Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Robert W (Bob) Coburn History

My father told me that my interest in airplanes started very early. When I was six I pointed at a contrail and said “Daddy, I want to do that.” One of his hunting buddies had a Piper Tri-Pacer and we went up in it not much later. I got a little airsick and it broke my heart.

I was a typical small town kid. Worked hard at school, played sports, was a cub and boy scout. I also cut out any airplane picture that I could find and pasted them into books that I made. I made airplane models like crazy and my friend and I made and flew U Control airplanes. I became a Boy Scout Camp staffer for two years and later, with Red Cross Life Saving and Water Safety Instructor certificates, a lifeguard for the city pool and some private ones.

Ours was not a family with a military tradition or even close contact with veterans. I wanted to fly and get an education and there was not much money for either so I wrote US Congressman Hull of Missouri. He told me that he could get me a primary appointment at West Point, an alternate at Annapolis, but I would have to test for the Air Force Academy. I didn't want to spend my life marching or driving a boat so I took the Air Force Academy. This was a potentially disastrous choice in retrospect, but I tested against 10 other guys and still don't know how I won out. Of course I wound up marching for the next four years.

As a new member of the 6th class at the Academy, I was the first boy from St. Joseph, MO. to become a cadet. I rode the bus from St Joseph to Colorado Springs overnight. At the station some polite cadets directed me to the AFA buses. As I was riding on the road to the Academy looking up at the area, I had a premonition that things were about to change drastically. At the area, the cadets were much less polite and much louder. I learned my Cadet Squadron Commander's name better than my own in the first 10 minutes and was hustled with temporarily damaged hearing thru inprocessing for the rest of the day. The summer did not improve significantly from there.

As we approached academics I was able to test into advanced Calculus and out of a few courses. This allowed me to face less than 21 additional hours for a BS in Engineering Sciences, reducing my increased study load from impossible to merely improbable to complete.

I think two of the hardest physical training things that we did were boxing and the rope climb. In boxing, getting hit on purpose seemed less than smart and I didn't watch the other boxer enough until one day I was watching and Gary Olin hit me with a left hook that came out of nowhere. After that fight, my third, I thought, if I am going to get hit anyway, I might as well look. I did and won the next three fights. Climbing the rope was, as all difficult things, a trick. Once you learn the trick, it is easy. These were just two of the many-many character-building things that we did and they sure worked on me.

I was lucky to be able to do pretty well in academics and was on the Dean's list seven semesters. The Dark Ages (fall winter 3rd class year) got me one semester. I never got on the Commandant's list but I made 2nd LT anyway.

I went to Williams AFB for pilot training. Life was good, I was doing what I always wanted and did it pretty well. The T-37 was a load of fun and the T-38 was AWSOME. Unfortunately we lost Rupert Fisk, 64, in the T-37 that fall.

I went out with some of the guys one night and met my wife to be. Winnie was in Nurses training at St Joseph's hospital. During the rest of the year several of her class and my class went hiking, tubing, bar hopping and dating together. As an example of the success of this Marty Bushnell, 64, my roommate at pilot training met his future wife, Winnie's roommate, Mary Ann.

I was top US pilot in flying, a German student in the class was a few points ahead of me, but in academics I always managed to miss two questions on the ATC tests whether I studied very hard or just hard. As a result I got an F-4 and went to DM for the Replacement Pilot program. We went thru 5 months of that course and then they invented the Replacement Training Unit. We went to MacDill for another 6 months. So it took me 11 months to downgrade to the back seat.

Surviving Jungle School at Clark, I arrived at Ubon Royal Thai AFB. I got off the plane and heard, “boy are we glad you're here” and flew two sorties over North Vietnam that night and most of the next days and nights for the rest of that month with the 497th Sqdn. In fact, I flew 100 missions North and 2 in Laos and completing my first tour in a couple of days over six months.

Near the end of the first tour an opportunity to upgrade in the F-4 and return to fly in Vietnam was offered. Six 64 graduates, that I knew, at Ubon took the opportunity then – Joe Griffiths, J D Brown, Bill Flood, Joel Arnoff, Tom Walsh and me. All completed their second tours. I asked for Camh Ran Bay as I felt my “hang out” factor was getting a bit large, but ended back at Ubon eventually. I left Ubon on Christmas Day 1966 – a pretty nice present. Unfortunately, I missed operation Bolo by about a week.

I went back to Davis Monthan for the best air force training program that I have ever taken – front seat in the first line fighter of the day – the F-4. Again I had a ball. I took Top Gun in the class. I knocked the reflector off of the 5 nm cable with a Sparrow and got a direct hit with my Sidewinder. I was even asked to give some briefings on night sortie tactics in NVN and demonstrated them on my night attack mission. Life doesn't get better than this in flying. To top it off, I made the best decision of my life and asked Winnie – the love of my life and best friend to marry me, a love affair of 43½ years so far.


In September it was back to Ubon for another tour. This time I was in the 35th TFS. I flew 100 missions in NVN and 44 in Laos on this tour in eleven months. There is more on Ubon in the stories section.

My next assignment was RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, United Kingdom. I arrived with my wife and settled in, followed a month later with the birth of our son, Michael William Coburn. Our daughter, Michelle Marie Coburn, was born two years later. We had wonderful friends in England, both in squadron and wing and the locals. In fact this has been true wherever we have been.

In England we fought the Cold War, sitting nuclear alert at Bentwaters, in Italy, and Turkey. As the weather was pretty bad in the winter in England we expanded our weapons training outside England to Wheelus, Libya; Aviano, Italy; Incirlik, Turkey, and Deccimanu, Sardinia. Later another training site was developed at Zaragosa, Spain. All of this was hard on the wives as we were gone a lot on alert and TDY. At the end of this tour in 1972, I was chosen to be one of the wing pilots to go to the 4th Tactical Weapons Meet at Florennes AB, Belgium. This was a direct competition between the international NATO air force units in the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force, ATAF, (largely in England) and 2nd ATAF (on the continent) in the Attack, conventional, and Strike, nuclear, missions. I won the Attack trophy.

For my next assignment, the Air Force decided that the Army needed a little help and made me the 1st Brigade Air Liaison Officer of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) at Ft Campbell, Kentucky. This was certainly different. I learned a lot about the Army, learning the meaning of field, and I think they learned a lot from me about the Air Force and Close Air Support (CAS). CAS fighters were hard to come by until we discovered the Guard squadrons in the area. We received tremendous support from them. We had two 0-2s at the Fort so we had something to fly and FAC from (other than jeeps) – at 192 Kts top speed, they were the fastest things there, even if only in a dive. In addition to riding jeeps and Hueys on exercises, I found a mission need to fly Hueys and Rangers, and was invited to fly on a front seat flight in a Huey Cobra. This was all “friendly” flying of course and did not take me from fighters. In my spare time, I completed a Masters in Public Administration from Western Kentucky University at night.

After bidding Ft Campbell Adieu, my family and I traveled to Alamagordo, NM to Holloman AFB where I rejoined the fighter forces as Assistant Operations Officer of the 417th Squadron. Holloman was home to one of the largest Conus F-4 bases. The primary wing mission was to reinforce Europe in case the war started. They practiced every year with a Crested Cap deployment that actually moved 96 F-4s to Europe, 48 at a time a month apart. I helped plan and went on one of these, flying over the Atlantic Ocean in a large aircraft movement both ways. Another time we had a wing surge. I flew 18 range and air-to-air sorties in six days, great fun.

One day as I returned home from a trip, my wife had a surprise party waiting. It was an Aloha party. Sensing a message here I asked and was told we were on our way to Hawaii. I became the Chief of the Flight Safety Branch of PACAF. By luck or skill (I think skill as we did many good things with the regulations and at the bases), PACAF had three of the best flight safety years in the command's history. The wife and kids loved Hawaii, and everyone that we knew wanted to visit. They all wanted a place to stay, a guide and a driver – a tremendous opportunity to pay back others for their kindness to us. In an era where staff officers did not fly we had an airplane – T-33A – and a mission, targets for the Hawaii Guard. I thought I had escaped it in pilot training, but found it to be a really great aircraft and did lots and lots of acrobatics in it.

Departing Hawaii we returned to the mainland, George AFB, CA, where the family settled in Apple Valley. I was originally in the 20th TFS for IP training and moved to the 21st TFS where I became Operations Officer for a wonderful year working with Walley Mekkers, the Squadron Commander. The squadron guys were overworked and we always had trouble keeping aircraft as the 20th was a German Contract training Squadron and always had to be filled with pilots and planes, but it was challenging and rewarding. We also were made an operational squadron as well as a training squadron so we also had all of that training and deployment to address. I went out of my way to get good deals for the troops to pay them back for their hard work. Also OERs were easy to write for this great bunch of guys and students. The families were close with my wonderful wife helping the new and not so new kids.

I was made the Chief of Operations and Training in the 35th Wing when the wing split - 35th TFW to operational and training F-4Es and the new 37th TFW to Wild Weasel F-4Gs. Ops and Training was a tremendously busy job. There was always something else to do. Oh by the way, I continued as a line instructor pilot to help the 21st. It seemed like the time at George just melted away.

My next job was at March AFB with the 12th Air Division as Director of Operations and Training. We controlled the air defense of the entire western United States. Once again I found myself and small staff working on a myriad of plans, checklists, procedures and regulations for the Air Division operations, in the air, ground control, and at the radar sites. This job was interesting as about 20 or so of my best friends were flying F-4Cs in the California Guard, CANG, at March. When I was at George, I had augmented them as an IP for their transition from 0-2s at Ontario AP to F-4s at March AFB. As a staffer in the Air Division I was authorized to fly with the Air Defense California Guard at Fresno in F-4s. This gave the March people an opportunity to get approval from the CANG to invite me to continue to fly with them after reporting in to the Air Division. This was great and kept me busy during the week and weekends but it was pretty clear that my next assignment was going to be behind a desk somewhere.

After about 20 months of this I realized that the only reason I was still in the US Air Force was that I was flying Air National Guard aircraft. Not a bad reason, but it started me thinking that it was time for me to find something interesting to do. The next air defense exercise at Tyndall AFB found me spending the off time laying in the sun and studying “What Color is Your Parachute.”

I left the Air Force content that I had done my duty as I understood it and as explained to us in all of our professional lectures. I had been in two wars. We declared victory in the first one and that country fell apart a few years later. In the second one the USSR ran out of money; so I figure I am one for two. I worked with a lot of wonderful people and few who weren't so wonderful, but on the balance, I felt way ahead, which is as it should be.

A month later I started at General Dynamics in Pomona in Operations Research. I quickly moved up and joined the Standard Missile Advanced Programs Office. My new boss, a gentleman with 35 years in missile design and applications, started me on an intensive On the Job Training in missile development, as I headed technical studies into the future utility and upgrade of the Standard Missile Family. Standard Missile was at that time and continues to be the premier ship defense missile for the United States Navy and about 15 additional Navy's around the world. So this is how an Air Force guy got into the ground floor as an industry leader in Navy defense programs for surface ships. I did considerable engineering. This included the programs below and earning a missile related patent. I did discover that 21 years of flying does terrible things to your math. In order to refresh the math and do the job better I revisited school getting an ME in Engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.

I had an interesting job with the majority of ideas, from studies that I led, providing stronger defense for our guys at sea. Two of the bigger ones were a cost effective maneuverability upgrade to the Standard Missile Medium Range and the entry of the US Navy into ballistic missile defense. The first is at sea now after a protracted wait, while the Navy kept trying to find money for a more expensive solution. The second preceded by two very successful demonstration programs led to the present Standard Missile 3. This is the missile that is at sea with the US and Japanese Navy on AEGIS ships. It also was used in a special program to shoot a dangerous de-orbiting satellite into plasma with a direct hit.

We were merged with Hughes and the whole Missile Systems Div relocated to Tucson. Shortly thereafter we merged with Raytheon. When we came to Tucson, I moved up to the Naval Weapons System Program Office Advanced Programs supporting all of the Navy defense systems made by Hughes. These systems are used on most US and another 21 countries' Navy ships.

Fifteen years later, after a twenty-five year second career, I called it a day. My children, Michelle, her husband Mark, Mike and his wife Tressa, bought me a jet flight in an Aero L-39 Albatros as a surprise retirement gift. They informed me the day before the flight. The flight took place south of Portland out of the Aurora AP. This is a really great trainer aircraft and Phil Fogg, the owner, who also races it in Reno, has taken good care of it. The flight controls were smooth and the aircraft very responsive. It was a “tiptoe thru the tulips” for me and I found out that I still fly pretty well. I started on aileron rolls and hesitation rolls and the acrobatics went vertical from there, concluding with some combat extensions and pitch backs. Do I have wonderful kids or not?

Winnie and I are settled in Tucson, which we love. Our children are successful, a fact that I give most of the credit to Winnie for all of the love and support during their formative years. Both are married with wonderful spouses and two children each. Michael is a captain of industry, having worked his way thru several companies as the VP of production and CEO, living in Corona Del Mar, CA. Michelle is one of the highest trained gastroenterologists in the US, practicing in Portland, OR.


Left to Right: Mark Beilstein, Mike Coburn, Tressa Coburn holding Justin Coburn, Cailyn Coburn, Bob Coburn, Winnie Coburn, Morgan Beilstein, Michelle Beilstein, Colin Beilstein, and Phil Fogg

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