One might say aviation was in Bob Hardy’s blood. The 76-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident was 16 when he soloed. By the time he was in his early twenties he had joined the Air Force. He saw action flying on secret spy missions along the Russian coast, flew combat missions in Vietnam and Korea before he joined American Airlines as a navigator, copilot and pilot.
He ran out of money after two years at Auburn University and decided to join the Air Force. When he enlisted the Air Force had just discontinued its Aviation Cadet Program, so Hardy had no choice but to become a navigator even though he wanted to be a pilot.
“My first operational assignment was Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio working for ‘Systems Command.’ It was the most interesting work I ever did during my 20 years in the Air Force,” he said. “I was a member of a crew aboard an RC-135 transport flying out of Shemya, Alaska, the last island in the Aleutian Island Chain. The mission of the aircraft was to photograph Soviet missile reentry vehicles.
“My job aboard the plane was electronic intelligence specialist. I ran equipment that spied on the Russians’ electronic equipment communicating with the missile. We also took visual data of the flight with special high-speed cameras which was someone else’s job.
“We lived in quarters in the hanger with the C-135. When we got word the Soviets were firing a missile we could be airborne in 15 minutes. When we reached the coast of Russia we started flying an oval course somewhere between 33,000 and 37,000 feet. We’d photograph from the right side of the plane.
“We had this one mission I never really understood. We got a call that the Russians were firing one of their missiles. We were airborne quickly and were on our way to the coast of Russia when all of our electronic intelligence systems aboard the plane went out. It was like someone flipped a switch. My monitor showed nothing on the scope.
“Despite the fact we had no electronic monitoring equipment that was working we kept on with the flight and continued to photograph the reentry. After it was all over we headed back to base. On the way back my electronic monitoring system turned on once more,“ Hardy recalled 50 years later. “I never knew whether the Russians had anything to do with it or not.
“All of our data was sent to the Pentagon. We never got any feed back. That was the strangest thing that happened to us in Alaska.”
When Lt. Hardy wasn’t being an Alaskan intelligence sleuth he was working for Wright-Patterson in several other capacities. At times he would fly aboard a modified Super Constellation called a C-121 that monitored the Athena Missile Program in Utah in the 1960s.
“We would take our C-121 on Sunday and fly to our missile program out west in Utah. We’d photograph the launch or possibly the splashdown and return all our information to Wright-Patterson where it would be processed,” Handy said.
“On one of these flights they lost track of an Athena Missile. So they blew it up. They told us to get out of the area in a hurry. We had about three minutes,” he explained. “It was kinda like being shot at with a shotgun at close range. We made it and we weren’t hit with shrapnel from the rocket.
“Wright-Patterson also had a couple of C-135s based there. At times we would use one of them to photograph some of the Mercury Program’s space launches from Cape Canaveral. We’d photograph the blast-off or the reentry out in the Pacific. We would fly off Wake Island to take the reentry pictures.”
For the four years Hardy was at Wright-Patterson he rotated between four different programs collecting electronic intelligence for the Air Force and enjoyed every minute of it. But what he really wanted to be was an Air Force pilot. In 1966 he signed up for pilot training. He was a 26-year-old captain. He attended flight school at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala. Hardy eventually learned to fly the F-100 “Super Sabre.”
Name: Robert Alvin Hardy
D.O.B: 5 Feb. 1940
Hometown: Fort Myers, Fla.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: September 1960
Discharged: September 1980
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Unit: 510th Fighter Squadron
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal w/14 OLC, Vietnam Service Medal, w/3 BSS, Naional Defense Sevice Medal, Air Force Longevity Service Ribbon w/4 OLC, Good Conduct Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Republic Vietnam Gallantry Cross with DV, Republic Vietnam Campaign Medal, Air Fore Presidenial Unit Citation.
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam War, Cold War
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This story was first published in the North Port Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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