Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Tony's History


tony.jpg From a 47 year perspective, The Academy looks like a great place to be from; back then, though, it was distinctly not a great place to be at. Not for me. I only returned once, passing through a few years ago for an afternoon of memories, to drive around the grounds, look out over the terrazzo from Fairchild, and snack a sandwich in Arnold Hall. I expected the young trees in the Air Gardens to be mighty oaks by now. Oaks or not, I never knew, but by now they were going to be big, right? No. In 2005, they were still saplings.

How was that possible? It was a gray day, patches of snow on the ground, and the place didn't look different. I'd come for nostalgia and got reality-induced depression. It was like replaying the occasional nightmare of returning as a cadet to struggle for a second shot, to make right the things screwed up the first time, to avoid confinements and tours, to excel academically and not sweat getting assigned to boxing in intramurals.

It was a tough four years. Some of my classmates took to it like ducks paddling in a pond, but I was always underwater, stroking hard to get up. I still have the dreams occasionally—I'm this rather mature cadet—and sometimes they're even marginally redeeming.

But still . . . Great to be from. Not at. I left those memories in place and drove on to Colorado Springs to see what I could dredge up from that first warm summer day of arrival in June 1960. There was nothing recognizable. The Antlers was different. I wandered into the lobby and asked, but nobody seemed to know there once stood a quaint and venerable building in the place of this modernly bland structure. I looked for the train station that brought me to town, down the hill behind the Antlers. The tracks were still there, and the trains still ran, but they didn't stop at the station that had morphed into shops and a restaurant. So much for arrivals on warm sunny afternoons. I had a nice meal at the restaurant, though.

It began to snow. Being from South Carolina, I love the snow, so this upgraded the perception a little, and I drove around some more, replaying pleasant memories of Colorado and even The Academy during winter.

It was snow that kept me there that first year. I didn't think I was going to make it, but I resolved to hang on by fingernails until I saw the first snow. Then I'd get out of there as fast as I could, honour and pride be damned. That first snow was late coming. I think it might have been November or even later, and it was so pretty and gratifying that I allowed I'd stick around just a little longer for the next one. Just one more snow and I'm gone. Well, that's a slippery slope, and next thing you know it leads right up to graduation day one little milepost at a time.

So here's the compression of my life after all those centuries at The Academy (isn't it amazing how long four years can last?): Pilot training at Craig in T-37s and T-33's, and then Survival School at Stead in Nevada, with nights at Harold's Club in Reno learning the black art of Blackjack. Davis-Monthan for F-4C upgrade to back seat, followed by eight months at Woodbridge-Bentwaters in the 78th TFS in England and TDY's to Wheelus, Libya, for bombing and beach parties. Then the inevitable VietNam—DaNang, with the 480th TFS in the 366th Gunfighter wing. Fifty missions south and 100 north, with one MiG fight, score zip-zip.

Onward, then, to Laredo and pilot instructing in the T-38 for four years, and then bye-bye Air Force and hello grad school at the University of Arizona in Tucson for an MS in Physics. After that, a stint in the Civil Service at the Naval Weapons Center at the very dry China Lake in the Mojave desert for four years. No happy puddle ducks there.

I joined JPL in 1978 and worked in the Deep Space Network for a couple of years. Then I joined the Voyager Project and spent the next several years navigating those two spacecraft through flybys of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It began to appear that navigation is where it's at. After that came the Cassini launch and navigating two flybys of Venus and one of Earth (Yes, I've been to Earth; nice place to visit, not sure I'd live there.) I left Cassini before it came to fruition at Saturn to go over to the Champollion Project and become one of the first to play near a comet, but the project sank in the NASA budget Sargasso Sea in favor of a less capable and more expensive project named Deep Impact targeting the same comet, Tempel 1. This began my hopping from project to project; like sinking stepping stones, as soon as I put a foot down, they'd submerge. CONTOUR, another comet mission, launched into orbit successfully but blew up in the maneuver to inject into deep space. The Mars Polar Lander, for which I was a nag (on the Navigation Advisory Group), made it to Mars . . . but lies in pieces near the South Pole. (It was NOT a navigation error.) I led the Galileo navigation team for a time near the end of that mission where I visited Jupiter and got flybys of the Galilean satellites and Amalthea as a bonus before we set course to burn up in the Jovian atmosphere.

After my last project sank, it looked like a total desk job coming up to cap nearly 25 years at JPL, so I retired in 2003 and went to work for KinetX, Inc., doing the same things as before, navigating the MESSENGER spacecraft to Mercury and the New Horizons spacecraft toward Pluto. After 32 years of this, plus four to come to get to Pluto, I have arrived at the realization that navigation is indeed, definitively, where it's at. I'm not yet ready for the Old Navigator's Home and rocking on the veranda drinking mint juleps. Maybe after the next snow in Southern California.

Along this trip, I wrote a novel, “Counters”, about adventures in Viet Nam, and struggle with another named “The Dark Side of Saturn” about a wayward asteroid and a reluctant religious figure.

And along the way I've met a lot of new people, married some of them (I'm holding on the second one, Jan, who is a keeper), and spawned a couple of beautiful daughters, and seen a couple of grandsons who are keepers as well.

I have to say, though, that of all my experiences the longest lasting one—by far—was the millennium or two spent at The Academy. Isn't that strange?

Great to be from.

Tony Taylor — March 2011
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