I just received notification of the passing of Colonel Tom Ardern, USAF/Ret.

I met Tom when he came to “O” Flight at Vance AFB, OK in Oct 1977. I was his Flight Commander for about 6 weeks before moving on to Wing Safety.

Tom ‘stood out’ from the very beginning. Not only from his size but from his intellect (I don’t believe he missed a single academic question throughout UPT), his athletic prowess and his broad, wry smile.

Two things come to mind when I think about Tom:

  1. One Saturday morning we, the T-38 IPs, played a pick-up game of ‘beer’ softball with his class. It was toward the end of their training and most of us were more interested in drinking beer than the game. However, (Capt.) Marty Miller was playing shallow center field and was ‘taunting’ the students at bat. He continued to creep inward toward the infield while pointing behind him and shouting, “Ardern, look at all the territory behind me!” Tom, wanting to get back at Marty for being a smart ass, swung at the pitches like a man on fire, eventually fouling out… Like many of his classmates before him.
  2. The next thing that comes to mind is, one day I was told that Tom had attempted to enroll in Squadron Officer’s School (SOS), by correspondence. The folks at the Education Office told him that, because he was enrolled in UPT, he could not take SOS. Because of the intensity of the UPT program itself. So Tom went downtown Enid, and enrolled at St. Mary’s University for his Master’s degree! You have to love him for that!

In later years we established ‘voice contact’ again and shared many stories about our T-38 IP experiences. I wish I had paid more attention as some of the things he shared with me were “eye-watering!”

God be with you, Tom…

So, today I am sad to hear about Tom. I am glad I knew him, and he will be missed when he ‘walks through my mind…’

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This is an “RSU,” a Runway Supervisory Unit:

(or, ‘Little House on the Prairie’)

They typically sit at the approach ends of runways at Air Force pilot training bases. During student training operations they are usually manned by a crew of 4: a Senior Controller, an Observer, Gear Spotter and Recorder. The Controller and Observer are IPs in the primary aircraft using the RSU’s runway. The Recorder and Gear Spotter are usually students.

The Controller’s job is as it implies. He/she is the individaul who controls the traffic and is usually a senior, experienced squadron IP. He is responsible for watching jets in the pattern primarily from the ‘perch’ through touchdown.

The Observer, another squadron IP, has the responsibility for the back half of the pattern, watching either the rollout portion of the runway, or clearing for the Closed Pattern – the part where the jet pulls up for another pattern.

The Gear Checker carries a pair of binoculars and is responsible for checking that 3 gear are ‘down and locked.’ More often than not, that the gear just look ‘normal.’

Then, the Recorder records all takeoffs and full-stop landings as well as any comments the Controller might have during the tour.

Usually a ‘tour’ lasts 4 hours or so, and a Controller might have 2-3 tours per week. Being an RSU Controller wasn’t anything I wanted to be, but I kinda got roped into it my last 6 months in the squadron – in 1977. And, I made the best of it, being recognized as Controller of the Quarter, 4th Quarter 1977… Go figure?

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I Sell Laxatives Too…

I happened in to my barber’s this morning and Tom shared a great story with me; too good for me not to share!

It seems a while back this guy owned a drug store in Bowling Green, Oh, near the university (Bowling Green State University). One day this female student came in and bought a pack of cigarets. On her way out she stoppered, opened the pack and took out a cigaret. As she was lighting it, the store owner asked her to not smoke inside the store.

“Well,” she replied, “you sell the cigarets inside the store, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” the store owner came back at her, “and I also sell laxatives – but I don’t expect you to take a shit in my store…”

Great comeback…

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“Two, stop hitting Lead…”

One day “PF” was the IP on a student two-ship (T-38s) training flight. The pilot on his wing was a solo student pilot. At some point during the mission, PF checked in on the SOF (Supervisor of Flying) frequency, callsign ‘Lowell,’ at Vance AFB, OK. The conversation, as I understand it, went something like this…

Lead: “Reno 17 Lead,”

Two: “Reno 17, Two.

Lead: “Did you just hit me?”

Two: “Yes Sir, I think I did…”

Lead: “Lowell, I think my wingman just hit me…”

Apparently PF’s wingman lost sight of him (in the sun) during a pitchout and at some point his vertical stabilizer brushed against PF’s airplane. Very little damaged was done, but PF and his student definitely felt it. The initial reply from Lowell was (again, as I understand it), “Two, stop hitting Lead…” Then it got serious… The flight was directed to return to Vance where an inspection revealed that indeed, significant damage had been done.

They were all lucky that day…

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“PF” was an IP who worked for me when I was the Chief of Check Section in the 560th FTS (Flying Training Squadron, T-38s). He was a good IP, and I liked him well enough. But PF was a talker! Man, could that boy talk – all day, talk, talk, talk…

One afternoon I was in my office when he came in to talk. About nothing in particular as I recall but it really never mattered. Hardly anyone else could ever get a work in edgewise once he began to talk. On this day I let him ramble on for 4 or 5 minutes, then I got up and walked out of my office, saying nary a word. How could I anyway, not that it would have mattered. And sure enough, he followed along, talking continuously.

My walk took us outside and around the building, then back into my office. He just kept talking, not once asking where we were going. Then, once we got back I managed to break into the conversation and tell him I was off to fly. That got me some relief!

That Friday night, down in the Auger In I happened to run across Susie, his wife. I mentioned the above incident and asked if was always like this. “Oh yes,” she replied, “ever since I met him.

Then she proceeded to share a story of her own. Seems shortly after they were married they visited her folks in Colorado. One morning, just after breakfast, her Dad had to take his ‘morning constitution.’ He excused himself from the breakfast table where he and PF had been sitting; PF talking. Without batting an eye, PF also got up and followed mer Dad to the bathroom, taking up station just outside the door. PF was quite content to stand there, continuing his conversation while Susie’s dad took care of business! I guess he was quite ‘taken aback’ by the experience.

The next day when it once again came time for his morning constitution, he got up and grabbed a chair to take with him – so PF wouldn’t have to stand outside the doorway. Apparently PF never gave it a second thought, took his seat and continued talking. Susie told me that once finished, her dad climbed out the bathroom window and went about his way for the morning – giving his ears a much needed break!

Like I said earlier, I liked the kid; but boy, could he talk!  

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In 1978 I was the Chief of Safety at Vance AFB, OK. One morning we received a call from the Command Post telling us that one of our T-37s (Tweets) had crashed. My first concern was for the condition of the pilots. As it turned out, they were fine. So then we began the investigation…

The aircrew, a Tweet flight commander and his assistant, were on their way to the auxiliary field to serve as runway supervisors for the morning. It seems they engaged in somewhat of a “game.” The rules were simple: Upon beginning the descent for landing once the throttles were retarded they could not be advanced and once a drag device was extended, it couldn’t be retracted. The idea was to see who could begin the drill the farthest out from the field. On this particular day the flight commander, who was flying, came up 19 feet short of the runway overrun. Damn-near made it!

When this accident occurred Vance had gone 4½ years without a T-37 accident. We were in one for a coveted 5-year accident free award for the Tweet squadron – that is, until these 2 Bozos pranged 19 feet short. This accident certainly didn’t have to happen…

Aside: When our wing commander called the ATC 4-Star (Commander) he told him (rightfully so) that he was sure of what happened and requested to investigate the accident “in house.” He agreed, and we investigated it ourselves – it wasn’t hard. At one point, over a few beers, we considered hanging it on Civil Engineers – for building the runway 19 feet to far to the South…

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You Can Have Too Much Grapefruit…

Craig and I were on a T-38A cross-country to Norton AFB, CA (San Bernardino, CA) one weekend. We flew out there and spent the weekend visiting my Aunt Jan. She and her husband lived in Indio at the time.

On Sunday morning she invited us to head out back and take as much grapefruit and oranges as we wanted. Her trees were loaded that year. As it was, Craig and I packed 5 or 6 grocery bags of grapefruit and lemons.

When we got to the jet we packed most of the fruit in the travel pod we had. We got the grapefruit and all of about 3 or 4 lemons in the pod, and stored the remainder in the cockpit. Give up a lemon? Oh, hell no!

Start and taxi were normal. Actually, there was no indication of any problems at all until takeoff. It was my leg and I was flying from the rear cockpit. As we neared 130 knots I began pulling back on the stick, as I had done hundreds of times, and nothing happened! I relaxed back pressure to continue accelerating, then tried again. This time the nose came up, very slowly. Very slowly, matter of fact. And when the jet (finally) became airborne it flew like mush! Very uncharacteristic of the T-38. I continued to nurse it, slowly gaining airspeed. It just felt sluggish.

Somewhere during the climb it finally dawned on us – we were over-grossed! The pod had a weight limit of 140 pounds, and we were surely over that weight! This was confirmed when we leveled off at altitude with about 500 pounds of fuel less than what we had planned for. Thankfully we were only going to Williams AFB, AZ, not that far away.

Upon arriving at Willi, we flight planned to Randolph ABF, TX and saw where we could make it – with a grapefruit, and 2 lemons to spare! Willi had a long runway and we had experience with heavy-weight takeoffs now (Idiots, we were!).

As you might imagine, the takeoff and climb were ‘sluggish’ at best. And we again leveled off with a little less gas than planned. But we made it, and ate grapefruit for a month.

Today I cringe at the thought. What we we thinking? Can you imagine losing a jet because you overloaded the damn thing with grapefruit? Twice? Idiots, we were…

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Meaningful Notes

I came into thee squadron one afternoon after flying and found this note:

Throughout my Air Force career I received a few ‘awards and decorations’ for various things but they all pale in nature to the simple personal notes of recognition from the folks I worked with. This was one of those notes… and it still warms my heart.

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A Thud, Out in A Pasture…

A lone man is seen walking up a remote country lane one afternoon, apparently alone deep in thought. Off to the side, sitting in a pasture, is a warhorse from years past – a Thud.

Did the man fly the Thud at one time or another? Did he work on it? Or was the Thud a jet he once wanted to fly? I don’t know; I didn’t want to disturb the moment by asking. There was just something ‘reverent’ about the scene as he walked up that lane, alone in thought…

So I continued to watch him that afternoon, wondering to myself: what was it like, to ‘tap’ the burner for takeoff on an early-morning “go?”…

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I learned a ‘first hand’ lesson on leadership while serving as the Investigator on a T-38A aircraft accident board in January 1979.

A T-38 had crashed at Ellsworth AFB, ND and I was appointed as the Investigator. Typically on a Accident Board, at the time, we would have 5 members: The President, the Investigator, a Pilot Member, a Maintenance Officer and a Flight Surgeons. Others were brought in on an “as needed” basis. Specialists if you will.

For the most part this investigation was proceeding pretty well. We had a few ‘challenges’ but they were being met, and the investigation was progressing. Or so I thought.

One night after our evening debrief we all headed to the bar, as we were inclined to do. We had a few beers then folks began departing – all except the Board President and me.

I liked the man, Col. F, and enjoyed working with him. He could be a bit “high strung” at times, but I got along with him just fine. Somehow, after a ‘few’ more beers that evening the conversation gravitated to ‘leadership.’ It was then that Col. F. hit me, right between the eyes.

“Bob,” he said, “you are, a good officer, but you probably will not go far. You don’t listen to your people!” I sobered up instantly! That hit me right in the chest.

He then continued on, “There have been numerous times when your team members have had something to say, and you have cut them off. That tells them that you don’t care about what they have to say, or contribute.”

Until then I had never thought of myself in that vain. I just sat there that evening, and glared at him – somehow knowing he was “spot on.” And, the longer I sat there the more determined I became to change my ways.

As I mentioned earlier, I sobered up immediately! And later, alone in my room that evening, I had a bit of a “Come to Jesus” meeting with myself. I knew that he had spoken the truth. And so, I became determined to (actually) listen to others, rather than discount them. Furthermore, I committed myself to produce an accident report beyond reproach. I was so inspired with Col. F’s honesty with me – although it was difficult to listen to – that I was determined to put out a product that we could all be proud of. This included a product with inputs from everyone on the board…

An Accident Board in those days was given 30 days to investigate an accident and produce a report. The report was to determine ‘Findings, Causes and Recommendations’ in order to prevent follow-on accidents of the same nature. To this end, once a report was produced it would typically be provided to the assigned Wing, Command then eventually to the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center (AFISC) for comments and concurrence or non-concurrence. It was very rare to see a report reach AFISC without objections of some kind or another – but ours did! And I attribute this to everyone contributing to the effort at hand, not just me…

I will be forever grateful to Col. F for taking the time and interest to have that talk with me that evening. It made a difference, not just in my career, but my Life…

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