Richard Baldwin, Pilot
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang, 1971–72

I was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1946 and graduated from Iowa State University in 1968. My major was Entomology and after graduation I worked as Assistant State Entomologist in Iowa until I went to Officer Training School and then to pilot training at Vance AFB, OK. My first assignment was in the C-130A in April 1970. Basic C-130A training was at Ellington AFB near Houston and then drop training was conducted at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio. I arrived PCS at Naha AFB, Okinawa in August of 1970 with TDY frequently to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, for combat airlift missions. The C-130As were powerful and thus sent to deliver cargo and fuel to the shortest fields, many of them nothing but gravel. The C-130A aircraft were given to the Guard and Reserve and I was sent TDY to the States for what I thought was to be an AC-130 Gunship assignment. But, to my surprise, the orders were changed to an AC-119K at Nahkon Phanom RTAFB.

AC-119K training was quite an experience. We flew out of Clinton County Airport near Wilmington, OH and I think it was an Air Reserve base at that time. The base was almost closed and very casual, but the instructors were excellent and always helpful. The next stop was Hurlburt Field for strike training. The instructors were experienced in the 119G or K and there was much time allotted for partying on the beach. My wife and I spent several weekends with Tommy Hamman and his wife as well as with other pilots in our class. After graduation, I departed CONUS in early September 1971 and for the second time, I attended Jungle Survival School in the Philippines. Clark AB Club was a great place to spend my last few days in civilization.

Several of the new co-pilots in my training group arrived at NKP in mid-September after survival school and settled in rather quickly. I remember how impressed we were with the Stinger Hooch and the steaks at the Thai Restaurant off the base. After my initial mission over the trail, I was assigned as co-pilot on Captain Jon Schumann’s crew. He was a great leader and very talented pilot and my success was possible due to his patience. The navigators on the crew were very helpful and there was not an excess of abuse. Cash McCall and Jim Benedict were simply the best. And there were others… all top shelf on our missions and off-duty. One trail mission with Jon was notable in that we took a very close 37mm round just off the nose. At that split second the only thing I thought was how big a hole the shrapnel was going to make in the windscreen. After breaking sharply and then re-entering the orbit, all was calm as we looked at each other and simply shrugged.

In November, our crew was assigned to Da Nang for a six month TDY. During the first couple of months we flew missions over the trail. I wish I could remember all the crew we flew with. On February 7th, the day that I pinned on my Captain’s bars, I was upgraded to Aircraft Commander. Subsequent missions in February and March were much the same as when I flew with Jon. Most of the missions were truck killing and toward late February and March we flew several defense missions over Da Nang and only once, as I remember we did actually hit some rockets that were set up to hit the base. It was about then that the Da Nang detachment commander notified me that my friend Tommy Hamman had been severely injured by a rocket attack at Da Nang. Then a couple of days later, he died.

On one mission over the trail, most likely in February 1972, we destroyed a couple of trucks and were trying to kill others in the convoy when my flight engineer called bingo fuel. I begged for one more orbit and just as were turning away from the target, the right engine quit. We brought up the jets and the navigator gave us vectors direct back to Da Nang. But while still in Laos we were informed that there was an Arclight strike over our route and we had to deviate for 20 miles or so which we reluctantly did… nervously. On approach to Da Nang, the fuel gauges showed at or near empty and we told the crew to put on their chutes and be prepared to bail out… but we made it on fumes and never found out how much actual fuel remained.

One night, we were about halfway through a strike mission south of Da Nang when our control diverted us to refuel and rearm at Pleiku. Enroute we learned that our next target was at An Loc north of Saigon. We cranked our own 20mm ammo and refueled at Pleiku and put in the first strike at An Loc as the Easter offensive began. After the strike we landed at Bien Hoa and took off again for another mission to support the US commander, call sign Tunnel One Zero Alpha. We flew some daylight missions over An Loc until the shoot down of Stinger 41 and the loss of my friend Terry Courtney. I was at Bien Hoa for several months and had some good missions supporting the troops. One was notable as we stopped an attack at Tay Ninh mountain as 200 bad guys tried to climb the mountain to wipe out our communications site. On every orbit around the mountain, our friends on top would tell us to fire and we would put all the guns on the line and rake the mountainside. We never saw the enemy. On another, our crew put a 7.62 strike directly on top of a sandbagged bunker system near the Delta as 200 of the enemy were beginning to broach the structure with 20-30 of our guys inside. We learned later that the bodies of the bad guys covered the bunker making it hard to egress. Another time, we were flying in Cambodia patrolling a river at night and not having much luck finding targets. A few miles north of the Vietnamese border, our FLIR operator spotted a hot spot on the riverbank and after receiving clearance to fire, we put in some exploratory 20mm HEI rounds and literally, the earth blew up below us. Intel was sure that we hit a fuel dump the bad guys used to fuel boats coming down to Vietnam. On approach to Bien Hoa, we could still see the glow in the sky.

Not long after, I was upgraded to IP and given the responsibility of teaching tactics to new pilots. At Bien Hoa, life was good. I remember that any evening you could get a rib eye and baked potato at the club. I was checking out a Major and sharing a dorm room with him. I deferred to him and took the upper bunk. Just about dawn, I gradually awoke to dust filtering from the ceiling and gradually becoming aware of muffled booms. I yelled at the Major to get under the bed. I forgot I was on the top bunk and jumped down landing on my hands and knees then rolling under the bed. They blew up the beer storage that morning.

My first assignment stateside was flying a VT-29D passenger plane at Keesler, AFB. I quickly upgraded to IP and flew the training center commander, Major General Shotts on many occasions and provided instruction and check rides to the pilots assigned for proficiency in the area around Keesler. On one mission to Randolph AFB, General Shotts came up to the cockpit and asked me if I was ready for a change. After thinking of all the bad possibilities, he told me that he fired the Keesler flight safety officer and I was next in the role. I went to flight safety school at University of Southern California and stayed in that job for another few months. In June, 1975, I was reassigned to Wright Patterson AFB as flight safety inspector on the AFLC IG team and flew the T-39 Sabreliner for the next two years. Following that in June, 1977, still a Captain, I was chosen to be on the initial operational crew on the new AWACS E-3A at Tinker AFB. When I went into General Piotrowski’s office to meet him, he surprised me by “encouraging” me to be his Chief of Safety. Utter disappointment. I had a ground safety tech and a clerk. There were two E-3As on the ramp then and by 1981, we had 34 of those and about 15 C-130s at Dyess AFB. All together, we had six separate operating locations and I was now a Major, supervising three flight safety officers, and six ground safety techs. Fortunately, I upgraded in the E-3A and had several overseas TDY assignments as well.

In 1981, I returned to AFLC HQ as Chief of Flight Safety, Head of the IG safety inspection function, Chief of Systems Safety and as T-39 pilot. Probably one of my favorite assignments. Then, in 1983, I returned to Tinker AFB as Chief of Safety on that base where 27,000 military and civilian employees worked and I supervised 34 safety people. During that assignment, I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. In 1986, I left safety (temporarily) and was assigned as Deputy Base Commander; a job that I really enjoyed.

I retired in October, 1988 and began my civilian career in safety management. I earned my Certified Safety Professional designation worked as Corporate Safety Director for NCH in Dallas and then Facility Safety Director for Occidental Chemical Corporation. In 1994, I went to work as Safety Director for BE&K Construction and Engineering in Birmingham, Alabama. My last position was as Corporate Safety, Health and Environmental Director for the U.S. operations in PCL Construction Enterprises in Denver, Colorado, a company that consistently ranked in the top 7 of the ENR construction firms.

I am is happily married and have five kids (now adults). My two boys graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1995 and 1988. Both are pilots and are having very successful careers.