Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

My History

John Hoffman

It's early May 1960...and decision time. Do I follow through with plans to attend Penn State Univ with my buddies on a full NROTC scholarship or do I accept a just-received appointment to the AF Academy? That somewhat hurried decision was undoubtedly to become one of the very most important ones in my lifetime. A month later I was on airplane for the first time in my life and on my way to Colorado to join the Class of 1964. Believe me, it was a gigantic step for a small-town boy from northwestern Pennsylvania. Getting acquainted on that bus ride down from Denver had me wondering, “Do I really belong in this sterling group of all-everythings?” But now, as I look back more appreciatively of my cadet days and the many hurdles and experiences, I can truly say, "That's what made me a man and propelled me to many accomplishments later in life." It was challenging to measure up… militarily, physically and academically, but somehow I managed to make the Superintendent's List seven semesters running and 12th Sq Cmdr the fall semester. Three years on the rifle team, wrestling, soccer, rugby, and many trips skiing rounded out the hectic schedule. Top priority, though, became a lovely girl from Denver by the name of Sally during our First Class year. Graduation was followed by our chapel wedding the next day; then off to pilot training at Williams AFB in Class 66-B with a number of our over-achieving classmates.

A sampling of pilot training during the summer prior had really whetted my appetite for flying and I thrived in training. Who says you can't enjoy your “work”? By this time, Sally was expecting our first son, Larry, and a graduation assignment as a T-38 IP to Moody AFB in GA was a perfect follow-on. Spending three fun years there honed my flying skills and brought us a second son, David. But now my motivation turned to fighters and a tour in SEA. The F-105 had always been number one choice and in 1969 it became a reality with assignment to McConnell AFB for training (single seat checkouts are real confidence builders), followed by nearly a year of combat flying out of Tahkli RTAFB, Thailand. With about 1800 hours flying experience already under my belt, transitioning into the Thud and making the most of its great capabilities provided a real rush. While we were no longer officially flying into NVN, my 124 combat missions had their share of exciting moments. Most of all, I developed a heightened admiration for those 15 in our class who had flown combat in the Thud right out of pilot training.

Returning stateside in the fall of 1970, I was determined to pursue a long-held goal of attending the USAF Test Pilot School. My roommate for two years, Dave Diefenbach, had shared the same desire. He'd had a model of the X-15 on his bookshelf at the Academy and we would talk at length about someday doing that type of flying. With Dave now at the school, I visited he and Barb at Edwards in early 1970 while on leave from SEA and monitored his solo zoom flight in the F-104.... and I personally tendered my application. While waiting selection, I decided to round out my academic credentials by attending grad school at the University of Southern California. The next year and a half was a real change of pace from combat, to say the least, culminating in an MBA degree in Management in Dec 1971. Sadly during this time, Dave was tragically killed in a crash of a B-57 at Edwards in the summer of 1971. This only reinforced my desire to become a test pilot and carry on. As an output assignment from grad school, I was assigned as a test manager in the B-1 SPO at the Rockwell International plant in Los Angeles with rated supplement flying in the T-39.

Timing is everything and I'd hardly completed a year in the SPO world when my selection finally came to attend the Test Pilot School in early 1973... "rescued" back to real flying! And what flying it was! If pilot training is a "BS" and RTU a "Masters", TPS has to be the "PhD" in the flying business... a strong dose of engineering classes and highly varied test flying in some 20 different airplanes, all in about 11 months. It was learning to test how well (or not!) airplanes perform, applying all I'd learned in an Aero/Astro Engr Science major at the Academy as well as my sharply honed flying skills. It was a perfect fit for my background and experience. The arduous but very satisfying year's effort was rewarded by being the top pilot graduate and earning the coveted Liethen-Tittle award...the same as Dave had done three years earlier. This achievement served as a foundation for the remainder of my career, allowing me to pursue a sustained 22-year career in flight test, both during and beyond AF days.

Following TPS graduation, I spent the next two years at Edwards, flying and directing several development programs, which included adapting the T-38 for the Lead-In Fighter role, development of a digital flight control system in an A-7 testbed, and primary chase/backup pilot for the X-24 Lifting Body. Professional training intervened, however, and it was off to Armed Forces Staff College in early 1976.

Luckily my duty commitment as a test pilot had not been fulfilled, so my follow-on assignment brought me right back to the Flight Test Center at Edwards....this time for nearly nine years! I returned initially as an instructor at the Test Pilot School, enjoying lots of flying and training new test pilots, many whom would work with me later and go on to become shuttle astronauts. A small cadre of our classmates was also there at Edwards, so it became quite a "fraternity." As my experience broadened, I transitioned into the F-15 for several years of developmental flying plus some classified projects, then into the A-10 for two years where I commanded the combined test team of AF and contractor personnel. What a kick it was shooting the 30mm Gatling gun during extensive gunfire tests! This period also saw the development of a two seat A-10 prototype, which TAC wanted nothing to do with.

HoffmanOffice1.jpg The high point, though, came in early 1982 when I was assigned back to the F-15 as the Test Force Director and the launch of the Dual Role Fighter evaluation, pitting the F-15 Strike Eagle against the F-16XL prototype. Ironically, my good friend and fellow test pilot Mart Bushnell was in charge of the F-16 effort, so it was a "friendly" but spirited competition. It was during this test flight effort that I discovered and then corrected a serious flying qualities deficiency in the testbed F-15, which might have compromised its ultimate selection as winner and going on to become the F-15E, a superb dual role fighter that has served us so well now for over 20 years. For this effort, I was selected as Test Pilot of the Year in 1983, earning the Kincheloe Award bestowed by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots... another very satisfying milestone (and to be sure, another story by itself).

Following the F-15 effort and brief stint as Director of Safety, I was assigned to Systems Command Headquarters in early 1985 as the Deputy Director of Test, overseeing testing at all our command locations. I took this staff tour as "token penance" after all my years enjoying the thrills of active test flying. But my career at Edwards wasn't over and in mid-1987 I returned for what amounted to an unprecedented fourth tour at the Flight Test Center, this time as the Vice Center Commander. Given my choice of flying, I opted for the F-16 and was able to contribute on a number of flight test projects ongoing at the time, both in the F-16 and other aircraft such as the X-29. As my secretary recalled, I spent as much time as possible in my “other office” down on the flightline.

HoffmanFini1.jpg Fulfilling my dream of becoming a career test pilot, I finally retired at Edwards in July 1991. My logbook was full of many exciting memories, spread over some 6700 hours and 80 plus different airplanes. It was quite a ride....spending almost 16 years of my 27-year career at Edwards and participating in some of the most rewarding flying a pilot can experience. I'm sure some of my joy was shared, as the family thoroughly enjoyed the Edwards days and it became "hometown" to our two sons. And to top it off, older son Larry went on to the Academy (Class of 1988), later became a test pilot himself and is now the Ops Group Cmdr at Beale AFB in charge of all flying activities.

Following retirement, I was fortunate to continue my flight test career, initially doing a contractor flight test project with the South Korean ROKAF and flying their F-16s. This was followed by a four-year stint in Dallas, TX as Chief Test Pilot and Director for the Vought Aircraft entry in the JPATS evaluation program to select a follow-on to the T-37. Sadly our candidate, the Argentine Pampa 2000 aircraft, did not win out in the final selection in 1995. Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience to participate from the contractor side in a highly competitive flight test program.

HoffmanRetirement2.jpg Leaning toward an early retirement, Sally and I decided to locate where we ultimately wanted to be and settled on the Tucson area. After learning to love the desert Southwest and many years enjoying the climate, this was a natural choice. After completing a new home in the retirement community of Green Valley, I still had the urge to stay in the flying game, however.

The next eight years were spent training corporate pilots in the Learjet 45, with numerous trips on the road flying with various clients as a contract pilot. This culminated in 2007 with a "final graduation" into a very active retired life, enjoying travel, visiting friends and family, and renovating a second summer home at Pinetop high in the cool White Mountains of northern AZ. Hobbies abound, but for me it's primarily my shooting activities, including match competition with both rifle and pistol.

HoffmanBaby3.jpg Looking back from this point in time, I'm even happier with that decision I made in May 1960. The Academy years were a great foundation upon which to build a lifetime. Personally, it led me onto a path and into a career that has been most satisfying and full of great memories. Not the least of these is the sharing, bonding, and rebonding I've had with those of us who make up the Class of 1964. Our paths have crossed and recrossed over the years and each opportunity has been very gratifying. We truly are a "band of brothers"... with much to be proud of and share among ourselves and with others.

Most of all, I am extremely grateful to be a member and classmate.

John Hoffman
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