Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

There I was... 4

by Chuck Clifton

Growing up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I had the good fortune to live across the street from a man by the name of Dale Smiley, veteran fighter pilot from Korea, and the man who inspired me to strive to become a fighter pilot. He also made me aware of a new school called the US Air Force Academy and urged me to apply. I did. It worked. Hello Class of 1964.

Anyone ever open a can of worms and then try to put the lid back on the can?

That's how I feel about my efforts to relate some of the events from days gone by; my past adventures sometimes seem to get a bit slippery and somewhat elusive in their retelling; not the facts but the details.

I escaped four years at the academy humbled, but with my pride and integrity intact. I was never on any role, Dean's, Superintendent's, demerits, tours, or nose-pickers international. I did not excel in any field of endeavor, nor did I ever end up on any delinquent list. I ultimately majored in graduation. According to my calculations, I was the valedictorian of the bottom 10% of our class.

My standing wasn't high enough from the Academy to qualify for a Thud out of UPT. Second choice was to get in on the front line action in F-4s. Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it (Thank God).

During pilot training I suddenly realized what being a fighter pilot (or any other kind of real pilot) was all about. It's not just learning to fly an airplane, it's being able to climb in the cockpit and feel like you're getting dressed, like you just got out of the shower and put on a "fresh skin". In order to be a truly successful fighter pilot, the functions and controls have to become an extension of your consciousness.

I left the U S of A in July of nineteen and sixty-six. After a visit to Viet Nam and four years of vacation in Europe, I came home to Williams AFB Arizona in June of '71. In the interim, transiting from Thailand through the States to pick up my Very pregnant wife on the way to Europe, I had the dubious distinction of landing at San Francisco airport in March of '67. After having to brace the shuttle-bus driver to get him to unload the baggage of all the passengers, I was greeted by a crowd of spitting protesters. This was my sole point of reference until I returned stateside in June of '71. Nationwide protests, shootings at Kent State, Black Panther uprisings on the west coast, made me a little unsure of our reception upon our return to Phoenix, Arizona five years later.

My trepidations for my wife, Bobbie, and our two kids, Fliegesonne (German for female son of a fighter pilot) Kate and son Cris, born two years later, turned out to be ill-founded.

As Chief of flight test at Williams AFB I was qualified in all of the aircraft based on the airfield; T-37, T-38, and since we had the TAC foreign student training squadron there, all models of the F-5 (A,B and E). T.R. Young (pursuing his law degree at ASU) was one of the guys working for me, along with Jud Barnes ('65). On a day I happened to have a dentist's appointment, a student somehow lost control of his T-38 in the pattern and punched out. The plane crashed into our Flight Test line shack. Jud was one of the occupants at the time and did a 3 second knee-walk out the door, just ahead of the fireball. His Mercedes 250SEL in the parking lot was not so lucky, but USAA took care of it for him.

Three years later, my follow-on assignment was to Kunsan AB, Korea, flying F-4Es. I attended F-4 refresher training at George AFB in California on my way to Korea. I had the distinct pleasure of flying with a number of re-qualifying former POW's in my class. It was great being part of their return to the world of "Fighter Pilot". You could see them regain their self-assurance and love of life by the minute.

My assignment to Korea was one of the most satisfying years of my professional career, but also one of the most distressing in my personal life. In addition to flying full time as a Squadron Jock, I was asked, as C-Flight Commander, to assume the assistant Ops Officer (scheduler) slot, even though there was a Major (Class of '63) and two, more senior, Captains in our unit. I asked the three if they would have a problem accepting orders from me and they acquiesced. Our previous scheduler (nicknamed Ricochet Rabbit) had a sortie effectiveness rate of about 60%. After two weeks, I had us at 96%. In turn, this increase enabled our Wing Commander to verify our Wing's capability to maintain a high enough Mission Ready status to satisfy the Commander of PACAF. I was subsequently invited to become a member of the Wing staff, as wing scheduler.

On the personal side, while I was in Korea, my wife of ten years and mother of our two children filed for divorce.

During my next tour as squadron maintenance officer of the F-111 wing at Nellis AFB, I met and married my second wife, Elnoma. Her father, Charlie Bunch was a member of the Flying Tigers during WWII. My kids embraced her as their second Mom.

After three years at Nellis, I was assigned to the Fighter Lead-In Wing at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. I was originally slated to be an AT-38B line instructor, but by the time I arrived at Holloman the wing had suffered the loss of two aircraft due to structural failure. The newly formed wing had no quality control or flight test units formed. I was asked to step in as QC officer, since I had previous flight test experience at Williams AFB. So after extensive gee-whiz testing on the aircraft by lots of Tech Reps and factory Wizards, I successfully flew a couple of test hops on the fleet and pronounced them fit to fly.

My final assignment was predetermined as an Air Liaison Officer to the Army; my only choice was where I would serve it. My brother was then living in San Jose, CA. My parents were both recently retired and had chosen to relocate to the same area. That made my choice very simple, Fort Ord, CA was the logical choice. It is located in Monterey County, 60 miles south of San Jose. If I were a golfer, I would think I had died and gone to heaven. Fortunately there are many other features to enjoy here.

In November of 1997, just a week short of her 51st birthday, Elnoma died.

After I retired, many friends asked why I had not gotten my civilian aviation ratings. At the time I replied that getting them would be like asking Mario Andretti, after he retired from Indy car racing, why he didn't start driving a bus. You know, after a while, that bus starts to look pretty good... So I got my ratings and started my own flight school. Once again I was being paid to fly, better yet I was being paid to teach other people to fly.

Early in '99 I flew down to Torrance Airport, just a few miles from LAX, to look at a 1947 Beech Bonanza. There I met Mayla, to whom I have been married for 12 years. I also got the V-tail Bonanza.

One more beautiful day in Monterey.

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