Thursday, August 28, 2014


            My country home in Utah’s “Dixie” at an altitude of about 3500 feet, sits atop a low plateau overlooking the flood plain through which the Virgin River cuts its way, against the backdrop of Wire Mesa to our south.  It is a narrow defile, bounded by the stratified rocky walls of Zion Canyon, where bald eagles, red tail hawks and circling black vultures are a common sight. What was not so common was a vision accompanied - not so long ago - by the unmistakable thunder of four turboprop engines approaching from the west announcing a military C-130 Hercules cargo plane flying at an altitude roughly level with my rear deck and not more than 200-300 feet above the valley floor. The U.S. Air Force markings told me that what I was seeing was a “nap-of-the-earth” training mission on one hand, and an amazing low-altitude demonstration of the performance capabilities of one of the world’s most iconic airplanes on another.
            On August 23rd, 1954 Lockheed test pilots Stanley Beltz and Roy Wimmer pushed the throttles forward on the flight deck of the first of two prototype YC-130s – this one bearing serial number 53-3397 -- to take to the air from Lockheed’s Burbank, California runway on what would be a 61 minute flight to  Edwards Air Force Base. For the Lockheed “corporate family” this project was a gigantic gamble, and since signing the contract in 1951, the company had placed a lot of financial “eggs” in one basket. The objective was to produce a cargo plane capable of loading, transporting over great distances and quickly unloading large and heavy cargoes on rough, unfinished and short landing sites with the most economical fuel costs possible. Moreover, it should have the capability to carry and quickly deploy airborne troops and their equipment on short notice and in a wide range of environments. To make all this possible, Lockheed engineers designed a loading gate and hinged ramps at the rear of the fuselage as opposed to the awkward and limited-use front-loading design seen on the Korean War- era C-124 Globemaster, (on which the author made numerous heart-pounding journeys.)
            As I write this column, exactly 60 years have passed since that maiden flight, over which time period more than 2500 “Hercs” have come off the Lockheed-Martin production line (and those of a sub-contractor or two) making it the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history. More than half of those are still flying today under the flags of 70 nations, the most recent versions of which – the C-130J – are fitted with Rolls Royce turbo-shaft engines and composite scimitar propellers producing nearly twice the horse power of its ancestors and with a significantly greater range. The “J” also features a computerized “glass” cockpit, comparable to the state-of-the-art convenience and safety of the best the commercial flying world has to offer.
            Perhaps the most notable feature of the mighty Hercules is its extraordinary versatility. In addition to its military roles, it sees world-wide service in humanitarian relief efforts, Arctic resupply missions and weather reconnaissance in which its exceptional stability in rough flying conditions sees it flying into the heart of hurricanes every year. Increasingly, we see “Hercs” dropping fire retardant as it serves the U.S. Forest Service and Canada Natural Resources in fighting wild fires throughout North America.

The classic lines of the now sixty-year old C-130 Hercules mark it as one of the most                                   recognized four-engine airlift “birds” around the world.  U.S. Air Force Photo

  High on my personal list of reasons for remembering this example of aviation history was the successful rescue of hijacked plane passengers from a remote location in Uganda in July 1976 by 103 courageous Israeli commandos. Flying more than 2400 miles in the process, it was a pair of C-130 “Hercs” that made the Entebbe Raid even possible, rendering a huge blow to terrorism and a tremendous boost to the morale of the infant nation of Israel. And when the U.S. made the final airlift departure from Viet Nam in 1975, it was a C-130 with an unbelievable 452 desperate evacuees clinging to freedom in its cargo bay that left rubber on that sad runway.
            As I compose this “serenade” to a living piece of aviation history at age 60, I notice that it is also - and appropriately- National Aviation Day, marking also the birth of Orville Wright in 1871.

The crew of a C-130 gunship (“Specter”) deploy flares during a practice mission.
                                                                                                            U.S. Air Force Photo

Thursday, August 21, 2014


            I was 4-years old when my Great, Great Uncle took me to my first patriotic parade. When I asked him who those old men with long white beards riding in Cadillacs and Pierce Arrows were, he explained that they were veterans of the American Civil War. That uncle’s older brother – after whom I was awarded my own first name – was a decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898, where he had served with Colonel Teddy Roosevelt. I already knew about the Great War - World War One - because my own father was a badly-wounded veteran of the trenches of France and his constellation of facial scars was a daily reminder to his four sons of his courage and bravery in defense of our country.
            I was 8-years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and living as we did overlooking New York Harbor surrounded by military establishments of every kind in the midst of a transportation hub filled with the sights and sounds of war, men and women in uniform were a part of everyday life. My brothers, along with everyone of age I knew, were soon in uniform, one of them landing on Guadalcanal within months. Hardly a week would pass without our spare bedrooms playing host to some soldier, sailor or marine passing through en route to or from some battleground of that far-flung human conflict. Jackie Mueller came home from Anzio where he lost a leg and Teddy Raven from New Guinea, his lungs scarred by malaria and jungle fever. I watched as red stars and blue stars were replaced by stars of gold in the windows of many of our neighbors.
            V.E. day and later V.J. day were celebrated by parades in big cities and small towns as our veterans returned to us, changing their uniforms for civvies with the “ruptured duck” worn proudly on shirt and coat collars. Soon that returning generation would help to turn the machinery of Allied victory into the powerhouse of recovery across the world, set in motion a race to the moon, and swell the ranks of college students seeking an education never dreamed of a decade earlier. They would spawn a harvest of mayors, governors, senators, congressmen and a stream of inventors, innovators and business leaders.
            Once again uniforms would be packed away with memories and mothballs and hung in closets next to those of fathers and uncles, and organizations like the American Legion, Eagles and VFW would become reenergized with members whose sense of patriotism and hunger for associations which had deeply infused their sense of identity refused to slumber entirely.
            On June 25th, 1950 Communist North Korean troops and tanks invaded the South, and Americans found themselves once again engaged in bitter fighting on foreign soil with the highest level of monthly casualties we had ever encountered since our own Civil War. Many of the senior officers and non-coms serving there in “The Land of the Morning Calm” when a million Chinese fighters swarmed south out of Manchuria, pushing us almost into the sea were experienced veterans of Europe and the Pacific. At the end of three costly years, 43 million people had their freedom back and a largely uncaring America had a new galaxy of returning veterans.
            By the end of another decade, those numbers would be joined by yet another wave of weary and battle-seared warriors returning from Viet Nam, this time without the sound of welcoming trumpets and  “thank you’s” ringing in their ears.
            World War II veterans are mostly in their 90s today, their Korean comrades in our 80s, together evident mostly by white hair and baseball caps reflecting a deep pride and a near-mystical sense of comradeship the world can little comprehend.  It has been said that “no war is over until the last of its veterans have died.” This combined group is passing from the stage now at about 400 every day, and soon  veterans of the Persian Gulf and the War on Terrorism will take their place in that long line of graying kindred who have known a kinship stretching across years and generations.
            Considering how I process all this in my life-view, I think often of the book title used by Joe Galloway and Gen. Harold Moore in their Viet Nam memoir: We Were Soldiers Once . . and Young.

:   South Korean high school students who were not yet even born when the freedom they                    enjoy today was bought and paid for welcome a contingent of Utah veterans who once                        fought there.                                                                              Al Cooper Photo