COOLSTONE ENDS AN ERA
Coolstone had noticed the P-51s flying around quite often. He would see flights of two or four almost daily. At first he thought they were transient but their frequency was such that it didn’t seem possible that they were not coming from a local air base. He worked his way down to the old airport by the river and, sure enough, he could see the ’51s parked at one end. He drove to the fighter area and found that the ramp, hangars and admin building for something called a Guard Squadron, were fenced off from the rest of the airport. He stopped for a minute just to admire the fighters. He also saw considerable action on the ramp. People were actually making motions like they might be working on airplanes. He saw a pilot strolling out to one. He saw the pilot get in one. He saw the pilot start one, taxi out and take off. That did it. He drove into the admin area, parked and went into the building that advertised Itself as Fighter Squadron Headquarters. A sergeant was at a desk typing.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I am, or I was, a pilot,” answered Coolstone, “and I would like to see how I go about getting into this outfit. Are you taking any pilots?”
“Well, we might be,” said the sergeant, “but you’d better talk to the Old Man before you do anything else. He’s right in there,” the sergeant said, pointing to an open office door. “I’ll see if he’s busy.”
The sergeant went in and was back out in less than 5 seconds. “Go on in,” he said to Coolstone.
The Rock wished he had a hair cut, or at least had shined his shoes a bit. First impressions were important, he knew, but he was like he was now, so in he went. He saw a short, medium-fat, dark-haired man in a faded green flying suit who greeted him with an inch and a half cigar butt clinched between his teeth. “Sit down,” the major said after the introductions were over. “What’s on your mind?”
“I’d kinda like to see about… er, maybe getting into your outfit,” trailed off the Rock, knowing full well he had blown it.
“Hm-m-m-m,” said the major. “How many flying hours do you have?”
“About 1800,” answered Coolstone (he actually had 1710). “I haven’t flown much since the war was over. I have been in that Reserve outfit out at the base but they don’t fly much.”
“What did you fly in War II?” asked the major. Coolstone had been afraid of this question from the onset. “B-25s.” said the Rock. (He had two flights overseas with a friend of his.) “And,” he added weakly, “a little C-47 time.”
“How much C-47 time?” asked the Old Man.
“About 1400 hours,” said Coolstone very reluctantly.
“Gooney Birds,” snorted the commander. “You flew Gooney Birds 1400 hours and now you want me to take you into this outfit when I’ve got fighter pilots queued up for blocks waiting to get in. No way.” said the major. “No way at all. This is a fighter outfit and I want fighter pilots only. Sorry, but you’re wasting your time here.”
He stood up, obviously ending the conversation. The cigar was still clenched in his teeth, had never been removed, and was completely dead as far as the Rock could see.
“Look,” Coolstone said to him. “I was a pretty good pilot. I think I could hack it.”
But the Old Man had quit listening to him at the C-47 point.
Reluctantly Coolstone made his exit. Well, that was that. And, for the next two or three months, Coolstone’s relationship with aviation was limited to weekly pilgrimages to the Guard Base, hanging over the fence, watching the ’51s taking off and landing, and, occasionally, talking to the chosen few who flew them. He ate lunch with them and generally ingratiated himself into their midst. They always talked flying, particularly just after they landed. He was amazed to find that some were teachers, one was a lawyer, and another was a doctor. There was a dentist, a policeman, a stock broker, and several were airline pilots, but all of them, every one, were fighter pilots first.
On three more occasions, Coolstone approached the Old Man. The last time he was invited out before he got in. The sergeant had stopped him as soon as he came through the door.
One Sunday afternoon, as he was about to leave his own personal Mobile Control position, a major, who the Rock recognized as the Guard Advisor, came up to him. Coolstone had met him before, but he had an Italian name which the Rock could not remember.
“Look,” said the advisor, “Do you really want to get in this outfit? I mean, no fooling? Without any fighter time it will be rough. Three or four of these guys are aces and there’s probably 30 to 40 more victories if you totaled the kills of everyone now assigned to the squadron. And, they don’t give much quarter to a new boy.”
“I don’t care what they do.” said the Rock. “More than ever, I want to get in that outfit. I want to fly that machine so bad I can taste it. But the commander has told me three times, not only ‘No’ but ‘Hell No.’ I try to stay out of his sight as much as possible now. I’ve bugged him a lot.”
“Well,” said the advisor, “I’ll tell you how to get in the outfit, but first, you’ve got to promise me that my name will NOT be mentioned at all.”
Coolstone nodded in agreement.
“Now, here’s what you do. Go over to the wing. Take any job they have open, no matter what. Then immediately apply for the squadron. Whenever an opening comes for pilots in the squadron, they have to take the applications from the wing first. OK?”
“Now, for God’s sake, don’t tell ANYONE that I was a part of this. Good luck.” said the Advisor, and he walked away leaving Coolstone with a full adrenalin flow and his mouth still open to thank him.
Three months after taking the advisor at his word, Coolstone had been notified by the wing that his transfer to the squadron was approved. He was also told that he should go out to the squadron and talk to the commander. He was to be assigned officially the following month. Coolstone did just that. This time, he had his pinks and greens on, his shoes shined and his hair cut. He walked boldly into the squadron headquarters and told the sergeant, who was obviously surprised to see him, “I want to see the commander, and, before you say ‘No,’ I want you to know I am assigned to this outfit, or will be as of next month, as one of his new pilots.”
Now the sergeant had seen this little drama unfold from the beginning. Secretly he had been on Coolstone’s side. There weren’t too many people who had nerve enough to hit the Old Man up three times running for anything and still take “No” for an answer.
“I don’t think he’s going to like it,” he told the Rock. “In fact, I think he might get violent and dangerous when he finds out you are going to be a new pilot here. But, I’ll tell him.”
The sergeant disappeared into the commander’s office, then returned. “Go on in,” he said. Then he whispered, “I didn’t tell him it was you. Just that a new pilot was reporting.”
The Rock went in, saluted smartly, and said, “Sir, First Lieutenant Coolstone reporting as ordered.”
The salute surprised the Old Man almost as much as seeing Coolstone did, but, gamely he returned the salute even though he didn’t get the two inch cigar butt out of his mouth until afterwards. It was the first time Coolstone had ever seen it out at all.
“What are YOU doing here?” he asked the Rock wearily. “I’ve told you, it seems like a dozen times, you CAN’T get in here. Now you are wasting my time.”
“Sir,” said Coolstone, “I AM in. I’m your new fighter pilot. I transferred from the wing.”
“Oh-h-h-h no,” groaned the Old Man. “They can’t DO that to me.”
He reached for the phone, dialed a number, grunted a salutation, then said, “What’s this guy Coolstone doing over here? He tells me you transferred him to me. He’s a Gooney Bird pilot for gosh sakes. I can’t use him. He knows exactly how I feel. If we put him in a 30 degree bank he will probably declare an emergency. What am I supposed to do with him?”
There was a silence as the Old Man absorbed the information given to him by the person on the other end of the line. Finally he said, “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir. I understand. I will take care of it,” and then he hung up.
He turned to Coolstone. “OK,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how you did it, but you did. Now, here’s what else you are going to do. Starting next month, when you are officially transferred to me, you’re going to get three rides in a T-6. That’s all. Have you flown one before?”
Coolstone shook his head.
“Then, you’re going to solo the ’51. If you live through that, you are going to be assigned to B Flight as a duty pilot. Then we’re going to fly your butt off. You’re going to have to come out here at least twice a week and every week end. If you can’t hack any of this, just say so right now. You can stay at the wing and you can save everybody a lot of trouble.”
Coolstone took a deep breath. There was no problem getting away to fly, but he had never flown a T-6. In fact, with the exception of holding the stick for 30 minutes three times in the Reserve outfit, he really had not flown anything for almost a year. But he knew he could do it.
“No problem,” he said confidently to the commander. “No problem at all.” He saluted, stepped back, did an about face without getting his feet tangled, and left the office.
The sergeant was impressed. He smiled and gave Coolstone the Victory sign. Coolstone smiled back, put his hat on firmly and walked out of the building. He met the advisor coming in.
“How did it go?” the advisor asked.
“He was pretty hot,” said the Rock. “Starting next month, I get three T-6 rides and then solo the ’51. Then I have to fly twice a week and every week end until I get up to speed. The only thing I am going to have a problem with, I think, is the T-6. I’ve never flown it before. I haven’t flown anything for a year.”
“Boy,” said the advisor. “He really put it to you. That’s the routine they give the experienced fighter pilots: You have a problem.”
“Yeah, I know,” said the Rock. “Is the T-6 much?”
“Well, no,” said the major, “if you have flown it before, you could come up to speed pretty fast. But, three rides, cold. I don’t know.”
The advisor stood for a minute thinking. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what. For the rest of the month, every day when the weather is OK you meet me out here after five. Be sure it’s after five and don’t let anyone see you. We’ll fly the hell out of the T-6. If we don’t get caught, I’ll have you in Cuban Eights before you get your first ride with the squadron.”
Coolstone didn’t know what a Cuban Eight was, but before it was over he found out. He found out a lot of things in the next two weeks. When he reported to the squadron on his first drill he had almost 50 hours of T-6 time under his belt.
Well, he got the three T-6 rides, he soloed the ’51 on his fourth ride in the squadron, and he flew four to five times a week until he had 50 hours in the airplane and he had some very traumatic experiences. He had fallen out of everything there was to fall out of but he didn’t declare an emergency. He wanted to a couple of times, particularly when they started rolling from wing to wing, when they went from echelon to fingertip and vice versa. He might have declared an emergency but he fell out a lot then too.
The squadron pilots were good and they knew it. They were airplane drivers of the first water and they could stack up with anybody. When they were converted to 84Bs they came up to speed quickly and flew them well, even though they weren’t exactly sure just how all that hot air blowing out the back made them go.
And when they were recalled for Korea, it was just like an extended two week encampment. Some of the squadron pilots went immediately to Japan, then Korea and they didn’t have to go through any CCTS. Nobody turned in their wings, or tried to quit, even though there were some real hardships involved, particularly with those people who were running their own businesses.
Nor, when they received their first inspection, was it any surprise that they got nothing but shocked and respectful looks from the inspectors. Coolstone also got a shock. He and three others had qualified in gunnery and had instrument cards too. A deadly combination, Coolstone found. This made them eligible for an assignment to the All Weather School at Tyndall. The colonel (the Old Man had been promoted) seemed genuinely sorry to see the Rock go. In the past five years, while Coolstone was in the squadron, he had given the Old Man some real grounds which would have gotten rid of him easily. The most notable of these concerned a County Fair at the Rock’s hometown.
“They want lots of flying over the Fair”, the Rock told the squadron. “Hit them anytime on the way out or when coming back. They will love us down there.”
Well, the first flight of four hit them at 7:30 on a Sunday morning. This got quite a few folks’ attention. The next flight hit them at 11:30. This turned out the church congregation which was right next to the Fair Ground. By the time the Rock’s flight got over, a horse show was on. On about his fourth pass, and, while he was performing an intricate maneuver, inverted, the Fair folks had seen far too many F-84s. The horses were panicking and stampeding, people were falling off them, and it was reliably reported that one show sow miscarried. They called the sheriff, who called the squadron, who called Coolstone out of the sky. Coolstone had reported to the Old Man in his suntans. He saluted. The Old Man came right up to him, grabbed his wings, which were the bayonet-fastened type, ripped them right off his shirt and told him he would never fly another Air Force aircraft.
Coolstone had felt tears gathering in his eyes as he stumbled out of the office. But, for the next three months about all that happened was that he was not scheduled to fly and pulled either AO, OD or Mobile Control on every drill.
The Old Man said not one word to him.
His flight leader told him to hang tough. If the Old Man was out to get rid of him, he would have done it a week after the buzzing. Sure enough, one day his name was on the flying schedule. His flight commander told him, “Get out there and fly – right now. Don’t wait for the rest of us. It might be a mistake.”
Coolstone did, and there was never another word said. He flew regularly. Coolstone also had never buzzed again. Never, never, never.
The Rock spent his 21 months of active duty in All-Weather Squadrons. He spent a year of it in the Korean F-94 Squadron. Then, with a good many of his Guard friends, after the 21 months were up, he went home and was a civilian again.
Pulling alert is always miserable. It doesn’t make much difference what kind of an alert it is, you have a tendency to tense up, pump adrenalin and watch the weather reports a lot if you think there’s a chance you’re going to scramble. Matter of fact, when you pull alert at night in Vietnam, just the idea of a scramble in an F-100, and for real, will get anybody’s attention. There were two of them on, and, with any luck at all, they would scramble in pairs should the occasion arise. But, about the only thing that would cause a night scramble was troops in contact.
The Rock had checked the weather and, with the exception of a line of thunderstorms well south of them, it was great. Two, his trusty wingman, had sacked out. Coolstone wasn’t quite ready for sleep yet. They had come on duty at 2300, and it was now about 0100. With the briefing, preflight, and his adrenalin level, which was just now starting to reduce some, Coolstone had not yet been able to think about sleep.
They were two months in Vietnam and it hardly seemed that long. They had been recalled about five months earlier; spent a couple of months exercising their armament systems by practicing strafing, bombing and dropping napalm, all of the real stuff, then 25 pilots and 25 F-100S started overseas. Fourteen air refuelings later and three landings (no aborts, no delays) they were in place.
Charlie had said “Hello” that night. He said it with mortars and rockets. They all knew right then that this time it was for real.
Coolstone was a pilot all right. Had been since he was 22. He also was a lawyer with his own practice, a practice which had been interrupted twice now by recalls. “He just might stay in this time,” he thought. “Doesn’t seem practical to keep fiddling with the law practice when, in fact, my primary interest is flying.”
Lots of professional men in the Guard, just why he wasn’t sure. Most of them had come off active duty as he had, wanted to keep their hand in regardless of what their Air Force skills were, so they joined the Guard.
He chuckled to himself. The BIG general had visited them two weeks or so after they had arrived. Two’100s were taxiing in. “When are you going to start flying combat?” the general had asked the Old Man.
The Old Man looked at him for a moment, then pointed down to the two ‘100s just parking. “Missions 299 and 300, sir, just taxiing in.”
The BIG general was amazed.
“But, why shouldn’t we be able to get right at it? The 25 pilots average 4000 hours total, each, 2400 hours of fighter time, and all have more than 1000 hours in the ‘100. Then look at our maintenance people. So good you couldn’t believe it.” He laughed right out loud this time when he thought about the division commander, a one-star, asking the Old Man how they could go so long without a dud.
“Dud time,” the general explained, “had never been longer than three days before the Guard outfit had gotten there. The Guard started with a week before they had a dud, and had stretched it out to two weeks several times.”
“Darned if I know,” said the Old Man. “Let me call.” He talked to the armament NCO, hung up, and then said to the general, “Doc preps them at night and they’ve just got to be right before he hangs them.”
“Doc,” said the general, laughing a bit. “He must be some kind of an armorer.”
“Well,” said the Old Man, “Not really. He has a Ph.D. in history. Two of his crewmen have Ph.D.s in other things. I’m not sure just what. They’re all teachers. In fact, on our arming crews there are three Ph.D.s, a CPA, the Vice President of the First National Bank and a silver miner from Climax, just to keep them all honest.”
The general shook his head. “No wonder,” he said. “Say, could we borrow one of them. Just to give a little OJT?”
“Sure,” said the Old Man. “But you’d better talk to Doc first. He’s pretty fussy about what his people do.”
“How do you keep those people hanging bombs on a part time basis at home?” asked the general.
“Oh,” the Old Man had answered, “I guess they just like to do it. I couldn’t keep them from it if I wanted to, and I certainly don’t.”
With a little smile on his face, and completely relaxed now, the Rock dozed a little bit. He was prideful in his organization. They WERE good.
The alert phone rang. It rang with its miserably insistent, not-to-be-denied, characteristic, obscene tone. The Rock grabbed it. “Troops in contact,” said the urgent voice on the other end. “Scramble.” He gave Coolstone a TACAN fix off of Bien Hoa and told him the FAC’s call sign.
“Let’s go,” Coolstone shouted to Two, raced out to the revetments where their birds were, and arrived just as the crew chiefs started the APUs. They cranked up and scrambled individually. It was a black, black night. No moon, but – no weather. He could see Two bobbing around on the right hand side in a spread formation. He leveled at 16.5 and headed south. He checked in and was told to “Expedite! Expedite! It’s urgent.”
“Burner in,” said Coolstone as they were about 120 nautical miles from the target. Up ahead the Rock could see lightning. The lightning revealed large buildups. Near the TACAN fix he had been given, he was well embedded in a thunderstorm. He called the FAC, reported in, and told him they had two napalms, two high drags, and 800 rounds of 20 MM each.
“Rog,” said the FAC. “You’re going to have to get right down very low. The celling’s not much and it’s raining. It’s a fire support base and the Commies are on and through the fence. The commander wants napalm right on the fence and he says hurry. They are really hurting.”
Coolstone dropped the boards and pushed on over, down through the thunderstorm. He lost Two. The Rock broke out at 1500.
“Where are you?” he asked the FAC. “I see lots of tracers and fires, but which is the target?”
“I don’t have a visual on you,” said the FAC, “but the target is about 100 meters square. There’s a red light on each corner. It’s right in the middle of where you see the tracers and the fire.”
But now Coolstone wasn’t seeing a thing. He was in the middle of a rain storm indicating about 450.
“I can’t see you,” said the FAC. “Where are you now?”
“I’m north of the fire,” said the Rock. He could see again.
“I’m coming up in trail,” said Two, who also had a real good head of steam up.
“I see you,” said the FAC as One flashed by him head on.
“I see you too,” said the Rock, who had had a windscreen full of him for awhile.
“I’m in the clouds,” said Two. “I had to pull up to miss the FAC.”
“You have the target dead ahead now,” said FAC. “Please expedite.”
“Burner in,” said Coolstone. “Burner out,” he added immediately as almost every gun within twenty miles zeroed in on him.
“I got the message,” said Two. “I’m back in the clouds again.”
Coolstone saw a tiny, tiny target with dim, very dim, red lights. He had never seen such a small target in his life. “I think I’ve got it,” he told the FAC.
“Lay it on the fence,” the FAC said again. “Lay it right on. The commander says he’s got to have it.”
“Lay it on the fence,” thought Coolstone. “I’ll never make it.”
“Put it on the compound side of the fence,” said the FAC. “or they’ve had it.”
The Rock was down to 100 feet and 500 knots. “Just a little fast,” he said to himself. He suddenly saw that he was off to the right as he neared the target. He saw that if he kept going as he was he’d drop his napalm dead center in the compound. He quickly banked left, then right, saw the fence, and punched the napalm.
The whole sky lit up behind him. To complicate matters, a flare came down through the clouds ahead of him from a flare ship which was above. It looked like he was flying into a wall. But, what really bothered him – he was sure that he had dropped it on the good guys. He was just a little sick. Nobody said anything. He broke back around to set up another run. The FAC came on.
“It was perfect, Coolstone! Perfect! Right on the wire! They are on the run. Drop the next one 100 meters off the wire. They’re bailing out!”
Coolstone relaxed. Then he immediately tensed. He met Two, head on, level.
Two pulled up. “I’m in the weather again,” he said to One. “Was that you?”
“For God’s sake,” said Coolstone. “Get down here and STAY down here.”
“Roger,” said Two. “I’ve got the target and I’m rolling in now.”
They dropped all their ordnance, then strafed a bit just because it was there, and went home. As they were walking into the alert trailer, the phone rang.
“Were you on that flight?” a voice asked Coolstone. “The one down south?”
“Roger,” said the Rock, just a bit reluctant to admit it. “We weren’t too organized, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the voice. “I command that brigade and you saved our bacon. We found 54 dead VC on the wire, some more next to it. They just flat bugged out when you dropped that first napalm. Great work!”
The next morning after they had been relieved, One and Two were called to the Old Man’s office.
“Heard you had a little action last night. Sounds like you did good work.”
“Yeah,” said Coolstone. Then he closed the office door. “Look, Boss. There’s something we had better tell you about that mission and we’d just as soon you wouldn’t spread it around too much. You see, Two lost me on the let down through the thunderstorms. Then we almost hit the FAC. Then I almost hit Two again, head on, and …”
By outlasting a good many of his friends, Coolstone was now the Guard group commander. He sat in his office with his feet up on the desk. He stared out the window which overlooked the parking area, just as busy as it had been 27 years before when he had hung over the fence for the first time and looked at it. They were on a great runway, had great facilities, he had a bunch of crews that really knew their business, and their maintenance was top notch, but he felt horrible. He had just been advised that his unit, among several others, would be completely shut down and disbanded within six months.
“Well,” he thought to himself, “they’ve reached for us three or four times and we’ve always been there. I wonder what’s going to happen the next time they reach.”