The Kid in the Corsair Cockpit

This week the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum awarded its 2018 Trophy for Lifetime Achievement to General John R. “Jack” Dailey for his more than 60 years of service—as a Marine (eventually becoming the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps), deputy administrator of NASA, member of the President’s Management Council, and finally, director of the Museum. The Museum’s Trophy for Current Achievement went to Shaesta Waiz of Dream Soar Inc., who just completed a solo flight around the world to advocate for women’s rights (see our interview with her from last year).

In Dailey’s 36 years as a Marine, he flew 450 combat missions and served two tours in Vietnam. He has reflected on those experiences in interviews for Air & Space and for the Marine Corps oral history program, highlights of which are below.

What are some of your earliest memories of wanting to become a Marine aviator?

I grew up in Coronado, California, near Marine Air Base El Toro. Navy advanced trainers, SNJs, would fly right over our yard; I used to shoot at them with a bow and arrow. Near our house was an ordnance school, and it had a Corsair for student maintenance crews to practice on, loading ordnance. The canopy was locked with a hasp and padlock, but I found a hatch in the belly just forward of the tail wheel. A seven-year-old—me—could climb up through the belly and push the floor boards up and get in. One day I was in there “flying” when the ordnance officer came out and found this kid inside an airplane that had been secured with a canopy hasp and lock. I can still hear him yelling, “How’d you get in that airplane? Get outta there!” The next time I came, I saw he’d had one of the students spot-weld that hatch.

Later, when my dad was a group commander at the base, he had a Corsair parked outside his office. It was his airplane. By this time, I’d learned my lesson, and I would ask permission before I’d go out and sit in the cockpit. I joined the Marine Corps to fly Corsairs, but by the time I was commissioned, they were being phased out. I never got the chance to fly the F4U, but I have a lot of hours sitting in one.

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You went to UCLA on a football and NROTC [Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps] scholarship.

I have some lifetime friendships that were made on that team [the UCLA Bruins], and that experience was a very important part of my development. I came from a 250-student high school down in Tustin [California]. We had 18 guys who played all the sports. Then I went to what was in those days a gigantic university of 15,000 people—UCLA. We had literally hundreds of people who came out for football. It probably helped me prepare for the Marine Corps; it gave me the experience of being treated as part of a larger organization. Red Sanders was our Coach. He was a very strong disciplinarian. We had a lot of rules and you didn’t break any of them or you’d never get in a game. You put your helmet on when you came on the field for practice and you didn’t take it off until you left the field, unless you got in a fight. Then you had to take your helmet off. They would never break up a fight. But if you got in one, you better figure out how to get out of it.

Tell us about your first flight as a midshipman.

It was in a Martin P-5M flying boat, a big, twin-engine patrol aircraft. I always knew I wanted to fly, but that ride in the Marlin made it impossible for me to think of doing anything else—even though the airplane lost an engine on takeoff. It seemed like a fighter. It had a big engine in it—at least, it seemed to me at the time like a big engine. I didn’t want to go back. I asked if I could go around one more time and the pilot said, “No. Get out of here.”

When you started your Marine Corps career, many of the instructors were Naval Aviation Pilots, enlisted men who had flown in World War II and been called back for Korea. What was learning from them like?

Here were all these old guys, with a lot of wisdom and nothing to lose teaching brand new lieutenants. I learned a heck of a lot more from those senior NCOs than I taught. They were all really experienced, and they’d always test you, and they’d never make anything easy for you, but they wouldn’t let you fail either.

The instructors had a practical approach to problem-solving, which sometimes entailed the use of short cuts. When the tricycle-gear Douglas R5D (in civilian life, the DC-4) was loaded, the back end would sink, so the airplane came with a vertical bar to prop up the tail. Our criterion for determining whether the load put the center of gravity in the right place was that with two engines running at 1,000 rpm, the crew chief could remove the tail bar without having to knock it out with a wheel chock. I remember times when I’d hear the crew chief back there banging and banging on that tail bar.

One thing I learned from the NAPs was that if you got yourself into a situation, you were the one who had to get yourself out. When I was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina, I flew the R4Q, better known as the C-119 Flying Boxcar. We could parachute supplies through a pair of doors in the belly, called paratainer doors. [The name “paratainer” came from “parachute container”; the cargo in containers was attached to parachutes, which were attached to a rail. A motor would pull them toward the front where they would drop off the rail and fall through the hatch.] They worked like bomb bay doors.

I know for a fact that you can get 24 cases of whiskey in the space between the paratainer doors and the floor boards. One year for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, our squadron was sent to get refreshments. Back from the shopping trip, we landed on a runway covered with five inches of snow, and the paratainer doors broke open. We had cases of whiskey all over the runway. It then became my job to figure out how to get the refreshments cleaned up. Since no guidelines existed for this activity, I was glad the NAPs had taught me to think on my feet. Luckily, it was a Saturday night with no traffic, and I managed to get all the boxes in the Follow Me truck. The mystery was how many of those bottles were unbroken. The cases fell out and kind of skidded along on the snow. We had a very fine Birthday Ball.

Having gone through the Marine Corps training at Quantico, where you had to follow every rule, and then going to my first squadron with these NAPs, who absolutely didn’t follow any rule, was a loosening up process that probably served me well in terms of knowing when and how to do things. Very early in my career I had a lot of involvement with senior NCOs. They took care of me, and the one claim I make is that I was smart enough to let ’em do it, rather than trying to be “by the book.” I learned not to have patience with people who said, “No, no, we can’t do that. This is the way it has to be.” I learned how to get things done. And I learned a lot about what’s important in a situation and what really counts.

On your second tour in Vietnam, you flew the reconnaissance version of the F-4 Phantom. How did you defend yourself during those flights to assess bomb damage?

Speed. Because of how those missions were scheduled, our arrival over the target was as predictable as the sunrise. Pilots of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom were plenty glad that we had a maximum speed of over 1,400 mph to draw on.

Before I went overseas, I flew the Chance-Vought RF-8U Crusader, something I’d wanted to do all my life. I was stationed at El Toro in California. The F-8U was the first carrier-based jet fighter capable of exceeding 1,000 mph. Every F-8 pilot wanted to earn a thousand-mile-an-hour pin [awarded by the manufacturer], a feat that was not a given. In the F-4, you can get your Mach 2 pin just by sitting there and adding power. In the F-8, you had to work it, particularly in the older ones. The thing I really liked about the F-8 was that there was nothing dainty about it. It was a rugged machine. Even the way you locked the canopy: You pulled a great big lever. There were no micromini switches in that baby.

What was your arrival in Vietnam like?

I was the first individual replacement pilot for VMCJ-1. This was a whole new thing; instead of going by squadron, this was when the individual rotations started, and I was in the first batch of those guys, with Arv Realsen. I got there in April 1967. When we got to Da Nang [Air Base], it was late and we were told, “Just find a place to sleep and check in in the morning.” So we found some racks in a hut and that was when they had their first rocket attack at Da Nang. We still had our duffle bags and were trying to figure out what we were doing, and when we heard these explosions we got up and said, “Well, what are we supposed to do?!” Nobody knew, because they’d never been attacked before. So hell, we just sat in the hut, because it was soon over. They fired five or six rockets and after they hit that was it. But everybody was wide awake at that point, so we were able to go down and check in.

What aircraft did you fly on your first tour?

I got on the flight schedule right away flying the EF-10B. I went out and was flying this thing called “Agony Orbit,” which was an orbit up on the DMZ where we were watching for SAMs every night. You flew about a three-hour mission and then came back and landed. My transport experience—flying instruments—was good training, and might have saved my life. [For example], on my third hop, I had the midnight-to-three-in-the-morning flight. We used to call “Water Boy,” which was the Air Force Controlling Agency, and they’d tell you what the weather was back at Da Nang, and you made a decision at that point. When you stayed up there that long, you were just about out of gas.

Water Boy said that it was 500 [feet] and a half [mile visibility], which is above GCA [ground controlled approach] minimums. We made our let down and were heading back to Da Nang, got in the pattern, made a pass and took it down to 200 feet and didn’t see anything. So we were waved off, and I said, “Hey, GCA, we didn’t see anything. We didn’t even see any lights on that pass.” They said, “Well, the weather’s really deteriorated. What are your intentions?” And I said, “Well, I’ll make one more pass. If we don’t get in then, I’m going to go to Chu Lai,” which was about 25 miles down the road.

So we’re boxing around in the pattern and came back, and on the approach, the controller said, “Chu Lai is not an option. They’re under attack so they’re not accepting any aircraft.” We were really concentrating. But I didn’t have the fuel to go to Thailand at this point and so my option was to land at Da Nang or Chu Lai. Those were the only two fields that we could get into with the fuel that I had left.

On the second pass we didn’t see the field, and we made two more tries and still never saw anything. So I told the ECMO [electronic countermeasures operator] who was with me—a guy named Ed Perron—that he could jump out if he wanted to, but this next time around we were going to land. And I told GCA the same thing. I said, “Okay, we’re going to land on this pass whether we see anything or not.” So they changed controllers and I could tell from the guy’s voice that he was their Number One guy. I said, “You work on lineup and I’ll work on glide-slope but make sure that we’re really aligned with the runway. That’s the most important thing.” We came around on that pass and actually landed, and never saw anything until we hit the ground. It was only on the roll-out that we started seeing the runway lights.

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