Jeff C. Illston, Pilot
18th SOS, Da Nang, 1970-71
Flushing, New York was my birthplace in 1946. I grew up in Glen Head (Long Island) New York and graduated from North Shore High School in 1964. In 1968, I graduated from the University of Arizona and through the AFROTC program received my commission as second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I joined the Air Force to serve our country and also to learn to fly and get experience with jet aircraft. I attended pilot training at Laughlin AFB, Del Rio, Texas.
I was assigned to the 18th Special Operations Squadron at Da Nang from July 1970 to June 1971. During that time, I had a 30-day TDY at Tan Son Nhut, Saigon for action in Cambodia. I flew 150 plus combat missions during my tour.
Although I experienced many “exciting” combat missions, one mission does stand out. On 16 February 1971 at about 0200 hours over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, our crew was approaching bingo fuel when we located several well defended truck convoys. I had never experienced such a “Team Effort” as what took place that night. As our ten man crew proceeded to attack the first truck convoy, I recall an intense feeling of being a part of a very well-oiled professional team. Now in retrospect, and more importantly, we were an extremely blessed team. As we worked our way through the valley of death, the mountainside Triple A was intense. Interphone chatter was non-stop; at one point a scanner (I think it was IO Bill Petrie) yelled, “Field Goal!” We had taken a round between our booms. There had literally been nowhere to break out of the firing circle. Twenty-two trucks were destroyed and three damaged.
What a night! Only by God’s grace and love did our ten-man team make it back to Da Nang as He permitted us to do every night. Our AC (I believe it was Earl Glass) gave me the landing. What a guy! And what a plane; the AC-119K Stinger was a deadly beast to say the least!
Separating from the Air Force in 1973, I was employed by American Airlines. Flying with the Rhode Island Air National Guard during an early furlough with American was a wonderful experience. From 1976 to 2005, I was an American Airlines pilot (B-727, DC- 10, MD-80, and finished up as International Captain B-777). My wife, Charis and I currently live in Fort Worth, Texas.