By Col. Michael Burke
21st Medical Group commander
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Greetings fellow Knights! I’m currently TDY — attending the University of Tennessee’s five-day Lean for Healthcare course. What a superb opportunity, even if it is late at night and my mind is numb from crunching through homework focused on topics like emergency room optimization, clinic efficiencies and production, and non-value waste elimination via a concoction of applied Calculus, quantum physics and cold-fusion — or so it seems at this hour and at my age. I look forward to this break in my AFSO21-inspired studies to write my first commander’s commentary and to share a few thoughts and personal experiences with you.
Before I get rolling, I’ll launch into this blog with a big thanks to all the members of Team Pete who have welcomed my wife, our kids and myself with open arms and warm hearts. As many of you know, this is our third assignment to Colorado Springs and it’s already shaping up to be the best! We absolutely love it here and look forward to getting involved in the base and local communities. We’ll see you around the campus!
As I’ve made the rounds completing my inprocessing, I’ve noticed a small Airman and Family Readiness Center poster that asserts, “Citizen Airmen…never leave their Wingman” posted conspicuously around the base. On this poster, is a picture of a painting by S. W. Ferguson of two F-4 Phantoms flying in what appears to be tight formation over a thick jungle canopy — seemingly, ops-normal for what we’ve all learned about Vietnam, right? Upon closer examination, one of the aircraft is precariously pushing the other in flight by its tailhook — not so normal after all! This small placard and the story behind the aerial feat depicted in the picture are the inspiration for my commentary.
The picture captures a true story and portrays an unmistakable act of aerial heroism known as “Pardo’s Push.” Here’s a recount of what happened on that day more than 40 years ago.
On March 10, 1967, four Airmen, Capt. Earl Aman and 1st Lt. Robert Houghton in one F-4, and Capt. Robert Pardo and 1st Lt. Steve Wayne in another, departed Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, as fighter escorts for a strike force of F-4s and F-105s. The mission’s sole target was a North Vietnamese steel mill, which was the North’s only known plant capable of producing essential war materials. Given the strategic nature of this target, it was believed to be heavily guarded with enemy MiG aircraft and upwards of 1,000 anti-aircraft guns and artillery — certainly, not the best odds for the ‘good guys.’
Aman and Houghton’s F-4 took anti-aircraft hits and damage prior to arriving at the target, yet they pressed forward. Upon engaging the target, they took even greater artillery fire and further damage. Pardo and Wayne suffered similar consequences during their attack run. Upon egress from the target, Aman placed an emergency radio call to Pardo — his jet was critically damaged and leaking fuel at a high rate. They were going to eject over North Vietnam near Hanoi. Pardo recognized that ejection at this location would ultimately lead to their capture and likely deaths and convinced them to do their best to nurse their Phantom to a safe altitude. Also nursing a critically damaged aircraft, Pardo positioned his Phantom behind Aman’s and attempted several high-risk maneuvers to push his Wingman’s aircraft to safe territory. On his third and last attempt, Pardo was able to maneuver his aircraft behind Aman’s and push his aircraft by its tailhook. This just as Aman’s aircraft flamed out. Pardo was able to push Aman and Houghton’s ‘lifeless’ Phantom at 250-300 knots toward a safer ejection location near the Laotian border. Meanwhile, Pardo and Wayne were bravely wrestling their own jet thru significant battle damages: a single engine fire/flameout and rapid fuel loss. In the end, all four Airmen ejected and were rescued by friendly forces thanks to the heroism and courage of Pardo and Wayne.
I first read about “Pardo’s Push” some 20 years ago — his grit-n-guts courage and bravery have left a lasting impression on me ever since. Metaphorically speaking, we all need a “push” every once in a while. Most of the time, and thankfully, these “pushes” are not of the magnitude that Pardo had to give Aman and Houghton to save their lives. Though, as a young captain, I did personally witness one of extraordinary magnitude and worthy of sharing in this commentary with that of Pardo’s push.
In the summer of 1997, I PCS’d to Patrick AFB, Fla. On my first day at work, I observed an event unfold that changed my outlook on life ever since. I was attending the 45th Medical Group’s summer picnic when a young senior airman dove head-first off of a fishing pier into the Banana River. It was hot and he needed to cool off. Unfortunately, he dove into shallow water, struck the bottom and broke his neck. In a blink, his life changed forever. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Up to that day, he had been rigorously training for the Air Force’s inaugural marathon with his best friend, another young senior airman assigned to the 45th MDG. Neither made it to the marathon that year. However, the friend did keep a promise to run a marathon with him. A year later, both completed the Park City Marathon in Utah. One in a wheelchair…the other “pushing.”
The Airman who was injured that day was Senior Airman Jason Shumway. He died a few years later of what was reported to be an unrelated brain tumor. The senior airman who kept his promise and gave one of the biggest “pushes” is Walt Boldish. His push further served to raise thousands of dollars for a Florida orphanage enabling several children a coveted trip to Disney World…now that’s a “push!” You can still find their story online as printed in Airman Magazine (1998). I’ve lost contact with Walt over the past few years…but writing this commentary has compelled me to track him down again — we all need inspirations like him in our lives.
“Pardo’s Push” and Walt’s push are extraordinary examples of Wingmanship and epitomize what we affirm in our modern-day Airmen’s Creed, “I will never leave an Airman behind” and “I am faithful to…a legacy of valor.”
Given our current ops-tempo and the day-to-day stressors we all face, Wingmanship, teamwork, friendship and comradeship — whatever you want to call it, is more critical than ever. Know your teammates inside and out. Know what makes them tick. Recognize when they need you and be by their side when they do. Know who to contact when your teammate needs help — the experts in the 21st MDG Mental Health Clinic, the chaplain, a supervisor, a commander — we have an amazing support network! Bottom line: your Wingman needs you — always be on the ready when they need a push!