Tad Berkebile, Navigator
18th SOS, Da Nang and Nakhon Phanom, 1971-72
As a native Californian, I graduated from the University of California at Davis (just up the road from Berkeley) with a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. My deferment ran out in January 1968 and since this was before the lottery I received my draft notice that Spring. I went to the physical and elected to enlist in the Air Force in the delayed enlistment program. I qualified for Officer Training School and as both a pilot and navigator candidate, but thinking I would minimize my chances of going to Vietnam I elected to go to Nav school. As my OTS class date was six months after my required enlistment date, I boarded my first flight ever on an airplane to basic at Lackland and then stayed on casual status until OTS. There I in-processed other trainees and then ripped off my stripe and did my own paperwork.
Upon graduating from Nav school I chose an assignment to Travis in C-141s (it seems that many gunshippers came from this background), flying great missions all over the world, including Antarctica. We brought troops to and from Southeast Asia; we brought wounded home on our air evac missions, and sadly brought many combat casualties home in aluminum caskets. We flew USO troops over to SEA and went into Vietnam twice a month, at least once getting shot at taking off from Da Nang. Then I got my orders to Vietnam. . . .
The tour was six months at Da Nang then six at Nakhon Phanom; I spent most of my time as the Night Observation Scope (NOS) operator and some as the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) operator. We flew missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in-country (Vietnam) supporting our friendly troops when they were in contact with the enemy. The troops on the ground would direct our fire on the enemy positions.
On one harrowing mission the troops in contact were being overrun and we couldn’t fire on the friendly position without the troops OK. The situation was so bad that they finally cleared us to fire directly on their position – we fired, amazingly, with good results – the enemy was repelled and there were no friendly casualties. The next day the unit we helped invited us to Monkey Mountain for a Bar-B-Que to celebrate the successful mission.
In Thailand our crew, led by Dick Pollmann, was christened Pollmann’s Pirates identified by subdued patches showing a shot up truck on fire on the trail. We had a great crew, working efficiently and calmly under fire, and becoming a close family. To prepare for the trail missions we would study the maps of our operating areas and commit them to memory.
Another thrilling time involved the loss of an engine and fuel balancing among the various tanks in the airplane. In the middle of a mission over the trail hunting trucks one of the reciprocating engines sucked a valve and lost all power. With one recip out and the jet engines running we could just maintain level flight, then … the jets flamed out. At this point it was all we could do to slow our descent rate to 200 feet per minute; we couldn’t make it back to NKP! After turning west and experiencing the longest five minutes ever with the engineer throwing various fuel switches, he got the jets running again and we returned safely back home.
Being fired at by antiaircraft artillery (AAA) was nothing to be happy about either. It was rare not to experience this in a mission over the trail. The scanners would lay out on the back ramp in their harnesses and watch for the AAA. When they saw threatening fire they call to the pilot to ‘break right’ or ‘break left’ to turn away from the fire. One night when I was at the NOS in the left front open door a scanner called “break right” – tracers were coming up on our left. This was one of the times I witnessed the tracers up close. Not only were they yellow streaks, they were crackling by at supersonic speeds. They came up right in front of our left engine, practically in my face! If you drew a line from the nose of the aircraft to its left wingtip, they were inside that line. What a good call that was! Safe to say I never witnessed a hit, except when Courtney’s crew got shot down while I was out-processing.
I returned stateside to my next assignment in C-141s at Norton in San Bernardino. I re-qualified on my first mission and became eligible for an early out under the Palace Chase program. So I traded my last year of my commitment for two years in the reserve. As a qualified C-141 navigator I was able to transfer back to Travis in the associate wing there and go back to my civilian profession as a Civil Engineer with the US Forest Service. I continued in the reserve for 23 years, flying C-141s, C-5s and then, lo and behold, as a back seater in F-4s at Tinker.
Training for the F-4 was also serious business (especially at age 40), flying air-to-air and air-to ground missions with low levels at 100 feet above ground level (AGL) at 450 knots – we lost two fellow students in a tragic flying accident -two great guys. The moves from these various assignments were due to navigator positions being phased out of many aircraft. Ultimately my Tinker unit was assigned F-16s and that was the end of flying for me.
I moved on to become an Aircraft Battle Damage Repair (ABDR) engineer at McClellan and was miraculously selected to go to Air War College, graduating in 1993. I pursued my Civil Engineering career in parallel for 37 years after active duty, working all over northern California, finally managing some major water projects. During this time I went back to school and received a Master’s in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley, met my wife, Tricia, and raised our son, Brett. I am now retired, coaching some Special Olympics sports and building a hot rod for the fun of it.