Today’s veteran: Mike Pickett, 77
Residence: St. Simons Island
Service: Air Force, 5 years
Duties: Navigator bombardier
Recognitions: Vietnam Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; Air Medal (with oak leaf cluster); Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Service Medal
Duty stations: Vietnam; Guam; Okinawa; Thailand; Mather Air Force Base, Calif.; Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; Castle Air Force Base, Calif.
His story: Mike Pickett got his pilot’s license in college with his longterm plans to be an airline pilot.
He interviewed with United Airlines after he graduated, but decided to fulfill another obligation.
He had two brothers serve during World War II and another in Korea, so he felt obligated to serve in the military. He joined the Air Force with plans to be a pilot, but failed the vision test, even though his vision was good enough to fly commercial airlines. Instead, he went to navigation bombardier school for a year of training.
Pickett was among 20 navigator bombardiers selected by Strategic Air Command for additional training that included simulated bombing runs and three weeks of survival training that included capture and questioning by simulated Soviet Union interrogators.
“It was very realistic,” he said. “After 24 hours you believed you were captured by the Russians.”
Because of the Cold War, there were always eight aircraft armed with nuclear weapons. Pilots were assigned to the aircraft for a week at a time and ate and slept nearby.
He got orders to Guam to conduct bombing runs to Vietnam after an additional two weeks of training. He had been trained on B-52 G series bombers and was going to be flying the older B-52 D series which had different equipment.
It was a five-hour flight from Guam to Vietnam in the bomber loaded with 104 general purpose bombs weighting 500 pound apiece.
The B-52 flew at an altitude of 32,000 to 34,000 feet and depended on ground radar to help guide the crew of six to the target.
“The missions were short,” he said. “Accuracy was important. We could bomb within 100 yards.”
Most of the targets were dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was used enemy troops to move supplies, weapons and equipment into South Vietnam.
The bombers, which flew three or four times a week, were accompanied by fighter jets during the missions, mostly in the southern part of the country. At that altitude, the only concern was land-based missiles.
“We were lucky all the way around,” he said.
Later on, they also flew out of Okinawa and Thailand to cut down on the time to fly to Vietnam.
“We could only fly 120 hours a month,” he said.
Pickett said he never thought about the possibility of being shot down or the damage caused by the bombs.
“What I thought about was we were doing our duty,” he said.
He never intended to make Air Force a career and left after serving five years. By then, it was too late to apply for a job as an airline pilot.
“By the time I got out, the market was flooded with pilots,” he said.
But he has remained involved with general aviation since he left military service, helping to broker aircraft and for 17 years a bank working on aviation loans.
“I was able to understand aviation collateral,” he said.
He is currently involved with the Angel Flight program, flying children to hospitals in Atlanta and other areas for medical treatment.
He credits his Air Force training for his success after leaving military service.
“Military discipline is something that stays with you,” he said. “Every job I had after that was in a leadership position.”
Our Veterans runs Tuesdays. Contact Gordon Jackson at gjackson@ thebrunswicknews.com, on Facebook or at 912-464-7655 to suggest a veteran for a column.