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Aviation legends mentor Air Command and Staff College students
Eagle Violet Cowden talks with the owner of the World War II vintage P-51, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” during the GOE barbecue. Of the 19 aircraft types Ms. Cowden flew during WW II as a WASP, she said the P-51 Mustang was her favorite.(U.S. Air Force photo/Jamie Pitcher)
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Aviation legends mentor Air Command and Staff College students

Posted 6/15/2010   Updated 6/15/2010 Email story   Print story


by Carl Bergquist
Air University Public Affairs

6/15/2010 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- For the 29th consecutive year, Air Command and Staff College ended its academic activities with the Gathering of Eagles.

The GOE program is an aviation event that traces its origin back to 1980 when retired Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets was invited to share some of his experiences with the ACSC students. The visit became the genesis for the first Gathering of Eagles in 1982.

This year, 13 Eagles, who spanned military history from World War II to active duty and flew aircraft types from helicopters to stealth fighters, were invited. Among the group was the highest scoring ace during the Vietnam War, and the last Air Force ace to serve on active duty.

Retired Col. Charles DeBellevue

"I don't think I would want to change anything about my military career. If you change something then you will go down a different road, and you don't always know where that road will take you," Colonel DeBellevue said in response to a student's question. "I would have preferred to stay in flying, but if I had, some of the really good things that happened to me wouldn't have happened. I mean, how many people get to be the commander of a base like Edwards that recovers spaceships."

Colonel DeBellevue said his flying days during the Vietnam War were some of the more memorable experiences of his career, but they sometimes came at a high price. During a mission with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, or "Triple Nickel" as it was often referred to, his roommate was killed when one of the squadron's F-4 Phantom jets was shot down.

"We were on a Linebacker mission over the Red River Valley near Hanoi when we encountered MiGs. We engaged two and shot one down, but when I looked back I saw a MiG-19 on the lead plane's tail," he said. "The lead, in which my roommate was flying as weapons systems officer, was hit, and I saw the F-4 hit a mountain with no chutes visible."

Colonel DeBellevue said to cope with the loss of his friend, he climbed in another airplane and flew another mission. He said, "You had to."

The colonel noted that attitude is what "makes or breaks people," and doing a great job with the job you are given makes the difference. He said as a commander, he made it a point to get out of his office and do the jobs his people were doing, whether it was cooking for 100 members or helping the fire department put out a fire. His last assignment was as commander of Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 440 at the University of Missouri.

"I went to ROTC because it was my way of giving back to the Air Force," he said. "There is no more satisfying feeling than to have someone walk up to you and say, 'You commissioned me 10 years ago.' Even today I get people coming up and saying that, and it still feels good."

Violet Cowden

Of more than 25,000 applicants, Violet Cowden was one of only 1,074 women to graduate the Women Airforce Service Pilots training program during World War II, and one of only 114 to be selected for the mostly male pursuit pilot training. Her duty as a WASP resulted in her flying 19 different aircraft types, and she logged enough air miles to fly around the world nearly 55 times.

Ms. Cowden said as a woman, there were some prejudices against her, but she didn't let that bother her. When World War II started, she had her pilot's license and immediately volunteered to fly, but "her call never came." Eventually, she joined the Navy.

"But, I wanted to fly so badly that I wasn't going to let anyone stop me," she said. "Finally, I got the call from Jaqueline Cochran, who was forming the WASP program. I made it through, and when she pinned my wings on, I said no one was going to ever take them off."

Ms. Cowden said she went through pursuit training with four men, and it was comforting that they seemed to acknowledge her as a legitimate fellow student.

"One day, while I was up flying, there was a crash, and the four guys thought it was me," she said. "When I came back in and landed, they all were so glad to see me. That was when I knew I was really accepted."

Ms. Cowden said one of the tragic aspects of WASP training were the deaths of some pilot cadets.

"I remember when the first girl was killed, and we were told we had to be brave and no tears," she said. "Because the program still wasn't fully in place, we had to take up a collection to get her body shipped home after the crash."

Ms. Cowden said she returned following a flight on Dec. 19, 1944, to be told the WASP program was being deactivated, and her reaction was disbelief.

"I thought we were doing such a good job. I just couldn't believe the news," she said. "I also thought my whole world had come to an end, and I would never fly again. On top of it all, we had to pay our own way home."

Ms. Cowden said she feels the opportunity to bring the past to members of the modern Air Force is the importance of the Gathering of Eagles program.

"We are presenting a history of aviation that these students might never see if not for GOE," she said. "If our history and what we did helps young pilots coming up and makes their job easier, then that's great. I hope we have paved the way at least a little for them."

Retired Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland

Hawaii born and West Point educated, General Cleveland received his wings at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., in 1950. By 1952, he was flying the wingman position in Korea with the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron and later as a flight commander flying the F-86 Sabre jet. Within eight weeks of being a flight commander, he had scored four MiG kills and was only one away from ace status.

The general said his first chance at a MiG kill was when he saw a flight of MiGs landing at a base, and he decided to attack the jet on final approach.

"I looked at him and said to myself, 'You poor guy, you're about to meet your maker,'" General Cleveland said. "My turn was a little off, but I did hit his wing. However, he managed to land."

After securing four confirmed MiG kills, the general was on a top-cover mission when a flight of MiGs came out of the clouds. He engaged one of the MiGs, lined up on his tail and fired his machine guns. An explosion occurred and a trail smoke followed the MiG as it headed toward the ground.

"I suspected I got him, but my wingman radioed that other MiGs were coming after us, so we broke and went home. I didn't get the chance to actually see the pilot bail out or the plane hit the ground, so I called it a probable kill," he said.

General Cleveland left Korea with a four kill-two probable kill record, and it wasn't until years later, without his knowledge, that a friend and fellow pilot began researching the incident to confirm the kill. Soviet records were now available that confirmed the kill, and after a five-year process, the Air Force officially recognized the kill, making him the Air Force's 40th fighter ace.

General Cleveland's last assignment was as commander of Air University from July 1981 to August 1984. During this time he began Maxwell's Air Park with an F-86 Sabre static. He also said he hoped he was able to bring some of the warrior ethos to the university.

"What separates the military from the civilian world is not our good looks or brilliant minds, it is our level of integrity," he told the students. "I think there is a tension between integrity and loyalty to an organization, but we must always bear in mind that we need to bring as much integrity into the Air Force as possible."

Chief Warrant Officer 5 David Cooper

Still on active duty, CW5 Cooper is assigned to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's Night Stalkers at Fort Campbell, Ky. He said he joined the Army because he wanted to be an aviator, and his training paid off when he was involved in a firefight during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Suddenly, I heard 'Mayday' on the radio, and I thought to myself, 'That guy is in big trouble, and I'm going to write him up when we get back.' Breaking radio silence in that type of situation is verboten," he said. "Then I looked back to see he didn't have a tail rotor anymore and had a really good reason to be calling Mayday."

The AH-6 Little Bird helicopter went down, and the assault force landed to provide protection. After determining enemy forces were not an immediate threat, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters left the area to get a downed-aircraft recovery team. However, enemy troops soon started arriving in the crash area and began firing on the downed helicopter's position. CW5 Cooper and his copilot took off from the site and became the target of the enemy.

"I soon realized that where ever I went, that was where they fired, and that was exactly what we wanted them to do," he said. "I wanted them to follow me, not my customers on the ground."

CW5 Cooper flew his Little Bird directly at the enemy forces, attacking their position. Two truckloads of enemy soldiers arrived and started setting up mortars to fire at the downed helicopter. The chief warrant officer also attacked that position until he ran out of ammunition. He returned to the downed AH-6, and the ground team loaded the ammunition and rockets from the downed helicopter on to CW5 Cooper's aircraft. He then returned to the enemy forces' position to finish the job.

"When a round of ammunition passes by you, you hear a pop as it breaks the sound barrier," he said. "Being on the ground reloading felt like being in a bag of popcorn in a microwave oven due to all the popping that was going on around us."

CW5 Cooper's heroism earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. He is the only living aviator to earn that distinction during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When asked if he felt like a hero, he said no. He only did what any other attack helicopter pilot would have done.

Retired Col. George "Bud" Day

During a 34-year military career that spanned three wars, Colonel Day earned 70 decorations, making him the most decorated warrior since Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Fifty of the medals, to include the Medal of Honor, are for actions in combat.

Following 30 months of service with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater during World War II, Colonel Day returned home and earned his law degree from the University of South Dakota. He joined the Iowa Air National Guard and in 1951 was called to service for two tours of duty in the Korean War.

He would also serve during the Vietnam War and on Aug. 26, 1967, his F-105 Thunderchief was hit by enemy fire. He ejected over North Vietnam and was taken prisoner.

"We went up to locate a (surface-to-air missile) site, and as we flew over one area, the ground tuned red with anti-aircraft artillery fire. We decided to come back later to check out that site," he told the students. "The obvious message here is that when you get shot at, and it's optional, don't fly back over that area again. The second time I took a terrific hit in the tail."

After being taken prisoner, Colonel Day, suffering from a badly broken arm and dislocated knee, managed to escape his North Vietnamese captors and remained free for about two weeks before hunger and exhaustion brought an end to his attempt to reach freedom. However, that gave him the distinction of being the only prisoner to escape from the North Vietnamese.

"I remember on the ground I was in bad shape, and I heard rustling in the bushes as they came to get me," he said. "I went from riches to rags with one pull of the ejection handle."

Colonel Day would go on to spend 67 months in Vietnamese captivity before being released on March 14, 1973.

"People have asked me if it was hard to readjust to normal life after I returned," he said. "I came back from the 14th century where rats ran all over the floors and you had to sleep under a mosquito net to a place where I could drive where I wanted to, eat what I wanted to and pretty much do what I wanted to. Anyone who has problems adjusting to that has a real problem."

Colonel Day said he feels the value of the GOE programs is the Eagles offering their experiences to the ACSC officers. He said hopefully people learn from hearing those experiences.

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