A Tail-End Hero
Tail-End Charlie is what they called him back in our pilot training days. His name is actually Tom, and he finished dead last in our class standings. His problem was that he couldn’t fly formation. On any of that type of training flight he would get in more unusual positions than most people experienced on their honeymoons. He was all over the sky, and he papered the “ready room” with his pink slips. Somehow he finally eked out a passing grade on his final check ride, but we always thought he got a courtesy pass because of all the effort he put into his work. But it came with the caveat that he should never fly single-engine jets in his Air Force career. Fair enough, and Tom accepted his fate, along with an assignment to fly “Old Shaky,” the prop-driven C-124 Loadmaster, which was also called the “aluminum overcast.”
But back in the day, it was pretty much the backbone of our airlift operations, flying all over the world at 175 knots and 15,000 feet. They also flew some highly secret missions, and Tom was assigned to fly as copilot on one of those to the Congo, where his job was to evacuate the then president, whose regime had just been overthrown, and who found himself being pursued by the Mao-Mao, the salient group of bad guys at the time. So Tom and crew flew into a secret runway in the jungles, and managed to extract the ex- president and his entourage, flying them to a neutral country that would grant him asylum. It was a great humanitarian gesture, but we all knew that Old Shaky also airlifted several tons of the Congo’s money and works of art to “smooth the transition.” Tom won an Air Medal for his part in the mission, and he highly deserved it.
Then came the Vietnam war, and Tom’s number came up for a combat assignment. They still wouldn’t let him fly a fighter, but he was assigned to a rescue squadron, which flew the SA-16 “Albatross,” an amphibious aircraft whose job was to pluck downed airman from the Gulf of Tonkin when they were shot down. On Tom’s most noteworthy extraction mission, he saved a full colonel from capture by the enemy, who kept raking the area with fire from Vietnamese gunboats, hammering away at both the Albatross and the rubber raft bobbing around with the colonel. They had no more than seconds to land, taxi up to the raft, and extract the wounded pilot while still on the move, then take off, still under fire. This one won Tom a Distinguished Flying Cross and tons of gratitude from all the fighter guys over there. He could never buy a drink at the officers club bar from then on.
But he was just getting started. His next assignment was to fly a very special version of the twin-jet WB-57 Canberra. It was outfitted with special air sampling equipment, which made it ideal for flying into places that produced unusual “weather phenomena.” It also had extra long wings, which allowed it to fly higher than anything else in the inventory, except the U-2. The “special mission” of this aircraft was to fly long-range sorties into areas where the Russians were conducting nuclear tests, flying through the nuclear clouds at altitudes where no eagle ever flew, and scooping up samples of the air in those clouds for research in our labs. Nuclear-charged clouds were bad enough, but the RB-57 attracted a lot of attention from the Russian air defense missiles as well. Their only defenses amounted to little more than to grab as much altitude as possible, and make their single passes count, so they could disappear into the stratosphere before being detected. More medals and commendations were awarded for these missions, but they were too secret for the public to ever hear about them. The most crushing news about these ultra-secret missions would only be disclosed many years later.
This should have been enough to put a genuine hero out to pasture, but Tom wasn’t finished, not by a long shot. The Air Force finally accepted the fact that Tom could fly just about anything they had, so they reassigned him back to Viet Nam, where he became the commander of a squadron of F-4C’s, the backbone of our fighter force during that whole war. It was routine that these birds would fly formation on most of their missions, and Tom took his regular rotation as a pilot, in addition to masterfully handling his duties as squadron commander. He was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism in combat, and he finally took a staff job back in the States for his end-of-career assignment.
I spent considerable time with Tom, some years after we both had retired. He was now an operations officer for a mega-prison in Oregon, where I also worked as Education Director. In due time he gave me the news that large numbers of his squadron members from the WB-57 assignment were either dead or undergoing treatment for cancer. It happened that the WB-57, while well-suited for its nuclear air sampling mission, had a fatal flaw that had been totally overlooked in its design. It carried its own oxygen-making device for operations at high altitude, but it used ambient (outside) air for conversion/ compression of the thin outside air. In other words, it was inhaling the same air as that contained in the nuclear clouds they were sampling. Then it was being processed and enriched, and fed into the aircraft’s crew’s oxygen masks. Why the engineers didn’t know that is beyond me. But maybe they did, which makes it even worse. They sacrified a lot of fine men in the process.
At our last meeting, Tom had not been diagnosed with cancer, but I often wondered after that, if he had been spared. In any event, he’ll always be one of my all-time heroes, even if he couldn’t fly formation.
George Thatcher, August 2022
George is an American Bad Ass. He grew up in Jersey, flew B-52s in Vietnam, taught English, Spanish and other languages to children around the world, makes his own salsa, has been known to enjoy a beer or two and has called Lubbock home for a few years, just to entertain the locals. Welcome to Raiderland, Major. We are going to feature some of his writings going forward. Some new, some old. Some rhyme, some don’t. When it comes to George, there’s no box. So… enjoy our friend and enjoy his writings! – Hyatt