When I joined the Air Force I thought I would make a good fighter pilot. Zooming around the wild blue, pushing the edge of the envelope, letting it all hang out. But I wore glasses, so the Air Force decided I would make a good aircraft maintenance officer.
My second Air Force assignment sent me to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in 1966. To the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing which had F-105 Thunderchief, the largest single-engine, single-seat fighter bomber ever built. Early on, before the bugs were worked out, it crashed often enough to get known as a leadsled, and was nicknamed the Thud. During the Vietnam War, due to its ability to carry a large payload of conventional bombs, its primary mission was to attack targets in North Vietnam. Kadena was a huge, bustling base and an exciting assignment for someone who had never been out of the continental U.S. before. Called `the Crossroads of the Pacific,' it was a stopover for people on their way to, or coming back from the war. And there I was, a first lieutenant with three years service, in a fighter unit, rubbing elbows at the stag bar with macho fighter pilots, many of whom had flow combat and some who'd completed a tour of 100 missions against targets in the north.
Still sure I should have been a fighter pilot, I wanted to fly in a jet. The 18th had a few two-seater, trainer-version of the Thud that had a second cockpit behind the first. They took senior officers, flight surgeons, and others required to fly to qualify for flight pay. And on occasion, I noticed, that backseat flew empty. So, I started campaigning for a ride. At first it was, "Well, there are a lot of requirements, but maybe . . ." I persisted. Some may even have felt I made a pest of myself. I even started dressing like a pilot. I scrounged a new flight jacket, that wonderful uniform item that lets everyone know the wearer is not just some grunt. I got it by arranging for a seat on a flight to the Philippines on one of our support aircraft for a supply guy. My next priority was a pair of the wonderful, pearl-gray, soft-as-a-duck's-backside leather gloves, issued only to pilots. But the supply people were on to me, and the gloves remained as elusive as the ride.
Until a morning a couple months later. But it was not a good morning. Because it was after a long night at the stag bar. A night when I lingered too long, and consumed more alcohol that my body felt was necessary. Well, who could blame me? At that time happy hour drinks cost a nickel. The regular price was an outrageous twenty-five cents. So on that unsteady morning I staggered into my office and was working on my first shaky cup of coffee when the operations guy I'd bugged for weeks popped in. "Get over to flight ops. There's an empty seat. I fixed it for you."
"Ahhhh . . . I'm not feeling all that--"
"Hey, you want the ride or not? You may not get another chance."
So, what could I do? I sucked it up and headed out. But my first stop was at the flight equipment section. "I'm flying today, I need a flightsuit . . . and a pair of gloves."
The ever-suspicious guardians of Air Force property at supply called operations to confirm my story. Then I got those pearl-gray, soft-as-a-duck's behind leather flight gloves. My next stop was the squadron equipment section. They fitted me for a G-suit, a parachute and a helmet. Then I discovered why fight crews ride to the flight line. Strapped in all that equipment, it's nearly impossible to walk.
The crew chief, the guy who really owns the airplane, was there to meet us. While the pilot made his walk-around inspection the crew chief strapping me in an incredibly small space in such a huge aircraft, and gave me a rundown on what I could touch and what I couldn't. Then, after casting a very wary eye on this burping, belching officer he knew was no flyer, he said, "If you gotta puke, don't dare do it all over my airplane--or I'll have your ass!"
"Right, Sarge. I'm sure I'll be okay . . . ah . . . but just in case, what should I do?"
"If you ain't got nothing else, pull the zipper on your flight jacket and keep it in there. We'll clean ya up after."
The pilot climbed the ladder to check on me. Then he said, "We don't expect any trouble, but just in case we have exit in the air . . ." Exit in the air??? ". . . you pull those two yellow handles on the sides of the seat."
He fastened my oxygen mask, then got in the front cockpit. An electrical start-cart got the engine turning so we could taxi to the takeoff point at one end of the runway. A runway is so big it spanned nearly the entire center of the island, with just a bit of space at either end for the fence and a road that isn't more than a few yards from the beach. Taxing, the Thud is an ungainly beast, heavy and sluggish. After the pilot closed the canopy, we sat there as the engine revved to a roar. Could this ponderous chunk of metal actually get off the ground? When the pilot released the breaks, the Thud started forward. Slow at first, but soon the ground was whipping by. Then, without feeling the change, the land started falling away. Up, up, over the road, over the beach, over the sea. I glanced back. Okinawa, that island bristling with U.S. military bases, with more than a hundred thousand Americans and nine hundred thousand Okinawians, was only a spot in the ocean quickly becoming a dot.
"How fast are we going?" I asked. The pilot said about 450 knots. I was trying to remember if knots were faster or slower than mph, when the pilots told me the small island in front of us was Ie-Shima, the practice bombing range. Then he asked, "Are you all set?"
I gave the standard macho answer. "No sweat."
The first three passes are conventional weapons delivery. The pilot
flew the Thud down low, raced in and dropped a practice bomb. As soon as
he released, he pulled up in a sharp turn and strained to look back to
see if he hit the target. That was when I found out what the G-suit was
for. We pulled a little over one G on each conventional bomb run and the
suit exerted a gentle pressure on my legs and abdomen to keep my blood
from rushing into my lower
Hey, not bad. My stomach flinched a couple times, but hung in there. And this was really flying, none of that sissy airline stuff. Okay, now what are we gonna do? "Gonna practice a nuke delivery," the pilot said. Is that different from what we been doing? Well, you might say that.
This time we came in way higher than before. Would he drop the bomb from way up here? Not exactly. Suddenly the Thud seemed to stand on its nose. For a moment I hung in my seat and stared down at the tiny island below. Then, engine screaming, the Thud plunged downward. The force of the dive plastered me against my seat as the ground rushed at us. And now, because all my blood was trying to dive into my toes, the pressure of my G-suit was no longer gentle. It mashed into my gut and legs. My arms were like lead. My neck and shoulders ached from the weight of my big head. I could hardly move. How did the pilot fly this thing? But he could, and he did. Suddenly, he hauled back the stick. The Thud shuddered and bucked as it strained to level out.
I was astonished. So was my stomach. It convulsed violently and made an urgent demand to get out. Even after we were flying straight and level, and the pressure of the four G's dive was gone, my stomach just didn't care. Gulping down pure oxygen, I clamped down on my gut and desperately trying to decide what to do. The crew chief said unzip my flight jacket and puke all over myself. Come on! Then I realized there was a second option. Damn near crying, I stripped off one of my new, pearl-gray leather flight gloves, held it to my mouth, and let fly.
When my stomach quite thrashing, I was covered with sweat, every muscle in my body ached, and all I could think about was getting back on the ground. Then the pilot said, "That wasn't bad, but I can do better." Two more times. On the biggest, badest, maddest roller coaster I'm even gonna ride. And each time my pearl-gray leather flight glove got a little fuller, until the fingers on that sucker stuck out like milk cow's udder way past due. Finally, the pilot announced, "Getting low on fuel. We better head for the barn."
"Ohhhh . . . that's too bad." I held on, praying I would live. Finally, the island appeared. A bump and the wheels went down. A screech of rubber and we touch down on the runway. Then a long roll to the flight line. The canopy whooshed opened. The ladder was hooked. The crew chief appeared, and as he unbuckled me I saw him eyeing the cockpit to see if I'd made a mess. I struggled from the seat and descended the ladder do my best not to fall on my face.
The pilot came over. "How'd you like the flight?"
I croaked a favorite fighter pilot euphemism of the day, "Shit hot!". Then I turned to the crew chief, held out the bulging pearl-gray flight glove, and said, "Can you do something with this?" He took it grudgingly. The other flight line maintenance guys grinned as I waddled away.
Now the ride was great, and even thought I had three other jet rides later, the Thud ride was a high point in my Air Force experience. But there was one regret, I never was able to scrounge another one of those pearl-gray, leather flight gloves.
The author, Thomas Utts, is a retired U.S. Air Force Pubic Affairs Officer, and author of KOREA BLUE, a military thriller published by Signet Books. He's working on a nonfiction book about Clark Air Base, and would like to hear from anyone who has a story about their Clark experiences. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.