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Legends address Air Force senior leader graduates

  • Published
  • By Carl Bergquist
  • Air University Public Affairs
The 28th Gathering of Eagles took place last week at Air University Spaatz Center's Air Command and Staff College for the edification of ACSC students about to graduate.
Aviation legends, or Eagles, are invited each year to the college to share their wisdom and experiences as mentors for up-and-coming Air Force leaders who attend ACSC.

Col. Regina Aune

Among the legends was retired Col. Regina Aune who served as a flight nurse in Vietnam and was involved in the 1975 Operation Babylift mission designed to airlift children out of the war-torn country to Thailand.

Colonel Aune was aboard a C-5 Galaxy when, shortly after take-off, a hatch gave way resulting in an explosive decompression of the aircraft. The Galaxy's crew attempted to return to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, but due to hydraulic control problems, ended up crashing in a rice paddy. The aircraft broke into four pieces and many on board were killed.

Colonel Aune survived the crash. Despite suffering a broken and lacerated foot and a broken bone in her back, she spent hours assisting the wounded before she was airlifted to a medical facility for treatment of her wounds.

The colonel said she felt it was important to come to GOE to share some of the history of the Air Force, because, "when you understand that history you are better prepared to do anything." 

She recounted memories of her military career to the audience beginning with why she joined the service.

"I joined the Air Force because a Marine told me to," Colonel Aune said. "The Marine was my brother. After exploring all the services, I asked him which one he thought I should join. He said, 'probably the Air Force.'"

She said she took his advice and became an Air Force nurse. When President Gerald Ford announced Operation Babylift, she was in route to Clark Air Base in the Philippines and landed at the base not knowing what their mission was going to be.

"It was a bad time," the colonel said. "The military and the war were hated by a large portion of the American population, and as it turned out, even Operation Babylift was despised by some people. They didn't want us to do that at all."

Colonel Aune said they landed at Clark and were sent to the Chambers Hall dormitory, which she described as "chaotic at best." She said she was awakened in the night and told to wake everyone else up and prepare to fly a mission.

"When we landed in Vietnam, everything was chaos," she said. "Just about everyone else was trying to get out of Vietnam, so we parked on a taxiway. It was hot and miserable, and I felt like I was eating the dirt that was being blown up by all the activity."

The colonel said they were told they were going to use a C-5 to take about 300 people out of the country, most of them under the age of two. They had never used a C-5 for medical evacuation before, so they had to figure out how to reconfigure the aircraft for that purpose. The children had to be hand-carried one at a time onto the plane and secured with litter straps and tie-downs for the flight.

She said shortly after take off one of the adults accompanying the children became sick and needed medication. Colonel Aune left her seat and was getting the medication when the explosive decompression occurred.

"This was a classic explosive decompression, just like you see in the movies. Suddenly the cabin filled with fog, and when the fog cleared, I looked back and saw that part of the rear of the plane was missing," she said. "The first impact with the earth wasn't that bad, but the C-5 became airborne again to jump over the Saigon River and landed in the soft mud of a rice paddy on the second impact. That caused me to fly down the isle and impact a wall at the front of the plane. I knew I had broken my foot because I could feel the bones breaking."

Colonel Aune said helicopters attempted to come in for a rescue but, because of the deep mud, couldn't land and had to set down a distance from the crippled C-5. Surviving children and adults had to be carried or helped across the rice paddy to the helicopters for evacuation.

"At one point, I bent over to pick up a child and couldn't straighten back up. That's when I realized I had broken a bone in my back," she said. "I had to go to the aircraft commander and ask to be relieved of duty due to my injuries. I'm told that is when I then passed out on top of him. I don't know because after picking up the child, I don't remember anything until they put me on a helicopter for evacuation."

Colonel Aune said of the 29 crew members aboard the C-5 that day 11 died in the crash. One crew member knowingly gave his life to save her and others on board, while another died protecting some of the children with his body.

"There was a lot of heroism on that day," she said. "Everybody did what they were supposed to."

The colonel said when you live through something like that, you often wonder later if it was worth it. She said she received the answer to that question years later.

"I got a call about a week before Christmas, and the voice on the other end said, 'Hi. I'm Erin Lockhart, and I was one of the children on the Operation Babylift plane,'" Colonel Aune said. "She went on to say, 'I just wanted to call you and say thank you for giving me my life.' We met the next week, and she shared what it was like to have survived and been adopted, and I shared what it was like to have been part of the crew of that C-5."

The colonel said some years later they ended up living in the same town, and she really got to know Erin Lockhart. She said Erin had always called her Colonel Aune, and one day she told her not to call her colonel anymore.

"I didn't want to tell her what to call me, I wanted her to decide on that, so I just told her she could call me whatever she wanted as long as it wasn't colonel," she said. "She decided to call me 'mom' and really has become like a second daughter to me."

Maj. Gen. James Hobson

Retired Maj. Gen. James Hobson also addressed ACSC students about his role in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada and as the third commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. 

He said he was a pilot at Langley Air Force Base, Va., when he volunteered to go to Pope AFB, N.C., to become part of the 779th-1 Group that eventually became Air Force Special Operations.

"There was a reluctance on the part of the Air Force to get into the unconventional warfare business in those days because of the way the Air Force was structured," he said. "During that time, we supported special forces in Vietnam on a day-to-day basis through various missions. One of our missions was dropping ping-pong balls near Hanoi, and I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die dropping ping-pong balls over North Vietnam.' They, of course, had propaganda messages on them to the effect that it was time to knock off the war against us."

The general said another mission involved dropping parachutes and harnesses along with blocks of ice filled with blood on the Ho Chi Min Trail. He said the idea was that when the ice melted and the blood spilled out onto the trail, the enemy would think there was a wounded pilot in the area and exhaust a lot of resources trying to find him.

General Hobson said he was also involved in Operation Honey Badger during the Iran hostage crisis. The operation was going to be a second attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran by using "rocket-fitted" C-130s that could land and take off quickly. The hostages were released before the plan could be put into action, but during the planning no one was really sure exactly where the hostages were being held. The suspicion was they were near a soccer field in Tehran.

Fitting the C-130s with rockets was a solution to getting the aircraft into Iran without having to land at the missile-protected airport. He said Gen. Norton Schwartz, current Air Force Chief of Staff, was one of the pilots scheduled to fly one of the C-130s, and Operation Honey Badger was General Hobson's first association with him, an Airman he grew to highly respect.

"General Schwartz is probably the top officer I met in the Air Force," he said. "He is a great, great guy, is even tempered and does what is right."

General Hobson said in October 1983, they were alerted they might be going to Grenada to rescue American medical students on the island. He said they were told to have the crews in place on a Sunday morning and on that morning were given a briefing. The crew picked up the Army troops and headed for Grenada following the mission briefing.

"We had intelligence from Navy SEALs sent in to look at the airfield that the field was clear, but the SEALs weren't sure if there was resistance at the airfield," he said.

"The Army people, due to weight, couldn't be dropped in the water, so we had to fly into the airfield and drop them from about 400 feet. As it turned out, there was resistance on the north side of the field, and we took heavy fire getting the Army in."

General Hobson said President Ronald Reagan personally recognized the pilots after the invasion.

"He [Reagan] was a genuine guy that looked you in the eye and thanked you for what you did," he said.

General Hobson said he hoped his appearance at GOE would help build an appreciation for special operations from its "humble beginnings in the modern Air Force." He said Air Force Special Operations Command has come a long way in tactics and operations and could be considered, "another arrow in the Air Force's quiver."

Col. Charles McGhee

At 89 years old, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen paid the class a visit and talked about his experiences with the Tuskegee Airmen and the rest of his career in the Air Force. Retired Col. Charles McGhee joined the Army in 1942 and is a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam who flew 409 combat missions during his time in the Air Force.

Colonel McGhee told the group that, at the time, the use of "negro manpower" in war was a problem for America because blacks were thought to be incapable of doing the job.

"Overcoming that attitude was also a problem," he said. "However, the military realized they needed to use people depending on their training, not their happenstance of birth. So, the military took some of the first steps toward civil rights. We didn't call it civil rights, just considered it taking advantage of an opportunity to use those with the skills."

He said contrary to popular opinion, the race issue "didn't dissolve in combat" because most bomber pilots didn't know the "Red Tails" [Tuskegee Airmen] were a black squadron.

"We did our job, and we had help from a great commander, Col. Benjamin O. Davis," he said. "Colonel Davis told us, and we agreed, that he would court-martial the first pilot who went 'happy-hunting' [going off on their own], and we stayed with the bombers on their missions. That saved lives because often without escort the bombers lost 50 percent of their numbers on a mission."

Asked about shooting down a German aircraft during World War II, the colonel said that opportunity came when a German pilot tried to get to one of the bombers under their protection.

"He [the German pilot] simply made a wrong turn, and I was there to shoot him down," he said.

Colonel McGhee said his scariest mission was trying to air-refuel an F-4 Phantom on a moonless night. "Now, that's scary," he said. The colonel also said, for him, a unique situation evolved during the Vietnam War when he was flying F-4 missions out of Vietnam, and his son Ronald was flying RF-4 missions out of Thailand.

Colonel McGhee said if he had a message for those listening to his presentation it would be that a positive attitude is very important to a person's success in a career or in life. He said when he talks to young people he often reminds them that it is not how you look but your skills that will make you a success.

"I was raised to seek respect and respect others, and I liked working with people who thought of rank as a pay source," he said. "You must carry yourself in a way that when you give an order those receiving the order respect you. I remember as a wing commander I visited a young man in his base shop, and he thanked me, saying no one else had ever bothered to visit his shop."

Colonel McGhee said he felt it important to come to the Gathering of Eagles because the Tuskegee Airmen story has value and significance in educating our young Airmen and young people.

"It is a challenge for future leaders to know where they have been and where they are going, and it is my hope they will recognize that talent doesn't have color or happenstance of birth," he said. "Positive attitude is everything, and when you dream dreams, a positive attitude overcomes those who say you can't do it."