-flight program was, my stay was even shorter. “Wandering pacemaker” the medics dourly decreed. “Unqualified for military service” they intoned. You’re out of here Mister.
Sometimes it pays to know a heart specialist really well. I knew my physician father pretty well, quickly consulted with him, and learned that the pacemaker thing was not only indicative of nada, but that it would probably disappear in a few years. I knew I wouldn’t be able to immediately convince the Lackland doctors of that, but I hoped that time and perseverance would allow me to overcome the problem. But I also knew my chances of getting a reversal after leaving the Air Force would be less than good – I needed to stay in. Had a quick walk back to the basic training area, a long, heartfelt talk with my old TI. Then, at his suggestion, a trip to the hospital records section a few days later. Magically, my records now indicate that I am medically qualified to serve, as long as I don’t fly.
Next came tech school, marriage to strikingly beautiful Blanquita from college days, night shifts on a cold SAC flight line, the first few of a long series of college correspondence courses. Petitions to medical boards, successful medical re-evaluation, acceptance to OCS, Class 63A!
Then was back to Lackland. BAM! Meet the First Class. Had lots of shouting, lots of running to formation, lots of sweating shadows (sometimes while upside down!) on the wall. In OCS we must request a Table Commander’s permission, would you believe, to be allowed to rapidly eat square meals while sitting at ramrod attention. The food is the best yet, but no one looks forward to this dining experience. Then back to the Green Monster for yet another issue. This time I knew what I was getting into. Still, OCS was really tough. This was tougher than basic, tougher than aviation cadets, tougher than you would believe if you hadn’t been there. In fact, Dave Ford, one of my role models and the O&T for 1st Squadron while we were Second Class, became a Vietnam POW when his F-4 was shot out from under him. Seven long years later he was repatriated. When I ran into him some years after that he smiled and said, “Don’t even ask. OCS was harder!” Of course he jested, but you get the idea.
Sure learned a lot from OCS. Experienced unbelievable teamwork and cooperation, integrity, leadership and a lot of surprisingly informative (considering I had supposedly learned a lot of this in college) academic studies. Speaking and writing skills, military and aviation history, Air Force organization, customs, and processes. These things enabled all of us to excel as company grade officers, put us a half step ahead of the ROTC grads and actually made us competitive with academy graduates. I reset my goal. Let’s strive for two stars.
OCS and I got along well, but after all this was my third attempt to get a commission. Even I was beginning to get the idea. But the main reasons that I survived the program were the support of my wonderful wife Blanquita and the help of great classmates. I was really fortunate to have Larry Dean, who later became OC Wing Commander, as a roommate during second class. And Marty McDonald, our 3rd Squadron Commander and my roommate during first class, not only supported me yet became a lifelong friend as did Jim Test, another 3rd Squadron classmate.
Navigator training led to almost eight years of B-52 aircrew duty at Beale and Wright-Patterson AFBs. Loved flying the BUFF, especially an occasional cold-war airborne alert route that began in California, tracked across the entire US, then vectored North to within 60 miles of the North Pole, and returned to Beale via Alaska after some 24 hours enroute. It was a navigator’s dream mission. We experienced some 2,000 miles of absolutely no visual references, no TACANs, no VORs, nor any radios with the exception of the crackling HF. The rest of the crew couldn’t do enough to make sure the navigator was comfortable and happy! Want another cup of coffee Nav? How about some freshly scrambled eggs?
When SAC began participating in the Vietnam War in 1965 it bought right into the Secretary of Defense’s theory that the war would be over in six months. Didn’t matter when he was asked. The war would always be over in six months. So all SAC aircrews fought this war in temporary duty status. Four to six months in the Southeast Asian Theater, return to your stateside base, then four to six months back to SEA, then stateside, then four to six months away…you get the idea. I managed to spend some part of 1968, ’69, ’70, ’71 and ’72 flying 129 combat missions out of Thailand, Guam and Okinawa. But I was very fortunate in that most of those sorties were more or less uneventful.
However… there was one mission that got my immediate, undivided, wide-eyed attention. It was about 0200 local time and we were number two of a three-ship cell flying at 35,000 feet toward a target on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Pitch black, moonless night. The temperature was minus 35 degrees centigrade outside. This was a “threat” mission along the Laos/North Vietnam border, so a 2-ship flight of Combat Air Patrol F-4s joined us to provide cover. Understand that a sortie like this is eerily quiet. No radio traffic, no lights, totally dark.
“One” we hear over the radio, momentarily breaking radio silence. Then “two.” Good, those are the F-4s checking in, announcing they are with us. There will be twenty more minutes with only the sound of our eight jet engines, nothing more. Then suddenly a rapid sequence of radio calls. First, “What will we do with the MIGs in the BUFFs?” That is an F-4 jock spotting an enemy fighter on his radar, but he can’t fire at him because the MIG is in our formation!! Then “Copper Flight, tango, tango, tango!” That was an airborne command post somewhere telling us, Copper Cell, to abort the mission. Aborts were normally ordered only when an immediate, lethal threat had been detected. Then “This is Copper One, I’m hit, I am hit! Losing altitude!” That was the lead bomber, right ahead of us, announcing his distress.
Nearly thirty minutes of yank and bank evasive maneuvers – well, as much yank and bank as you can do with lumbering B-52s – ensued. Copper One lost 10,000 feet of altitude but then recovered and we all limped back to base. Upon landing we found a lot of blast damage under Copper One’s left wing. Apparently an air-to-air missile arrived at his wing precisely at the time he made a sharp right banking turn in response to the “abort” order. The missile’s proximity fuse detonated but the wing was now 30 to 60 feet out of position, so it received a non-lethal blow. We all celebrated our lucky escape by designing and wearing a “Copper Cell – MIG Magnets” shoulder patch for the remainder of our tour.
In spite of that terror I found that flying those Arc Light missions was the most satisfying flying I ever did. The missions, except those originating from Guam, were relatively short. You flew real missions, not the normal “training missions,” doing the job you were trained to do. And nobody came along to evaluate, inspect or otherwise bother you. It was good Air Force duty.
But by now it was easy to see that the Air Force was changing and a college degree would soon be a necessity for promotion. Furthermore, I’d researched a little and learned that only one Colonel in all of SAC had achieved promotion to that rank while staying in positions requiring a navigator rating. AFIT was the answer. Fortunately the admissions board paid more attention to the grades I’d received in a series of correspondence courses than to my miserable Penn State GPA. Welcome to electrical engineering, Air Force style.
AFIT was very challenging but wonderful. Challenging because everything was graded on a curve and we grizzled old Captains were competing against young Second and First Lieutenants fresh, or nearly fresh, out of college. Even mathematics had changed during the twelve years since Penn State. What are sets and matrices? Vector analysis? Boolean algebra? But teamwork and concentration learned in OCS paid off as we formed study teams to help each other over the rough spots. Additionally, my old classmate Jim Test preceded me and passed on a lot of good tips to success. Three years and two degrees later I found myself in a new career field with a directed duty assignment to the Air Force’s Armament Laboratory at sunny Eglin AFB, FL.
What a great experience! Working on smart weapons, seekers and, would you believe, GPS missile guidance concepts, in the late 1970’s. Then was off to the puzzle palace to serve four years on the Air Staff. Met national heroes, worked for and with some of them including: Chuck DeBelvue, navigator ace (six MIG victories) from Vietnam, and Lt. General Tom Stafford, ex-astronaut. My immediate boss is brand new Colonel Dave Teal, who will ultimately find three stars in his destiny. A more senior Colonel in the chain is Gordon “Gordy” Fornell who will also rise to 3-star rank. One of many great people working with me is Major Dave Herelko, Ph.D. Dave was already famous for winning over $100,000 on a TV quiz show. He eventually becomes Vice Commander of Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Pat and retires with a star on his shoulders.
Then off to Warner Robins to learn and run an Air Logistics Center’s engineering function. And back to Wright-Patterson for a third time – some day I’ll get it right. There I am immersed in electronic warfare programs for the first time, learning all about radar warning receivers, jammers, pods, chaff, flares, decoys, IR countermeasures. Back when my old OCS roommate Marty McDonald and I graduated from navigator training we went separate ways career-wise. Marty elected to become an electronic warfare officer while I became a bomber navigator. Now, 26 years later, he learned that I’m going into the EW field. Talk about verbal harassment! Marty reminded me that I had made my choice many years ago and had absolutely no business coming into the EW community at this late date!
One high point of my final assignment was flying a last bomber sortie, but this time in a supersonic B-1. You see, I had been ordered to put together a tiger team to investigate the EW problems the B-1 had been encountering. I knew I would have to brief our team’s eventual recommendations to some very senior levels, and, what if they asked me what the EW threat displays looked like when the aircraft had problems? I’d better fly a mission so I could report first hand information, right? My boss bought that argument so, 16 years after my last flight as a crewmember, I once again am going to be a member of a bomber crew. Check out a new flight suit, go back through altitude chamber training, get out to Palmdale. Mission study, pre-flight, run checklists, just like old times. Take off and climb like a fighter! And, for a short part of the mission, fly faster than the speed of sound! This would be old stuff for those of you who were fighter jocks, but it was a great new experience for this old BUFF crewmember. I got the EW displays information I was looking for. And some time later I was asked that question I had anticipated – by CINCSAC. And I got my “Mach Busters” certificate!
After a seemingly short 32 years, I retired while at Wright-Pat. Never did win those two stars, not even the first one. But what a ride! And throughout all of this my wife, Blanquita, bore me a magnificent son David and two wonderful daughters, Lisa and Diane. I would never have been able to do it without the great support they consistently gave me – and without the super start OCS gave us. Sad to say, Blanquita and I didn’t make it “till death do us part,” but we remain close. Dave was happily married to his second wife, Marlena, until she passed away suddenly last year. Living in metro-Atlanta, still working in national defense, this time on the contractor side.