From Vietnam To Snow Patrol: Veteran recalls perilous service
Updated: Sep 15
• Air Force Vet Displays War Valor, Caps Career in Alaska
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
TO MARK this month’s Fourth of July celebration, we offer the story of a lifelong American citizen and Air Force veteran whose career highlights feature plenty of metaphorical fireworks — including:
• Boosting the U.S. space program in NASA’s early days.
• Serving an eventful tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
• Flying perilous Arctic missions as a C-130 airplane navigator.
“Some people say I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life and I should write a book — but nobody would read it,” quips Bruce Headle.
After reading this story, you can be the judge of his self-effacing sentiment.
Born on August 7, 1936, Headle was raised in Simsbury and graduated from Simsbury High in 1954, when the high school was located in the stone building that is now home to the town offices on Hopmeadow Street. In 1958, after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford and completing his ROTC training, he was commissioned as an Air Force officer. He served for two-plus decades, retiring in 1979 as a major.
Headle and his wife Mary-Michele (aka "Mike") live in Chugiak, Alaska, a small town about 20 miles from Anchorage near Alaska’s southern coast. She grew up in Harlingen, Texas — they met when he was stationed at Harlingen Air Force Base and married in October 1960.
“It's worked for 60 years,” he says.
Their three daughters and three sons-in-law live in Alaska, along with three granddaughters and three grandsons. Headle and his family have lived in Alaska since 1972, when he was transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage until his military retirement in ’79. These days, Headle and his wife own three Siberian Huskies.
“My wife likes dog shows, so I like dog shows — you know how that works,” he observes. “I’d rather hook them up to a sled, but sometimes we go to shows as far as Fairbanks, 300 miles north of us.”
For the uninitiated who are puzzled by his hook-them-up-to-a-sled comment, he is referring of course to dog mushing — Alaska’s official state sport, with its signature Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“We’ll take our Siberian Huskies to dog shows,” Headle says, “but I prefer mushing dogs for fun and recreation … I keep doing things I'm not supposed to do at 80-something — like taking a dog through an agility course.”
Headle’s military career was distinguished by significant assignments that dovetailed with key developments in American history.
In 1962 he became part of an Air Force initiative that tested high-altitude attire — both full-pressure suits and partial-pressure suits. A crucial goal was to fashion better spacesuits for NASA’s fledgling astronauts.
Project Mercury was America’s first human-in-space program, making six manned flights from 1961-63. Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in February 1962, in a Mercury spacesuit that was essentially a modified pressure suit.
Headle’s work, at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, included physiological research to investigate the effects of high altitude on the human body. He supervised a decompression (aka altitude) chamber for air crews so they could learn how to deal with the symptoms of hypoxia (aka oxygen deficiency) by experiencing them.
When the body doesn't receive enough oxygen — say, if equipment malfunctions at high altitude on an Air Force mission — hypoxia will occur. Given the indispensable nature of oxygen for human life to exist, this is undeniably a dangerous condition.
Hypoxia symptoms can vary from person to person, according to WebMD.com, but the most common are: faster and/or slower heart rate, shortness of breath and/or rapid breathing, confusion, coughing, sweating, wheezing, and changes in skin color (from blue to cherry red). WebMD.com further advises: “If you have symptoms of hypoxia, call 911.”
A serious condition, indeed.
“Decompression chambers held 10 guys and two instructors,” Headle says. “At 43,000 feet in the chamber, they took their oxygen masks off and experienced hypoxia — so they would recognize if it happened in flight.”
From sea level to 10,000 feet, most people have enough oxygen to breathe, he explains, “unless you smoke a lot.” Above 10,000 feet, human beings — including Air Force crews — progressively need extra oxygen. Earth’s atmosphere under normal circumstances is about 21% oxygen, most scientists agree, but above 40,000 feet even 100% oxygen from an oxygen tank isn’t enough, Headle says, and that’s what a pressure suit is for — “the suit gets tighter and tighter to help the crew member forcibly exhale.”
This is known as “pressure breathing” — “one breath at a time, inhaling and then forcibly exhaling,” with help from the suit, he says. But air crews need to avoid “panic breathing” — this leads to hyperventilating, which can lead to fainting. It’s safe to say that pilots and other Air Force crew members cannot afford to faint … at any altitude.
“People at high altitudes have to be careful they don't hyperventilate,” Headle notes. “When you panic, that’s the tendency.”
Today, it isn’t as necessary for air personnel to practice “pressure breathing” because full-pressure suits and partial-pressure suits have been upgraded, thanks to better technology.
“Modern spacesuits don't have to deal with that,” Headle says. “They’re totally enclosed, like being in a capsule.”
“Would-be astronauts went into the chamber to see what they could endure — we'd be taking bets about how many g-forces they could take before they started throwing up” — Air Force vet Bruce Headle
In the 1960s and ’70s, however, hypoxia posed a greater danger — “so everyone had to get a refresher.”
Air Force pilots went above 50,000 simulated feet in pressure suits under Headle’s supervision. A typical commercial airliner cruises at an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. He also worked with astronauts-in-training. Headle didn't go into space, but he did go up to 80,000 simulated feet — 15 miles high — in a pressure chamber.
“There’s a photo of me in a full-pressure suit,” he says. “It looks like I’m 15 years old, but I was 24.”
• Headle evidently enjoys a good quip — and if you’re keeping score at home, he’s a solid 3-for-3, with a leadoff triple (“but nobody would read it”) and now a single (“it looks like I’m 15”) and an earlier double (“you know how that works” … a double given the two-become-one marriage context)
Back to our regularly scheduled program:
“Would-be astronauts went into the chamber to see what they could endure,” Headle says. “We'd be taking bets about how many g-forces they could take before they started throwing up.”
• Going, going, gone — a g-force home run! Headle is now 4-for-4 in quip-worthy quotes and has hit for the baseball cycle, to boot … OK, we won’t go from the sublime to the baseball diamond anymore during this broadcast
Back to our program for good:
The Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration and NASA typically identify 50 miles high as the boundary where space begins, and the Air Force designates flyers who soar higher than that as astronauts — but “no one really knows where ‘airspace’ ends and ‘outer space’ begins,” according to a National Geographic article published in December 2018. In reality, astronautic scientists and officials don’t agree about the altitude where Earth’s atmosphere (or airspace) ceases and space starts.
Yet this distinction — and the definition of “outer space” — is pivotal because international laws governing outer space and a nation’s sovereign airspace are mutually incompatible. For example: U.S. satellites soaring 55 miles above China are legal and acceptable if outer space begins 50 miles high, but if the space boundary is defined as 60 miles high, those satellites become a potential military threat … and vice versa, of course.
In the embryonic days of space exploration, NASA tested pressure suits by sending chimpanzees into space, and Headle’s Air Force unit was instrumental in this research.
“We made neoprene molds for their funny-shaped little faces, and from those molds we formed oxygen masks that would fit the chimp’s face,” he recalls. “When I think back, that was historic.”
The endgame: custom-designed, form-fitting masks for the early astronauts — and Headle’s unit achieved that goal as well.
Headle trained as a plane’s navigator when he first entered active duty in 1958. After his tenure in Denver, he returned to those roots upon his transfer in 1966 to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
In small single-person planes in those days, one person was both the pilot and the navigator — but on larger planes, the pilot and the navigator were separate crew members with distinct roles.
The pilot flew the airplane, controlling where it went and making command decisions. The navigator directed the course of the plane, guiding the pilot via maps, charts, on-board radar and related instruments, plus other time-tested methods — this was long before GPS technology.
Trust was at the core of this essential old-school aviation relationship. Indeed, trust was a life-and-death necessity for pilots and navigators, and remains so for air crews in the 21st century.
Today, airplanes utilize ultra-reliable GPS for navigation, so the role of a navigator has essentially been phased out. For commercial airliners, this has resulted in a new crew configuration.
“Our most dangerous landing was at Khe Sanh — I arrived in Vietnam just in time for the Tet Offensive of 1968” — Air Force vet Bruce Headle
“Each commercial aircraft has a PIC/SIC crew,” says Simsbury resident Phillip Smith, owner of Learn 2 Fly CT. “The PIC is the Pilot in Command and is the person responsible for the safety of the flight. Generally, they are also the person flying the plane. The Second in Command (SIC) is the pilot sitting in the right seat, and they generally complete all of the checklists and work the radios.”
Further, a pilot today flies a plane for only the first few hundred feet and then turns on the autopilot, says Smith, who became a professional pilot in 2014 and established Learn 2 Fly CT in June 2018.
“Same thing goes for the landing,” he says, “The aircraft will land itself with the pilots monitoring the systems.”
In 1967-68, during the Vietnam War, Headle served as the navigator for a C-130, the legendary transport plane that executes the tactical part of an airlift mission by airdropping soldiers and equipment into hostile territory. The C-130 Hercules is an aeronautics rock star, widely considered one of the most vital aircraft in aviation history.
“The super-versatile workhorse … flies Navy SEAL missions, delivers supplies to Antarctica and fights wildfires,” among other capabilities, according to Business Insider.
To date, more than 2,500 C-130s — in 70-plus variations — have been used by more than 60 nations, per Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer that has produced the celebrated plane from the get-go. The C-130 Hercules took its first flight in August 1954 and entered U.S. service in December 1956, joining the Air Force’s inventory.
“I was in Vietnam for 13 months,” Headle says. “We carried everything that needed to be moved, generally seven or eight trips a day: troops, ammo, supplies, KIAs (killed in action). Very sobering — also loads of prisoners.”
The C-130 is known for its ability to utilize austere and remote airfields, as Headle notes: “I counted 63 different ‘airfields’ that we landed at in Vietnam — some very marginal airstrips, some dirt runways, some just a piece of a road.”
For nighttime landings, he says, “sometimes the only lights were a burn barrel on either end of the runway … big barrels, like the ones people burn trash in.”
BRAVERY AT BATTLE OF KHE SANH
“Our most dangerous landing was at Khe Sanh,” he observes. “I arrived in Vietnam just in time for the Tet Offensive of 1968.”
The Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest fights of the Vietnam War, was connected to the notorious Tet Offensive. Headle’s C-130 was one of countless transport planes that supplied the beleaguered U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh (pronounced CASE-ON) during a 77-day siege.
Headle described the intense operation in his first-person article for the Anchorage Daily News:
“The Khe Sanh runway was a straight shot down a valley and over a ridge to land on the runway, which was sloped slightly upward. There was a good chance that each plane would be a target for mortar fire. So the object was to land, offload and get out as quickly as possible. Total time was approximately three minutes for landing, taxiing through the small ramp at the top of the runway, releasing all five pallets of cargo while still rolling, turning right onto the upper end of the runway and taking off downhill. Then back to Da Nang for another load.”
In Headle’s exclusive interview with Today Magazine, he offers a caveat regarding the time frame that perhaps only a war veteran can truly understand: “We'd be on the ground less than three minutes from touchdown to takeoff — and that was too long. It was hazardous. It was not a fun time.”
The besieged Marines at the Khe Sanh combat base, only 5500 in number, were initially surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese troops, per The Atlantic magazine. The isolated base, nestled in the northwest corner of then-South Vietnam, could be reinforced and resupplied only by air.
“We'd be on the ground less than three minutes from touchdown to takeoff, and that was too long — it was hazardous” — Bruce Headle
“The Marines were totally surrounded by the bad guys — they were bombarded,” Headle says. “One plane at a time would land, and then the next plane would come in.”
However, the U.S. transport aircraft were vulnerable because the Khe Sanh base was in a valley encircled by hills and 4000-foot-high mountains, giving North Vietnamese artillery a potential fish-in-a-barrel target.
“As the navigator of a C-130 in Vietnam, besides avoiding enemy fire, the main thing was to not hit any mountains,” he explains. “We lost airplanes. I saw one get blown up — we couldn't go in then. We had to wait till they cleaned it up, since only one airplane could go in at a time.”
He notes that while his camouflaged Air Force C-130 was hit by flak just once at Khe Sanh, other aircraft were far less fortunate, such as that silver Marine C-130 that was destroyed right in front of his eyes.
Headle’s C-130 and other waiting planes were forced to circle the airfield — leaving them exposed to enemy artillery and adding danger to an already life-threatening mission — as a military ground crew worked feverishly to clear the debris from the runway after the plane’s explosion.
“After we watched that big silver C-130 touch down at Khe Sanh and get blown up right away, I wondered if anyone could have survived,” he says. “I thought it was impossible.”
Thirty years later in Alaska, at a dog show in Fairbanks, Headle met a fellow military veteran who was showing his Irish setters.
“This is one of those small-world stories,” Headle says. “He was in an elite unit. As we talked, we realized we both served in Vietnam — and we were both at the Battle of Khe Sanh.”
Readers and all other passengers, please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for an unbelievable plot twist.
“He was on the C-130 that I saw get blown up,” Headle says. “He was totally blown out of that airplane still strapped in his seat and he lived to tell about it. … His name is Glenn. He lives about 30 miles from us here.”
At this juncture, what do you think of Headle’s self-assessment regarding a book about his life — would anyone want to read it? If Today Magazine branches out into book publishing someday, we’d surely be interested in a discussion.
So far we’ve covered just two of the three aspects of his career mentioned at the outset of this article — boosting the U.S. space program and serving in Vietnam — but not the third: Flying perilous Arctic missions as a C-130 navigator. On the cover of this edition is a photo of an Air Force C-130 that Headle navigated on Arctic flights when he was based in Alaska.
For that chapter of Headle’s story, stay tuned for an upcoming edition of Today Magazine. +
• Reflections on Classic C-130 •
Air Force and Vietnam veteran Bruce Headle contemplates the classic C-130 transport plane:
• “The C-130 is a big four-engine, four-propeller plane with turbojets — it’s been around for more than 50 years, and almost every country in the world has them”
• “In a crisis, C-130s can go in and land on shorter runways and dirt runways with a big load, in the jungle or in the Arctic — we had 30,000 pounds in a C-130 … that's why they're used so much everywhere”
• “The C-130 is also a Hurricane Hunter” — Hurricane Hunters are aircraft that fly directly into hurricanes and are otherwise used for weather reconnaissance missions
Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist
• This article first appeared as the cover story in the July edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
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