Dean Cunningham: A Flight to Remember

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 02:25

Another FANtastic Tale of Adventure 

By Dean Cunningham        Dean-Cunningham-2

The end was in sight. Five years and a couple of months earlier, I had exhausted my money for college and enlisted in the Air Force. After just 18 months, I was a very bored sergeant officers’ records clerk and mail distribution supervisor at Group Headquarters in Amarillo, Texas.

A piece of mail came across my desk requesting volunteers for aviation cadets. I applied, got it, and graduated as a 2nd Lt., Radar Observer/Navigator with a three-year extension on my enlistment. I was assigned to the 96th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Newcastle, Delaware.

Our all-weather interceptor squadron had the air defense responsibility for the area between Philadelphia and Baltimore. We were “scrambled” to intercept planes coming into the U.S. either off their assigned air corridor, or off their ETA for approaching the eastern coastline. The F-94C Starfire carried 48 rockets which could be fired 24 at a time at targets if necessary. As a testament to our effectiveness, I remind you that not a single enemy bomb was dropped on either city!!!

With the Gl Bill available, my wife and I decided I would leave the military to complete my degree in mathematics from Doane College in Nebraska and then become a math teacher. But, there was still some time left and some flights to be made. One day I scanned the flight board and found I was to accompany a pilot on a check flight of an airplane coming out of maintenance. I supposed that meant that the radar equipment needed to be checked as well.

It was a smooth flight as we approached Silvertone Control, a large radar tracking installation in the mountains of Pennsylvania. The pilot radioed them to say we were coming down to “see them.”

Just as we were waving to them, the pilot jerked back on the stick, popped in the afterburner and headed straight up. We did three snap rolls, a split S at the apex of the arc and then came back down to zigzag between mountain tops and wave UP to the crew at Silvertone. Charts and miscellaneous materials were scattered over my cockpit so I leaned down to collect them just as the stick was once more jerked back and the afterburner popped in. Up we went to the maximum attitude the plane could maintain flight.

Dean-Cunningham-1I, meantime, was pinned in my stooped position by 5 Gs – five times the force of gravity – for much of the ascent. As we reached 52,000 feet the pilot flipped us upside down and let the plane “free fall” for about 40,000 feet. As he got us upright and going back to base, he said, “You may be leaving us, lieutenant, but that ride was to make sure you never forget us.”

Obviously, after 58 years, I have not forgotten.

Author Dean Cunningham is president emeritus of Columbia College, and lives in Columbia, California.

 To read our Tales of Adventure Contest winners’ stories, see the Winter 2014 issue of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, available at these locations and by subscription.



By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 02:25
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1 Comment

  1. Pam Clemensen December 28, 21:05

    Dear Dean,

    In all the years I knew you at Columbia college and thereafter, I never knew this about you. I always appreciated your being my friend. And considering your coming from Friend, Nebraska, that makes sense.

    Hope you are doing ok. I enjoyed reading your article. Hope you write more.

    My best to you,

    Pam Clemensen ( formerly Erickson)

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