An excerpt from my book Fighter ‘Gator
Luke AFB Arizona
In March 1973, my class completed its F-4 training at Luke. Our class photo taken outside the 310th TFTS showed a confident group. It had been a demanding eight months of training, simulators, and flying. And now we were ready.
Leaving Luke, many would go to Southeast Asia to Ubon, Korat, or Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Bases, the primary F-4 units in Thailand. When I picked the F-4, I knew that I was going to combat. It was a fact of life then. My “graduation” photo taken shows a group proud of what we had done. Proud to be serving our country. Proud to join a long line of American flyers such as our Luke IPs.
Our instructor pilots of the 310th may first have suggested the romantic aviators of World War I, but as the months passed, we learned that they were consummate professionals. Our AC IPs were adept and skilled at what they did, proud of their time in the F-4, and more than willing to help us in any way to succeed. I was honored to know them.
As April begain, to celebrate our graduation, we attended a formal Dining Out. The guest speaker was Captain Steve Ritchie, with five MiG kills, the leading pilot ace of the Vietnam War, at the time assigned to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas. Later in Alaska, I would come to know Ritchie’s backseater Chuck DeBellevue, who by then was an AC. I flew with him a couple of times out of Elmendorf. In the small world of F-4 crews, we often encountered men of this stature.
The dinner was an elegant affair. The officers attended in their mess dresses and with their ladies on their arms. This event was the first time we saw these men, our teachers, and role models not in flight suits. It was an eye-opener moment.
Our flight commander Lt. Colonel Bob Pardo – of Pardo’s Push Fame- wore medals which bespoke his time in combat. We looked at him and our other instructors, and could not help to be proud of this select group of men.
We saw distinguished flying crosses, air medals, Vietnam campaign medals, and other signs of what they had done. We had completed months of training, simulators, and training missions in the air with them. Now, their medals were on display, the only time they ever showed us the symbols of their valor.
We were fresh from training and standing on the threshold of this group. It was a very tight community, but we were not yet part of it. In our operational squadrons, we would continue to learn and fly with men like Pardo. Men who had proved themselves in ways we had yet to imagine. However, we had not proved ourselves as they had; those days lay ahead.
Yet, I was not the man I had been two years before. Then at nearly 28, I worked hard to complete nav school. I had come there late as a captain who had escaped a dead end job in Washington DC. Now I was a GIB confident and ready to prove my new skills. As I graduated from F-4 upgrade training, my assignment came down. I would be going to Ubon RTAFB in Thailand and combat.
But, first, I headed home to see the family, and then it was on to the Philippines for jungle survival school. Combat would have to wait.