"You can have your choice of duty stations..."
The Naval Air Reserve was an exquisite safety net for all concerned. It worked well for the U.S. Navy, the naval reserve pilot, and especially for the civilian taxpayer. With its naval reserve arm, the Navy could capture and retain a valuable and ready pool of proven, combat experienced, dedicated pilots - pilots available at nearly immediate notice, yet at a fraction of the cost of training and maintaining a new replacement, full-time combat ready force.
In my instance, this mutual safety net was activated in 1981. For various reasons, the Navy had a large shortfall of pilots that year. With Ray Kroc's deteriorating health and decision to not expand Padres Air Travel, the handwriting was on the wall. Still being on furlough from Continental Airlines, and with a weak economy, it was apparent I would soon need other gainful employment.
The Navy placement officer in the Bureau of Naval Personnel had called me personally a number of times, soliciting my return to active duty. He offered me a wide choice of full-time active duty orders, if I would only agree to return to active duty for a 2-year contract period. Eventually, I (and a number of other furloughed airline pilots) hesitatingly accepted the Bureau's offer.
Years earlier, I had refused orders to the Naval Flight Training Command. Now ironically, I was actively seeking assignment there. However, having previously severed all ties with the active duty Navy and opting for the "Reserves", I was wary and unsure what to expect upon my return to active duty, and to Kingsville, TX. Also, I really did not - nor did my family - want to leave San Diego.
Quite surprisingly, my over two years with VT-21 at NAS Kingsville contained a number of my best ever naval experiences, despite my earlier apprehension and my hesitation to accept orders there.
First, the A-4, regardless of model, was a distinct pleasure to fly - always. Secondly, I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse backgrounds and surprising expertise of all the flight instructors; Navy and Marine, fighter, attack, and even some extraordinarily decorated former helicopter pilots. To a man – and equally to our lone woman instructor - they all possessed uncommon talent, and certainly great spirit – which was contagious.
But what made my job especially enjoyable was a core group of very special and talented SERGRADS (selectively retained graduates), who as newly designated aviators, remained after gaining their wings to instruct for a year or more before moving on to the fleet. (Many of these SERGRADS went on to greater glory within the Navy Command structure, and elsewhere. They were indeed a special group that remains close, even today.) It was a most pleasant return to active duty, fondly reminiscent of my earlier active duty Navy days.
There were at the time, perhaps 20+ furloughed airline pilots that had accepted, like me, a return to active duty spread among the three Kingsville jet squadrons. We once threw an intra-squadron party of only furloughed airline pilots. The requirement was everyone had to wear their old airline uniform hats - nearly all known U.S. airlines were represented at that party.
Furloughed airline pilots returning to active duty were such a novelty that CBS sent a film crew to Kingsville to follow another airline 'furloughee' and me around for two days. The result of their many hours of filming was a much abridged, 3-minute segment on national CBS Morning News. A shortened version followed on the next day's evening news about us. (If everyone has 15 minutes of fame, I must still have 12 minutes remaining.)
My wife took a teaching position at a private school where our two young children attended. Through her and her students, we made many special friends within the local community that we normally would not have known - including Tio and Janell Kleberg who ran the famous King Ranch at the time, as well as many other very special local ranchers and townspeople, who still remain friends long after we departed later for California.
As Operations Officer, in addition to the challenge of meeting an annual pilot training rate quota, I had the luxury of picking nearly all of my flights. Naturally, my flights were almost all ACM flights, instructing both eager students and talented instructors in the art of air combat maneuvering (ACM) in the TA-4J. For me, nothing could have been better.
I also had the opportunity to fly with the then Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman on a test flight. I chased him in my TA-4J with General Dynamics' Chief Test Pilot in my backseat, as the SecNav flew an F-16N all over the Gulf and south Texas. It was indeed quite a wild ride! It also ended for me with an emergency landing, a result of a broken or stuck throttle necessitating engine shutdown before landing!
The two years flew by. Although we were happy to return to our home in San Diego, our entire family and I seriously regretted leaving our many friends in Kingsville, and the wonderful time we had with VT-21.
Even today I'm happy to occasionally still see some of my old VT-21 mates - former students and instructors - at the Miramar Gym. More incredibly, there is a large group of that period and time that still maintains close contact, and has fairly frequent reunions and get-togethers. Of my many years in several different squadrons in the US Navy, the Redhawks of that time are the only group above all others that has championed and maintained contact, despite dispersions, for over two decades.
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