Chapter Nineteen: Grandpa Gordon is In Charge

Grandpa Gordon landed at Nellis AFB at 2300 on a Friday night, and was greeted by General Miller’s assistant Lieutenant James Mosby.  After they exchanged formal salutes, they both let their guards down some and exchanged a brief man hug. To an impartial observer, it was quite apparent that Grandpa Gordon and Lt. Mosby were doing their best to contain their grief. However, if that observer were able to get a little closer he would see that they were failing miserably as tears appeared on both men’s faces. Grandpa Gordon and Lt. Mosby finally shook it off and continued walking towards the command center.

Lt. Mosby, matter of factly commented, “I am sorry for the lateness of this process, but it is protocol. We need a commander of the base. All you need to do tonight before you can go home is to sign a few papers and then I will give you the General’s keys to his office. Monday morning we can go over your new duties as the commander of the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing. I was informed that you would retain your rank as a Colonel as this is only a temporary assignment for you. You will also still continue with your command of the Gunnery School, though your second in command can take care of the day to day duties. That is all I was instructed to tell you at this time, Colonel Anderson.”

Grandpa Gordon signed the appropriate forms giving him temporary command of the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing(FWW). He then took the keys from Lt. Mosby, shook his hand and exchanged salutes one more time. Now that all the formal business was taken care of, Grandpa Gordon was able to let his guard down some and let his shoulders sag in an apparent display of near exhaustion.

Lt. Mosby smiled knowlingly, ” It has been a long day for you and I am sure you are beat. Go home and spend some time with your family, relax and enjoy your weekend. I will see you Monday.”

When Grandpa Gordon pulled in to his driveway, the lights were all out in the house. So he quietly let himself in and disrobed in the living room, when he was down to his boxer shorts and t-shirt he steathily entered their bedroom and slipped into bed with his wife. He gently wrapped his arms around her slumbering form and immediately fell asleep.

The next morning, he groggily woke up to see his wife sitting cross-legged with her arms crossed and a smirky scowl on her face. She was desperately trying to hide her delight of having her husband back but to show her feigned anger, but she failed miserably and broke out in a big grin and started laughing. She immediately pounched upon him and started kissing him. He held up his hand in protest, “Honey I haven’t showered in two days and I smell like a bear.”

Clara replied with a devilish smile on her face, “I know, and it is driving me wild, so shut up and make love to your wife.” She paused briefly, “I know what you are going to say. Don’t worry the kids are next door with the neighbor’s children watching cartoons.” And she ripped his t-shirt and boxer shorts off him.

The weekend went by in a blur and between making love to his insatiable wife and  spending time at the local park with his children, Grandpa Gordon had never been happier. He also never felt closer to his son Sam. For the first time, when he looked at him, he didn’t feel any animosity towards him. He knew he never would be as close to him as he was to his daughter, but finally things were getting better as the pain became duller.

Monday rolled around and true to his word, Lt. Mosby was there waiting for Grandapa Gordon at his new office to greet him. Lt. Mosby spent the next few hours showing him around and answering all of his questions.  Grandpa Gordon had to admit the lieutenant really did know his stuff.

Lt. Mosby started off the morning by giving a brief overview of the wing, “The 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing is the most diverse wing in the Air Force. It provides advanced, realistic, and multi-domain training, which focuses on ensuring dominance through the air. The 4525th FWW builds innovative leaders in tactics, training, and high-end warfighting to ensure that our  worldwide combat air forces are prepared for tomorrow’s victories while overseeing dynamic and challenging flight operations. The Wing is compromised of the United States Airforce Weapons School (Grandpa Gordon’s command), 4525th FWW Maintenance Group, 4525th FWW Operation’s Group, USAF Aerial Demonstration Squadron (Thunderbirds), and The USAF Advanced Maintenance and Munitions  Operations School (AMMOS), and 14 USAFWS squadrons.”

After Lt. Mosby finished his orientation of the Wing, Grandpa Gordon thanked him profusely. Grandpa Gordon then spent the rest of the day reviewing the monthly reports each unit produced to familiarize himself with all of the minutiae that commanding an Air Force Wing involves. He ordered a meatball sub from a sandwich shop located on the base and ate as he poured through the reports and manuals. Tomorrow, he would spend the day touring all the departments and talking to all of the senior officers to not only to get to know them better but to give them an update on the status of their general.

When Grandpa Gordon’s eyes started crossing, he went out and informed Lt. Mosby that he was going to leave a little early so that he could visit the General at Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital. General Miller was still in the ICU, so Grandpa Gordon was only able to visit for a few minutes.  When he arrived on the unit he found that the general was receiving supplemental oxygen via a nasal cannula. He also had several intravenous drips hanging from poles that were running into his veins. There were a myriad of monitors showing a bewildering array of jagged lines that Grandpa Gordon had no idea what any of them meant positioned around the head of the bed.

There was a nurse in the room checking the monitors and counting and timing the number of drips that were going into the General’s arms. Poor General Miller who was always an imposing individual, now looked frail and vulnerable. Grandpa Gordon saluted his old friend and boss when he entered his room. The only reply he received in return was a weak smile. When the nurse finished her calculations and taking notes, she looked up, introduced herself as nurse Jackie and asked him if he had any questions.

Grandpa Gordon asked when the General could be expected to get out of the hospital.  She said in a somber tone, “there was no way of knowing for sure. It is mainly up to the patient. In the best case, we are looking at least a week in the ICU and a couple more weeks in the step-down units. He is on two medications to help keep his heart rate and blood pressure stable, dopamine and epinephrine. Once we get him off these medications, we will have a better idea. If you are wondering about him going back to work, we are looking at several months, if at all. I know he is a General-in-Command of the base at Nellis AFB which means he has a very stressful job. However, stress is the last thing he needs in his life. The General is very tired and needs his rest, so I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

The next day when Grandpa Gordon made his rounds around the base, he informed the team leaders of the General’s status. He also mentioned that the doctors were not sure of the time when he could come back. So all they could do right now was to play the waiting game.

He then reassure his commanders that he was not going to come in and shake things up to try and make points.  He added that he respected the General too much for that, and besides that is not how he operates.  He further added, “I am simply here to keep things running as smoothly as possible while the General is convalescening.” His junior command seemed to be reassured by his words.

While the general was strong, he wasn’t a young man any longer. As a result, it took him a full six months to recover from his heart attack. Finally his doctors gave him the OK to go back to work. However, they told him that he would enjoy a much longer and healthier life if he retired sooner rather than later.

When the General resumed command, he was greeted by a large group of his junior command. The staff had decorated the command center with banners, balloons and all sorts of celebratory material. The general seemed to take it in stride, though secretly it pleased him quite a bit.

When the celebration was over, the General pulled Grandpa Gordon aside and informed him that he was going to retire at the end of this year. He said that he loved his job, but his life and family were more important to him. 

“While my doctors said I was alright to work, they said that my stressful job would definitely shorten my life. I know that I originally had plans for you to command the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing when it was relocated here. Now I am going to recommend you as my full-time replacement instead. With your record, you are a sure thing for the promotion and new position. Besides, I can’t think of anyone that I would want more to replace me. Before you go, there is one more thing, I am going to get those two kills put on your record. That was some kind of bullshit move on the commands part over there. You saved their bacon that day, and you deserve a lot better.”

From that time on, every spare moment that Grandpa Gordon could spare from his unit he was pulled over by the General to show him the ropes. By the end of the year, the General had imparted all of his vast knowledge and experience to him. If there was anything missed by the general, it simply wasn’t important. I want to add that no commander had ever been better prepared for a new position.

General Miller soon after resuming command of the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing had informed his senior command of his plans to retire at the end of the year. He also put in a recommendation for his replacement, Colonel Gordon Anderson. His immediate boss, a four-star General wholeheartedly agreed with his recommendation. “When the time comes, I will run it by the promotion board”, the four star said.

When the retirement date for Brigadier General Frank Miller finally rolled around, the celebration for him was substantial. His beloved Thunderbirds would, of course, be performing for the finale. However, they would do so with one add-on…Grandpa Gordon would be flying with his old team..

Over the last month, Grandpa Gordon had been working with the squadron to fine-tune the last portion of the show where he was worked in. It was also highly unusual for them to perform in December, but it isn’t every day that the commander of the base retires.

When the day finally came to an end and the Thunderbirds had landed on the tarmac, General Miller made his final speech and said his goodbyes. A legend was retiring, but an even bigger legend was replacing him. Yes, the promotion board had signed off on the promotion of Colonel Gordon Anderson to Brigadier General in command of not only the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing (FWW) but also the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW). That came as a total shock to not only the retired General Miller but to Grandpa Gordon as well. Note” on Oct 1969, the 4525th FWW would be replaced by the 57th Wing.

At least he had a few weeks to get used to his new job before he had to take the additional duties of the 474th Wing. The new wing was slated to be moved on January 20th of 1969.

The 474th (Roadrunners) became the first USAF operational wing equipped with the General Dynamics F-111. On 20 January 1968 the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) was activated at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada replacing MAJCON 4480th Tactical Fighter Wing, giving the base an operational tactical fighter wing assigned to Twelfth Air Force. With the Wing, the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS)  and the existing 429th Tactical Fighter Squadron was assigned to the 474th TFW.

Upon arrival to Nellis AFB, the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron Detachment 1 received the first 6 of 9 “Harvest Reaper” aircraft F-111As. On 15 May 1968 the 429th TFS in name only rejoined the 474th TFW.  In December 1968, Tactical Air Command activated the 4527th Combat Crew Training Squadron as a dedicated F-111 pilot training squadron at Nellis. Subsequent tweaking followed as the new Wing was fine tuned to meet the needs of the Air Force.

In early 1968, the Air Force directed Grandpa Gordon to send a small detachment of 6 F-111As, including 22 flightcrew members and associated maintenance and support, to Southeast Asia under the Combat Lancer program. They used the six 428th TFS Harvest Reaper F-111As that were allocated to Combat Lancer as Detachment 1 under the command of Colonel (COL) Ivan H. Dethman.  

The concept of operations was to employ the F-111A as an all-weather deep strike asset using low-level penetration tactics and without the need of the external support of aerial refueling tankers, defense suppression aircraft, and airborne electronic jammers. F-111A combat operations began on 25 March using the aircraft’s unique terrain following radar capability to conduct surprise night deep air interdiction strikes. By the end of the deployment, 55 night low-level missions had been flown against targets in Route Pac 1 and 2 in North Vietnam using high-drag bombs, but three aircraft had been lost. Aircraft  call sign Omaha 77 targeted against the Chan Hoa truck park in RP1, had been lost on 28 March with the loss of the crew, Major (MAJ) Hank MacCann and Captain (CPT) Dennis Graham. Replacement aircraft had left Nellis, but a third loss halted F-111A combat operations. On 22 April, Tailbone 78 targeted against the Mi Le highway ferry in RP1, aircraft  crewed by Lieutenant Commander Spade Cooley and by LTC Ed Palmgren, was also lost. After the 3rd loss, the Detachment remained poised for combat, but they saw no combat action before their return to the U.S. on 22 November.

On 22 December 1969, a fatal F-111A accident occurred during a dive bombing mission on the Nellis Range. LTC Tom Mack and MAJ Jim Anthony were killed when the left wing separated from the aircraft. The aircraft was too low to allow for a safe ejection. Following the accident, morale was low.  Seeing how the loss of two of the F-111As overseas was never determined,  Grandpa Gordon had no choice but to ground the rest of the  F-111A fleet, until they could be fully inspected.  He did his best to raise morale by putting  numerous initiatives in place. One idea included designing a mascot for the 474th.

Inspection of the remaining fleet of F-111As revealed 42 aircraft with potential areas for castastrophic failures, reflecting doubt on the conclusion of the previous Hotrod 73 Accident Board.  It is speculated that this failure could also have contributed to the two other losses had the failure caused a pitch down while at low altitude. These losses caused a storm of controversy in the United States, with Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire denouncing the F-111A as an unsafe and defective plane. However, the Air Force and General Dynamics continued to work hard trying to fix the problems with the F-111A. Modifications to the F-111A took longer than expected, and the Wing was not fully operational until July 1971.

In September 1971, as part of the buildup of the Wing to combat-ready status, the Wing started receiving experienced aircraft commanders from the ongoing phase-out of the Century Series fighters such as the F-101, F-102 and, especially, the F-100, as well as from other aircraft. Associated with this remanning effort, the Wing also started receiving “new” pilot weapon systems operators (PWSO) directly from graduating pilot training classes, providing a basis for future F-111 experienced aircraft commanders throughout the F-111 fleets worldwide.

After July 1971, the 474th gradually assumed additional operational responsibilities and the various squadrons “certified” crews on a variety of world-wide targets in support of potential wartime scenarios, including targets in Cuba and the Eastern Bloc. During this period, training became very safety oriented and the Wing restricted TFR night flight to visual flight rules conditions at a minimum altitude of 1000 feet above ground level, typically flown at 480 knots true airspeed. Multiple low-level routes had been established throughout the western U.S., and these became the primary routes for training and practice bombing on the Nellis Range, Holbrook, Arizona Radar Bomb Site (RBS), and other bombing and electronic warfare ranges in the West. These training practices would later prove to be inadequate in the high-threat environment and varied and sometimes extreme terrain and intense rain conditions of North Vietnam and Laos.

On 14 August 1972 the Air Force issued an Air Tasking Order (ATO) “frag order” for deployment of the 474th TFW. The 474th returned to Takhli in September 1972 with the Constant Guard V deployment of the 429th and 430th TFSs with 48 F-111As under the command of Wing Commander COL William R. Nelson. The deployment included 1,620 personnel and 40 transport aircraft loads of cargo. The enhanced strike capabilities of the two F-111A squadrons allowed them to replace the four F-4D squadrons of the 49th TFW, which returned to the U.S. This move also resulted in a reduction of total U.S. forces stationed in Thailand. The two F-111A squadrons arrived to support the last month of Operation Linebacker and all of the Operation Linebacker II bombing offensive against North Vietnam, conducted combat operations in Laos including support of Operation Phou Phiang II and Operation Phou Phiang III using the F-111A’s beacon bombing capability in the defense of Long Tieng, and conducted combat operations in Cambodia, again often using the F-111A’s beacon bombing capability.

The mission for the F-111A was unique in that the crew was given a weapons load, intended target, and time on target. Everything else in terms of mission planning was left to the flight crew, including ingress, target area, and egress tactics, route, and deconfliction with other F-111As which may fly similar routes or hit nearby targets. The missions were planned without RB-66E electronic countermeasures escort aircraft, air defense suppression aircraft, MiG Cap, or Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. Initial tactics were all night low-level using TFR and intended for deep strikes to support Operation Linebacker. Airspeed was generally no less than 480 knots, with many crews using 510 or 540 KTAS in the high-threat environment prior to weapons delivery. The development of high-drag weapons had not kept up with the development of the F-111A as a platform to deliver those weapons and this deficiency was later identified in the analysis of the F-111A’s performance during the war. As a result, the F-111A was forced to decrease its speed to 500 KTAS maximum for the release of high-drag bombs at low altitude to preclude ripping the high-drag fins off the bombs. TFR altitude was generally tied to the threat level, starting at 1000 feet AGL and descending to as low as 200 feet in the high-threat environment. Initially, bomb loads for low-altitude deliveries not only included 12 Mk-82 High Drag (HD) 500 pound bombs for level delivery but also included 4 Mk-84 2000 pound slick bombs using a stabilized climb bomb release. The Mk-84 load, however, was highly dangerous to the delivery aircraft in that the fragmentation envelope was 2500 feet which forced the F-111A well out of its TFR altitudes and well into the air defense threat environment. After the first 2 aircraft losses, low-altitude bomb deliveries were generally restricted to 12 Mk-82 HDs and the Mk-84 loading was eliminated as a low-level option.  F-111A night low-level strikes continued against North Vietnam until President Nixon ordered the cessation of strikes north of the 20th parallel on 23 October. The F-111A strikes to date demonstrated that the North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and MiGs were ineffective in countering the low-level F-111A, and the North Vietnamese focused more on the use of small arms and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) against the F-111A.

I won’t bore the reader any further with the operations that the 474th Fighter Wing were involved in during the Vietnam War, suffice it to say, they played an integral role in several major operations during the later part of the war. Those units transferred overseas were temporarily removed from Grandpa Gordon’s  command, though he was still privy to their comings and goings. Needless to say, he was instrumental in many of the changes that were made to improve the safety of his pilots and planes. After a while the Command in Vietnam stopped taking his calls.

I have researched the 57th and the 474th Wings extensively for this book in order to keep my narrative as accurate as possible. However, there is a fine between accuracy and sheer insanity. I actually got a headache reading their histories. It is as if the Air Force is schizophrenic. Just look up one of the Wings histories in Wikipedia, and you will see what I mean.

I am sure being in command of two of these wings must have driven Grandpa Gordon crazy. Eventually, all of the F-111As were moved from the 414th Wing, and were replaced by a never-ending panoply of fighter jets: F-84G, F-86H, F-100D, F-4D, and F-16A/B. The Wing was inactivated nine years after Grandpa Gordon retired as a two-star general.

I want to wrap this chapter up with a brief history of the 57th Wing. During Grandpa Gordon’s tenure, the Wing was designated as the 57th Tactical Training Wing. The year he retired, it was redesignated the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing. During Grandpa Gordon’s command of the 57th Wing, the USAF assigned the following F105, F111, T-39, T-38, F-5, F-15, and the  A-10 fighter planes to it.

The 57th Wing moved to Nevada and replaced the 4525th Fighter Weapons Wing at Nellis AFB in Oct. 1969. At Nellis, it trained tactical fighter  aircrews, conducted  operational tests and evaluations, demonstrated tactical fighter weapons systems, and developed fighter tactics from Feb 1970 to Oct 1979 and operated Nellus AFB for all base tenants. The Wing assumed operatetional control of “RED FLAG” exercises in  Oct 1979; developing realistic combat training operations featuring adversary tactics, dissimilar air combat training, and electronic warfare. It incorporated intelligence training after March 1980.

In 1975, thanks to his exemplary service in commanding not only one but two pivotal Air Wings, Grandpa Gordon was given a second star. He was now a two-star general or more commonly known as a Major General. The last five years of his service went smoothly. He retired quietly with little fanfare in 1980, having served 34 years in the US Airforce and an additional five years in the RCAF. He fought in three major wars with over 200 combat flights, with 15 official and 2 unofficial kills (posthumously made official, making him the only fighter pilot to have recorded kills in the last three wars). He ended up with a drawer full of medals, which he never wore.

Grandpa Gordon was respected and loved by all who served with and for him. He, however, did not tell anyone he was retiring except for his superiors. The only one who otherwise knew was his replacement, the lowly Lieutenant Mosby who had quietly been riding his coattails. When Grandpa Gordon retired, Colonel Mosby was promoted to Brigadier General. There was no one who deserved the promotion more than him. While his career was less ostentatious than Grandpa Gordon’s, he had always been reliable, slow and steady. He had always performed his job with quiet competence and efficiency.

Grandpa Gordon did allow himself one small perk before he retired, one I am sure the reader will understand. On his last day, he made arrangements to fly one more time with his beloved Thunderbirds. They worked him in on the last couple of maneuvers of their afternoon practice run as a little unofficial send-off. Since he had taken over command of the two wings, he only found time to fly infrequently, maybe four or five times a month at most. He knew this would most likely be his last time flying a jet, so he was very appreciative of the opportunity to fly with the Thunderbirds. This flight was not a sure thing. The commanding officer of the Thunderbirds, a Colonel could have refused Grandpa Gordon’s request. And even though he was a two -star general, there would have been nothing he could have done about it.

One day, Grandpa Gordon was in command. The next day, Mosby was in command. There were a lot of people who were pissed off by this quick transition. Mainly, because his subordinates knew the day was coming, and they had been planning a big celebration, one even bigger than General Miller’s. But they eventually got over their disappointment.