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Reacquainted with An Old Friend
A vacation trip to Tennessee transports me to a different time and place
Last month we visited family in Tennessee. There were many highlights: The Blue Ridge Parkway, game day at the beer garden close by the UT campus, and touring Knoxville and surrounds. The top treat, however, was bumping into an old acquaintance and as so often happens with such an occurrence, memories began to flow. It was a bit like time traveling.
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Time and Place
In 1971, like many men and women of the time, I was in Southeast Asia. Thailand, to be exact. Known for its hospitality, the country lived up to its "Land of the Smile" billing. It is also known for its monsoons. I once watched it rain over four inches in an hour, and the temperature was over one hundred degrees. Trouble was, I was on a maintenance stand trying to fix an airplane at the time. Not everything about Thailand was enjoyable.
I was at a (then) little known place called Nakhon Phanom (NKP) , home to the 56th Special Operations Wing (now the 56th Fighter Wing based at Luke AFB). Being only 255 miles or so from Hanoi, NKP was an ideal location for launching all manner of missions. It had unique aircraft, including old warrior birds that had been called back into service, and a few ordinary types that had everything but ordinary missions. It was an interesting place for a young guy in love with airplanes his entire life, and it was populated by some very interesting characters.
Tennessee Museum of Aviation
Normally you would think of meeting an old friend as a reunion with a buddy from times past, but not this time. My reacquaintance was made with an inanimate object, though it seems a crime to call such a warrior inanimate. Technically, yes. In reality, no way.
Doing my pre-trip research, I discovered the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, a small but very well-done operation in Sevierville, not far from Knoxville. What piqued my interest was the image of an A1-E Skyraider in camouflage livery on the front of their website. I had to see it.
That did not seem to be in the cards when we arrived at the museum, however, as the plane was in the hanger undergoing its annual maintenance. This is no static bird but one that still flies today. Darn, I thought. At the end of our tour of the museum, however, a nice lady went out of her way to make my seeing the plane possible, and the owner/mechanic was gracious enough to give me an up close and personal view. We talked about the plane's history, how he acquired it, and his labor of love to bring it back to life looking like it did in its prime.
Most aircraft adopted by aficionado's are pristine. When you see them at air shows they look like they've just come off the line and are awaiting their first flight. Not this bird. It looks exactly like an A1 should. The oil and "exhaust camouflage" was everywhere. He even left the sheet metal battle damage patches in place. I've seen these planes, which flew low and slow to safeguard downed airmen and support ground troops, come back with tree branches embedded in the leading edge of the wing. Warriors, indeed, and this one looks like it.
The A1's Legacy
The A1 served in the Korean War as a Navy plane, then designated the AD-5, and was later mothballed. That did not last long as it was called back into service in 1962, serving with the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and South Vietnam's air force. Its role was Close Air Support (CAS), mainly supporting front line troops and operations. It is most famous and beloved, however, for its Search and Rescue (Sandy) missions and support of Studies and Observation Group (SOG) operations. One A1 pilot, Major Bernard Fisher, won the Medal of Honor for his action in saving another downed pilot under great duress at A Shau, Vietnam
This was the A1's life, getting in close and dirty where and when it counted. The aircraft and the men who flew them were among the last of the old breed of stick and rudder planes and pilots who dared the enemy and the environment to stop them. The closest thing we have today is the A-10 Warthog, also a stick and rudder plane and also one that flies its missions low and slow, putting their pilots at increased risk. I can say that with all credibility since a family member flew and commanded A-10's in hostile environments. I should make this point clear as well: I believe every one of his war stories, yes I do. ;)
The Payoff - TC 665
As the owner/pilot and I walked around the plane, he asked if I had ever seen an A1 before. I replied, "Yes, and I know for a fact that I worked on this one." That got a response. I knew because of the big white letters on the tail, TC 665, which identified this particular A1 as having been assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron (Hobos), one of two A1 squadrons in the 56th SOW. When I arrived home from the trip, I confirmed this via a white paper that lists Vietnam and Thai air bases with dates, assigned units, aircraft types and their identifying tail codes.
Yes, it has been fifty-two years since I last saw this plane. A lot has happened since then, in my life and in its life. We are both still flying strong, however, and it seems a bit of time travel serves us well. TC 665 wears its colors well and with honor, and if it could speak ... oh, the stories it would tell. These magnificent flying machines and the men who flew them are slowly making their final landings, but those who know will never forget.