Upon graduating from Skagit Valley College in 1963 I was fortunate to be accepted into the US Navy's Naval Aviation Cadet program. My 18 months of training were a combination of training to fly Navy airplanes and training to become a Navy officer. After recieving my wings and commission in1965 at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, I expected to take leave to return home where Susan and I were to be married. Not so fast. I was ordered to remain at Corpus Christi flying Naval Academy midshipmen's summer training flights. With the quick action, immediate flexibility, patience, and personal sacrifice that was to characterize her life as my wife Susan immediately cancelled the church and flew to Corpus Christi where with the help of my flight instructor and a few buddies we were married. No pretty wedding, not even any photos, but it has worked to perfection.
My first assignment was as a "plow back" flight instructor in the T-28 at NAAS Whiting Field, Florida. A little over a year later I had over over 1500 flight hours. 100 plus hour months add up fast. If your eyes are sharp you might notice the T-28 on left bears markings of VA-122, the Lemoore light attack training squadron. Years later when I was an A7E flight instructory with VA-122 my T-28 experience became valuable flying as a target spotter/safety observer during A7 student bombing training.
Those 100 flight hour months were the first of many of my accomplishments unfailingly made possible by Susan's permanent attitude of patience, flexibility, and sacrifice of her own needs. I may not have been deployed but managed to volunteer to fly virtually every weekend completing the cross country flights for the students of other more senior instructors. For Susan lots of never complained of lonesome days and nights in our little rented house. For me like a kid in the candy store. Here kid take this airplane and wander all over the southern US. The only limits: try not to crash and bring the airpland home by Sunday night. All VFR flying, unlimited fuel. Yes, there was a candy store and I was in it.
If there is an experience I could wish for every aviator I would offer that first time getting this beast airborne. When I reported to VA-122 for A1 trainging I already had 1600 plus hours of mostly single engine experience. The first time I pushed an A1 throttle full up I knew I was in for a ride. I had been briefed not to be light on the right rudder. Wow, those 3,000 horses did indeed put out some torque, right rudder is what keeps it pointed down the runway.
Before one aproaches a runway one must, of course, start up the engine. 3350 high compression cubic inches require a very special touch. The first three fingers of my right hand still remember simultaneously holding the starter button, turning on the magnetos, lovingly tickeling the primer to be rewarded with that sudden belching roar that only comes from and R-3350 firing up.
This was where my flying career took a momentous turn. I had gone through advanced flight training in the twin engine S-2. Thus I would normally have gone on to a career flying similar aircraft or transports. My lucky star was shining as the A-1 Skyraider advanced training squadron had ceased operating while a few pilots were still needed by fleet squadrons. As I neared the end of my flight instructing tour I called to remind my detailer that I had been promised my choice of assignments and that I wanted to fly the A-1. With the unanticipated need for a few additional Spad pilots 3 of my plow back filght instructors, Joe Dunn, Joe Simione, and I, along LCDR Larry Sharpe were sent to join the revered ranks of Spad pilots. Off I went into what proved to be an always exciting, never boring, career focused on operating airplanes and ships at sea.
5 months A-1 training with VA-122 at Lemoore, Californina, and I was off to Alameda, California, to join VA-152 about to deploy on USS Oriskany for the Gulf on Tonkin. From June,1967, until February, 1968, VA-152's most important mission was Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) providing protection for rescue helicopter crews. With the air war taking place largely in the incredibly defended Hanoi - Haiphong region there was plenty of action for the combat helo squadrons.
I will only describe briefly the one RESCAP mission most firmly in my memory, perhaps partly because it was only my second combat flight. On 18 July Rich Hartman and his wingman, Larry Duthie were shot down south of Hanoi. Duthie was resdued later that day. An attempt to pick up Hartman was to launch the next morning to include 6 VA-152 Spads. My leader, Larry Sharpe, and I were to launch before dawn to be over the the area as the sun came up. At night over North Vietnam our tactic was tight formation, no lights, maintain position by the glow from the exhaust of the leader's R-3350 engine. I drifted a couple of feet too far out and lost sight of Larry's exhaust, not to find it again. I managed to locate a mountain peak I knew was near the rescue sight and within easy sight of the lights of the city of Hanoi. I made the tightest circles an A-1 had ever managed until I began to hear radio calls from other planes beginning the rescue. My radio homer caught the signal and pointed the way. It may seem strange but I suddenly felt good, happy, when an A-4 streaked past in a dive in front of me and I saw AAA tracers coming up. I was where I was supposed to be doing what I was supposed to do. I could hear VA-152 skipper Al Headly giving directions to the approaching helo and I only took a minute to orient myself and set up for a 20 MM gun run on clearly visible North Vietmese gunfire. The helo suddenly disappeared in flames. The radios want silent. Among the photos imprinted in my memory is that flaming ball that had once been a helo and 4 crewmen. Among the sounds imprinted in my memory is the sudden total radio silence when there was nothing left to say. I spotted Larry among the crowd of the unsuccessful, joined up, and we returned to Oriskany. Rich Hartman managed to evade for three days before being captured and eventually killed. In addition two more of our planes were lost during these rescue attempts.
A brief post script. In 1990 I was working for Whidbey News Times. One day I attended a meeting at the company headquarters in Poulsbo. As I entered the meeting room I was totally surprised. Sitting across the table was Larry Duthie. Some non newspaper business conversation followed. After leaving the Navy Larry had purchased the local paper in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. By 1990 he had sold his successful business but remained as publisher. Where have all our heroes gone: they are old fat guys selling newspaper.
I'm not quite sure how to explain feelings about VA-152, Airwing Sixteen, and Oriskany. To others I expect it will be hard to understand that I still look back on 1967 over North VietNam as not only the most challenging and rewarding, but also my most clearly and fondly remembered airborne hours. The separation from Susan with essentially no communication was more painful than I could have anticipated. The chaplain closing virtually every day with his prayer for another shipmate forever young dictated each bedtime more somber. But if there if I were granted one year of my life to relive among the top choices would be 1967.
Those 8 months flying off Oriskany's wooden flight deck were nearly over when my obligated service was coming to an end. I was given orders to an A-4 squadron. So many A-4 pilots I knew were either dead or captured that did not seem attractive to me. I decided to resign my reserve commission and leave the Navy. Then my friend from flight trianing days, Joe Dunn, was shot down off the coast of Hainan Island. No rescue into Chinese airspace was ever attempted. I was offered Joe's orders to the Navy's brand new A-7 and accepted. And another crossroad in my career was chosen more by fate than careful planning.
The best summary of Airwing Sixteen and USS Oriskany's 1967 cruise that I am aware of is Bloody Sixteen by Peter Fey. Of course, it is available on Amazon. Along with a thourough review of the origins of the war Fey's extensive research allowed him to write short but detailed descriptions of each of Airwing Sixteens 30 combat and 11 operational losses. Suffice to say Airwing Sixteen suffered the highest loss rate of the entire Vietnam war.
Back at Alameda I get one last farewell Spad flight when I take one for a weekend trip up to NAS Whidbey to visit our folks in Anacortes. My last Spad duty is getting into cockpits and just to start up those R-3350s for the pilots who whould fly VA-152s planes away for duty with the Air Force. They would continue to serve but never again with the hook down.
So it was back to NAS Lemore for Susan's and my next adventures. We bought our first house. $17,600 for our brand new 3 bedroom home in the fairly new Elk Meadows development on the north edge of Lemoore. Now we are learning endless lessons in home ownership. Lots of new tools in both kitchen and workshop.
If my first flight in the Spad was exciting just to get airborne the A-7 was a total other experience. It began upon strapping in when the the pilot simply put the trottle up to idle and the engine started itself. Then comes the most amazing thing of all. Lined up on the runway I simply push the throttle to full power and ride along as the airplane accelerates strait down the runway. Nice and easy but no great feeling of accomplishment simply to be safely airborne. Now I just have to begin thinking in hundreds of knots rather than tens and thousands rather than hundreds of feet while enjoying the comfort of an airconditioned cockpit.
A brief few months training to fly the A7 and I'm ready to join VA-113, the Stingers. During work-ups preparing to deploy VA-113 spent time at weapons ranges in both Fallon, Nevada, and Yuma, Arizona. It was at the end of one Yuma deployment that Susan and I experienced what millions of others agree is life's most awesome experience. Baby girl Jennifer joined our family. Unlike other fond memories baby girl Jennifer is one I can still see, touch, and be amazed by.
With the Stingers I'm off to USS Saratoga for my first Mediterranean cruise. This time Susan gets to share some of the enjoyment. Along with a few other squadron wives she spent several weeks following the ship from port to port around the Med. How they ever managed to show up at the correct port when the ship arrived I never understood. Ship schedules were flexible at best, communication was limited with no internet, cel phone, or text in those days. After constantly making sacrifices with little reward Susan definitely deserved this short bit of fun.
I have always thought that dive bombing done right is a more challenging task than carrier landing. There are more parameters changing more rapidly. If one is tasked with dropping bombs on people one carries the obligation to exercise every bit of skill to make sure those bombs go where they are supposed to, not on some inocent nearby farmer. The A7 A/B version I was now flying was not much advanced from the A4 or even A1 in terms of technology. It did have rudemtary navigation and weapons systems but compass, clock, and airspeed were still required navigation skills and manual gunsight bombing remained the most reliable. To this I can see and feel every moment from rolling to see the target through the top of my canopy, pulling into buffet to pull the gunsight perfectly on the target, snapping wings level, immediately going to exactly one G, and not monitoring - just somehow knowing exactly the right dive angle, spnning altimeter, climbing airspeed, and perfect release point to make a chunk of steel fall through a mile of air to land precisely where I wanted. It seldom happened perfectly but I loved the trying.
After my tour with VA-113 it was back to VA-122 as an instructor. The Navy was now transitioning to the A7 E. Now we had a truly advanced nav and weapons system. The proof was lowering the A7s radiation shield cutting every bit of light and flying a low level route up the east side of the Siera Nevadas relying upon the A7s terrain following radar and inertial navigation system. Nervous to do but scary to be the safety chase pilot while a student was doing it. How close to the hill do I let him go before calling?
Now our little family became complete with the arrival of son Martin. Very tough pre-mature delivery for Susan. The Lemoore Navy doctor believed Martin's heart was not fully formed. At that time there were two foremost baby heart doctors in the US. One on the best was Dr Jung at Fresno, California. Some complain about details of military medicine but at that critical moment there was no question about cost, or anything other what was best for this tiny person. Martin was immediately dispatched to the care of Doctor Jung. Fortunately his situation turned out to be not so dire and like his sister to this day I can see, hear, and touch the great person whose beginning was so scary.
If asked the secret of our mariage I sometimes say it was that Susan always made my breakfast. That may seem flipant but I truly mean it. As a systems instructor in VA -122 my flights were always first of the day. 0530 briefs meant 0400 get ups. Never did I not have a hot breakfast waiting. Not once. With one todler and another on the way, every morning a hot breakfast for me. That is but one seemingly mundane example of the daily personal sacrifices one Navy wife made year after year. Not so mundane.
Notice the Stingers on the tails
That was 1971 and the end of my flying for a few years. A one of the last remainging NAVCADs I had no college degree and little chance of advancing much farther. One afternoon skipper Tex Birdwell called me to his office and told me I had been offered a chance to spend two years at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. Thus we moved to Monterey where I was lucky enough to participate one of the last undergraduate classes offered.
Two years at Monterey and then another two VietNam cruises. Now as Assistanc Air Ops officer on USS Coral Sea. No tactical flying here but my advanced training years ago in the S2 meant I was a natural for flying the ship's C1 cargo, passenger, and mail carrier. At least I got into the air occasionally. The second of my Coral Sea cruises included the evacuation of Saigon at the war's end. There was also the little remembered rescue of the crew of the USS Mayaguez. It was also the first of my two eventual visits to Perth, Australia. As the first US carrier to visit Australia in many years, and coinciding with their celebration of WW II Battle of Coral Sea arriving aboard USS Coral Sea was an experience unlikely to be repeated. Any American in uniform found it hard to spend money. Anywhere we went people wanted to buy us food and drinks. The day Coral Sea departed there were still people waiting on the pier wanting to take an American to dinner, touring the town, or whatever.
Now another chance to surprisa a detailer. From Coral Sea I'm due to return to a squadron, most likely A7s. In late 1975 the Navy was reducing ships and airwings so the number of A7 squadrons was also being reduced, pilot requirements were rare. Still it was difficult for detailers to find attack aviators willing to cheerfully accept orders to the expanding EA6B electronic warefare community. In my case a move to NAS Whidbey within a few miles of both Susan's and my families made both of us quite happy. Another home to buy. This time on Whidbey Island for about 45,000 dollars. I remember clearly how astronomical the $415 payment to Washington Federal seemed. Since selling that house in 1990 I have kept the WaFed allotment going into savings account. For a few years it covered home and auto insurance payments. Now it is just a nice little stash to have on hand.
First another few months training in another new aircraft and a very different technology based mission. After 4 years out of the cockpit I had a lot of catching up just in the stick and throttle arena. I was also having my first experience with a shared cockpit. I must admit that I quickly became lazy having someone beside me managing navigation and communication duties. All I had to do was fly the airplane. And flying the EAB6 was a bit different. It is a huge airplane by tactical naval aviation standards with catapult weight of 58,600 pounds. It just cannot be as responsive as the A7 I was used to.
Two more Med cruises with VAQ-136 made me a reasonably well qualified EA6B pilot. It also presented me with my long held goal of becoming a squadron maintenance officer. I loved being responsible for the squadron's couple of hundred maintenance techs and the upkeep of our aircraft. This was also another chance for Susan to share in seeing the world. I took leave from the squadron so we had a week together. We met in Edinbourough, Scotland, and traveled through a bit of northern Europe before she began following the ship again. Another never to be forgotten time.
After the end of my second VAQ-136 cruise the Navy selected me as Commanding Officer of a squadron. Thus I quickly moved to VAQ-130 as Executive Officer and then Commander. These two Mediterranean deplyments were without doubt my most rewarding Navy assignment. Command of a deployed carrier squadron cannot be compared to anything in my experience. Again Susan was able to spend a few weeks following me around the Med. This time, however, she was able to bring Jennifer and Martin along. How much more fun it was to watch them experience Europe.
After three consecutive sea duty assignments totaling nearly 9 years of back to back deployments to either West Pac or the Med I expected at least a brief break ashore. Not so fast. The Navy needed me for one more ship board tour. USS Ranger and San Diego here I come as Air Operations Officer. After a year I am expected to move into the Operations Officer seat. Then another unexpected stroke of good news. I have been chosen for a second commanding officer assignment. This time back to Whidbey Island for command of the EA6B training squadron, VAQ-129. Since USS Ranger had been deployed for essentially the entire time I was aboard we had not bothered to move the family to San Diego. So after only 1 year aboard Ranger, and 10 consecutive years at sea, I'm going home for two luxurious years.
So after only 1 year aboard Ranger, and 10 consecutive years at sea I'm going home for two luxurious years.
As far as operational duty that was the end for me. Following my two years in command at VAQ-129 I spent another two in Washington, D.C. There I was again selected for another commanding officer assignment. One more chance for the fates to smile on me. NAS Whidbey Island Commanding Officer was due to rotate and I was somehow selected as his replacement. Home at Whidbey for two years and it was either back to Washington, D.C. or retirement. It was an easy choice. On to different adventures.
There were two other airplane that were important to me, if not critical to my career. First was the S2/C1. My original advanced training was in the S2. As I mentioned that meant I would normally have spent my career as an S2 anti-submarine warfare pilot, transport pilot, etc. With the airlines hiring agressivley during the 1960s and 1970s those were popular options for friends looking toward airline careers. Having the S2 experience, as well as experience in the care and attention required of high performance reciprocating engines gave me the chance to fly the ship's C1 during ship company assignments.
Only flown a few times while NAS Whidbey Island Commanding Officer Navy C-12 (Beechcraft KingAir) was the last Navy plane I flew so cannot be forgotten. Not a very challenging mission, not a very demanding airplane, but at least an occasional chance to be airborne.
I began just looking through some photos of airplanes I have flown. Then I made a few notes. Now I see those notes have expanded into a rather disjointed "just the high points" summary of my career as a naval aviator. It is broken down into sections roughly equivalent to my time with each. Executive summary: like a woman the A-1 Skyraider and the monster R-3350 spinning the its big 4 blade prop demanded constant attention and care. I do still love that machine. The A-7 was a real pilot's airplane, demanding but rewarding. The EA6B brought me into a entirely different very technology based mission. Non flying shipboard assignments and the occasional shore duty were not the high points but each contributed to a career to be envied.
FIRST ASSIGNMENT FOR MY NEW WINGS
1967-68 ORISKANY VA-152 A1
1969-70 SARATOGA VA-113 A7
1973 CORAL SEA Asst Air Ops C1
1973-1975 CORAL SEA Asst Air Ops C1
1977 INDEPENDENCE VAQ-136
1978 SARTOGA VAQ-136
1979 INDEPENDENCE VAQ-130
1981 FORRESTAL VAQ-130
1981 RANGER Air Ops
1982 RANGER Air Ops