Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Vern's History


vern.jpg How did a young farm boy from a small town (pop 950) in southeastern South Dakota wind up making a 24 ½ year career in the Air Force? My interest in flying started when my brother took me to a military air show at Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls, South Dakota while I was in grade school. I was fascinated by the airplanes on display and the great air show overhead.

My interest in the Air Force Academy was generated by two things. I followed the success of the Air Force Academy football team and their participation in the 1959 Cotton Bowl and I found an old Academy catalog in my school library. I applied and much to my surprise I received a congressional nomination to attend. Only much later did I realize how much help I received from some leaders in my community to make my academy selection a reality.

As a side note, while I was applying to the Academy, I had the privilege of meeting Joe Foss, the Congressional Medal of Honor World War II hero, during one of his campaign stops at my uncle's farm when he was running for Congress. He was impressive.  Other 64 Academy nominees from South Dakota were Al Larson, Joe Vlasek, and Roger Hauptmann. Joe and Roger dropped out and within a year or two of their departure from the Academy were killed in accidents. Guess Al and I are glad we stuck it out.

My first flight on an airplane was on Western Airlines to Denver the night before entering the Academy. How exciting! More excitement would soon follow. I will always remember when I ran through the glass doors on the terrazzo after taking the oath and hearing the upper classman's response to my casual answer to his question, “Mister, what's your name?” The first of many push-ups and tongue lashings had started. I think I survived the physical and academic demands of Doolie year in particular and the remaining years at the Academy because of the years participating in high school athletics, good study habits demanded by my high school teachers, and a fear of failure and what would I do then.

Following graduation, I married a wonderful woman named Connie, my “best aide” ever since, and the mother of my three children. My 24 year military career of flying airplanes, desks, and schools literally flew by and made a young man's dream of flying come true.

Flying assignments were in the T-37, F105, and F-111 at Laredo, Takhli, Mt Home and RAF Lakenheath. My most rewarding and challenging assignment was over 5 years in an operational F-111 wing at RAF Lakenheath, England. After spending 4 years in grad school and a follow-up desk job, I was ready for flying again in an operational fighter squadron.

My assignment at Lakenheath started off with a call to the Wing Commander's office shortly after my arrival and having just been declared mission ready in the F-111F in one of the fighter squadrons. The conversation went something like this: “We need a Lt Col with maintenance experience to be the squadron commander of the Avionics Maintenance Squadron. You are interested, aren't you?”

Since I was a Lt Col and had 6 months experience in maintenance quality assurance flying functional check flights in the F-111 at Mt Home over four years earlier, I became the commander of the 550 man 48th Avionics Maintenance Squadron for a year. Talk about lessons in leadership, motivation, military justice, and working with airmen and NCOs, this was an experience that the Academy and previous jobs had not fully prepared me for. Open mouth, insert funnel! I survived the year because of the great senior NCO's and junior officers I had working for me, great highly skilled airmen as well.

My Wing Commander had promised that I could return to flying after a year and I was fortunate to be an ops officer and squadron commander for almost four years in the 493rd and 492nd Tac Fighter Squadrons at RAF Lakenheath during the later years of the Cold War. I must say that my experience as a maintenance squadron commander had a great positive influence during my time as a flying squadron ops officer and commander.

The two flying squadrons I worked in were responsible for achieving readiness with Pave Tack. Pave Tack was developed specifically for the F-111F and consisted of a rotating pod located in the weapons bay. The pod had an infrared seeker to acquire a target and a laser designator to guide the laser guided bomb which was then released from the same aircraft. The F-111F with Pave Tack became the link between Laser Guided Bomb technology developed in Southeast Asia and the F-15 Strike Eagle capabilities employed today. After I left RAF Lakenheath, the F-111 Pave Tack capability and many of the crews I had worked with were involved in the Lybian raid and in Desert Storm.

My two assignments in desk jobs were to the Air Force Military Personnel Center, the infamous, often despised, MPC. I can honestly say that I was one of the few rated officers who had two assignments to MPC and never had a hand in a single assignment. My last assignment to MPC was as the Director of Plans, Programs and Analysis best described as the catch-all directorate who helped the MPC commander implement the concepts of Mission Support Squadrons and the use of computer technology to enhance and automate many base level personnel, finance, and admin functions. I see the concepts in real time every time I get a new ID card or change an allotment.

I also had the responsibility of gathering and tracking Officer Effectiveness Report statistics for the Major Air Commanders and the Air Force Chief of Staff. Rampant inflation had made the system almost unusable and I was glad to see the new Officer Effectiveness System being implemented just as I retired.

Upon retiring from the Air Force, I was fortunate to get back into flying with airline positions at TWA for two years in the L1011 and 727 and at UPS for sixteen years in the DC8, 757, and 767. In addition to the flying, I learned a lot, both good and bad, about labor unions.

It's been a great life and I have been fortunate to work with great people. I still have a connection to the Air Force through my daughter, a ‘93 Academy graduate, who is on active duty as a JAG.

Lastly, I have to pinch myself to realize it really all happened and it was not a dream. MY GOD has truly blessed me!!

VERN HANDEL, Col ret USAF
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