Rugby kept me sane during my days at the Academy. It also enabled me to meet and marry my wonderful wife. These are some memories from my Academy days and life with the Air Force.
It's a Small World
Sitting in my room as a doolie an upper classman from another squadron comes in. “Hear you’re from Montana” he said. “Kind of Sir, but I actually went to high school in Idaho” I said. “But I did grow up in Montana.” “Well, I think I dated the sister of one of your girlfriends. Don’t you know Nancy and Sandy from Nicholia Creek?” I sure did. It was a small school, 8 total kids. I was in the 5th grade, the biggest class with two of us. Sandy was my classmate. Nancy was Sandy’s sister, who was in 7th grade. Oh, I was also the only boy. We were all friends. I was mostly trying to hit the ball as far as the 7th grade girls. No girlfriend stuff. It’s a small world.
The Great Photo
We went to England one spring break to play rugby against Cranwell and Sandhurst, their military academies. A lot of tradition was seen and learned. The origination of many rugby songs was discovered and the destruction and burning of a piano. The scene that sticks out however, is when Jim Meeker, Gary Read and I were walking the streets of London. For a small fee, an English bloke with a nice camera offered to take our picture. What a great idea! It looked great too, the three of us on a London street and all of us with cameras around our necks. I’m sure Gary and Jim’s cameras were better than the photographer’s.
Just Being Patriotic
We just turned Firsties and were heading home for summer leave. Three of us decided to drive together towards the northwest. It just happened that we each had a corvette, red, white and blue respectively. So, we are in order (I’m in the middle with white), rumbling down I-70 towards Salt Lake doing 75 in the 70 speed limit and about 2 miles from the Colorado border. Jim Meeker was behind in blue and a highway patrolman turned on his lights and stopped Jim. The two of us in front didn’t stop until over the state line. Jim pulled up a few minutes later. The patrolman had said “You boys look like you might be getting in trouble, so I stopped you.” He only gave Jim a warning ticket and we continued towards home.
Another spring break led to a trip to Hawaii. There were about a hundred of us cadets, and darn if a full plane of young ladies from Texas on spring break didn’t show up at the same time. Most were from Texas Tech where I would be the next year for pilot training. The important thing though, was that we found a buffet that was all you could eat for 4.95. The word spread quickly and soon most of us were eating a meal there and eating them out of house and home. Sadly, about Thursday, they doubled the price and it got too expensive. Most of us stopped going. My mouth had raw spots from eating so much fresh pineapple.
Pilot Training was Great Fun
Pilot training at Reese AFB was great and several of us lived in an apartment complex close together. Others included C. J. Baldwin, Gary Read, Bill Murphy, Dave Hovrud, and Jack Madison. My first assignment was staying there as a T-38 instructor. Jack Madison and I lived in a house together. We had some memorable parties. I might tell on C J Baldwin later, nah, now is a good time.
We had a theme party of “Adventurers” and C J came as a fisherman. He was fully dressed in chest waders and little else. He even had a real fish on a chain at his waist. The cool thing to do that evening was to dump cold drinks down his chest waders. He had to go outside and we turned him upside down and dumped him out a couple of times. He spent the night on our couch. He went to take a shower before heading home the next morning. We heard a great shout and he found that his body, hip waders down had been dyed a bright green. It took quite a while for that to disappear.
Flying was great, sometimes I flew twice a day and went cross country usually 3 out of 4 weekends a month. We almost always went to San Antonio, so I continued to play rugby with the San Antonio Football Club, where I played while going to T-38 instructor school. Tommy Weiss was on the team also. I started dating a young lady from San Antonio after dating a few others. Jack told her once that she saw more of me than he did. He told me though, that things must be getting serious since I was still going to San Antonio as much as during rugby season as when rugby season was over.
How Not to Ask Your Wife to Marry You
Well, in the fall of ‘78, rugby season was in session again and I was showing the finer points of T-38 cross country flying to a Lt Col who was new to the squadron. Somehow we got on the discussion of marriage and family the first night of the cross country. I had been dating Ms. Francie for almost a year. I thought to myself, I should probably ask Francie to marry me.
We traveled to Randolph AFB the next day to play a giant of a team from Australia. I was trying to tackle a huge lineman on a breakaway and got an elbow to the head. I went to my knees for a couple of minutes and then continued until the end of the game. I wandered over to the sideline, stopped in front of Francie, with lots of the team around. I thought with lots of witness’s, she couldn’t say no. I said, “I got hit in the head pretty hard, and forgot some things, but I remember you are a nice girl; will you marry me”… silence, and she said “no”.
Ok, so I wasn’t romantic, but I did want to marry her. We went for a short walk. I asked her again, and again she said no. “I’m not going to let you ask me to marry you when you’ve been hit in the head,” she said. I was deterred for a bit, but the third time was the charm. Much later, after dinner, she said “YES”. It was the 2nd best decision of my life.
CJ Baldwin was watching out for me though, or he was just looking for another girl to date. We did date a lot of the same girls there in Lubbock. Francie was on the way to Ellsworth AFB where I was helping with the ACE program for a few weeks. She was meeting me so we could drive to Montana and meet my family. CJ high jacked her for dinner in Lubbock and said she couldn’t marry me until he talked to her and gave the OK. The conversation went well and he said “I approve, now do you have a sister?” Francie, said, “As a matter of fact I do, she’s blonde, 5’2” and not married.” The rest is history and C J has been my brother in law since 1981.
Cute Bungalows Can be Cold
We got married in April of 1979 and I soon started training for my next assignment in the A-10. I arrived in Bentwaters/Woodbridge Airbases in Nov ‘79 and had to find a place for us to live before I could bring my wife, Francie, and daughter, Shannon, over. I found what looked like a cute bungalow on a farm about 30 minutes from Woodbridge. They arrived before Christmas, but that first year was cold. We could see our breath inside and mildew grew on the north walls until we cleaned it off. Francie was always excited when we visited people on base. She could get dressed up and take her coat off. When we went to parties or visited off base, most of the time folks didn’t take their coats off, so you could wear what you wanted underneath. The first 4th of July, we were wearing ski jackets for the squadron party.
We made it through that year and Jason our son was born the next fall. He had some major problems, but the squadron was very helpful and we made it through that trial.
Flying was great, but I was deployed to Germany 2 weeks out of every 6. My first mission, in northern Germany out of Ahlhorn, getting checked out at 250 feet and a German F-104 came from behind and underneath me and did an aileron roll to indicate he had shot me down. I participated in the NATO Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) and got to be mission lead attacking a German F-4 base in Northern Germany. They had 3 F-4 squadrons to intercept our 30 plane package in their airspace. Never saw so many airplanes in a small airspace.
Why I Didn't Join the Army
The Air Force decided to make me jump out of perfectly good airplanes and sent me to Ft Bragg and the 82nd Airborne Div. in the fall of ‘82. Don Oukrup and Mike Maquet joined me there. I only got fired a couple of times by the Brigade S-3 for taking care of my folks. His quote was, “If the ARMY wanted you to have a wife and children, they would be issued to you”. I made the most important decision of life there, when my daughter Shannon and I were baptized together and we made Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
I got to participate in Grenada from behind the lines. I couldn’t deploy because I was in the hospital with an infection from a grass scrape playing rugby (the one time it let down). When I got out, I gave a briefing to all the wives whose husbands had deployed. I did such a good job, our 06 wouldn’t let me deploy and kept me there to keep the wives off his back. We were the only two not to deploy. Our daughter Alanna was born in Fayetteville.
The High Speed Taxi Ride
We moved to Hill AFB in Utah and I started flying the F-16. The radar took a bit of getting used to, but I was soon checked out. Our daughter Dawnelle was born there. I also started a trend there, as I was the POC for closing the 16th Fighter Squadron. It was the first F-16 training squadron but got caught up in Gen McPeek’s changes and it went away. The neat thing that happened was about 20 years later when it was reconstituted as part of Weapons School at Nellis and I got to sign over a $500 savings bond to start their squadron fund.
Francie did get to do a high speed taxi with me in the F-16. She spent 4 hours in life support training and got all dressed up in flight suit and g suit. We pulled onto the runway and I ran the F-16 up to 100%. Francie could feel the pent up energy and I released brakes and let it get up to about 100 knots before pulling back on the throttles. We had been strictly warned about even letting the jet jump a little into the air. She said, “Go, I’ll go to work”. Thinking about my career, I continued down the runway slowing down. She said, “That is the most anti-climactic thing I have ever done.” The Air Force then tricked me once more.
They had said for sure I would be at Hill for at least 3 years. They called me up and said I had a choice of Turkey or Korea at the 18 month point. We did get an accompanied tour and went to Incirlik Turkey for two years.
Better Lucky than Good Any Day
We arrived at Incirlik in the fall of 87. It was supposed to be an F-16 assignment and I was Chief of Safety for all of Turkey. I was getting ready to go to Torrejon AB for training when my counterpart from Aviano landed gear up and the 17th Air Force CC decided to take away those 3 flying safety slots from the 3 weapon deployment bases. No more flying for me.
It was great for meeting old friends as they deployed or visited Incirlik. Mark Hyatt was one of those. I lacked some credibility when briefing the incoming deployments. I’d never been in the air there, but discussed the flying hazards. But I did make up for it when describing the local shopping. I told them my wife would be happy to escort them downtown Adana for the best shopping. And, if she was helping them spend their money, she didn’t spend our money. We greatly enjoyed traveling and visiting many sites from early Christianity while there and visited Israel also.
I did an F-16 accident investigation with my Incirlik vice commander. I told him one night; one of the best jobs in the Air Force was the DO job at Liepheim AB, Germany. I was looking for my next assignment and they said I could fly either the A-10 or F-16. Our Vice went to be Vice CC at Bentwaters. While trying to decide, he calls up and asks me if I would like to be the DO at Leipheim. I did say yes. Francie wasn’t so excited. She had just been on a trip to Germany with the Women of the Chapel and it was cold. She had kind of hinted she didn’t really want to go there. But off we went. We actually went on our first cruise as we couldn’t go through certain countries by driving. So we drove our car onto the ferry/cruise ship and off we went for 3 days to Naples, Italy then on to Leipheim, Germany. We dropped off the car, found a rental house and off to the states for A-10 training again.
Answered Prayer and God’s Sense of Humor
The flight back to the states was uneventful. We landed in New York City with three children, ten large bags and a carry-on bag for everyone to make it through the A-10 training TDY. Oh, and one briefcase with passports, $2000.00 cash, airline tickets and orders. We were on the international side and needed to go to the domestic side for travel to Washington DC to visit Francie’s family. I scouted the route and found it was only about 300 yards. I rustled up a couple of luggage carriers, got all the luggage loaded, ensured all the kids were there and off we went.
No problems in getting to the domestic terminal. I had the family wait in a corner and got ready to go the counter and get our airline tickets to DC. No brief case! I searched frantically. Had it fallen off on the trip to the terminal? I also took a moment and asked a prayer to not let anyone steal it and keep it safe. I told the family to stay put and rushed back to the international terminal looking for the brief case on the way. As I approached the terminal, police cars were out front and people were being evacuated from the luggage pickup area. There was a roped line with police keeping people away. I needed to get in there and see if my briefcase was there. I approached an officer and asked what the problem was. He said there was a bomb threat. I asked what kind of bomb and he stated it was a brief case. I hesitantly said, “It could be mine, if it is a standard size and light brown,” and I explained what I thought had happened. “Let me talk to my boss,” he said. “Stay here.” After a couple of minutes he came back and motioned me to come with him. We approached the door and looked in the window. About 20 yards away was my briefcase, nothing else around. I told the officer I thought it was probably mine and could I go look at it and try opening it. He motioned me forward and I went to the brief case. It was mine and I opened it. Everything was there. He motioned me back. He said, “We could put you in jail for this, we take these threats seriously.” I apologized and was glad I was in my uniform. He said, “Get going”. I hurried back to my family. On the way, I said “Thank you Lord, but you didn’t have go to that extreme.”
Keep Shutting Down Those Units
After visiting Francie’s family it was on to A-10 training at DM and then to Leipheim, Det 2, 81 TFW in Southern Germany. It is located halfway between Stuttgart and Munich. We got back Jan of ‘90. We lived in a small village about 10 miles from the base. Only two other Air Force families lived in the town. We did lots of traveling and were part of a local keggeling (bowling) club. We made friends with several German and one Dutch family. We also discovered a liking for German white wines.
The job was all I thought it would be and it was great working with our allies. We found there was a difference of opinion of Americans in Germany as the wall came down. The older folks were appreciative of us, but younger ones were not of the same mind. Our land lord asked how soon we could be out when he learned we might be leaving. We were part of the 91st FS out of Bentwaters. They were scheduled to go to war and we would go with them. They were to replace a squadron from Upper Heyford, but Gen Schartwkopf didn’t let anyone change out and we remained at home. Det 2 at Leipheim was the second AF unit that I closed down and we left in July of ‘92. I was in the final flight of A-10s at Liepheim.
I then wrangled a job as AFROTC commander in Prescott AZ with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. It was great trying to keep up with the young folks and instill in them the important concepts of the AF. It was one of the larger detachments and it was always busy. We were there for 3 years from summer of ‘92 to the summer of ‘95. We had an assignment to Guam when we found out my father had cancer. I worked a humanitarian and ended up at Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls MT.
Watch Out for Those Strange Calls
I had a job with the KC-135 Tanker group at Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls MT. A bit different than fighters, but I was given the job of IG to prepare them for war. Shortly after passing the big test with flying colors, the tanker unit was assigned to McDill. I spend the next 8 months moving them to McDill. C J Baldwin was there with his wife Sandy (Francie’s sister) flying with the Montana ANG in F-16s. It should have been my slot as he was from Vermont.
I was thinking about retiring in Montana, but jobs were a bit scarce. My wife had also been involved in a traffic accident while traveling to the Flathead valley in Western Montana to look at a house where we thought to retire. We decided I wasn’t going to do that drive every weekend for a year while looking for a job. Instead, I got a call and the voice asked me if I was interested in coming back to fly. I was real skeptical as the AF had told me for the 5 years there was no way I would get a flying assignment. I asked “who is this” as I was sure it was a friend playing a joke. He assured me he was from MPC and they were instituting a Grey Beard Program and to bring older pilots back to fly. He said I could go to any FTU and any airplane except the F-15. I went home and talked with Francie and we decided we wanted location, either San Antonio or Tucson. I talked to the assignment’s guy and he said either Randolph or DM were open. I said “let’s do A-10s at DM” and he said “OK”.
It's Time to Retire
We arrived in Tucson in the fall of 97 for my third time through the A-10 FTU. I was assigned to the 358th FS and was an Instructor for 3 years. I did many odd jobs for the squadron. I deployed to Prince Sultan as the chief of Safety for several months. I couldn’t believe how green the desert was around Tucson after being there where everything was just brown. I also got to escort the 12AF CC in the A-10 when he wanted to use the A-10 for traveling. Francie did get to fly in a KC-135 and watch me refuel.
Retirement, Not Really - It's a Small World
I retired from the Air Force on 1 Mar 2001. As I was thinking of retiring, a GS civilian job came open in ACC TRSS, Det 3. The job was to oversee the A-10 contract for academic courseware development plus academic classroom instruction and simulator instruction. It seemed a great fit. I would still be involved with young pilots and the A-10. That is where I presently work and have enjoyed my time there. Our son Jason, almost followed my footsteps, but he joined the Navy and became a submariner. I have seen a lot of friends go through and have even seen sons and daughters of classmates go through the A-10 classes. Jim Schoeck’s daughter even worked with me. We were doolies together in 32 Squadron. I’ve even had an AFROTC cadet from my ROTC days spend 20 years in the AF, retire and go to work for the contractor that does the A-10 instruction. It’s a small world. It’s been a great run and I have been richly blessed with family, friends, work and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!