The 'Triple Nickel' story: Life lessons from some special fighter pilots

Two weeks ago, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, I addressed a “dining out” for the 555th Fighter Squadron. Since I had flown 180 combat missions with the “Triple Nickel” during the Vietnam War, I was asked to relate my experiences of so many years ago.

 

The squadron, which is permanently based at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, was participating in the famous “red flag” and “green flag” exercises. These exercises provide the best air combat training in the world.

 

HERE ARE A number of remarkable facts about the Triple Nickel.

The 555th is one of only three Air Force fighter squadrons to have received three Presidential Unit Citations. This is the highest award a military unit can earn. It is comparable to the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest heroism award a soldier can receive. It also received five Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards (with V device).

A former commander of the squadron, David Goldfein, was just sworn in as the chief of staff of the Air Force – the top military position in the Air Force. The 555th has produced two Air Force chiefs of staff – Gen. Goldfein and Gen. John Jumper. Incidentally, Gen. Goldfein flew combat missions during Desert Storm and the 1999 war against Serbia.

The 555th claims 39 air-to-air victories during the Vietnam War – by far the largest number of any fighter squadron in that war.

During that 10-year Vietnam War, there were only three Air Force aviators who were fighter aces (five or more victories). Two (Steve Ritchie and Chuck Debellevue) flew with the 555th squadron.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the squadron was scheduled to be shut down permanently. Its heritage and legacy would have been lost forever. Fortunately, a former commander of the squadron, Bob Taylor, was stationed in the Pentagon on the Air Staff. He led a successful campaign to save “the Nickel.” Taylor made the case that since the 555th was the “signature” fighter squadron of the Vietnam War, it deserved to be saved.

What is the health of the fighter pilot community in the Air Force? Although there is a shortage of fighter pilots, the active duty and Reserve and Air National Guard fighter pilots are the best in the world. They are well-trained, and most have recent combat experience over Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. They fly first-rate aircraft – the A-10, F-16, F-15, F-22 and the new F-35.

 

MY TWO HOURS with “Crush,” the squadron commander, provided me lots of insights. What can these fighter pilots teach us?

Try to find a job that you will love. These pilots just love to fly. Also, they understand that flying high-performance aircraft in a renowned squadron is a special privilege.

As you prepare for the job that lies ahead, work hard to be the best in your studies (most of these pilots graduated very high in their flying school classes).

Continue your education. Many of these young officers are taking courses that will lead to advanced degrees. This education will prepare them for major responsibilities that lie ahead.

Work hard to stay in good physical shape. These pilots work out strenuously almost every day. Flying five-hour combat missions (with many air-to-air refuelings on each mission) in single-seat fighters places heavy demands on both the mind and the body.

Give young folks leadership opportunities. Think about this – young lieutenants with fewer than 500 hours of flying time are leading daytime and nighttime flights in combat.

Don’t postpone joy (the squadron was celebrating Gen. Goldfein’s promotion to the top job in the Air Force). The fact that Gen. Goldfein’s parents, Col. and Mrs. Bill Goldfein, were at the dinner was icing on the cake. Bill Goldfein had a full combat tour in the Triple Nickel in 1968 and ’69. Incidentally, all three of the Goldfeins’ sons flew with the Triple Nickel.

Find a godfather or godmother who will support your organization in informal but important ways. Bill and Mary Goldfein have served that role for almost 50 years. They plan reunions and dinners and keep in touch with former squadron members.

Study, understand and celebrate the history and legacy of your organization. At this festive dinner in Las Vegas, I was touched by how much these young pilots respected the 20 elderly pilots who had flown combat missions almost 50 years ago.

What a privilege and joy it was for me, an old fighter pilot, to spend three days with such an energetic, talented and patriotic group. I wish that each of you who have just read this column could have been with me.

 

(The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – serves on the boards of the Augusta Warrior Project and the Augusta Museum of History. His website is genpsmith.com.)

 

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