Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day: Museum reunites retired pilots with their Vietnam-era aircraft

L to R: Ret. U. S. Air Force pilot Gordon Jenkins of Indio, Palm Springs Air Museum Managing Director Fred Bell and air museum Board Chairman Don Gilbertson stand near the newly-renovated F-105D Thunderchief in the museum's Pacific Hangar on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013.

PALM SPRINGS — Two distinguished Vietnam War veterans — pilots with 167 combat missions between them — were reunited Friday night with the plane they flew through hostile territory in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s.

When the men walked into the Pacific Hangar at the Palm Springs Air Museum, they looked up in awe at the newly renovated Republic F-105D Thunderchief — a supersonic fighter-bomber that had been slated for demolition before the air museum stepped in and rescued it from an inglorious fate.

The F-105D sitting in the hangar flew strike missions over Vietnam in March, 1967 with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based in Thailand.

The air museum tracked down two pilots who flew in this squadron — U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Kirk, 85, of Anthem, Ariz. and U.S. Air Force Lt. Gordon Jenkins, 70, of Indio — and recognized the men for their service during an intimate gathering on Friday. The aircraft was unveiled to the public on Saturday.

Kirk’s and Jenkins’ names are emblazoned on the sides of the cockpit canopy.

“It’s very emotional to see this airplane and get his and my name on it, I’ll tell you that,” Kirk said.

Kirk, who flew 66 successful missions before being shot down on Oct. 24, 1967 — and spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war — was the squadron’s executive officer at the time.

On March 29, 1967, Jenkins flew the F-105D #61-0108 — the very aircraft on display at the air museum — on his 45th combat mission over Vietnam.

Jenkins’ eyes light up when he talks about the Thunderchief.

“It was just the most fun thing you could ever do,” Jenkins said. “I was 24 years old. What a wonderful airplane it was to fly. It’s the world’s largest single-engine, single-seat fighter.”

The fleet suffered heavy losses during the war.

“In four years, we went from an inventory of having 495 airplanes to 98 airplanes — an 80 percent loss rate flying 2,000 sorties — but we were young and foolish and it was just a great jet to fly.”

Kirk was a fighter pilot for all 28 years he was in the service. He started out in the Korean War flying the F-86 jet fighter aircraft.

“I was an operations officer of an F-100 squadron in Japan in 1966 and I was volunteering for everything I could to try to get there (to Vietnam), because as a career pilot, I felt that if there’s a war on, you ought to be there,” Kirk said. “Finally, in December of ’66 I was able to get an assignment to the F-105.

“I was only in Thailand for about three weeks before I became a commander of this squadron,” he said, pointing at the Thunderchief, which features the squadron’s logo — a fire-breathing dragon — painted by artist Stan Stokes. “Most of the missions I had were downtown, right in the Hanoi region.

“There was so much anti-aircraft fire and such heavy intensity ... it was incredibly frightening and terrifying every time you went on a bomb run. It looked like a Fourth of July fireworks display.”

The hulking Thunderchief — nicknamed the “Thud” because of the loud sound it made when it touched down on the runway — conducted the majority of strike bombing missions during the early years of the Vietnam War.

Just over 800 F-105s were manufactured and nearly half of those were lost in combat during the Vietnam War.

“A lot of guys that were captured or killed there came out of this airplane,” Fred Bell, the museum’s managing director, said. “It was the only aircraft ever to withdraw because of combat losses during the Vietnam War.”

The aircraft is on loan from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where the Mach-2-capable, workhorse warbird was scheduled to meet the metal crusher.

When Bell expressed interest in the supersonic speedster in June, the Air Force gave the air museum until the end of August to haul the aircraft off the base.

Thanks to an outpouring from the desert community, the museum raised not only the $21,000 needed to tear down, transport and restore the F-105, but an additional $19,000 to maintain the plane.

“It’s highly unusual that we get to do this with our airplanes, because most of the time we don’t have this much detail,” Bell said.

The renovations were completed in about two months, thanks to “countless volunteer hours,” he added.

“Putting it all together — because it had been demilitarized and all cut up — we had to put patch panels on it. The final phase, the painting, makes the whole job come together, ” said Tom Krueger, Air Museum director of operations.

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