Dick Rutan was invited to speak at our annual safety stand up at Air Station Sacramento. I was excited to be able to listen to a lecture by a person whom I remembered as a child. In the 1980’s, the Voyager’s trip around the world was big news and, as a kid pre-dispositioned to all things aviation, I followed the story carefully. I even recall my parents taking me to Edwards and seeing the Voyager sitting in its hangar with the bottoms of its wingtips scrapped off. I was looking forward to a first-hand account.
To my amazement, Dick Rutan arrived the night before and an informal social gathering was organized. I was there, and struggled with the decision as to whether or not to wear my leather flight jacket. I was enthused to be a part of an aviation gathering and display the fact I was part of the group. At the same token I did not feel entirely part of the culture, and felt that wearing the jacket would come off as an indication of wanting to be part of it. An indication of self aggrandizement.
The initial impression of Dick Rutan was that he is a pilot’s pilot and did not hold back at telling things the way he saw them. He had a lot to tell. He came there to talk and we let him and encouraged it. He was an older guy, and the memories of his life were one of his prized possessions.
A large part of his stories were that of his time in the Air Force. He grew up among parents who let him and his brother do what they wanted. This instilled an audacity for him and his brother to dream and act on them. It is an American dream. This led Dick to join the Air Force out of high school. He said that he had a goal in life, and that was “to set some type of record, and to do it as a pilot.” He thought that his one chance to do that was as a combat pilot in Vietnam.
This, really, is who Dick Rutan is. He is a fighter pilot first and foremost. His story and the story of his comrades are described in the book, “Bury Me Upsidedown.” The title comes from a toast quoted by Dick Rutan that he made when he and his buddies re-visited Vietnam. The idea was that they should be buried upside down so the rest of the world can kiss their ass. This encapsulates the attitude that they had, the attitude and cockiness that it took to do what they did.
What they did was stare death in the face on a daily basis. Nothing short of it. In one of the pictures in the book, Rutan is sporting a long handlebar mustache. Someone asked him about it, and he said that it was a “fuck you” mustache. Meaning he had volunteered for such a high risk mission that he wore that around daring someone to tell him to trim it. The attitude was that everyone should be lucky that guys like him were doing the job because if he didn’t do it, they would have to.
The mission was to fly F-105s as part of a MISTY mission. They would fly around enemy territory and try to attract SAMs or enemy ground fire, then the electronic sensors would be able to position the fire sources, and then and bombing attack would be made. Evidently it was one of the highest risk aerial mission in Vietnam. Rutan was on his fourth tour, and flew 352 missions over North Vietnam – an all-time record. This record, he thought, fulfilled his goal of setting some type of record as a pilot.
The realities of the combat that he experienced showed through his stories that he told to the Coast Guard pilots around the table. He spoke of compartmentalizing during the mission, of not processing the danger level until getting back to the base, then getting out of the aircraft and shaking and puking on the side of the ramp. He spoke of seeing a pilot get shot down and parachute to the top of a knoll, then the pilot’s wing man and Rutan made strafing runs between him and a village to protect the downed pilot from the villagers. After about 20 minutes or so, they were both at bingo fuel and hit the tanker. When they returned there was no sign of the pilot. He castigated himself, saying that one time he really fucked up, and if he was thinking straight he would have ordered the wingman to the tanker immediately, so he could relieve Rutan to hit the tanker. He thinks he could have saved the man’s life, if not for that mistake. He carries that opinion and memory. This statement was a view into the man’s personality. He openly had low patience and limited tolerance for incompetence, and he holds himself up to this high standard. This type of thinking, I think, leads to a level of judgmentalism that separates him from others, and perhaps leads him to feel alienated and angry – anger as old as the ages as when man could tell the difference of what is and what ought to be. In Rutan’s case, this anger has drove him to his achievements, his defying of risk and death-fear, and is keeping him isolated and angry as he defends himself with his achievements and abilities – hence the crotchety angry older man who was with us that night. I could be off the mark, though.
Another story he relayed was of seeing a Thunderbolt streaking below him on fire. The pilot was hit and burning, and he was trying to make it to the water. Rutan was rooting for him. The trouble was, there was the jungle inland – if you got shot down over the jungle and parachuted, there was a chance you could stay isolated from the enemy for long enough to get evacuated via helo. Between the jungle and ocean were marsh paddies and villages, if you landed here the villagers would hack you do death with machetes.
The Thunderbolt went out of control and rolled over 90 degrees, and at this point the pilot ejected. It was a good chute. Rutan followed him down, and after he made a safe landing and was unstrapping his chute, Rutan made a low level pass close enough to see the guy’s eyeballs. He pulled up, and looked below and could see a swarm of village people forming a circle around the pilot. It was a concentric circle and its diameter got smaller and smaller, and then collapsed on one side as the man made a break for it. By the time Rutan made another pass they were hacking at him with machetes. He thought about killing them all, and said he had the means to do it, but did not know if the pilot was still alive. There was nothing he could do.
Sean Green brought a copy of the book, Bury Me Upsidedown. Rutan went through it, pointing at the pictures, reveling in the memory and his participation in history, a history, that to me, seemed glories, but a history that was fraught with tragedy. Rutan pointed to a man in a squadron picture. That’s so and so, he said. He was killed. I convinced him to volunteer with the squadron, then he was killed. I feel bad about that.
The high risk missions led people to really hang it out on their last missions. This, evidently, led to some tragic incidents culminating in a mishap in which a pilot on his last mission buzzed the field and yanked the stick back. The F-105 does not have feedback in its flight control system, so the pilot’s action caused him to rip the wings off. The real tragedy was that the fuselage hit the dining hall and killed a few guys getting ready to ship home. After that no pilot knew exactly which mission would be his last. Rutan’s last mission involved him getting shot down. His aircraft was leaking jet fuel – so he put on the afterburners in an effort to get feet wet. The engine flamed out as he was coasting over the shore. He figured he had it made. He ejected, floated in the water for awhile, and a helo came and picked him up. He said that he fell asleep in the helo. That was it, he was done.
He served a full 20 years in the Air Force. That would put him at 38 when he retired. I don’t think he got a college degree. Someone asked him what he majored in, he said that he majored in fighter pilot.
Rutan said that he got shot down by a 2nd level gunner. For the second time he ejected he said he was shot down by a 2nd level crew chief. Apparently he left some type of oil cap in the oil tank. He was doing a maintenance test flight in shitty weather in England. Part of the flight called for a negative G pushover, and when he did it he heard a clunk. So, being naturally curious, he did it again. This time the clunk coincided with the oil pressure gauge going to zero. On the way back, his jet flamed out and he ejected. The jet crashed on the field and his parachute ended up in a tree. He described the experience as him, coming down with his gold visor down, and an Englishman clipping the hedges was there – and he scared the guy away.
Rutan described, in one experience, how he tried to control it all, tried to affect the outcome of the war. Scott Murphy asked him if he ever realized how small he was, if there was a time when he saw just how small he was – he was attempting a reference to the almighty. Rutan looked at him like he was nuts.