John Carlson flew 30,000 hours in Marine Corps and for Northwest Airlines

This was John Carlson of Punta Gorda, Fla. about the time he completed his carrier landing training at Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1956. He was 22. Photo provided

John Carlson has 30,000 plus hours of time flying Marine Corps fighter-bombers and transport planes around the country and throughout the world for 22 years and another 35 years piloting jets for Northwest Airlines.

Despite all the time he spent flying for Uncle Sam and the airline, Carlson has almost never had a bad day in the air.

“On several occasions when I was flying a 747 for Northwest we might have an engine go out, but I could keep right on flying with one engine out,” the 77-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. pilot explained.

His career began shortly after graduating from high school in Minneapolis, Minn. when he applied for the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

“I was accepted on the alternate list in the class that started in 1952 at Annapolis. I decided I couldn’t wait and went down to the recruiter and joined the regular Navy,” Carlson recalled. “The recruiter got me in the NROTC program at the University of Minnesota where I spent the next two years going to school.

His AD-6 “Skyraider” squadron was practicing being the aggressor force while flying in the Panama Canal Zone in 1957. Photo provided

“After I got out of there I was sent to Pensacola Naval Air Station for pilot training. I went into Marine Corps Aviation at Pensacola and was sent to a base in Opa-locka, outside Miami, where I flew a Douglas AD-6 ‘Skyraider,’ a propeller-driven fighter-bomber,” he said.

“The AD-6 was a great tactical airplane that was used from the Korean War into the war in Vietnam,” Carlson added. “”We were armed with 20 millimeter guns and could drop bombs and shoot rockets.

“In 1957 we spent three months in the Panama Canal Zone flying as the aggressor force and proving to the Department of Defense that the Canal Zone was indefensible,” he said. We’d fly our AD-6s off a field at the North end of the Canal Zone, circle out over the Caribbean and then come in low under the radar and simulate an attack on the zone.

“At the same time the 101st Airborne was down in the zone playing war games, too. It proved to the DOD that the Panamanian National Guard couldn’t defend the zone from an aggressor force either,” he explained.

The United States government was concerned a Communist government in a South or Central American country might decide to attack Panama to disrupt the shipping. This was something the U.S. couldn’t tolerate.

It wasn’t long after that DMA-324, Carlson’s AD-6 squadron based at Opa-locka Naval Air Station, began making flights from there to Guantanamo Bay Cuba. It was 1958, shortly before Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime and turned the island nation into a Communist country.

He was not involved in any incidents with the Communists in Cuba.

Not long after the flights to Guantanamo, Carlson started doing some long range planning. He decided if he was going to get a job flying for the airlines when he got out of the service he would need multi-engine training.

By this time Carlson’s base of operation had been closed down at Opa-locka and he switched into twin-engine transport planes at Cherry Point, N.C while flying for the Marine Corps. He flew C-119s, known in the trade as “Flying Box Cars.”

He spent the rest of his time in the service flying people and supplies around the country and the world in a series of transport planes. Carlson ended up flying a C-130 “Hercules,” four-engine transport plane that was used by the Corps as a flying gas station for fighter squadrons, among other things.

Carlson is at the controls of this C-130 “Hercules” Marine Corps tanker gassing up a pair of Douglas A-4 “Skyhawks” over El Toro, Calif. in 1962. Photo provided

“I took a C -119 from El Toro Naval Air Station in California to Vietnam. It was 1964 and the Marines needed some parts, so we flew them from California to Da Nang,” Carlson said. “We flew from California, to Hawaii, to Wake Island, to the Philippines, to Vietnam, It took us 18 hours, to fly 12,000 miles. When we got back to California we were beat.”

In 1959 he started working for the airlines while still flying for the Marine Corps Reserve.

“When I went to work for Northwest as a co-pilot flying a four-engine DC-4 I was making less money then I made as a major flying for the Marine Corps,” Carlson said with a smile. “Most of our flights in the 44-passenger airplane were made from Minneapolis to Chicago, the Dakotas or Montana.”

By the time he retired from Northwester in 1994, he flew Boeing 747s around the country and the world.

“I made a lot of flights from Chicago to Tokyo. We’d spend two weeks flying over in the Orient and then we’d fly back to the United States,” he said. “Other times we’d fly from Minneapolis, to New York and on to Europe.”

He met his wife, Louise, in Miami. She was a next door neighbor who worked in communications for Eastern Airlines in those days. They’ve been married 54 years and have a daughter, Sharon, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. and a granddaughter, Emma.

The couple moved to Punta Gorda Isles in 1990.


Carlson’s File

Name: John Carlson
D.O.B: 28 July 1934
Hometown: Litchfield, Minn.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: Aug 1954
Discharged: Jan. 1976
Rank: Major
Unit: 2nd Marine Air Wing, 3rd Marine Air Wing, 1st Marine Air Wing, 4th Marine Air Wing
Locations of Service: MCAS Pensacola, Fla.; MCAS Miami, Fla.; MCAS Cherry Point, N.J.; MCAS El Toro, Calif.; Japan


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Oct. 24, 2011 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.

Click here to view Carlson’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.


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