When they pulled into the parking lot, the sign on the attendant’s booth told them the fee was $15. Larry Gulledge, of Oakman, thought that was pretty unusual for parking. But then, he and his wife had lived in Washington, D.C., before they settled in Walker County, and they knew that even ordinary things could be pretty pricey, up there. And the museum itself — or more specifically, an annex of it called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center — offered free admission, so it all kind of balanced out.
To say that the range of displays was remarkable is an understatement. The museum houses the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Air France Concorde, the gondola of Double Eagle II, the balloon that made the first trans-Atlantic flight, and the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There are also several jets from the Vietnam era on view, and these were of special interest to Larry because his job had been to repair them.
Sure enough, he turned a corner and saw the distinctive shape of a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a secret reconnaissance aircraft that was the successor to the famed U-2.
But the next exhibit in line was where the memorable part of the Gulledges’ visit started: it was a Republic F-105D Thunderchief.
”That’s the same type of plane I worked on,” Larry told his wife, Jonah. ”Then he got quiet for a while,” she remembers, “and then he said, ‘You’ve got to take my picture!’ I mean, how many times do you hear a guy say that?”
What had made the moment especially photo-worthy was that Larry noticed the number on the Thunderchief’s tail fin. From keeping careful maintenance records back then, he recognized the number 00445 and realized it was a plane he had actually done repair work on. ”When I saw that,” he recalls now, back home, “one phrase kept going through my mind: ‘absolutely uncanny.’ It was one of those ‘OMG!’ moments, for sure.”
When he was in the Air Force, Gulledge was stationed at Korat Royal Air Force Base, Thailand, with the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron. His specialty was repairing the planes’ electronics and weapon systems, known technically as avionics.
Though the job description conjures up visions of tinkering inside a plane’s dashboard, the reality was far different. An encyclopedia photo of the Thunderbird’s avionics system laid out for display on a runway shows some two dozen pieces of gear, ranging in size from a boom box to a small piano.
The plane was the largest single-seat, single-engine combat aircraft in history, with a wingspan of almost 35 feet and a length of some 64 feet.
”The plane was made in two configurations,” says Gulledge. “There was the D model, which we saw in the museum, that takes a single pilot. Then there’s the F model, which had a front pilot and a rear pilot, and in some cases the controls for the rear pilot were made into more of a system that you’d expect a bombardier to use. ”In fact, I was fortunate enough to be on a team that converted a number of those F models so that we could put in a system — extremely secret, at that time — that allowed the plane to come screaming down out of the sky at about 500 or 600 miles an hour and drop a weapon so accurate that, if it missed the target by more a hundred feet, we had to go back and recalibrate it. So, it was quite an airplane.”
Gulledge and his maintenance group got to know the pilots well, he says, and had frequent debriefings about how the equipment was functioning: “If one of them was having a problem with the electronics, we’d try to duplicate it on ground power. Sometimes we could, sometimes we couldn’t. ”I remember one of the planes I was working on, the pilot kept experiencing the radar moving off the center of the scope. I couldn’t duplicate the problem and he said, ‘Okay, buddy. In that case, you’re going with me on my next flight and see it for yourself.’ I was all excited about that, but when I showed up for work they said the wing commander had decided it wasn’t a good idea for me to go along.
”Which was fortunate, because later the pilot told me the aircraft started to buck in the air so he punched out, and then the plane dropped down a couple of hundred feet and totally disintegrated. So if I’d been in the back seat, I would have found myself underneath a parachute, drifting across the jungle.” Gulledge’s group was flying missions along the Red River, toward Hanoi from the Korat base in southwest Thailand where he was stationed. The missions used the Thunderchief as a bomber, with F-4 fighter planes as escorts.
Daily routine on the base was a lot less dramatic than the life-and-death maneuvers taking place at a distance, he recalls. “When I first went over there, we lived in what we called ‘hooches’—just old rough board huts, that you propped the walls up with a stick, to get ventilation. Each one had two double bunks, and when the monsoon season started you picked up your footlocker and put it on your bunk to let the water pass through underneath.
”Then they built us some new barracks, but the location of those was a pretty good jaunt down from the flight line. So most of us went into town and bought bicycles to ride to work. My bike was a gift, from a fellow who was rotating out. He told me, ‘You can have it for free, but the frame’s broken.’ I didn’t mind, though. I rode it the whole time I was there.
”And then just before I was scheduled to go home, some guys came through at night — we called them “the slicky boys”; they traveled in an old garbage truck and would steal stuff, take it into town, maybe give it a new paint job, then sell it back to us. That night they stole all the bicycles but three. Mine was one of the three they left, because the frame was so bad.
”A good while after I got back to the U.S., I got a letter from a friend in the barracks there, and he said, ‘Your bicycle’s still in the same place.’”
But another fact of life behind the chain link fences of the base was the occasional reminders of how close the enemy really was: “I’ll always remember sitting outside one night with a buddy from Cleveland, watching a storage building for our 750-pound bombs, when they started going off.” An enemy soldier had climbed a fence and spiked the stack of ordnance, then tried to escape when the explosives started detonating.
”He didn’t get far enough away, so the explosions caught him,” Gulledge recalls. “The bombs didn’t all go at once, but one after another. You could see the air kind of shimmer toward you, feel the force push you backwards, and then hear the blast of each one. We were sitting out there at 1 a.m., and they were still going off.” Gulledge was born in Oneonta, Ala., but soon became accustomed both to military life and to travel. His father was an ammo inspector for the Army, and his job was classified in the “mandatory mobility” category, which was jargon for moving around all the time. ”I took the extra-long route from Oneonta to Walker County,” Gulledge says with a laugh. “We lived in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Mexico. And I was over in Italy with my parents when I turned 19, so I figured I’d better come back to the U.S. because I was approaching my time with the draft. So I came home to Oneonta, drove to Birmingham and joined the Air Force. I did my stint with them, got out in 1969, and went to work for North American Rockwell building Sabreliners, which is sort of the civilian equivalent of an Air Force plane, used mainly by big corporations as an executive jet.
”Then I decided to try my hand at the ammo inspection program, and again moved all over the world. I went to Kentucky, to Germany, back to Maryland, to Korea, back to New Mexico, then Washington and Illinois. And actually enjoyed it. To me, travel was just a way of life. And while I was on one tour, I just happened to meet Jonah, who’s from Walker County. She was working in Savannah, Ill., but was getting ready to come back home because the phone company she worked for was phasing out operators and changing to a computerized system. So she came home, and that separation lasted about a month or so until I called her up and said, ‘Hey, this is not working.’” He laughs. “So, we’ve been married a little over 42 years now.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org