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On nuclear alert as Suffolk slept

PUBLISHED: 22:02 01 May 2012

AERIAL ACE: Tony McPeak, new Thunderbird solo pilot, at Nellis air force base, near Las Vegas, in January 1967. Picture: From Hangar Flying

AERIAL ACE: Tony McPeak, new Thunderbird solo pilot, at Nellis air force base, near Las Vegas, in January 1967. Picture: From Hangar Flying

Archant

He’s a child of the Depression whom George Bush senior made the 14th Chief of Staff of the US Air Force. Retired four-star general Tony McPeak had a remarkable career, from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm and beyond. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

PILOT Merrill A “Tony” McPeak hadn’t long reported for duty with the 79th Fighter Squadron at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk before he found himself honing his skills at a bombing range in the Libyan desert. On August 14, 1961, practice was interrupted by the control tower. The four F-100s were told to return to base 50 miles away. Immediately.

Ordnance was quickly removed and the planes despatched back to East Anglia. At Woodbridge, the pilots learned that East Germany and the Soviet Union were preparing ground for the Berlin Wall.

It heightened the tension of the role Tony was playing in Suffolk, where he was part of a “game” of who-blinks-first between the West and Moscow.

The cold war was, he says now, a genuine conflict, with everything at stake. “Maybe calling it ‘World War III’ or ‘The Forty Years War’ would give a clearer idea of its importance.” Back in the early 1960s, the 79th had four aircraft on 24-hour alert at Woodbridge. Each carried a nuclear device and was ready to launch within minutes of a “go” order.

For pilots such as Tony, work meant disappearing “into a high-security alert pad, living, eating and sleeping next to the aircraft, each attached to a nuclear weapon with a yield higher than the one used on Hiroshima . . . Higher authority exercised us continuously to verify reaction time. When the bell rang – usually in the dead of night – we sprang out of bed; hustled into flight suit, boots, g-suit, pistol, and water wings; grabbed our target folder; raced to the jet; scrambled up the ladder into the cockpit; strapped in; got our helmet screwed on; turned on the radio; and checked in with a duty officer. If it was real, he’d read a launch order, giving us an authentication code we could compare with a counterpart we carried in a sealed envelope . . . The requirement was to go from deep sleep to finger on the engine start button in 10 minutes . . .”

Tony’s account of life in Suffolk features in his first volume of autobiography, Hangar Flying. The book – by turn poetic, amusing, insightful, poignant and often self-deprecating – is a potent mix blending domestic detail with life-on-the-line escapades, be they risky acrobatic displays as part of the Thunderbirds team or sorties in Vietnam.

It was in early August, 1961, that Tony made the 18-hour journey by propeller-driven aircraft from America to RAF Mildenhall, and on by road to Woodbridge. East Suffolk, he noted, had a “severe beauty”. The fighter pilot stayed initially in base accommodation, but after six months had tired of sipping “bachelor beer” and listening to the Beatles.

“When, at length, Eleanor Rigby waited at her window, I understood completely. I wrote a check for precisely $1,000 and brought Ellie and Mark [his wife and son] to England. Since they were not ‘authorized’, we couldn’t occupy base housing and so had to live on the economy. We rented what villagers called a modern cottage in Woodbridge Town.” In the small kitchen, Ellie couldn’t cook and do the washing at the same time because the wringer-washer hooked up to the sink.

Later, second son Brian was born at RAF Bentwaters Hospital. “In Woodbridge Town, our English neighbors at first maintained a careful distance. In time, though, we got acquainted, a process accelerated during the legendary winter of 1962. The cold wasn’t quite Siberian, but temperatures fell below freezing and stayed there. Railway points locked up, so coal deliveries couldn’t reach electric power stations, producing brownouts. Local distribution of coal and paraffin, on which home heating depended, was intermittent. Our small house was detached and not well insulated. We accumulated ice on the inside of windows; I taped sheets of clear plastic over interior frames to create an air gap.

“On the plus side, our plumbing was inside the walls, one of the features making the cottage ‘modern.’ “Houses around us all had lagged water pipes outside the walls, the Brits still a bit behind in this department. These pipes froze, so neighbors were reduced to knocking on our door, buckets at the ready.”

The former general clearly has a lot of affection for Suffolk folk. Brits, he remembers, “certainly had advanced social skills, elevating conversation as a team sport to Olympic levels. They drew you in, almost against your will, adding an unnecessary interrogative to the end of each assertion: ‘It’s the government, isn’t it?’ ‘The Germans are a bit pushy, aren’t they?’ When it was your turn at bat, they emitted a descending ‘Mmmm’ or the little puff of a ‘Yes’ each time you paused for punctuation or to inhale. Still, they hadn’t gotten past every grammar and pronunciation issue (how to deal with the word ‘issue’ being one example). They often called men ‘blokes,’ used ‘hoover’ as a verb, and there was a certain prolixity to their road signs. You’d be a ways past ‘Keep to the nearside lane except when overtaking’ before its meaning hit home. Still, their invention of the zebra crossing nearly made up for it.”

After adventures overseas, Tony returned to Suffolk in 1976 as commander of the 513th Combat Support Group at RAF Mildenhall. Later came a call from the president . . .

TONY McPeak was born in Santa Rosa, northern California, in the middle of the Depression. He and his younger sister didn’t get to know their father, “who managed a quick getaway and is lost to memory”, and the family moved around a lot.

Young Tony got his first paid job at 12 – at a commercial nursery for 35 cents an hour – and over the years scrubbed pots and pans at a pie shop in San Diego; picked berries, peaches and apples in Washington, and harvested hops in Oregon. At Hoover High School in San Diego he met Elynor Moskowitz, “a leggy, brainy star of the girls’ debate team”. Ellie became his wife in 1956. In 1953 he went to San Diego State College, getting a job at a fraternity house to offset the cost of room and board by washing dishes and waiting on tables. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps because it brought $1 a day. Son Mark was born within a few days of graduation. Tony spent several months working for an aeronautical firm, paid off his $700 loan and joined up towards the end of 1957. He anticipated “only a brief stay”. Initial training came the following year, in Texas, with the first hours in T-34s – small two-seater aircraft. “I was anything but a natural pilot.” But something magical happened once he flew solo. “Alone, I relaxed, experimented, allowed mistakes. Still an awkward apprentice, I somehow came under the spell that’s cast when a craftsman loses himself among his tools. I decided what I wanted most was to be alone in the airplane, to be a fighter pilot.” Tony explains: “For me, flying was a replacement childhood. My own had been virtual. I’d gotten through by being watchful, risk averse, a fake adult. Now I was given a second chance at the unmixed pleasure only children experience. Flying was simply great fun, replete with small but consequential tasks that could in theory be done perfectly every time, leading to instant gratification every time, over and over again.”

In January, 1959, he gained his “wings”. He moved to Arizona for combat-crew training.

Upon graduation, Tony headed for California to fly the F-104 Starfighter, “a jet so hot the press was calling it ‘the missile with a man in it’”. Later, he was offered (for the second time) a commission. “Though I still had no intention of staying in, this time I accepted. It kept the options open . . .” In 1961 came the transfer to Woodbridge.

Learning from colleague Mike Dugan – who would go on to serve briefly as Chief of Staff in 1990 – he began to view the air force as a career. Woodbridge was home until May, 1964.

The next move was to the Third Air Force’s Tactical Evaluation Team, based at South Ruislip. “Tac Eval” ran exercises that tested air bases’ readiness for combat. “During this period, one of our best outfits was the 48th Fighter Wing, located at Lakenheath [near Bury St Edmunds]. It was full of talented pilots . . .” As the time drew near to leave the UK, Tony applied to join the aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, but wasn’t selected. He became a gunnery instructor in America. In the autumn of 1966 he applied again and got in. (See separate story.) There was good news in May, 1968, too, when Tony was promoted to major. After the ’68 season he headed for Vietnam – arriving “in time to be included in the year-end troop-strength count, which would show a record-high 540,000 of us. So far, we’d lost 30,000, the rate for 1968 being about 1,000 a month”.

Tony was assigned to 612th Fighter Squadron and flew his first sortie on Boxing Day. Sometimes pilots dive-bombed; sometimes they attacked from low altitude. Sometimes they used napalm (basically gasoline turned into jelly by aluminium thickener). He became part of “Misty” – a unit of high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that worked out where planes should strike.

In the borderlands with Laos, North Vietnam had built a vast (and largely hidden) complex of ammunition dumps, stockpiles of food and fuel, truck parks and troop stations.

The American forces targeted the trucks and roads. It was hazardous. “In all, 34 of the 155 Mistys were shot down during their stay with the squadron, two of them twice. Seven were killed, four captured.” In the spring he was made commander. When he left in November, 1969, he’d flown 269 missions.

Looking back, he describes Vietnam as a cultural disaster for the US Army, with its “careerism, racial divisions that ruined the cohesion of small units, drug abuse, and other aspects of collapsed discipline”. The air force, meanwhile, was misused, he argues. Instead of an effective, integrated campaign – with a senior airman put in charge – America “fought several separate air wars”. Tony writes: “We dropped nearly three times as much bomb tonnage as we had in World War II. Lacking a single air commander to unify the work in the service of a commonsense concept of operations, the entire undertaking was a fiasco.” In July, 1976, he became commander of the 513th Combat Support Group at RAF Mildenhall, and was appointed Air Force Chief of Staff by President George HW Bush in October, 1990. Tony took over during the run-up to Operation Desert Shield in 1990 (to deter Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia) and was involved in strategic planning for Desert Storm (the Gulf war of 1991).

With Desert Storm, he writes, “we were able (finally) to deliver on the promise of airpower, to make the fight both shorter and less deadly. It makes a difference when you hit what you aim at.”

A former Republican – indeed, Oregon co-chairman of “Veterans for Bush” during the 2000 presidential campaign – he was later highly critical of George W Bush’s policies. These, he said, damaged international relations and sowed alienation.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the last straw: “a strategic blunder made worse by slapdash execution”. He switched to the Democrats, and later found himself working as a national campaign co-chairman for the election of Barack Obama.

And what of America’s reputation now? “I think we will be a long time recovering our standing in the world,” he tells the EADT. “I hope we’ve bottomed out. But our stance on Middle East issues seems now to be dictated by a right-wing Israeli government seemingly determined to injure us (and itself) with a continued, senseless occupation of the West Bank.

“And in Afghanistan, we should be in the final stages of winding up our presence, but the President decided on a ‘surge’ that mimicked the one we did in Iraq, which is supposed to have stabilized the situation there. The Afghan surge delayed our departure for at least a year, meaning one more year’s worth of lives and treasure wasted supporting a corrupt and incompetent government. Sort of déjà vu Vietnam.

“We are no more threatened by terrorism today than we were at dawn on 9/11, but we are not probably safer. We’ve spent an awful of money, energy and brain cells to have only run in place.

“We were right to go into Afghanistan in response to the al-Qaeda attacks on us. And we had a clear shot at winning and creating better conditions for us, them and the rest of the civilized world. But we blew it.

“One of the things we’ve not mastered, and this is important if you want to be effective as a great power: in world affairs, timing is everything. In Afghanistan, we ran out of time maybe two or three years ago. For the most part, we haven’t yet realized it, still acting (and maybe thinking) the game is on.

“Game over: we lost.”

‘I made my move . . . and the plane exploded’

IN the autumn of 1966 Tony McPeak applied again for the elite Thunderbirds display team, and got in. It wasn’t a cushy number. “From its beginnings [in 1953] through the mid-1960s, the team lost fully one-third of its solo pilots through accidents . . .” he writes. “Incidentally, all the losses had occurred in training flights. As I came aboard, the team had not yet had an accident in front of a crowd during an official air show.” Fateful words.

Late in October, 1967, the team was in Del Rio, Texas. The Thunderbirds came to the climax of their show: the Bomb Burst manoeuvre. “But this one did not go right . . . I started an aggressive pull into the vertical . . . and the airplane exploded.” Flame filled the cockpit of the F-100. Tony ejected. He looked up to see a couple of panels of his parachute torn loose, several shroud lines broken and a large rip in the crown of the canopy. He would come down a bit quicker than hoped. Fortunately, he landed in one piece, though his neck was bleeding quite a lot.

“It began to sink in. In 14 years and more than 1,400 air shows, the team had been clever enough to do all of its metal bending in training, out of sight. This was our first accident in front of a crowd, and the honor belonged to me.” He learned the wings had come off the airplane; and a lot of raw fuel had been dumped into the engine.

“After it exploded, the engine began pumping flame through the cockpit pressurization lines. Conditioned air entered the cockpit at the pilot’s feet and behind his head. My flying boots, ordinarily pretty shiny . . . were charred beyond repair; I never wore them again.”

He was kept in hospital overnight. “The team came by, Mike Miller smuggling in dry martinis in an emptied milk carton. I was sore for a couple of days, but we were about to take a break anyway. The 1967 show season was over.”

Most of the engine and fuselage had hit the ground about two miles away. “I signed a hand-receipt to remove the aircraft from government inventory, its value listed at $696,989. But nobody on the ground was hurt.”

It turned out that the part of the plane where the wings joined the fuselage – the wing center box – broke because of fatigue cracking. A similar fault had most likely caused other F-100 losses. Work started to beef up the boxes.

“Thus, my accident almost certainly saved lives by revealing a serious problem the Air Force could and did correct.”

The book

HANGAR Flying is published in May. It can be ordered through Amazon.

It’s the first book of a three-volume series. The second will follow General McPeak through the 1970s and ’80s, as he rises to four-star rank. The final volume will cover his four-year period as the US Air Force’s 14th chief of staff.

Web link: http://generalmcpeak.com

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