Forty-Seven Years In Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 15: A Year In Korea, Then Back To OSU
The Air Force has never required pilots to qualify as parachutists, but the pièce de résistance in the sea survival school was pretty close to the real thing. The LCI's deck was a long, narrow platform with a large-mesh net at the back. Dressed in full survival gear and standing on the deck, we were connected to a towboat with a line about three hundred feet long; the LCI's speed of about 10 knots inflated the parachute fully against the net, whereupon the towboat driver put the pedal to the metal and with just a couple of steps, voila! ... we were parasailing. The canopy was a lifter when being towed and when we were almost directly overhead, a crewman on the towboat waved a green flag, our signal to cut loose.
When the forward motion stopped, the canopy became a parachute, giving us just enough time to release and inflate the life raft, deploy the emergency kit and prepare for landing. Parasailing launches were repeated in quick succession and we finished the exercise floating in a line of one-man rafts, waiting to be picked up by a helicopter. The over-water bailout drill was a great learning experience that fortunately wasn't needed by any of our F-100 drivers on their long, feet-wet flights to Korea and back home.
The exact date has long since departed my memory, but in late winter 1968 we were advised that Kunsan Air Base would be our military home beginning in June and continuing for a full year ... or two, if that became necessary. No one was jumping for joy, but volunteers go wherever they're told to go, no questions asked. Kunsan AB is located on the western shore of the Korean peninsula, 100 miles south of Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. The surrounding landscape is rather bleak, consisting mostly of rice paddies and mud flats; it has been referred to with tongue in cheek as "Kunsan-by-the-Sea" but in 1968 it was definitely not a resort destination.
The 354th Tactical Fighter Wing was the second USAF unit assigned to Kunsan in response to the Pueblo incident. Col. Chuck Yeager and his F-4 wing launched from Ubon AB in Thailand the day of the capture, but by the time they arrived in Korea the game was over. In the following six months the miserable quarters and poor airport conditions they endured were vastly improved; instead of tents, there were real BOQs and most of the support facilities one would expect to find on a permanent air base.
My duty station was in the Wing Command Post, housed in a building commonly referred to as the "Mole Hole" ... it was really a half-buried Quonset hut covered with several feet of concrete. For all practical purposes, this was the nerve center of the 354th, but some of the electronic nerves were getting a bit frazzled. The telephone system was of antique vintage and breakdowns were frequent; whenever it rained we knew communications problems would follow shortly thereafter. There were several pilots (including myself) on the base who were required to fly at least four hours each month to earn flight pay, but because there was no aircraft for us to fly, some kind soul arranged a waiver of that normally inviolate regulation while we were in Korea. Oh, there was the occasional ride in the Beaver (U-6) owned by Base Ops and a couple of sorties in the back seat of an F-100F (the training version), but that didn't satisfy the need ... we wanted to fly. The problem was solved in September when a C-47 was acquired by the airbase support people in response to the need for a larger airplane to provide transportation from Kunsan to a pair of satellite bases that were part of the Wing.
This was one of several Gooney Birds in semi-mothball condition at Osan, a USAF fighter base just north of Kunsan. They had been used by the U.S. diplomatic corps in Korea (I suspect they flew high-ranking personnel to and from the Korean armistice talks at Panmunjom) and were "VC" airplanes with just fourteen airline-type seats ... no bucket seats for the big shots. In the nine months from acquisition of the C-47 until we came home in June 1969 I flew 87 hours in the Douglas Racer, including numerous in-country flights to Kwangju, Taegu, and Seoul plus several round trips to Tachikawa AB on the west side of Tokyo, in the land of the big PX. It probably violated a regulation, but I recall one trip to Tachikawa carrying a briefcase stuffed with paper money (won -- the local currency) collected by the Korean ladies who worked in the Officers' Club to buy cosmetics and other "girl stuff" that wasn't available on the base or downtown Kunsan.
Speaking of the "O" Club, a bunch of the boys where whooping it up one night when an argument arose about the climb capabilities of the F-100 versus the Kaman HH-43 flown by the Air Rescue detachment on the base. The HH-43 was a most unusual flying machine, a jet-powered helicopter with two rotors that intermeshed overhead, eliminating torque and the need for a tail rotor. The argument heated up, bets were placed and a live contest was arranged. The two aircraft -- both with minimum fuel on board -- would line up on the runway side by side and at the starter's signal both pilots would climb to 3,000 feet as fast as they could and call out over a public address system when they got there. On the day of the race nearly everyone stopped work and gathered to watch; the Super Sabre was heavily favored. When the pilots signaled they were ready to go, the starter dropped a flag and the race was on. The F-100 roared out of the gate in full afterburner and the Huskie jumped off the ground, making much less noise -- but it was climbing for 30 seconds or so while the F-100 was still on the ground accelerating to takeoff speed. I don't remember the exact elapsed time, but not many seconds later there were simultaneous transmissions from the pilots -- it was a dead heat. Oh well, back to the bar, boys. In mid-February, I arranged for some leave time and traveled to Hawaii for a mid-tour rendezvous with my wife. I rode on an Air America C-118 from Kunsan to Tokyo then shopped for a ride the rest of the way. In 1969 you could walk into any USAF Base Operations wearing a flight suit and carrying a B-4 bag and inquire about a ride … sooner or later you'd find someone who was going your way and you would be welcomed on board. In this case the free ride was a C-124 bound for Honolulu; it was slow, noisy, shook a lot and we had to RON at Wake Island, but the price was right -- and Nancy and I had a most enjoyable time.
Late in the winter of 1969 we got word that our tour would finish soon and if everything worked as advertised we would be home by the end of May. But on April 15 a pair of North Korean MiG-17s shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 in circumstances eerily similar to the USS Pueblo incident -- this time an alleged invasion of North Korean airspace -- and there was probably not a man at Kunsan who didn't think, "Here we go again." Fortunately, cooler heads in Washington prevailed; instead of launching a military strike and possibly setting the stage for Korean War II, the reconnaissance flights were resumed within a week to make it clear the United States would not be intimidated by North Korea's action. With this last-minute scare behind us, the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing finished its work; we departed Kunsan-by-the-Sea near the end of May with no regrets and headed for home. Once again the F-100 troops completed the 9000-mile trip with no hitches and the rest of us returned to Columbus via a contract airline.
Coming home and seeing one's family after a long absence is always a happy event; in my case, our three kids (and a friend) had posted a warm welcome in front of the house. After a week of re-acclimation to civilian life, I eased back into classroom teaching and flying for the OSU Air Transportation Service (ATS). While I was away, the fleet had been reduced to a pair of DC-3s and two Piper Aztecs. Even with several other pilots hard at work, we were flying almost every day. (I took advantage of a break in the schedule to acquire an Airline Transport Certificate and a DC-3 type rating ... a vigorous two-hour workout, with everything except the first takeoff and final landing under a hood.) In addition to the busy ATS schedule, I was teaching a regular class on campus, working on an MA in journalism, conducting weekend courses for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and barely maintaining currency in the T-33 and C-54. As 1969 ended, I realized something had to give, and after much deliberation I left the Air Guard and returned to the inactive reserve. About six months later things had eased up a bit and I cut a deal with the Ohio Army National Guard to join up as a warrant officer and fly their fixed-wing aircraft, the Cessna L-19 Bird Dog and the DeHavilland U-6 Beaver. (Their aviation detachment was literally across the street from my office at the OSU Airport and only a mile and a half from home). As a warrant officer, I would not be assigned any duties other than flying, which released more time to pursue my other interests.
The L-19 had deep civilian airplane roots, having evolved from the Cessna 170. Instead of four seats it had two in tandem configuration and it was flown with a stick; when you sat in the airplane, it felt like a much larger machine than its Cessna predecessor. With a larger engine (213-hp compared to the civilian version's 145-hp) and much more glass, the Bird Dog was obviously designed to be an observation platform and more. It was used sparingly during the Korean War but found its niche in Vietnam, where it was flown by USAF fighter pilots trained to fly low and slow, find and mark targets with white phosphorous rockets, then call in air strikes. With no worries about bad guys in black pajamas trying to shoot me out of the sky, I had a good time flying the L-19. During the one and only summer camp I attended as an Army aviator, I set out to land on every unpaved strip in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. (We warrant officers were given a simple order each morning: "Take airplane number so-and-so and be back by dinner time.") I didn't get to all the grass airports, but I visited most of them.
The legendary DeHavilland Beaver was another story; if the L-19 was a Cessna on steroids the Beaver was the elephant in the single-engine utility airplane room. It was originally designed for bush pilots and built "hell for stout," as the Pennsylvania Dutch are wont to say. The 450-hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine and a very efficient wing design enabled the airplane to get its 5,100 pound max weight off the ground in about 1200 feet, with the capability of landing in the same distance; it was truly a STOL airplane. The Beaver didn't fly very fast (maximum airspeed 140 mph) but as one veteran bush pilot said, "You only need to be faster than a dog sled." There was room for a passenger in the right front seat and six passengers -- or whatever cargo would fit through the doors -- in the rear compartment. This warrant-officer arrangement worked well for the next 12 months, until the Army's frequent changes in weekend drill schedules and my commitments elsewhere became incompatible. I resigned from the Army Guard, rejoined the Air Force inactive reserve and went about my business. It would be another three years before I regained my rank as a major and five years after that to put in enough time with the AF Reserve to lock up my retirement ... but more about that later. [Continued with Chapter 16.]