United States Air Force (Retired)
What is a “Fighter Pilot”?
A fighter pilot is noted for intelligence, independence, integrity, courage, and patriotism. “Fighter Pilot” is a state of mind, not a job title. Therefore, not all people who fly fighters are fighter pilots, nor do all fighter pilots fly fighters, some of them drive trucks.
The above definition of a “Fighter Pilot” is compliments of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, known as River Rats, which describes itself as an association of like-minded aerial combat veterans who avow patriotism and the defense of the Constitution of the United States of America as its guiding principles. Jim Coyne is a River Rat.
Much has been written about fighter pilots and the fighter pilot “mentality.” To be a fighter pilot requires attitude, the mindset that you are the best and that no one can beat you. It is described in Jim Coyne’s words as “I’m the best in the world. Someone may go down, but not me.” Anyone who has seen the movie “Top Gun” has seen an excellent portrayal of this extremely competitive attitude. Fighter pilots are the modern day equivalent of ancient gladiators, opponents who meet in combat where there is usually only one survivor. Thomas Williams, 82nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, puts it this way; “If you don’t know who the world’s greatest fighter pilot is… It ain’t you!!”
Fighter pilots are the subject of jokes:
“The average fighter pilot, despite his sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. Unfortunately, these feelings just do not involve anyone else.” – Anonymous.
Q. How do you know your date with the fighter pilot is half over?
A. He says “but enough about me – wanna hear about my plane?”
James “Jim” Coyne is a fighter pilot. He was born in Colon, Panama in 1930, the son of a hard-working, demanding, civil engineer father from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The family returned to the United States in 1933. He describes his early years as “tough times – the depression”. Although his father was a college graduate, he struggled to find work and provide for the family. At the age of five, Jim began dreaming of becoming a “Pursuit Pilot”, as fighter pilots were known in those days.
Jim attended St. Mildred’s High School. St. Mildred’s was actually a Catholic girl’s boarding school where, according to Jim, a number of the girl students probably were sent more for control than for education. It was the only Catholic school in the county, and it took boys as day students. He describes himself as a rebel who spent much of his time searching the sky for airplanes and drawing pictures of airplanes. He spent an entire semester of an algebra class working at the blackboard, the nun’s way of making sure he was working on algebra and not daydreaming about airplanes.
Jim graduated from high school in 1948 and enrolled in the University of Maryland. His father insisted he study engineering; however, he was more interested in journalism. The semester spent working algebra problems at the blackboard could not save him; he was failing in math and other engineering related subjects. Despite his father’s admonition that “No son of mine is too dumb to be an engineer” and with the help of an understanding college dean, he managed to switch his college major to journalism, primarily because the journalism department was part of the business school. By the time his father discovered that Jim was a journalism student and not studying business, it was too late. His father cut off financial support and warned him that “as a reporter he would starve to death and you might as well find out what that’s like right now”. Later his father would relent and finance Jim’s senior year in college.
His introduction to the Air Force was through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Maryland. Not only did it provide an avenue toward eventually becoming a pilot, it also paid the princely sum of $0.92 per day. That $29 per month, plus income from working various jobs on campus and as a “stringer” for the Baltimore Sun, Washington Star and United Press, paid his living expenses. Jim was cadet colonel of the Air Force ROTC detachment, student body president and president of his fraternity. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism in 1953.
He entered the Air Force and served three years of active duty flying transport aircraft. He then transferred to their National Guard and flew jet fighters on weekends.
Jim worked as a reporter while pursuing his goal of becoming a fighter pilot. His major break came during the 1961 Berlin Crisis. On August 30, 1961, President John F. Kennedy ordered 148,000 Guardsmen and Reservists to active duty in response to Soviet moves to cut off allied access to Berlin. The Air Guard’s share of that mobilization was 21,067 individuals.
Jim was called to active duty in 1961. Meanwhile he was pursuing another target by the name of Carolyn Banks. His first marriage had ended in divorce. Carolyn would make periodic reports to the Washington, D.C. Young Republican Club. According to Jim, her appearances would draw quite a crowd of young men. “She had and still has a terrific figure and a great sense of humor.” He and the other young men at those meetings probably could not recall much of what she talked about but it did not matter as she was the topic of their conversation. A chance meeting in New York City in 1960 began a courtship that culminated in marriage in November 1961.
The newlyweds were off to pilot training in Arizona for six months then to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida where Jim finally realized his dream and trained to fly the McDonnell-Douglas F4C Phantom, the newest and hottest fighter in the world. The Phantom was originally designed for the U.S. Marines. It was heavier and larger than any other fighter bomber. The McDonnell-Douglas F4C was extensively used during the Vietnam War. It could carry more bombs than the World War II B-17 heavy bomber. Capable of almost 1,400 knots and a 71,000 foot altitude ceiling, it made his adrenalin flow like a river. Jim had arrived. But there was another problem, he wanted to fly combat missions.
He was assigned to the Tactical Warfare Center which was refining and developing ways to provide better support to the Army ground troops. General Gilbert L. Meyers was the head of the school and needed an aide. Jim applied for and was given the job. It was 1965 and Vietnam was heating up. General Meyers, now deputy commander of the 7th Air Force, was being sent to Vietnam to assume command of all Air Force operations there. He asked Jim to accompany him as his aide-de-camp. Jim readily agreed to do so provided he could fly while there. He was assured that he could. Carolyn was not keen on the idea. They had a one year old son and much of the traditional dependent support network present in most Air Force squadrons was not present at the Tactical Warfare Center. The mutual support group consisting of squadron members’ wives did not really exist there. To allay her fears, he assured her that “aides don’t get killed” and he purposely did not tell her he would be flying combat missions in Vietnam. Carolyn and son Jimmy headed home to Thompsontown, Pennsylvania while he went to Vietnam.
The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War has been described as an escalation. This is typically an incremental increase in forces in response to greater need rather than an intentional strategy of using all available means to secure victory. What it meant to Jim and his fellow pilots and aircrew was an “on again, off again” strategy which was both dangerous and demoralizing. Pilots were not allowed to preemptively destroy the surface-to-air missles (SAM) sites that were shooting them down. Bombing missions over the Hanoi area, referred to as going “downtown”, were especially hazardous and required the utmost planning, skill, and courage from U. S. pilots and aircrew. A combat tour was considered completed when 100 “counters” (missions to North Vietnam) had been flown. Some pilots commented that “By your 66th mission you’ll have been shot down twice and picked up once.” Jim flew a total of 104 missions, 63 of which were over North Vietnam or Laos.
Jim divided his duty by spending a week at Tan Son Nhut air base as General Meyers’ aide, then a week flying combat missions, mostly out of Thailand. Most of his missions were attack sorties with some air combat missions thrown in. Airplanes were being shot down with their pilots either being killed or captured. Jim’s best friend, also an Air Force pilot and godfather to son Jimmy, was shot down and killed. The loss did not deter him but it made him think seriously about the risks involved. He had to contend primarily with ground-based anti-aircraft fire. Though SAM’s were a very serious threat over North Vietnam, during the period 1962 through 1973, approximately 20 U. S. Air Force planes were downed by ground fire for every one lost to SAM’s. “Puffs of smoke marked the exploding shells: 37 mm shell explosions were marked by light grey puffs, 57 mm by black puffs and 80 mm by brown puffs. One of every four or five shells was a tracer round and looked like orange tennis balls coming up at you.” Everyone dreaded the “Golden BB, the one with your name on it.”
Pilots love to fly and there was plenty of it. Air munition consumption in Vietnam was almost three times that of WWII. Aerial warfare was the Air Force’s business and business was good.
Jim decided to write a letter to his son Jimmy that was to be mailed only in the event that he was shot down and killed or captured. The letter began “If you read this ..” and contained instructions on how and what he was to do now that he was “the man of the family.” Although his aircraft was hit and damaged several times, he was never shot down. His flight leader was not quite so fortunate on one mission over North Vietnam. Both the pilot and back-seater managed to bail out over the Gulf of Tonkin but within range of coastal guns. Rescue of downed airmen was a top priority and every available resource would be diverted to assist in rescue operations. Although Jim was not the senior on-scene commander, he took over direction of the rescue operations while orbiting the downed fliers and expertly directed the rescue aircraft to the proper location. His handling of the successful rescue operation earned Jim a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The DFC is one of sixteen decorations earned by him during his career. He downplays his medals and other decorations explaining that “Everybody receives the same pay and there are no bonuses so decorations and medals are often given as a kind of substitute for a raise or bonus.” He wrote an article about the rescue operation which was published in Air Force Magazine in July 1966. This story was subsequently selected as one of the “top 25” Air Force Magazine stories. He had managed to keep his journalism skills as sharp as his flying skills.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to him, his letter to son Jimmy had accidentally been mailed and was received and read by Carolyn who then figured out that he was flying combat missions. She never let on that she knew. He did not want her to know so she would not worry about him. She did not want him to know that she knew because he would worry about her being concerned for his safety. The Baltimore Sun got hold of the story and the headline read “Pilot Fools Wife.” That was hardly the case.
After completing his first Vietnam tour in 1966, Jim, who was now a captain, was assigned to the Pentagon. This was the first of three Pentagon tours, where his considerable journalism skills were employed in writing speeches for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Draft Presidential Memoranda and other duties. Promotions came quickly. Jim was promoted to major in 1968 and to lieutenant colonel two years later. He likened working in the Pentagon to what someone once described as the “Pentagon Log” theory. Imagine a log floating down a river. On that log are 25,000 ants and each and every one of them believes that he is the one steering.
In 1972, after training in the Air Force A7 bomber, he returned to Thailand. U. S. ground troops were out of Vietnam by now and he was flying attack missions in Laos and Cambodia. He and his boss, the squadron commander, were both promoted to colonel at the same time. It was a bittersweet time for him as his promotion ruled out his taking over from his boss and assuming the sought-after squadron commander role. He was now too senior.
A coveted spot in the National War College plus five more years at the Pentagon fostered hopes of being selected for general rank but it was not to be. There were thousands of colonels in the
Air Force and only 25 or 30 were selected each year for general rank. It was decision time. He was 53 years old and reasoned that hopes of finding suitable civilian employment were going to fade fast if he stayed on active duty and approached age 60. He retired in 1984 and took a job at Air Force Magazine. One and a half years later he became Editor in Chief of Signal, the official publication of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).
He and Carolyn, both beach lovers, retired and moved to Ocean Pines, Maryland in 1990. Jim became active in civic affairs and was a leader in getting a new county library placed in Ocean Pines, as well as a new post office. He was the first President of the Friends of the Ocean Pines Library. He actively pursues his hobbies of reading and writing, has authored three books and is currently working on a fourth book. He feels best about the fact that war fighting was his job and he did his job well. “I wouldn’t change a thing if I had to do it all over again, and would advise any college student to go into the military service. It’s the perfect thing to do to straighten yourself out while you mature and assume responsibility.”
Jim still has that fighter pilot state of mind, albeit a mellower version. While he no longer flies airplanes, his sentiments are captured by John Gillespie Magee’s poem HIGH FLIGHT, September 3, 1941:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I have climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and
Soared and swung.
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
~ GEORGE REISWIG