Cold War pilot tells of time in the sky

Lt. Bob Thompson is pictured in his graduation photo after he received his fighter pilot wings in 1957. Photo provided by Robert Thompson

Maj. Robert Thompson was a citizen soldier and a “week-end warrior” — a member of the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron of the New Jersey Air National Guard based at McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey.

When he wasn’t being a fighter jock for the Air Force, he flew for several airlines. Aviation was his vocation and his avocation for most of his life. He was an airline pilot three days a week, then flew a fighter plane for the Guard on the weekends.

“The normal Air National Guard fighter pilot flies seven to eight days minimum a monthly,” he said. “That’s just to maintain the barest qualifications.”

When he retired from U.S. Airlines in 1992, he and his wife, Pat, moved to this area. By then, the 73-year-old pilot, who lives in a Punta Gorda Isles condo overlooking Charlotte Harbor, had logged more than 24,000 hours of flying time between the military and airlines.

Thompson notes that today, the Guard is a major factor in America’s military might. Around 80 percent of the air-to-air refueling in the military is provided by members of the Air National Guard. The Guard also provides 60 to 65 percent of fighter support and 75 percent of air transport.

Thompson grew up in a military family. His father served as an officer in the National Guard in World War II. Thompson spent a lot of time on Army bases right up through high school. After graduating from Seaton Hall in New Jersey in 1953, he served two years in the regular Army as an ROTC 2nd lieutenant.

“I always wanted to fly, ever since I was a child,” he said. “After getting out of the Army, I joined the Air National Guard. I graduated from aviation training in April 1957.”

He was assigned to McGuire Air Force Base, where he spent the rest of his military career when he wasn’t deployed around the world with his Guard unit. The unit flew F-86E Sabrejets.

“They were a great airplane. It was a pilot’s airplane,” Thompson said. “We had a saying in those days that you didn’t fly the airplane, you put it on. They were small, responsive, fun airplanes to fly.”

The F-86E was a tactical fighter. It’s primary purpose was to shoot down enemy planes.

Thompson’s love affair with the Sabrejets ended about six months after he took to the air with the Guard. His unit transitioned out of the F-86Es and were given F-84F “Thunderjets” to fly. He wasn’t impressed.

“It was like going from a Jaguar sports car to a milk truck. The F-86E was a small, fast airplane designed for air superiority. The F-84 was almost twice as heavy. It was a fast fighter going downhill,” he said.

He flew F-84s for more than 1,000 hours. Eventually, he developed a relationship with that plane, too. What gave the F-84F an edge over his previous plane was its longer-range capabilities. The Sabrejet would only fly about 600 miles, but in a Thunderjet it was possible to fly more than 1,000 miles, a long way to go for a fighter jet in those days.

Thompson was a 30-year-old captain in the Air National Guard flying an F-84F fighter when the political and the military situation in Germany started heating up. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev began saber-rattling. President John F. Kennedy held his own against the communist leader.

When the Russians started building the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy went to Berlin to see the wall. He told a million people in German who turned out to hear him, “I am a Berliner” as he stood on a platform before the communist barrier. Berlin’s population went wild with enthusiasm for the young American president and his call to free the people of Berlin from communist tyranny.

“We were doing our two weeks’ summer training in Savannah, Ga., when we got word in 1961 our Guard unit would be activated and sent somewhere in Europe,” Thompson said. “By Nov. 1, the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron was to be deployed to a closed air base about 165 miles from Paris in the east-central part of the country.”

Thompson was the mobility officer for his unit. The young captain had to make it happen. It was his responsibility to see that the squadron made it to Europe on time with its airplanes, pilots and ground-support crews.

“On the flight over, we made the longest non-refueled, single-leg flight ever attempted in an F-84F –1,651 miles,” he said. “We did some ingenious things to accomplish that. We built special ramps for the fighters so they could be refueled with their nose gear pulled so their filler caps could be raised. This allowed us to put in an extra 65 to 70 gallons of fuel. We also waited three days until we had a tailwind of at least 15 knots.

“When I landed in the Azores, on the way across, I had about 400 pounds of fuel that would have given me 10 minutes’ more flying time. One guy flamed out on his final approach and two more pilots flamed out after they landed.”

All 200 planes in the eight fighter squadrons made it across without going into the sea. If any of the planes had, their pilots’ life expectancies would have been about 10 minutes if not plucked from the freezing water.

Their squadron’s D-Day objective, if a war started in Europe, was to knock out a stone bridge in Czechoslovakia, part of a major route Russian ground forces needed in their westward attack on U.S. troops. With 750-pound “dumb bombs,” it was an almost impossible task, Thompson said.

Flying conditions in France took a lot of getting used to for the Guard pilots. The French air control system was completely different than in the United States. Then there were the weather conditions in Europe.

“A no-fly day over here would be a good day over there. It took us six months to learn how to fly in Europe. Our ground crew people never saw the sun. They would ask the pilots, ‘Is the sun still up there?'” Thompson said.

“The situation in Europe between the Russians and the Americans got very, very critical during the winter of 1961. We’d fly combat patrols when the Americans were sending truck convoys into Berlin. The Russians were threatening our trucks with tanks,” he recalled. “We’d have airplanes stacked up flying in circles along the border. If our trucks were attacked, we were supposed to fly into the Russian zone of occupation and take them out with rockets.

“Fifteen miles to the east of us, the Russians had Mig-17 fighters flying in circles doing the same thing. The Mig pilots’ mission was to kill me if I flew into their territory,” he explained. The Mig-17 was far superior to our F-84Fs, but we also had F-86s and F-104s.”

This high emergency alert went on for about eight weeks. Then things on both sides started cooling down. By then, the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron, Thompson’s unit, stood down and was flown back to New Jersey in transports.

Capt. Thompson prepares his F84-F Thunderjet for deployment to France during the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961. Photo provided by Robert Thompson

They had hardly returned to the States when the squadron got new flying hardware — F-86H fighter jets.

“It was a marvelous airplane. It had more power than the F-84s, and it was several thousand pounds lighter. With the F-86Hs we were back in the sports car business in the air,” he said.

Shortly after they started flying their new fighters President Kennedy had another major international problem. The president learned from spy plane photos that the Russians were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. For 13 days in October, the world was on edge as Kennedy debated whether to go to war with Khrushchev over the offensive rockets.

“They were sitting at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa with B-52 and B-47 bombers ready to fly to Cuba. Fighter squadrons were also alerted,” Thompson said. “There was no room for our squadron in Florida, but we had been told if we went to war over Cuba, we would provide tactical air support.”

It never happened. Khrushchev turned around a freighter loaded with nuclear missiles headed for Cuba and defused an explosive situation. Eventually, all the atomic-tipped missiles were withdrawn from Cuba, with the understanding the United States wouldn’t attack the communist island nation.

In 1964, Thompson got a job as a copilot with Mohawk Airlines flying twin-engine, propeller-driven planes with 50 passengers around the Southeast. He had been trying to get the job for years.

Mohawk would become Allegheny and finally U.S. Air. He spent the next 28 years flying for these three airlines until his retirement as a captain in 1992.

The Vietnam situation was beginning to heat up in the mid-1960s. The United States was becoming more and more involved in the southeast Asian country.

By that time, the 141st Air National Guard Squadron had graduated to F-105B “Thunderchiefs.” This was a Mach-2 fighter that flew at speeds exceeding 1,500 mph. It took a lot of concentration and skill to fly a Thunderchief. You couldn’t play around with it like you could a Sabrejet.

Thompson and his squadron thought they were headed for Vietnam. As far as he was concerned, they lucked out again and didn’t have to fly their 105s in ‘Nam. Instead, they were sent around the world on NATO maneuvers, filling in from time-to-time for regular Air Force units.

“Vietnam was micro-managed by President (Lyndon) Johnson and Secretary (of Defense Robert) McNamara. It was a war nobody wanted anything to do with because of the way it was fought,” Thompson said. “Our fighters weren’t allowed to take out missile installations or bomb Mig bases. They would fly over targets like those, because they were off-limits, and bomb a bridge or a dock.”

Vietnam was a no-win war thanks to the politicians in Washington, as far as Thompson is concerned. There were also the commanding generals who lacked the backbone to tell the politicians they would resign if they didn’t allow them to fight the war their way. Lots has changed in this country since then, Thompson believes, in the way presidents and generals fight wars.

In 1973 he hung up his spurs. By then, he was flying out of Washington for U.S. Air. The commute to and from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on a weekly basis to fly F-105Bs for the Guard got to be too much.

Maj. Robert Thompson of Punta Gorda is pictured with some of the military airplanes he flew during a lifetime in military and commercial aviation. He has more than 24,000 hours flying time under his belt. Sun photo by Don Moore

Maj. Robert V. Thompson made his final flight in his F-105B Thunderchief around the Northeast, as far west as Pittsburgh, then back around and over Washington and on up to McGuire in Central Jersey on June 15. He had a fine flight and a great adventure in the Air National Guard for 18 years. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Thompson has written a book about his service experiences called “Sabres, Hogs and Thuds — The Diary of a Part Time Cold War Fighter Pilot.”

It’s published by 1st Books Library at and can also be ordered at Barnes & Noble bookstore.

The 403-page book tells about his 18-year military career in the guard and his two deployments overseas with the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron of the New Jersey Air National Guard. His first deployment was in 1961 during the Berlin Wall Crisis when his unit went to France. A few weeks after Thompson and his squadron returned home, they were deployed again for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, May 11, 2003 and is republished with permission.

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

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