Hulking F-4 Phantom IIs streaked low overhead, went wet with afterburners and quickly disappeared in the sky, leaving their usual trail of smoke from their two turbo jet GE engines. Then, tiny by comparison, lethal single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcons gracefully executed touch-and-goes, returned minutes later smoking their tires as they landed just 50 yards in front of me as I toured base operations. That was impressive.

But after Utah, I found the flatlands in Southeastern Ohio and the dismal weather a big letdown. But to advance within the government, I went where the jobs were, where the action was.


When I became Deputy Chief of Public Affairs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) near Dayton, Ohio, in 1982, it was the largest and one of the most important bases in all the U.S. Air Force (USAF). WPAFB was by far the largest employer (at 32,000) in Montgomery County with Dayton as its most populous city. No one had bothered to properly brief me on the Little Green Men (gray actually) that were supposedly brought to Patterson Field (still part of WPAFB) after the UFO crash at Roswell N.M. in 1947. (The year of my birth.)

After I familiarized myself with the subject, the speculation, and so forth, I would answer five or six calls a month from the public concerning alien’s rumored to be in Hangar 18 or Hangar 13 and deny that any were here or had ever been.

I took my job with the U.S. Air Force seriously, wore expensive suits, shoes, and a Rolex®. My physical condition was also important, adhering to a vigorous workout schedule three times a week, alternating between the two fully outfitted gyms on base. Whether in my civilian attire or flight suit, I was representing the USAF and looked good doing it; serving with confidence, some might say smugly. My shoes were shined too.

You Were Always On My Mind–Willie Nelson, Empty Garden–Elton John, were popular on local radio.

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A leap of faith to say I was working in the Reagan Administration? Not for me, it was a great time to be in DOD with a Commander In Chief like President Reagan. We finally met when he made a stop at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, on October 8, 1984. (Swan archives)

Always cognizant of the USAF mission and well-informed about a subject that I’d likely be asked to comment, and I was forthright when I didn’t know or couldn’t answer. As a Public Affairs Officer (PIO), I frequently represented the USAF with the media, community leaders, and perhaps a farmer when one of our planes crashed onto his property, scaring him and his livestock, or worse.

To advance within civil service, I took on extra activities; I did voice-overs for public service announcements for the Hipple Cancer Research Center, gave an occasional speech to community groups, was an elected member of the Dayton Priority Board, and active in the Air Force Association.

I attended and excelled at Senior Public Affairs Courses during my tenure as PAO.  I was also Chair of the annual Festival of Flight, provided some peripheral support for the USAF Museum, was a member of the Officers’ Club at Wright-Patt, generous to the Combined Federal Campaign, and supported my alma mater as a member of the University of Denver Alumni Association, representing DU, at college fairs in Dayton and Cincinnati.

Up Where We Belong– Joe Cocker was getting lots of airplay on WTUE.

To prepare myself for more responsibility within civil service. I volunteered and applied for upper management positions. The USAF sponsored advanced training at Stanford, Rensselaer Polytechnic, and others. In the one opportunity that I had to apply for a special and limited program, my packet was endorsed by a three-star general and appeared to very strong, but I didn’t make the cut. That (in my humble opinion) confirms the quality of the competition. The DOD, in general, benefited from a high caliber and capable workforce.


My first four years at Wright-Patt was occupied with the usual public affairs duties; media relations, community relations, and command information. Our weekly newspaper, the Skywrighter (Note spelling of writer, as in Wright Bros). was awarded best publication in the Air Force many times and once, the best in DOD. I narrated the multimedia Wright-Patt story for VIPs and was the primary briefer representing the 2750th Air Base Wing. I was acting Chief (Position was a military billet) a few times while PAOs were reassigned or replaced.

The chief and I had a staff of sixteen well-qualified and competent workers, except one. Isn’t there always one? We also answered noise complaints concerning our aircraft and responded to USAF plane crashes, usually within a hundred-mile radius.

On one such occasion, I was on the scene of an A7-D Corsair II crash that belonged to a reserve unit from Rickenbacker, AFB Ohio. The pilot ejected safely. When I arrived, the attack jet was half-buried in the earth and still smoldering near a farmer’s house in an isolated area of Indiana. There were no injuries on the ground either, just a lot of curious cows.

Then came Indianapolis and the tragic crash of a  USAF A7-D-4-CV  into a Ramada Inn® in Indianapolis in 1987, killing 10 people. Trying to make an emergency landing, the jet crashed into the hotel near the airport, creating a fireball that burned much of the structure.

The pilot’s visibility was hampered by heavy cloud cover and fog on the morning he was trying to land at Indianapolis International (IAA.) He radioed the tower that he was coming in  “Dead Stick” (when an aircraft loses all propulsion) and looking for a runway.  His only engine had flamed out, and asked Indianapolis control if they could guide him to the least populated area should he have to ditch his crippled plane. He never received a response and overshot the runway. The pilot survived by bailing from the single-seat jet without serious injuries.

It was not the typical pilot flying that day. The USAF major was testing one of the 20 A7-Ds used as a surrogate for the super-secret stealth that he was to fly. Both the attack and stealth jets were single-seat and carried the same payload requirements. His plane that crashed was from the 4450th Tactical Training Group in the isolated Tonopah Test range in the Nevada desert. These A-7Ds were used for currency training for pilots destined to fly — out of the Skunk Works® — the revolutionary F-117. The cover story for these aging Vietnam era attack planes suddenly filling the skies, to and from the Nevada desert, was radar calibration.

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The A7-D Corsair II that crashed in Indianapolis in 1987. It was on a test flight for the forthcoming super secret Stealth and had a similar paint pattern, purposely making it difficult to read tail numbers and two letter designations.  Look closely on the tail for the “LV” letters.  (USAF photo)

The official cause of the crash, reported by the USAF, was engine failure while on a routine training flight. I believe it was more complicated. The repeated testing, perhaps beyond the limits of the A7-D, may have comprised the airframe. Instrument failure was also a possibility; it was a prototype for the upcoming stealth.

Much of the Research and Development was conducted at Wright-Patterson labs, in advance of the operation and testing at the super-secret Area-51 and the Tonopah range.

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Stealth F-117 revealed in 1989. (USAF)

I served as Public Affairs Officer at WPAFB for more than eight years. It was never boring.  In addition to the constant aliens stored at WPAFB question, there were many others as well.  As the largest employer in the county, the media were hungry for stories about the base.

One of our base housing units was built on a former landfill that included hazardous waste. It was a significant story and generated lots of news and complaints from the residents. Naturally, I was the lead spokesman for the debacle. During this period there was a radon scare that was in the news across the country, and of interest for a long while. Our residents were naturally concerned and the media wanted to know about our testing procedures, and about any discoveries of the radioactive chemicals in our numerous housing units. There were also a couple of hydrazine spills (potentially toxic) from some of the F-16 stationed at the base, that attracted media attention.

But we were just getting warmed up. I was about to be challenged with an incident that public affairs officers always have in the back of their minds, but never think it’s going to happen on their watch. Worse than the Indianapolis crash where 10 were killed? Probably not, but people expect our jets to occasionally crash, and I was not a PAO for that event. Our incident lasted almost two years, and eventually involved the Secretary of Defense. That momentous event unfolds in the next chapter.

THE WRIGHT-BROTHERS

This is an ideal time to talk about those Brothers who, by learning to keep a  (not lighter than air) object airborne for twelve seconds, created possibly the greatest (non-medical) invention of the Twentieth-Century. And there was a lot of competition.

The Greatest of Inventions Still Flourishing
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(USAF photo)
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Very first flight, the Wright Flyer was aloft 12-seconds and covered 120 feet, at Kill Devils Hill, N.C.  December 17, 1903. (Wikipedia)

Most people know the Wright-Brother sold and repaired bicycles from a small shop in Dayton, Ohio, before the development of the Wright Flyer that first flew at Kill Devils Hill, NC, on December 17th, 1903.

Eight Things You Might Not Know About The Wright-Brothers: 

1) Thanks to a coin toss, Orville was the first brother airborne.
2) Neither brother received a High School diploma.
3) Neither brother ever married.
4) The Wright Bros. flew together just one time.
5) After the first day airborne, the 1903 Wright-Flier never flew again.
6) Orville was onboard the flight that caused the first fatal aviation accident.
7) Neil Armstrong carried a piece of fabric from the Wright Flyer to the moon.
8) The Wright-Bros said they really learned to fly at Huffman Prairie now a part of WPAFB. (List partially compiled from The  History Net)
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Wright II over Huffman Prairie at Dayton, Ohio, on November 16, 1904, where the Brothers “Really learned to fly,” now part of WPAFB, Ohio. (Wright Family collection)
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Wright Flyer III first flight June 23, 1905 at Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio (Wright Family collection)

Wright Patterson AFB honors the Wright Brothers in an annual ceremony on the anniversary of their first flight, at the monument to the Brothers, overlooking Huffman Prairie.

                   DAYTON INTERNATIONAL AIRSHOW

For the annual Dayton International Airshow (DIA), there were hundreds of aircraft civilian and military from North America and some foreign countries. Our Public Affairs Office was heavily involved.

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Lt Col  Kunkle was the Air Force man in charge of the military portion of the DIA, which covered pretty much all of it. He had been a guest at the Hanoi Hilton for a mind-boggling and unimaginable six years!

Not without good reason did the colonel seem to be one of the happiest people alive — enjoying every moment of his freedom.  Who then would-could possibly exasperate this bonafide hero? It was believed that I was the first and only person known to have pissed him off since he was repatriated and began serving at Wright-Patt several years ago.

There were a couple of golf carts assigned to PA for activities like buzzing around the grounds of the airshow with media. Mostly, however, the carts were reserved for VIPs and the disabled. His anger possibly had something to do with me riding in one of his golf carts, perhaps hooligan style, with a certain Ms. Dayton International Airshow. I don’t think he was mad at me for more than a couple of years, though.

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Scanning the skies at Dayton Inter. Airshow (DIA)
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U.S. Army Golden Knight free-falling at Dayton Inter. Airshow (DIA)
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Recent Dayton International Air Show’s final act, with the F-35 demonstration. (DIA)

2 thoughts on “Chapter 35: Where the Wright’s Really Learned to Fly

  1. Your story continues to get more and more interesting. And don’t ever come to North Carolina talking that jive about the Wright Brothers, them’s fighting words!

    Like

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