14 December, 2013

Profile 83 - UPDATE: The MiGs of the North; "5018" as flown by Nguyen Hong My

Imagine a penny.

I know what probably came to mind—coppery, somewhat dingy and Abraham Lincoln’s profile.   And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the 40-some percent of readers that come from elsewhere in the globe, imagined the same thing.  The American penny is ubiquitous.

But what of the back?  How many of us imagined that side?  Probably a smaller number.  And of those that imagined both sides of the penny at the same time? Minuscule, I bet. Yeah, yeah, the “History is like a coin because it has two-sides” phrase was minted long ago.  But that doesn’t mean it’s no less true.

Alright, pause for a moment and have a look at the MiG above.

The picture shows my progress-shot of a MiG-21 fighter that Hong My flew during the 1972 air war over Viet Nam.   Hong My was put into the spotlight a few years ago when General Dan Cherry wrote a pretty-cool book about how he shot Hong My down and later on, met him and became friends.  The book is called, “My Enemy, My Friend.”  Read it.  It’s good for you.  However…

One more time...I need to digress again.

So, Dan, upon learning of my trip to Viet Nam, suggested that I meet Hong My and helped get us introduced.  It was a supremely cool experience save for the vast language barrier.  Hong My knew about five times more English than I knew Vietnamese (I know how to say 'Hello,' 'Shrimp' and 'Beer'). In other words, the conversation quickly degenerated into my ridiculous attempts at pantomime and Hong My’s gracious patience. 

I felt utterly foolish and feared that I was wasting Dan’s endorsement and Hong My’s time. But toward the end of our “conversation,” I asked the question, somewhat absentmindedly, “You? Shoot down? Any of…us?”  I pointed at my heart.

Momentary silence...

His eyebrows raised, then lowered.  Then, in a quick gesture, he flicked his finger across his chest and stated firmly but quietly, “Yes.”

Boom. I understood.   And with the kind of clarity that transcends all language, all emotion, all logic.  I was sitting next to a real, bona fide, in-the-flesh, enemy.  Granted, an ex-enemy, but the first one at that I ever met who had not only fired at America in anger but had been victorious at it, too.

And I was in his town.  His country.  And I had just agreed to draw his MiG.  Not the one that Dan shot down, but the one that he used to shoot down Bob Mock and John Stiles, January 20, 1972.  In other words, “US.”

Ah yes.  The other side of the penny.

Have another look at the MiG.  We’ll see how far we can push this “My Enemy, My Friend” stuff in the next post.

And, I’d like to introduce you to John Stiles' RF-4, the airplane that wound up in  Hong My's missile-lock.

Stand by—Stiles is preparing to give his perspective on the matter...

30 November, 2013

Profile 83 - BEGINNING: The MiGs of the North; "5018" as flown by Nguyen Hong My

It is one thing to write about an enemy.  It is yet another to buy him dinner.

And yet another to salute to his honor.

Recently, I was able to spend a few weeks in Vietnam.  The experience was a cannonball-dive into the culture; I got to know Vietnam's higher education system by lecturing at several universities*, dined outside of the stream of tourists, slept with all the modern conveniences of home and quickly learned to suspend all previous notions of what vehicle traffic should look and act like.

And of course, I managed to meet a few "old guys and draw their airplanes."

The sketch above is the MiG-21 flown by Nugyen Hong My, pilot, warrior, victor and victim.  He is the first "enemy" pilot that I have met and the first enemy pilot that I will record via my artwork.   

Watch this space as Hong My's fighter takes shape and his story is told.  And recognize that 5018 merely the first of at least three (maybe more) to come.

Strap in.  We're going North.

Really North.

PS - The sketch above is rougher than my usual roughness as I did it while trying to work through a translator.  It's incomplete and vague, a reflection of the opening of a relationship that spans so many years. The blurring in the upper right hand corner is the name and email of a USAF pilot who may or may not become part of this series.

And... thank you to General (Ret.) Dan Cherry and Stuart Maas (334th TFS) for getting this ball rolling.  You'll be hearing more from them, too.

Oh!  As for Hong My,  that's him below looking at my opening sketch. Our translator, Huyen is getting a crash-course in all-things MiG...  

*Foreign Trade University, Hanoi University, National Economics University and University of Language and International Studies

19 October, 2013

Profile 82 - FINAL: "Cocktail Hour" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

She's finished - it's "Cocktail Hour"!

Though I can't verify exactly how many times Lt. Raymond Plank flew her, this particular B-24 has become a most interesting symbol of his service.

Let me explain.

If you can get past nose artist Sarkis Bartigian's obvious high points, the piece itself is a brilliant look into the closing months of WW2, especially as seen through the eyes of war-weary soldiers.  Note the bright lights, big city, stars, music (and of course her).  Now, close your eyes and imagine rhythmic blasts from a swing Band in the corner, clinks of drinks and the excited, optimistic chatter of people blowing off the steam of a week's stress...

Or, as a buddy of mine is wont to proclaim around 4:30pm on a Friday, "Hey!  It's 5'oclock somewhere!" and then announce the Watering Hole in which he'll be holding court.

"Cocktail Hour" was a late-war B-24.  Though Bartigian is no longer around to interview, it's easy to see how his artwork represented the sentiment of so many; "It's time to get this damned war over and onto better things!" Indeed, the first recollection of WW2 that Raymond shared with me was not a combat mission but of a historic moment that, in his mind, sealed the end of the war.

The day was August 9, 1945, the location was an air base within the Okinawan island chain called "le Shima."  The day's missions were scrubbed,  the 43rd's B-24s grounded.  Raymond, never one to sit still and always reading between the lines, was quick to figure that 'something was up,' and managed an impromptu and unauthorized check flight in a C-46 Commando transport plane that an old buddy, Joe Sharpe, had flown in a day or two earlier.

Sneaking off like kids in their father's car, the two climbed over the ocean to the north.  Toward the crumbling empire of Japan.  "It seemed like we were flying a long time, (but that was probably) due to us doing something we weren't supposed to do!" Raymond laughed.   "We didn't know where we were going but I wanted to see if I could see it!"

What was "it"?

Fueled by a hunch, the two scanned the northern horizon, growing more anxious with each career-killing minute until,  a few minutes after 11am, poking up from the gentle curve of the earth, they saw IT— the boiling rise of a mushroom cloud.  "By gawd, that's where the sum-bitch* is!" Raymond exclaimed, laughing.  "We flew on toward it for another 20 minutes or so but then got the hell out of there!"

Raymond knew then, beyond a shadow of doubt, the war was over.

(photo: National Archives)

The next week, on August 17, three Japanese G4M "Betty" bombers, freshly painted in the universally accepted color of Surrender (white) landed at le Shima.  Though the moment was just a punctuation in the awkward, complicated process of ceasing hostilities, it was a momentous one for all present in that it was an undeniable punctuation to the times.

(photo: Raymond Plank)

"So you were there with your camera?"

"Yes.  I took that picture."

"That had to be an incredible moment!  Describe it for..."

"Yes!  I went up to the Major.  'Major Parker?  It looks like my services are no longer necessary!  May I hitch a ride to Manila?!"

"Huh?!"  I asked, confused by what Raymond was saying. I was expecting something about the sweetness of surrender, the defeat of the enemy, the triumph of the American will...but Raymond was on another track altogether.

"...and he said FINE!  What a guy.  Major Parker was a great guy!  He cared more about getting what was needed to get done than how it got done."

"So.  Wait a second.  You just...quit?"

"Well it was more complicated than that, but yes.  I had my Points (a method of scoring that would allow prioritization of returning to home based on wartime service) and I wanted to go home.  Finish my degree.  Start a business."

In other words, for Raymond Plank, the winding down of defeated engines was not the sound of victory but a metaphorical shriek of a work whistle signaling the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Lt. Raymond Plank caught the first ship home and did exactly as he'd planned.

So, how did that work out?  Click here.  That's the business Raymond started— the Apache Corporation. Those aren't millions of dollars, they're billions of dollars.  In other words, Raymond Plank had one helluva Cocktail Hour.

It's rare enough for me to talk to WW2 bomber pilots.  Rarer yet to talk to ones that were there at momentous moments in history.  And, of those that went on to create and lead billion-dollar companies?  Raymond is the only one.  And will likely be the only one.

Ok.  Hold that thought.

People say to me all the time, "Geez it must be great to get all those old stories!"  It is!   Flak barrages, atomic bombs and topless women on B-24s are sexy topics.


The more time I spend with 'old guys,' the greater my belief that we Americans are living in tragically deficit times.  Not the deficit of money, natural resources or international prestige but of the the thing that is eminently more valuable: Wisdom.

Think about it—from Social Security to Boca Raton, FL, the removal of the elderly from daily life has been so systematic, it reeks of a conspiracy to keep the rest of us in a state of foolishness.  Disagree?  Well, this past week, during the clamor of our government shutdown, very few people I talked to actually seemed to understand that we elected those people...

Look.  80% of my interview-time with Raymond has been spent on learning about the things that took him from a $250,000 ball of venture capital to over $50 Billion in market revenue.  I have hours of notes on topics like ethics, character, risk, energy policy, opportunity, reward, regret... I know it can be argued that Raymond's success is an anomaly but the truth is, I've heard it all before from old guys like Wendell Hanson, Don Bryan, Bill Creech, Steve Pisanos, Claude HonePunchy Powell, JD Collinsworth...and my list of Vietnam-era 'old guys' is growing at a priceless rate, too.

There's so much to be learned from how others have minted success from molten adversity.  That's the truly great stuff to me and I wouldn't have gotten a bit of it had I not talked to Old Guys; it's how I make up my own tragic deficits in wisdom and heartily recommended to others as a tonic for the times.

A toast to Lt. Raymond Plank the bomber pilot and Raymond Plank the Captain of American industry.

It's Cocktail Hour.

Time to get to work.

NOTE:  Raymond wrote a book.  If you want to learn something, you can buy it here.  Or, if you really want to make his day, buy it here or here.

AND...if you'd like to buy a print of Cocktail Hour, signed by Raymond, go here.

*That'd be the second atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki.

11 October, 2013

Profile 82 - UPDATE: "548" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

Have a look.  I'd say it's maybe... 40% done.   Maybe.  I'm kind of grumpy about it.  I loathe the "middle" of a difficult project as it's too late to turn back and too much left to do—rather ironic considering the story you're about to read.

The next and final post will show Raymond Plank's B-24 in her sex and booze fueled glory. (smirk)  At least a B-24 that Raymond flew.  Once or twice.  Regardless, you'll just have to wait as I'm just not that good at drawing topless women.  (Too distracting).

However, to know anything about WW2 in the Pacific, one of, if not the dominant forces dictating American military strategy was the sheer size of the Arena.  Aside from continental Asia, WW2 was fought over islands sprinkled over the earth's largest ocean.  Look at the map below.  The battlefield was HUGE.  And no one appreciated the expanse below like the airman.

There are no landmarks over open ocean.  Get lost?  The choice is brutal: ditch the airplane and risk being smashed upon impact or bail out and hope the life preserver holds air (by the way, the water was full of teeth and a speck of yellow bobbing in millions of square miles of rolling ocean is nigh impossible to spot).

Thousands of men, airplanes and bombs shuttled their way to and from targets over and over and over.  Being war and all, the efforts of both sides to destroy the other were mighty; it's impossible to tell how many aircraft (Japanese and Allied) were downed over open ocean but it's safe to put that number in the thousands, too.

Frankly, it's impossible for 21st Century folk to fully appreciate what it must have been like for Raymond Plank and his crew of nine to do their work.  To know that the next five to ten hours would be marked by monotony over open water, punctuated by a few fast minutes of terror at the target, only to return home in a potentially damaged machine is jarring.

Yet last week, Raymond attempted to fill me in.

The time was early 1945.  Japan was, of course, losing the war in a big way.  The Japanese Army Air Force was a shred of its former self and the Navy's aircraft had long lost their sea legs due to the decimation of her aircraft carriers.  But, as the Japanese were nowhere near admitting defeat, they defended their targets against the Allied aerial armada with legendary ferocity.  Namely, "Ack Ack" or, anti-aircraft guns.

On this particular mission—the actual date lost for the moment, but we'll get that figured out—the target was a Japanese air field on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).  From the freshly recaptured Clark Air Base in the northern Phillipines, the trip was approximately 1,000 miles round-trip.  In case you're wondering, that's a 6 hour trip.  Half over water.

Ray remembers the approach rather well.  The flak began as the peppering of black smudges in the tropic sky and soon rose to a crescendo of unusual violence.  Though a 30 ton giant, Ray's B-24 still shuddered under the impacts of supersonic shards.  Against the roar of the engines, the delicate "tink!" and "dunk!" of flak pieces were deceptively subtle.

Want to get a feel for it?  Click on the movie below, (it might take a second to load) turn your volume up all the way and imagine small handfuls of rocks being tossed at your window...(I made that little film while riding in a B-24, btw).

"We were taking very heavy flak.  Very heavy." Raymond stated in his distinctive, scholarly drawl.  "And then, a 120mm (guessed) shell perforated our right wing.  The entry hole was about the size of the projectile but the exit blew all to hell.  So much that the rubber seals in our wing tanks were obliterated and gasoline streamed out."

Stop there.  The Japanese 120mm gun fired an explosive round.  In Raymond's case, however, the round did not explode.  It simply passed through the wing like a hot poker through a candle.  Had it exploded, Raymond Plank and crew would have been blown to pieces over the China Sea.

With reflexes honed by repetitive training, Raymond quickly feathered the #1 engine to eliminate the chance of a spark igniting the raw spewing into the atmosphere.  Did they complete their bomb run?  Jettison their bombs?  Raymond doesn't recall.  All he remembers is the gentle, ginger sway out of the formation to get out of the combat area and head for home.

With one dead engine, a dramatic loss of fuel and hundreds of miles to fly, the return flight was, to say the least, nervous.

I tried to capture the moment with my iPad using my brand-new Wacom pen.  It's cheesy, but I think you'll get the gist of what it might have looked like to take a hit in the wing....*

What I couldn't draw is what was happening in the cockpit.  In the fury of the moment, Raymond began to realize that, in addition to the seismic damage to the airplane, three men in his crew were wounded; casualties of the blizzard of metal they'd flown throw.

"Our nose gunner took a piece of metal to his foot.  He was screaming like mad..." Raymond explained.  "Our bombardier pulled him back to behind the flight deck.  He was bleeding a lot, so he decided he needed a tourniquet.  (Once that was applied), he pulled off the boot and worked the jagged metal through the foot.  It had to hurt like mad!   He loaded him up with (morphine) and sulfa powder."

One of the waist gunners took a piece of flak to his head.  Fortunately, he'd put his combat helmet at the first sign; the piece dented the helmet and bruised the soft tissue.  Surely without the helmet, the gunner would have been killed instantly.  The tail gunner too was hit, his specific injury lost to the the passing of seventy years of life...

"We'd made it back to base.  An ambulance, a fire truck and a Chaplain were waiting for us,' Raymond explained. 'But our left tire was in shreds.  It'd been hit by flak.  We couldn't land with only one tire or else we'd ground loop (essentially a high-speed spin-out on the airstrip).  We knew we had to equalize the landing gear somehow so I got out (Raymond was co-pilot on this mission) and went back to the waist gunner's spot where we held one of the crew out the window into the slipstream where he could blow out the tires with a .50 cal."

Yes, I asked.   "Really!?  You hung a guy out with a .50 cal. machine gun to shoot the tire?!"

"Yes." Raymond replied matter of factly.  "I held onto him and someone else was hanging onto me!"

(Note: If the sight of a man trying to manage the explosive power of a Browning .50 heavy machine in the raging slipstream is too fantastic to imagine, please know the crew tried to shoot out the tire with a .45 sidearm pistol.   The taught, reinforced rubber only deflected the big bullets, necessitating the raise in calibre.)

Minutes later, the B-24 ground its way to a halt at Clark, a battered wreck.  With the wounded quickly Jeeped to the base hospital, the crew stood back to appreciate their mount; it was holed 367 times.  Unworthy of repair, a few necessary parts were stripped and the rest of her pulled to the side and tagged for scrap.

Raymond, on the other hand, had no idea that he had inaugurated a charmed life...

And, you'll read about THAT in the next and final post of Raymond's B-24.**

* ** Update:  Just got off the phone with the man (Raymond).  He and I had a miscomm; in the little animation, I drew the #3 taking a hit when instead, it was the #1 (outboard).    Also, Raymond wanted to make sure I got the point across that he flew a number of B-24s; three of which were written off.  The B-24 to follow will be no more "his" than any of the other crews that flew her.

06 October, 2013

Profile 82 - BEGINNING: "???" as flown by Raymond Plank, 43rd BG, 64th BS

He stated it three times in expressing the one thought.  Each time, he spoke the word in that old-school fashion of putting the emphasis on the last syllable.  Like a command.  Like a privilege.

"They gave me responsibility.   I was 22 and had responsibility.   The responsibility of 9 men and of killing thousands of Japanese."

But I didn't hear the word at first.  I was still stuck on the "9 men" and "Killing thousands of Japanese."

He held eye contact for another brief moment—crisp blue eyes in a face of delicate features, chiseled and smoothed from 92 years of life—then returned to buttering his pancakes, allowing my mind catch up to what my ears had brought.  It was then that I understood what he was saying.  Responsibility is not a thing or a task.

Responsibility is power.  And if you have responsibility for something, it's a big deal.

Ok.  Have a look at the B-24 above.  It's going to change a lot as I'm not quite sure on the particular serial numbers, nose art and model.  Drawing the oddly shaped B-24 is an additional challenge because the type had so many different variations...

I'm not complaining.  The B-24 that I settle upon will be one flown by Lt. Raymond Plank of the 64th Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group during the final but shockingly vicious months of war against Imperial Japan.  This morning's breakfast with Raymond generated six pages of notes including one particular story that I'll share in the next post.

However, the most fascinating aspect to this story is not the moments of terror and hours of anxiety over ocean and enemy but Raymond's whole life of...

... responsibility.

Stay tuned.

20 September, 2013

Profile 80 - FINAL "837" as flown by MISTY FAC Dick Rutan + Rutan Voyager

"I was out of my body, looking down... looking down at the war beneath.

I saw two armies.  One of life, the other, death.  And they clashed.

I knew they were fighting over me."

A thousand regrets for not having something to record the audio!  Dick Rutan, adventurer, inventor, warrior was describing an utterly outrageous experience, one that defied reason.  And my hand's ability to keep up.  Damnit!

"And this was in the Voyager!?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes.  One of our training flights."

"You were...breaking down..?"

"Yes."  Dick's reply was crisp, abrupt; a statement of fact.  But there wasn't any shame in the apparent loss of control.  Instead, Dick spoke with the analytical detachment of a scientist.  I knew then that this was a guy who had learned to keep his cool even when things got insanely hot.

"(They were) Gremlins.  The Voyager was not a safe aircraft and it tested our limits of endurance.  I was tired, hadn't slept for 30 hours and hallucinating, seeing Gremlins.  I had to learn how to manage those stresses.

I can tell you this, if we hadn't trained and learned like we did, there would have been no Voyager mission."

And that's what my first conversation with Dick Rutan was like.

In December of 1986, Dick and fellow Voyager pilot Jeana Yeager flew the spindly Rutan Voyager on a non-stop flight around the world. Though I vaguely remember the headline-making moment, it had little significance to me until this year's commission. In my youth, my distraction of the moment, I'd just figured a team of airplane nuts got together to set a record.


...when the project came along to do Dick Rutan's Vietnam F-100F and Voyager, I was gobsmacked within the first 15 minutes of research.  The round-the-world record was no lark.  Instead, it was the culmination of five years of science, engineering and forced mastery of the black art of "Human Factors" - the study of how humans interact with the systems they create.

Ok, have another look at "837" above— it was one of the F-100's Dick flew as  a "MISTY" Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Vietnam.  It bears a clue into what it took to mint the mind that could, on one hand, hallucinate in the cockpit of an experimental aircraft and on the other, retain the rational presence pull his faculties back into sanity without losing control in the process.

MISTY was the callsign for the FACs who loitered their F-100Fs above the North Vietnam countryside spotting targets for the whip crack of an air strike.  But while the air strike came and went, the MISTYs stuck around snooping out the next target.  This nearly constant battle-field presence cost them; MISTY's suffered a stunning 23% loss rate.

I can only imagine that, 20 years later, while trying to tame his exhausted faculties, the Vietnam jungle reached out from beyond sanity and tempted him with doom.   How & why he overcame the trouble is mine to discover because in a couple weeks, I get to spend more time with Dick.  In fact, I'm taping him for my "Old Guys and Their Airplanes" project (yes, I'll post it).  It'll be ready (probably) by the end of November.

I realize there are readers 'out there' that are like me and would really appreciate the chance to meet the man but the opportunity isn't likely to present itself.   So.  If you'd like to ask Dick Rutan a question, here's the next best thing:  Email me (click here).   If your question is chosen, you'll get a print showing both the 100 and the Voyager and I'll also ask Dick to sign it for you, too.

And, make it a good one, too.  I suspect he likes challenges.

PS - get your question in before October 3, 2013.

15 September, 2013

Profile 81 - BEGINNING: "879" F-100D Super Sabre of the 531st TFS

Last week, I was asked, "Is drawing airplanes hard work?"

Hmmm.  Interesting question.

Have a look at my pencil sketch above—it's an F-100D of the 531st TFS based at Misawa AB sometime in 1963.

The hard part, getting the markings established, is pretty much done. Thanks to a half-a-dozen people around the world, I was able to learn that 879 had as many as seven combinations of markings applied between 1960 and 1965.  And the stakes were high to get it right for 1963—the finished piece will go on display as a testimony of gratitude between one guy to another.  In this case, historical precision is no mere feature, it's an integral part of the commission.

I can't begin to count how much 'work' went into these people's sifting, sorting and cross checking pictures, dates, places... researching markings is hard work.  It takes experience, intuition and, of course, a stack of photos.

Now, it's time for the hard part, actually doing the artwork.

Have another look.

Right now, 879 is, of course, a gray pencil doodle.  But, she'll come to life as she was—a sharp silver shark splashed with slices of red, white and blue.  Such paint jobs (there are some really wild pre-'65 color schemes out there) were the order of the day.  Looking through hundreds of F-100, F-101 and F-102 photos, it's tempting to believe that the USAF had a graphic-design department staffed with Art School beatniks.

And how hard will actually doing the airplane be?  (laughs).  No idea yet...I joke that the busy parking lot outside my Studio is a time machine.  I park my car in the bright of morning and fifteen minutes later, it's night time and the only car left.  So...maybe...45 minutes of hard work?


Anyway, by appearance, 1963 seems like an easy time.  But I know better.  There are no easy times.  Ever.  The illusion of hard vs. easy is simply a matter of choosing which details to pay attention to.

In 1963, America was RIGHT on the bubble between the prosperity and paranoia of the Cold War and the rage and change of The Vietnam Era...and if you want to "see" what it looked like when the bubble popped (click here)...

Did you click?

Really...do so (it's not that hard).

So.  Is drawing airplanes hard work?

Not really.  It's just life.

Oh.  And here are a few wild F-100's.  Before they received the much more workman paint jobs of green, dark green and tan.*

Photo: Vince Reynolds via Replica In Scale

Photo: Phillip Friddell via Replica In Scale

Photo: R. Franke, via Replica In Scale

*That'd be the other side of the bubble called "Vietnam."

29 August, 2013

Profile 79 - FINAL: "314" as flown by Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Capt. Dick Francis

The following is from Dick Francis' son, Gavin.  He responded to my request for insight into what it was like to experience his dad's POW event.

It is unedited and presented in its entirety.

There are 17 paragraphs, but I suspect they'll be worth your time.

"I apologize for taking so long to get this to you. It has been a busy time. I am on vacation now, so I’ve had an opportunity to reflect and focus. This all happened long ago, so the actual details may have been a little different than I remember them. But this is what I recall:

I remember the day that we found out that my father had been shot down. I guess I was about 6 years old. My father had received his next assignment to the Philippines, and my mother, my younger brother, and I were staying with my maternal grandparents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, awaiting our move while my father was away on temporary duty, flying missions in Vietnam.

It was a sunny day, and from the backyard where I was playing, I could see a blue Air Force staff vehicle pull into the driveway along the side of my grandparent’s house. Two uniformed men got out of the car, put on their caps, and I immediately ran inside to tell my mother that some Air Force people had arrived. She met the two men at the front door, and then quickly asked my grandfather to take me back outside to play.

Although I didn’t fully comprehend the situation, I realized deep down that something was wrong. And later that evening when my mother explained what had happened to my father, I cried. I didn’t really understand where Vietnam was or why my father was there. I just knew that my father flew airplanes for the Air Force.

Not long afterward, the North Vietnamese released propaganda film footage of my father receiving medical attention in a Hanoi hospital after having been captured. One of the Tulsa television stations, KTEW-TV, acquired a copy of the footage for their news broadcast. Jack Morris, a local anchorman, invited us down to the station to see the film. In the darkness of the viewing room, we all watched the film to see what my father looked like, searching for some sign that he was okay. I was disappointed that seeing the film didn’t bring me any real assurances, and I still felt sad that my Dad was far away in a strange place where people didn’t like him.

Jack Morris, KTEW Anchorman (1921-2010)

(on)...reflecting on how television news had changed from his time as an anchorman, Morris noted that “there’s a little more show business than there was in those days. We were dead serious about the news. When you’re talking about death and taxes and all the sadness that makes up the news, it’s no laughing matter.”

After that, I began watching Jack Morris in the evenings with my grandfather to learn what was happening in Vietnam. Anytime there was film footage, I would scan the background to see if I could see my father, hoping that he had escaped and was trying to get home.

That was a difficult and confusing year for us. My mother had her hands full taking care of me and my brother, Ryan, who was only 9 months old. We’d already shipped our car and belongings to the Philippines. The military was able to ship everything back to the U.S., but we had to find a place to live. And without my father around, it was hard to know exactly what the future had in store for us.

Initially, my mother rented an apartment near my aunt and uncle in Shreveport,Louisiana, where she had grown up. I started the first grade there, but within a month my uncle was transferred to a new job out of state, and without any family support in Louisiana, my mother decided to move us back to Tulsa.

In Tulsa, my mother rented a house a few blocks away from where my grandparents lived. All of our belongings were shipped there. And that’s where everything stayed, in cardboard boxes stacked up around the otherwise empty house. We never actually moved into the house. My Mom and I really didn't want to live there. I think that setting up house again was just too much for my mother to deal with. Instead, we stayed with my grandparents and would occasionally visit the rented house.

I started school in the neighborhood at Robert Fulton Elementary. I was having problems learning to read, so my teacher put me in the remedial reading group. I was embarrassed by this, and the fact that my teachers and all the other kids knew that my father was a POW only made me feel more self-conscious.

During that time, I became increasingly frustrated with the folks over in North Vietnam because of their unwillingness to let my father come home. At one point, I devised a plan to go to Vietnam myself and bring my father back. I told everyone my intentions, packed a suitcase, and dragged it down the street a block or so before my grandfather came after me and helped me carry the suitcase back to the house.

One day, we went with a number of other local families of POWs to Oklahoma City, probably to Tinker AFB, where I met with a psychiatrist along with the other kids. The psychiatrist was obviously there to evaluate us, and he asked us to talk about how we felt about our fathers being held captive. I was one of the younger kids in the group, but I think I was able to express myself pretty well. I was glad to be able to talk to someone about how sad I felt.

My mother became friends with another local woman whose husband was a prisoner in Vietnam. She had a daughter about my age, and we would sometimes get together with them. I was vaguely aware that the woman was an activist of sorts, who had become involved with the National League of POW/MIA Families. Although her daughter was a little older than I was, we would sometimes play together, and I remember being jealous when we found out that her father was being released. But it was also exciting because it meant that Dad might also be coming home soon.

There was a group called VIVA (Voices in Vital America) which made bracelets, which a lot of people were wearing back then. The bracelets had the names of service members on them who were listed as POW or MIA. You were supposed to wear the bracelet until your loved one came home. I wore my father’s bracelet. It was a constant reminder to me that he was far away in a prison cell somewhere, but wearing it was a way for me to stay connected with him, and to keep hope alive that he would return someday.

Eventually, a cease-fire was declared, the war ended, and we found out that my father would be coming home. My father was released in March 1973, three days after my seventh birthday. We went to Wichita Falls to meet him when his plane arrived. I remember how anxious I was waiting for him to step off the plane. I was so excited. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were also there. And although it was a joyous occasion for all of us, it was also very stressful. My grandfather had been taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, and had been part of the “Bataan Death March” in the Philippines. I think we thought that his presence might help to make things a little easier for my Dad because of their similar war-time experiences. But my father had been through a lot, he was very thin, and I think he may have been dealing with severe emotional issues. None of us really quite knew what to expect, but all that mattered to me was that my father had come home and I was glad to have him back.

It’s hard to say how the war and his imprisonment affected my father. After he returned to active duty, we ended up at Seymour-Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where my parent’s marriage soon fell apart. Although my parents had been married for 10 years, they married very young, and I believe they’d always had problems. Indeed, my father was still in his twenties at the time he was shot down and captured. Obviously, such a traumatic experience would have a profound effect on anyone, especially someone of that age, and I’m sure that it affected him deeply. But after 40 years, it’s hard to know these things for sure.

At any rate, I’m very proud of my father and of his service to our country. I have a great appreciation for him and for all the men and women of the Armed Forces who have put themselves in harm’s way. 

Thanks very much for asking about my memories. I’m glad to have the opportunity to share this part of my father’s story with you."



Pictured:  Gavin, Dick, Betty and Ryan Francis, c. 1973, shortly after Dick's return the United States.

Note:  My editor read this post and made the comment that Gavin's story illustrated to him how no single man or woman goes to war alone.

22 August, 2013

Profile 80 - IN-PROGRESS: "837" as flown by Dick Rutan, MISTY 40, 612 TFS

I'll never forget the start of The Iraq War—March 20, 2003.

Not because the moment engendered any kind of patriotism or political rash but because of the reaction I got from others.  See, I was preparing to go to Europe with a few WW2 vets and the media was rife with stories of anti-American this and that.

I can remember distinctly one person, a family friend, being astonished that I didn't cancel my trip outright.  "You're taking a big risk!" she warned in a hiss as if to thwart the piqued ears of foreign spies.

And then there were...maybe, ten, fifteen more people who offered similar advice.  I remember another, "Well, if it was me, I'd sure think twice about going!"

Normally, I'm not the brightest bulb in the room.  So, I've developed the good habit of seeking advice when it comes to matters of question.   And the advice I seek is usually from those whom are counter to the first proposition.  In this case, I asked a man who was quite familiar with war, Europe and 'risk.'

I asked Punchy Powell, one of the WW2 fighter pilots I was intending to accompany.  "Punchy?"

"Yeah?" he replied in his collard-green drawl.

"This war in Iraq.  How you feel about that in light of our trip.  I mean, are you..."

"Wur-ud?" He interjected quickly.


"We go!  I learned a long time ago that if I was afraid of the little things, I'd be afraid of everything!"

In a flash, the well-intentioned but fretful faces of all those folk flashed before my eyes—teachers, weight lifters, managers, doctors—and I realized. These people were afraid.  And it wasn't so much the fear of something real, it was the fear of something possible.    And it struck me—they didn't seem to have the internal confidence that Punchy had.  They hadn't learned to control the fear of little things that was necessary to see the big things as—not fear—adventure.

Bottom line, I went and had a BLAST.  New friends, awesome sights, amazing history...and I was even cursed by a Parisian grocery store clerk (evidently, my American-ism was rather obvious).  To think that I would have lost all of what I gained on account of prudent possibilities makes me shudder.

I learned:  "Adventure" is not so much an act as it is an attitude.

Ok.  So what does this have to do with Dick Rutan's F-100F?    In the event you don't know the name, you may remember that strange, spindly white airplane that flew around the world back in December of 1986.  That airplane was called The Rutan Voyager and he and fellow pilot Jeana Yeager flew it around the world, NON STOP.

It took nine days, entirely in the air, in a cockpit smaller than a farmyard propane tank!

Nine days of eating, breathing, pooping without touching earth—much of it over water—pretty much qualifies as an "Adventure."  And I wonder how many people thought the act was madness.  "Dick, really now.  Isn't just a little foolish to get into that thing and..."

In a few weeks, I get to sit down with Dick and learn what it takes to live a life of obvious risk, boundary pushing and accomplishment.  Of course, I'll share what comes of that with you, too.

But, I suspect that such a life begins in-spite of all the admonishment with the words, "We go!"

Stand by...

05 August, 2013

Profile 79 - UPDATE - "314" as flown by Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Capt. Dick Francis

It's a question that is so difficult to ask but impossible to leave behind...

"What was it like?"

It's the question that everyone seems to want to know but for a writer, it's a diabolically difficult one on account of the fact that what I'm really doing is interpreting someone else's perceptions.   Believe me, it can be mind-melting to bring a moment of the past to life and keep the integrity of events and people intact.

So, I'm going to take a different course with this post.  You have a chance to hear Dick Francis describe what it was like to be shot down and taken captive.

Click here.

14 July, 2013

Profile 79 - BEGINNING: "314" as flown by Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Capt. Dick Francis

You never know.

Until you're there.

But, you can prepare.

Ok.  This post marks the beginning of "314" - an F-4E Phantom shot down over Hanoi, Vietnam.   Just to be clear, when I wrote "over Hanoi..." I meant directly over Hanoi.  Smack-dab.

Pilot Lt. Col. Farrell Sullivan and Weapons Systems Operator, Capt. Dick Francis were blown out of the sky by a North Vietnamese "SAM" missile during a mission over the city—a city that has, to this day, the distinction of having the most formidable anti-aircraft defenses ever developed for a country 'at-war.'

Dick became a POW.  One of 766.

Sullivan became KIA.  One of 47,378.

Yeah, they're sobering numbers.  But really now, how many of us are really effected by them?  After all, they're someone else.


I'm going to ask Dick to describe what it was like—to go from utter power to utter helplessness in the span of minutes.  From having more firepower than a WW2 B-17 under-thumb to having the dirty barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle shoved under-chin.

Having heard a few of these stories from others, I know you're going to find Dick's story to be fascinating. 

But there are three people out there who have a surprise coming; I have no idea how that's going to go.

Kind of like Dick how felt the morning of June 27, 1972.

For him, it was, just another mission.

For someone else...?

Stay tuned.

27 June, 2013

Profile 78 - FINAL: "Pardo's Push".

Do you remember when President George H. Bush talked about the "Thousand points of light"?  The actual quote was something like, "...America moving forward, always forward—for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light."

In today's glitterati world, there are thousands of points of light going off every second—they're called "paparazzi."  No disrespect to President Bush or even the hard work of those who follow Miley Cyrus around but I haven't seen so many points of light as I've seen points of Bullsh*t.

Whatever.  My point of view isn't anything new.  But I will say this much—at some point or another a person comes to the crossroad that their actions either matter for the greater good or they don't.

But even then, what does something good look like?  Does it look like Miley Cyrus?

Hmmm.   Well, as far as I've learned, if you turn your eyes toward Texas, and squint really hard, you can see a point of light named Bob.  Pardo.  That's him on the left.

This isn't the place for the back story of the famed "Pardo Push."  Click here for that.  Instead, this is the place for you to learn a quirk of the story that might brighten your day.  Especially if you're in the dark of cynicism.

A couple nights ago, Bob and I were talking about his defining moment and I was trying to figure out why Bob did what he did.  Offhandedly I asked, "So, (Lt. Earl) Aman was your wingman..."

Bob interrupted, "No.  Earl was not my wingman."

"Somewhere I read that Earl was a wingman..."

"That's wrong.  I was #2.  Earl was #4.  My leader and Earl's leader had head back to base."

Hmmm.  Headed back to base, eh?

"What do you mean headed back to base?  You mean they left?"

In case you don't understand the significance of what Bob just said, look at the illustration below. The leaders are second and third from left.  These are the guys that are supposed to lead—both the mission and the example.

To be fair, I haven't talked to either of the leaders that flew in that four-ship on March 10, 1967. All I know is this—Bob Pardo and his backseater Steve Wayne, though flying a combat-damaged F-4 themselves, stuck around to help Earl Aman and his backseater Robert Houghton when the 'leaders' didn't.

Anyway, I wondered why Bob stayed with Earl.

"You and Earl must have been good friends, yes?"

Bob replied,  "No.  Well, sure, I guess.  Earl was in my squadron..."  In other words, Earl was just a guy in Bob's squadron.  Cordial, friendly, sure.  But best buds?  No.  Kind of like the guy from work who rounds out your golf foursome a few times a summer.


"So why did you do it?  Why did you risk everything (your life, your military future, possible imprisonment) to save Earl?"  My pen was ready...

"Well.  I guess...my dad. Yeah.  It was my dad.  He taught me...I guess, that..."

Ha.  Bob Pardo didn't have a pat answer.  At least nothing other than a tangental ramble of how his old man taught him this and that.  In listening to Bob's Depression-era family and having to work hard, there were enough aw-shucks moments that I wondered if Bob wasn't a little too good to be true.  See, I remember something about WW2 ace Pappy Boyington saying that behind every hero was a bum.

And that's fine.  I can accept that Bob Pardo is human.  In fact, I'm sure he's flickered a few times.  Maybe gone-out altogether, too.  I don't know.

But I do have another picture to show you.  Look below.

That's Bob on left, Earl at right.   The quality of the photo isn't great but I think you can see for yourself that Earl is in a wheelchair and on a ventilator.  Here's the backstory - in 1994, Earl was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and by the 28th anniversary of "The Push," was being fed through a tube.

And the T-shirt on Earl's lap is one of 3,000-some t-shirts that Bob and a network of friends bought and sold to raise money for Earl's chair, ventilator, computer...

"Did you know Earl was in one of the first classes of The Air Force Academy?"  Bob asked conversationally.  Of course I didn't.  And there's no way I could have - Earl died from the disease in 1998.  But Bob sounded pretty alive when he proclaimed, "We got him a van so he could go to his reunion (in 1996)."

Did you catch what happened here?  The friendship?  The continued sense of duty?  The strength of the brotherhood?  The, dare I state it, "leadership"?

Bob's no point of light.

Bob's a torch.

And I tell you what—I think this was the kind of stuff President Bush was talking about.

Ok. Back to the guy who commissioned me to do this piece, he's an ex-POW who thought Pardo's "push" was a momentous act of humanity and worthy of space on his office wall.  "You're going to like Bob.  He's the real deal."

He is.  And now I know what a point of light looks like, too.

Meet Dick Francis.  Read about him here.  His story isn't so much about being a "point of light" as it is igniting new ones.

I start his F-4E next and hopefully, when we're done, Dick will have lit three more.


PS - Bob has asked that I work with him to benefit his charity, the "Air Warrior Courage Foundation."  There are a very limited number of prints of my artwork, signed by Bob, available and a sizeable portion of each sale goes to the AWCF.   SOLD OUT.

05 June, 2013

Profile 78 - "Pardo's Push"

You know, they're all interesting.  And they're all thought-provoking.

And they're all important.

"They" are The Stories I get to hear.   And the more I hear, the more I become convinced that Combat and Peace are more alike than not.  Both have their moments of bone-chilling fear, horror, courage and victory... as well as monotony and, ironically, peace.

For me it works like this—I'll be in the thick of something, from business to yard work and suddenly, I'll remember a story and my perspective will change; somehow, inspiration will come and a fresh outcome will occur.

Maybe that's why studying History is so important—it's the story of "us." Minute by minute, we climb a little higher atop the shoulders of giants of the past.*

But, there are those stories that somehow separate themselves from the grit, grime and guts and take on a glow that's almost, well... holy.

Last week, I received a commission to do one of the most fantastic moments in combat aviation.   The moment is regarded in aviation circles as "Pardo's Push."  In short, an F-4C pilot named Bob Pardo literally pushed his stricken wingman's dead Phantom fighter out of enemy air space in order to give the the crew* a better chance of surviving a bail out and avoiding the hell of a POW camp.

You can google "Pardo's Push" yourself.  If you know anything about aviation, aeronautics, physics or that quality called cojones, you'll shake your head in disbelief.  But it's all true and right now, I've got the chance to dig a little deeper and learn more about the man himself.   This is going to be so cool!

Oh.  And the guy who commissioned me?  There's a story in that, too.  He stated,  "(Bob's) selfless act of love and compassion for (his) wingman and complete disregard for personal safety, is among the greatest acts of valor ever exhibited. Quite simply (Bob is), and will always be, my hero."

In short, he wants a picture of Pardo's F-4 on his wall for inspiration.   He too get's the "standing on the shoulders of giants" quote. 

This story would normally just end with two like-minded guys toasting a minor business deal.  I'd get to work while he cleared space on the wall of his den and you'd see the final work. For better or worse.

But like Pardo's Push, the story isn't a normal deal.  Instead, the Commissioner is someone who ended up with the very fate that Pardo risked so much to avert.

Yeah, my Patron was a POW himself.

Stick around. 

This one is important.  For more reasons than you might be thinking...


*F-4's had two people aboard - pilot and weapons officer.

05 May, 2013

Profile 77 - FINAL: "647" as flown by Major Forrest Fenn, 309th TFS, 31st TFW

Oh yeah...

Just look at it—do you think the aeronautical engineer's art could get much wickeder?!  When I think of my left hand on the throttle, pushing forward—I hear Hades' fire roaring like a blow torch until I've left the sound far behind...I like this airplane.

Sadly though, there's just not many around anymore.  Of the 2,294 built, only 80-some survive.  Fortunately for me, there's one nearby and I make a pilgrimage to it every once in a while.  But, it's not a fulfilling event as the thing is just a carcass of its fighting form; engineless, gunless and bolted to concrete pads.

I'm lucky to have at least one to look at though. It is, after all, a tool of war and ultimately expendable. Yeah, yeah, the idealist in us wants to believe that war is won by preserving life but in fact, it's won by invoking death. Or, as Patton is quoted as saying, "The point is not to die for your country but to make the other son-of-a-bitch die for his."

It's a quote to raise a cheer, that's for sure.  But the irony is, the 'other son-of-a-bitch' is cheering the same line!

Anyway, have a look at "647" above.  It's a dead son-of-a-bitch.

In fact, 647 is one of 198 F-100s lost to combat in Vietnam.  If you noticed the date, it's there because on December 20, 1968, 647 was buried in a violent ceremony in the country of Laos.  In other words, she was shot down.

Ok, hold that thought.

The more I "do this," the more I see War and Peace as more alike than not.  Yet, the main difference is that War is hyper-compressed timewise and amplified in volume while peace ambles on in between.  In other words, ten years of peace equals something like a month of war.  Both periods contain their horrors, injustices, moments of glory, hope...it's just that said moments are diluted in peace, but concentrated in war.

You may not agree with my musing but it helps me get my head around whatever can be learned by these crucial, game-changing moments in Life.  When I meet people who've survived War, I think, "Hmmm.  What can I learn?"

Ok, back to 647.

When I was going through Rich Hall's Vietnam photo book (see Profile 75), one of the photos that brought the most animated and positive response was of three grimy guys in front of an H-53 "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter.

Rich pointed to the guy in the middle, John Carlson and remarked, "Great, great man!"  Rich recalled a handful of anecdotes about Carlson that confirmed in his mind that John was a true leader of men.  Then, Rich tapped the guy on the right and said, "And that's Major Fenn.  Lucky, lucky man!"

The short of it is this—the photo was taken just after the "Jolly" dropped Forrest onto friendly soil.  See, Forrest was flying 647 when he was hit and forced to eject over northern Laos, smack dab in unfriendly territory.  Rich, John and two others were part of the team of Skyraiders that buzzed around Fenn, allowing the "Jolly" rescue helicopter to swoop in and snatch Fenn from certain torture and likely death.

Ok, hold that thought.  One more time.

In War and Peace, the one thing that everyone can relate to is the concept of "Luck."  To some people it's a capricious thing that "just happens."  To others, it's conjured by an alchemy of actions and thoughts... and to the rest, "Luck" is a tool to be harnessed and used.

Have another look at 647.  That's Forrest Fenn's old bird.  It died.  But Forrest did not.  He was rescued by people and systems that planned, prepared and thought-through the likelihood of just that horrible moment.   And Forrest didn't just get rescued, he... thrived.

Look, I'll save you the "google."  If you've watched the Today Show or any other news headline, Forrest is the guy that hid a MULTI. MILLION. DOLLAR.  FORTUNE. in New Mexico.  Really.  Click here if you don't believe me.

And he wants someone to find it.

In other words, Forrest went on to redeem the death he was spared by making a success of himself as— of all things—an art dealer.   And he wants to share it with someone who is...



That Forrest was rescued was really out of his control - guys like Skyraider pilots Rich Hall, John Carlson, Jim Jamerson, the Jolly crew and the "PJ" (the the guy who pulled Forrest into the hovering helicopter) did the critical work.

But what of the moments in between being shot and rescued?  What happens to a person between the impact of horror and deliverance?  Is it Luck?  Is it Fate?  Is it...?

Forrest explained, "I went over my bail-out procedures every night before going to sleep.  I initially went into shock, but I knew how to correct it.  30 minutes later, I was 100%."

Funny thing.  Rich Hall said something interesting about Forrest's rescue.

"Forrest was ready for the Jolly."

Alright.  This story doesn't seem to be over.  There are elements at work that aren't formed yet, but don't be surprised if I write/draw more about the Rescue of Forrest Fenn.

In the meantime, I hope this story conjures up a spark of hope for you.  And whatever War you're in, there are people who are able to rescue, provided you're prepared and ready.

Though the thing that brought you to the moment is dead.

Photo courtesy Rich Hall.

PS - if you're interested in owning a print of Forrest's F-100, signed by the man himself, click here.