Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Bob Kern's Career

BobCropped.jpg I was born and raised on a central Indiana farm. Nearly all my ancestors were farmers, and my parents and grandparents generally expected that I'd become a farmer, too, but as a child, I was attracted to aviation. My father took me for my first light plane ride when I was about five or six years old and I was hooked. I also had an uncle who had been a B-17 pilot in the 8th Air Force during WWII. Both of them inspired me, and when President Eisenhower signed the law enacting the Air Force Academy, I resolved to attend. Throughout high school, my primary goal was to earn an appointment.

From about the age of 10, building and flying model airplanes occupied a large portion of my time. Living on a farm, there was plenty of space to fly the models I made. Purdue University airport was only a few miles away, and during the early 1950's I recall being outside and seeing a number of Air Force P-51 Mustangs and Navy F4U Corsairs flying over our family farm. I really wanted to be up there and not on the ground.

I attended a rural high school, and most of the boys took agricultural classes. When I told my high school guidance counselor I intended to attend the Air Force Academy, he suggested maybe I'd set my sights too high and perhaps I should rethink my future career.

The summer I turned seventeen, I began taking flying lessons from John Russell Stair, the owner of a small grass strip in Mulberry, Indiana. I think at the time, he must have been in his seventies. Everyone called him "Pop" Stair. During WWII he had been a flight instructor at Purdue airport for many pilots being trained for the military; among them was astronaut Roger Chafee. I found a reference on the Internet that he was also a flight instructor for astronaut John Glenn, but I have doubts that he was, because John Glenn's bio indicates he learned to fly in Ohio.

I learned to fly in his J-3 Piper Cub powered by an 85-HP Lycoming engine. With half a tank of gas, and my weight of 125 pounds, a solo takeoff took barely 100 yards. As I recall, stall speed was about 33 knots. I accumulated approximately 16 hours of flying time, but didn't have the time nor the money to complete the requirements for my pilot's license before school started in the fall.

The congressman from my district used Civil Service exams to select appointees to the service academies. My senior year of high school I competed for an appointment, but another candidate had a higher score. Since I didn't receive an appointment, I attended Purdue University for two semesters in engineering. The following year, I competed again, and was cut out of the pattern a second time by another candidate. I was lucky enough, though, to be accepted by the Academy as a qualified alternate.

Having been selected as a cadet, my next goals were to graduate and become the world's best fighter pilot. However, those plans were dashed after Christmas of my Doolie year, when taking notes from the back row, I noticed the instructor's writing on the blackboard looked fuzzy. An eye exam revealed my eyes had deteriorated from 20/20 to 20/70 in about six months. During the following two years, my vision further degenerated to 20/250. If I was going to fly at all, it would be as a navigator. I poured my efforts into learning as much about navigation as possible.

As a cadet, I was unspectacular--not on the dean's or commandant's list, but not on their bad lists, either. I managed to stay out of trouble, never had to march a tour, but I did serve a few confinements for being "D" in a couple courses. My goals had changed to graduating and becoming the world's best navigator. Prior to graduation, I received a waiver to attend navigation training, since glasses corrected my vision to 20/20.

On June 3, 1964, I completed my graduation goal, along with 498 of my classmates. On that day, I had no idea how many different directions our careers would take us.

Undergraduate navigator training at the time was taught at James Connally AFB, near Waco, Texas. Ground school was a breeze, since I'd taken navigation and astronomy classes at the Academy. The top ten percent of the graduating class had its choice of aircraft. My choice was the C-130 and I received it.

My first operational assignment was to the 772nd Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), at Langley AFB, Virginia. I felt fortunate to have obtained one of the best assignments in my class. Unfortunately, my assignment to Langley lasted barely long enough to learn my way around the base and get checked out in the C-130B. Two months after arriving, we received orders for a unit move to the Philippines, mainly to support the escalating war in South Vietnam. As there wasn't enough ramp space on Clark Air Base, some of our aircraft were based at Mactan Island, Philippines, and I was assigned there on a remote assignment. The Japanese had built the airfield on Mactan during World War II, and the US later improved it as an emergency airfield. When we first arrived, we lived in tents and ate in a field kitchen. Living arrangements were much better in South Vietnam.

As a sidelight, Mactan Island is the location where the explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, (whom we were taught in grade school was the first person to circumnavigate the globe) was killed in 1521 by Lapu Lapu, the native chief of a tribe of Filipinos living on Mactan.

About half my one-year Mactan assignment was spent on temporary duty to South Vietnam, flying missions out of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). We hauled everything from artillery shells to fuel bladders to Army troops/passengers to food to livestock. We flew from Hue in the north to Can Tho in the south and to nearly every short airfield in between. The pilots with whom I flew had long experience, some going back to the C-119 and the C-47. They could plant a fully loaded C-130 on a 2500-foot dirt airstrip with ease.

Lockbourne AFB (now Rickenbacker ANG Base), Ohio, was my next assignment, navigating the C-130A in the 18th TCS (until it was deactivated) and then the 40th Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS). During this tour, I participated in a wider range of, and more interesting, missions than on any other assignment.

Shortly after arriving in the squadron, I headed off for an arctic exercise in Alaska. We made a couple airdrops on drop zones in the middle of nowhere. Returning from Alaska, my crew spent a week at Ft Bragg, North Carolina, dropping paratroops who were being trained for high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) airdrops. The first time we dropped a team of Army paratroops from 20,000 feet, I told the Army jumpmaster the winds at our altitude were over 120 knots, and the drop point was about three miles upwind from the drop zone. He said, "Turn on the green light when we're over the drop zone, and I'll call the drop." The HALO troops exited while we were directly over the drop zone. It took the Army several hours to round up all the troops because they landed off the reservation about five miles from the drop zone. After that first jump, the Army jumpmaster let me call the remainder of the drops.

For Armed Forces day, our wing commander wanted to do something different. One of our aircraft commanders who had been a copilot with the Four Horsemen C-130 demonstration team, talked with the wing commander and received approval to do a C-130 diamond formation. Somehow my crew wound up in the slot position. Being so close to three other airborne C-130s fills up the pilots' windows. I got some pretty good photos (I wish I could find them to post here).

Shortly afterward, I was involved in a paradummy airdrop which was the only one I ever participated in. The Army asked for Air Force support on an Army exercise at Ft Campbell, KY, and we sent three C-130's. Someone from one of the Army exercise teams discovered a warehouse containing dummies, and they wanted us to drop them on a drop zone in an effort to deceive the opposing team. The dummies were packaged in bags, and when dropped, they slipped out of the bags so their arms and legs dangled, making them look realistic. The dummies were about three feet tall, and their parachutes were proportionally smaller than normal troop parachutes. We loaded up the dummies, and dropped them on the drop zone. However, the opposing team wasn't fooled, because the parachutes were colored pink, light green, and yellow--not the (then current) Army parachute colors.

Early in the summer we spent a week dropping airborne students on their first five jumps at Ft Benning jump school. Before we took off for their first jump, the entire plane load of airborne students were yelling, "Geronimo," at the top of their lungs. In the heat of the day, there was considerable turbulence during the flight, and nearly all the airborne students became airsick. We didn't hear many "Geronimo's" after about twenty minutes of flight. The fire department had to hose out the plane after we landed.

Later during the summer of '67, about a day into our operational readiness inspection (ORI), riots broke out in Detroit, so for the remainder of our ORI, we hauled airborne troops from Ft Bragg, NC, to Selfridge AFB, Michigan under near-real combat conditions. We received reports of small arms fire in and around the Detroit area, similar to the small arms reports we'd received in Vietnam.

In September 1967, I participated in a 90-day rotation to Panama. From Panama, I happened to be on a classified mission to Bolivia. On this mission, we carried a team of men wearing civilian clothing, whom we were told were Army Rangers going "on vacation" to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

We had to stop at the La Paz, Bolivia, airport, so after we landed I went to the back of the plane and jumped to the ground from a paratroop door (about 5 feet). Since then, I've been able to tell a story about jumping out of a C-130 above 13,000 feet without a parachute, and landing on my feet (La Paz airport elevation is 13,325 feet).

A couple weeks after we returned from our Bolivia mission, a newspaper article reported Ernesto "Che" Guevera had been captured and killed in the Bolivian jungle by the Bolivian army, not too far from Santa Cruz. I've always wondered if the team we hauled enjoyed their vacation.

In late 1967 our wing supplied a C-130 to support the F-111A Harvest Reaper project. We flew F-111 parts between the General Dynamics plant in Fort Worth, Robins AFB, and Canon AFB, to Nellis and Edwards AFB where testing was being conducted. Early in 1968, an F-111 shot itself down over the eastern Pacific. The crew had fired their guns and then dived into the shells. The F-111 escape capsule disconnected from the fuselage when the crew ejected, and this was the first time the escape capsule had been available for inspection, so everyone was interested in learning how well it worked. We hauled it back to the Ft Worth factory for the accident investigation.

The Army and Air Force were gathering parachute ballistics data on various earth-moving equipment such as scrapers, bulldozers, and road graders. I was on a crew that dropped a three-axle road grader (with the engine and cab above the two back axles). There were photo theodolites on the drop zone to document the ballistics of the grader under parachutes. Murphy's Law struck when one of the three parachutes on the load streamered and wrapped around the other two chutes, causing them all to collapse. The loadmaster said he saw the grader hit the ground in a cloud of dust. He then reported a single wheel bounced high out of the cloud before falling back into it.

In the spring of 1968, I participated in a 90-day rotation to RAF Mildenhall, UK. We flew a number of cargo missions to Turkey, Greece, Germany, Italy, Libya, Denmark, and Spain. Although I was away from home more than half the time, toward the end of my Lockbourne assignment, I was able to find my high school sweetheart, Carol, and we became reacquainted after nearly ten years.

Less than two years after arriving at Lockbourne, in 1968, I was transferred to the 815th TAS, Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, again in the C-130A. Similar to my tour at Mactan, approximately half the time I was on temporary duty to South Vietnam again flying cargo around South Vietnam. This time, however, we were flying out of Cam Ranh Bay.

One particular mission sticks out in my mind. A Navy EC-121 was shot down by North Korean Migs over the Sea of Japan on April 15, 1969. Along with rescue aircraft, the 815th TAS was tasked to search the crash area. The search grid assigned to my crew was the furthest north, off the coast of North Korea. During our mission, I could see the Russian port of Vladivostok on the radar's 50-mile range. We found nothing, and had no idea whether there were any more North Korean Migs in the area or what their intentions were.

I had an opportunity to navigate across the Pacific in a T-39A when one assigned to Yokota Air Base required a state-side modification. The Yokota Air Base Wing had no navigators who were current, so my squadron lent me out for two weeks. The T-39 lacked overwater navigation equipment, with my only aid to dead reckoning, a sextant. When we arrived in the States, I visited Carol and proposed marriage. She accepted. My plan was to extend my tour of duty after we were married. But that didn't happen--about two months before our scheduled wedding, all leaves were canceled and we were advised the squadron would be moving to Okinawa in late 1969. I had to call Carol and tell her our wedding was being postponed by the Air Force. Because I'd completed slightly more than half my tour of duty, instead of moving to Okinawa with the squadron, I was reassigned to Charleston AFB, South Carolina, in the C-141A.

Some of the C-130A aircraft assigned to Tachikawa were being transferred to the Air National Guard in the US. Since our wedding plans had been canceled, my squadron commander apparently had sympathy for me and I was assigned to the crew of the first C-130 ferried out. When I arrived in California on a Tuesday, I called Carol and told her that if we were married on the coming Saturday, we could fly back to Japan for our honeymoon (I had to return to Japan to complete my out processing). She quickly rescheduled the wedding (I don't know how she did it) and we were married on Saturday. I purchased a round-trip airline ticket for her and we spent about three weeks in Japan before my out processing date.

As newlyweds, we returned to the US in December and proceeded to Charleston AFB in early 1970. I was assigned to the 41st Military Airlift Squadron. I checked out in the C-141A and spent 16 months flying missions to Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. Cargo missions to South Vietnam consumed a large percentage of our flying time. Nearly every month we'd max out on flying time, even with waivers. I was lucky enough to be on two around-the-world embassy support missions and a presidential support mission (we carried the president's limo). Late in 1970, I accepted an offer to attend graduate school, at Oklahoma State University, with a directed duty assignment as an avionics officer.

In May 1971, my family arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and in June, I began work on a graduate degree in General Engineering. Since avionics was my next assignment, I took courses in management and electronics. One of my mandatory courses was a computer programming course in Fortran. It was the first computer course I'd taken and I immediately found a new, and life-changing interest.

After completing avionics officer school at Lowry AFB, Colorado, my next assignment was to the Tactical Air Warfare Center, Eglin AFB, Florida. The unit to which I was assigned was the reconnaissance unit, which included RPV's (remotely piloted vehicles). I worked as an avionics test and evaluation project officer for drone aircraft. Tactical Air Command (TAC) had inherited some drones and DC-130 aircraft from Strategic Air Command (SAC) and seemed to be unsure of their utility. Being a mostly fighter pilots' organization, drone aircraft weren't very popular--TAC preferred to keep a "man in the loop." A doctrine for using drones was lackluster. SAC had used reconnaissance drones in Southeast Asia with great success, but the tactical use of drones was unclear.

At the time, I think there were fewer than ten drone-carrying DC-130s in the entire Air Force. Each DC-130 could carry two drones. In a European war, the DC-130's could have deployed a few drones, but many more tactical drones would be necessary, and ground launching them was really the only alternative.


There were a number of questions no one had ever fully answered: How do you deploy a mix of tactical drones with manned aircraft?; How can ground launched drones be employed to maximize their effectiveness?; What is the best way to employ drones--with electronic countermeasures, chaff dropping, or to act as decoys?; What sized ground launched drone force is necessary to be effective?

The Israeli's provided an excellent example of manned aircraft-drone strategy during their 1973 war with Egypt. When the Israeli's launched their drones toward Egypt, Egyptian surface to air missiles launched against them, allowing the Israeli fighters trailing the drones to locate and destroy the missile launch sites.

I attended some drone demonstrations by Teledyne-Ryan, Northrop, and Beech. I also participated in drone tests on the western test ranges and wrote reports on our findings regarding the deployment of tactical drones with manned aircraft. During one Red Flag exercise, a drone dropped chaff in an effort to obscure an F-4. However, the radar operators on the test said the chaff cloud with an F-4 inside it looked like a snake that had swallowed a rat.

For a short period, I was also responsible for avionics test equipment in the avionics squadron. There was a store room in the building locked by huge padlock. I asked the senior sergeant what was in the room, and he said he didn't know, but he knew the door had been locked for several years. Since I was responsible for the equipment, I had the padlock cut off and inside the room was a veritable King Tut's treasure in electronics equipment: spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, function generators, and other high-end test equipment. I later learned the equipment had been purchased and used during Loran-guided bombing tests in Vietnam. The results had been fair, but when laser-guided bombs arrived, Loran-guided bombing instantly became obsolete, so all the test equipment was brought back to Eglin AFB and put into storage. Among the electronic equipment was a Hewlett-Packard 9830 programmable calculator (today we'd call it a low-end computer). This “calculator,” I was told, was used for computing the Loran coordinates where the pilots would release their bombs when attacking a target. I have no other information about Loran-guided bombing other than that hearsay.

Having taken a Fortran programming course at Oklahoma State, I realized the HP-9830 could be used in our office for statistical analysis and plotting many of the graphs we published in our reports. It had 4000 bytes of random access memory (RAM) with the BASIC language in read only memory (ROM). By today's standards, it would be a pitiful computer, but in 1973, it was about the best tabletop computer available. There was no monitor; instead it used a 32-character scrolling dot matrix display on the front of the device to display text. Programs were stored on an audio tape. A thermal dot-matrix printer provided hard copy and an 8"x10" electrostatic plotter generated graphs. In my spare time I wrote a flight planning program for it and decided that if I ever flew as a navigator again, I was going to use a computer. However, the price of the HP-9830 at the time was well over $25,000, well outside my budget.

After six years out of the cockpit, officer assignments had penned my name in another cockpit job, this time in Okinawa. Since I'd already had two assignments to the Pacific, I asked if there was any other navigator assignment available. The answer was, "We have one in Alaska, but no one wants to go there."

"Put my name on the Alaska tour," I said, and within a couple weeks I had orders to the 17th TAS, to fly the C-130E at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. Shortly afterward, we discovered Carol had a brain tumor, so my orders to Alaska were extended by three months so I could be with her during her brain surgery at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB, Texas.

After her surgery, Carol remained in Florida with her parents, getting daily physical therapy. I had to depart to meet the mid-November reporting date on my orders, so I drove nearly 5000 miles from Florida to Alaska with our two boys and a dog. It took nearly two weeks to travel the distance. Temperatures along the Alcan Highway dropped to -20 to -25 degrees F, but the scenery was absolutely spectacular. After we were somewhat settled, Carol flew in by commercial jet in about ten hours.

At one time, the 17th TAS flew C-130D aircraft on skis, with missions to the Greenland ice cap. However, by the time I arrived, the ski birds and mission had been transferred to the Schenectady, NY, Air National Guard. During the period I was assigned to Alaska, we flew training missions and support missions mainly to the remote radar sites north and west of Anchorage.

Soon after I arrived in Alaska, I began searching for a tabletop computer. I found one, in the form of a kit, manufactured by Cromemco (It made me feel that I'd made a good choice when the Air Force also chose the Cromemco computer). Over several months, I soldered electronic components onto computer boards and built my first tabletop computer. It ran the CP/M operating system and had only 64,000 bytes of memory, which at the time, cost $1500. I rewrote the flight planning program I'd written at Eglin to run on my new computer and converted it to also compute low level flight plans. I also wrote a program which calculated sunrise/sunset. We needed it, because in Alaska most remote airfields weren't lighted, and it was necessary for planning purposes to know sunrise/sunset information to meet FAA regulations.

A couple other officers and myself used our personal computers during the annual Jack Frost exercise in Alaska. One of our computers cranked out low level flight plans, and the other used a word processor to print outgoing messages for the message center. Both computers saved considerable time and manpower, enabling us to actually "do more with less." Gen Robert Huyser, then CINCMAC, visited during the exercise and our group commander showed him how two people with computers were doing the same job as about ten people doing manual flight planning and typing. In six months, we were one of the first Air Force operational units to obtain a tabletop computer through a productivity improvement program.

In the fall of 1981, after nearly four years in Alaska, I was assigned to the 16th Tactical Airlift Training Squadron at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, as an instructor navigator. I'd only spent about three months in the squadron when I was rushed to the hospital with an esophageal rupture, known as Boerhaave's syndrome. A week later, I had pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding my heart. Those two conditions ended my flying career.

Since I was grounded, I knew there were a two tabletop computers at Wing Training, so I asked for a transfer to 314th Military Airlift Wing Training. Two officers in Strategic Air Command (SAC) had written a program which they called the Celestial Training Device (CTD). It ran under the CP/M operating system and was a navigator's simulator which provided the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars for any day of the year for any location on earth. We saved a substantial amount of money by training navigators on the ground with the CTD. An hour of computer training time could reduce flying time, so it was easy to justify a tabletop computer in every tactical squadron.

Every year, the Naval Observatory produced a new computer almanac and these values had to be formatted and stored in CTD data files. We created the data files and distributed updates to the CTD program, as well as other programs which we had written, to other C-130 wings. In 1984, I retired from the Air Force after 20 years of active duty.

I felt too young to actually retire, so in 1985, I found a job as a systems engineer at Tracor Aerospace in Austin, Texas. The team to which I was assigned was developing software for an Air Force secure local area network (LAN). Tracor was a subcontractor to General Telephone & Electronics (GTE), which held the primary contract. Tracor had anticipated there would be a follow-on contract with GTE, but it never materialized. A few layoffs in my group indicated my position was going to be eliminated soon, so I contacted an Academy friend from the class of '72 who had a computer job with United Airlines in Chicago. He said United was forming a subsidiary corporation to handle airline reservations, and they needed someone with LAN experience to set up a LAN.

I was hired and immediately started building the LAN from scratch, unpacking computers, installing software, connecting servers, printers, and other LAN hardware. Three months later everything seemed to be working well, and from then on, routine maintenance was the everyday activity.

After four years working on that LAN, I interviewed at Hewitt Associates for a LAN engineer's position. Hewitt Associates, at the time, was listed in a book as one of the top one hundred companies to work for. I was hired and it turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever had. We were “associates,” never "employees." We worked hard, but in return, Hewitt went out of the way to insure its associates were well cared for. We had free lunches, profit sharing, and generous office space. We received the latest training on new equipment and my LAN unit operated like a large happy family.

Hewitt Associates (Aon purchased Hewitt in 2010) was a global human resources company which handled a wide range of business interests, including managerial consulting, outsourcing of human resources, pension and health benefits, 401k management, retirement programs, actuarial calculations, and payroll. We had several hundred file servers all over the world, and my team's job was to keep them running 365/24/7. I was able to put my computer/networking skills together and split my time between troubleshooting problems and writing programs. I retired from Hewitt in 2006.

Life has changed. My priorities no longer include keeping a bag packed for world-wide deployment. No more keeping my oxygen mask, shot record, and passport up to date. Instead, having diabetes and high blood pressure, my priority now is to insure I don't run out of my many prescriptions.

Since retiring, I've continued working with computers (Linux and Windows), writing software, and designing electronics projects. I also do a lot of reading, some woodworking, and photography. In the winter, I feed the birds, and in the summer, gardening is my favorite hobby. Carol and I have celebrated over 40 years of marriage, and we're looking forward to many more.

To the Class of '64, I salute each and every one of you. We've seen the world change in ways none of us could have ever imagined.
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