By Di Freeze
Last month, we left Captain Bob Pardo in a harrowing situation. The day was March 10, 1967, and the Air Force pilot, flying an F-4 Phantom out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, had been on a mission to strike the only steel mill in North Vietnam, in Thai Nguyen.
Flying tail end Charlie with a strike force escorting F-105s, Pardo was within about 50 miles of the target when Earl Aman and his backseater, 1st Lt. Robert Houghton, took a hit, and then, arriving at the target, took another from antiaircraft fire.
Soon, Pardo and his backseater, 1st Lt. Steve Wayne, would also be hit. As they left the target, Pardo would lag behind, mindful of Aman’s seemingly more critical problems. With both dangerously low on fuel, Pardo had continued to fly formation with Aman, until eventually, after trying other methods, he was able to push Aman’s ailing craft to relative safety. “Pardo’s Push” was accomplished by having Aman lower the large tail hook beneath Aman’s aircraft to rest, as gently as possible, against the windshield of Pardo’s, and later, when the windshield began showing cracks and gouges, against the metal just below the windshield. At times, Pardo operated without his left engine, which had caught fire and needed to be shut down. Pardo would fly the last 10 minutes on one engine.
Once over the Laotian jungle, it was time to get out from underneath Aman’s aircraft. Pardo and Wayne watched both Aman and Houghton punch out, and seeing chutes open, headed for a LIMA sight with a pierced steel planking runway, estimated to be 25 or 30 miles away, which would provide a good place to belly in and crash land “among friendlies.”
However, less than halfway there, they flamed out and both pilots punched out, coming down about 20 miles north of Communist-held Ban Ban, “not a very good place,” but at least, as Pardo put it, “better than going down in North Vietnam.”
Wayne’s parachute ride landed him in solitude, and he waited for a rescuing helicopter in a good hiding place. Pardo had some harrowing moments with his parachute, which had a few panels split slightly and which decided to slap him around a bit, but his bigger concern was avoiding the human sounds of the unfriendly jungle.
From his vantage point on a mountain, a small open space down the side looked like the best landing area. Getting to it meant a confrontation with a tree so dead it wouldn’t oblige him by grabbing his chute well enough to stop him.
Having a swell time, breaking branches and limbs as he went along, eventually his canopy collapsed and Pardo found himself freefalling, then landing in rocks, where he stayed slightly conscious for a couple of minutes, before slipping into unconsciousness.
He awoke shortly to hear people further down the mountain shooting and hollering, and heading his way. Leaving his canopy in the unhelpful tree, Pardo hastily grabbed his survival kit and started boogying up hill, climbing about 3,000 feet of mountain in about five minutes. Once he reached the ridgeline, he found what he first considered a good hiding place: a big hole full of leaves, behind a huge tree.
But, digging the leaves out, so he could get in and pull them back over him, he suddenly remembered that Cobras might have found the spot before his plunge from the sky.
“I thought I was going to dig right down into a snake pit,” he said. “That didn’t happen. I got down in the hole and got my weapon and ammunition.”
The four men had all managed to hit the ground with operating survival radios, and Pardo was able to contact Wayne, who was okay. Then, he talked to fighters overhead, beginning the rescue process.
“Steve had Earl and Bob’s position pinpointed on a map,” Pardo said. “He was able to give them their coordinates. They brought the helicopters in within a mile of where they were.”
Aman and his backseater were chased the whole time they were on the ground.
“There were people shooting rifles and dogs barking,” Pardo said. “The Sandies escorted the helicopters. When the first one got there, he homed in on me. I told him I had people down the mountain and asked him to see what he could do to get rid of them. He strafed the mountainside a couple of times.”
All the shooting stopped, and there were no more voices.
“Apparently, they thought I wasn’t worth it, so they went away,” he said. When it came to being rescued, Pardo first needed to provide positive identification that he was Captain John Robert Pardo.
“The fact that you’re standing down there with a radio on the correct frequency talking to people in the air doesn’t make any difference,” he said. The enemy, said Pardo, had not only captured people, but also lots of radios. “Before you get into combat, you fill out a card with certain things about your life that you’re not likely to forget and that no one else would know, or at least not the enemy. They use those things to help identify you. This guy asked me, ‘What was your first car?’ I told him it was a 1926 Chevrolet. All that stuff; like my mother’s maiden name. Then he asked, ‘When is your birthday?’ I said, ’10 March.'”
“Happy Birthday,” came the unexpected reply.
“I didn’t even realize it was my birthday,” said Pardo, who, since a friend had been killed on his own birth date, hadn’t flown on his. But, in Vietnam, he said, “time” took on a different meaning.
“It’s not, ‘What day is it?’ It’s, ‘How many missions do I have to go?’ The only way we knew what day it was, was that every Wednesday they’d put out a sign at the cash register that said, ‘Today is Wednesday. Take your malaria pill,” Pardo said. “That’s how you kept track of time.”
Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire
The first helicopter in picked up Aman and Houghton and started in Pardo’s direction. Pardo asked them to first pick up his backseater, since Wayne was between them. They did so, and soon Pardo heard and then saw them.
“I was directing them towards my position,” he said. “They just flew right on by. I said, ‘Hey boys, you overshot me.'”
Pardo was told they had all they could carry, but that a second helicopter would get him. After 30 to 45 minutes, he was on the cable, but his adventure wasn’t over.
“A limb got between me and the cable,” he said. “The guys were hauling me up as fast as a wench will go, I guess. I’m holding on, and it goes down right on my arm. I thought it was going to break it, but I didn’t really care. I kept giving him the thumbs up to keep hauling, but it wouldn’t pull me up. The PJ talked to the guy flying the helicopter. He came up on the collective; the helicopter could break the limb. The limb broke and they snatched me right out of the jungle. He got me inside, set me down, and gave me a couple of little airline whiskies.”
About five minutes later, one of the engines quit on the helicopter. Pardo was relieved when he was told it was simulated.
“The guy flying was on his first mission,” he said with a grin. “The other guy was an instructor.”
Pardo was taken to an outpost, where all four of the men were loaded into a helicopter to head for a hospital in Udorn for exams.
“Earl and his backseater both had compression fractures of the spine, from the ejection seat, and ended up going to the hospital in the Philippines a few days after we got back to Ubon,” he said.
Overall, Wayne was fine. Pardo had some cuts on his chin, and had broken vertebrae five and six in his neck. Aman and Houghton had a month to six weeks’ rest. Pardo’s medical records, being hand-carried, somehow got lost between Udorn and Ubon. Two days later, Pardo and Wayne were back on the flying schedule; that was okay with Pardo.
“I didn’t want to lie around,” he said. “I had things to do.”
There was another reason that he didn’t mind. Although he and Wayne had done something very courageous, higher ups in the Air Force weren’t happy they had “wasted an airplane.”
“There were people that cared more for the hardware than the people in them,” Pardo said.
Tommy McGuire, an aircraft commander, was in Pardo’s flight as well as a good friend.
“He had escorted the reconnaissance bird through after the mission,” Pardo said.
Over two decades later, Pardo and McGuire met at a reunion, and McGuire asked his friend what he and Wayne had received for their bravery.
“I told him we got seven days of ass-chewings,” he said. McGuire’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Pardo explained that after the incident, in a demonstration, the Air Force showed how they could have made it out, in a different fashion.
“They were between maybe giving us a medal or giving us a court martial,” Pardo said. “I don’t think anyone really believed that I took a hit over the target and lost fuel. They had the flight leader counting silverware at the officers club to be sure it was all there.”
Shortly after “Pardo’s Push,” a briefing was sent through Southeast Asia saying that Pardo and Wayne’s brand of heroism would definitely not be repeated.
“They didn’t want anyone trying it,” he said.
Pardo didn’t expect to be decorated, but he didn’t think they deserved to be court-martialed either.
“We got Earl and Bob back; that’s all we wanted,” he said. “Nothing else mattered.”
When McGuire, at one time U.S. Senator John Tower’s military assistant, heard the story, he vowed to see that the men were honored.
“John Tower was the Texan who went through confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Defense,” said Pardo. “Tommy told me he’d never asked him for a single favor, and it was about time he did.”
Tower approved the Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. Two weeks later, Pardo and Wayne were informed they were receiving the Silver Star.
“The Air Force got the last laugh,” Pardo said.
Pardo’s wing commander had been on vacation on the day of the push. After his return, he received a call from a general in Saigon.
“After they talked a little bit, all the BS went away,” said Pardo. “Then, it was just forgotten.”
Pardo said that even the participants didn’t talk about it. Something had happened one day while they were out flying, and they still had over half of their tour to go, so the attitude was, “Let’s just go back to work and get this thing over with.”
“We thought, “Let’s see what the next chapter holds,'” Pardo said.
The Silver Star isn’t the only honor to be bestowed on Pardo. Besides receiving the Air Medal, the Purple Heart and numerous other decorations, he was also awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, one for a bombing mission, and one for a “little MiG fight” he participated in with Robin Olds (now general, but at the time a colonel) a couple of months after “Pardo’s Push.”
During that fight, in which Old’s wingman and his backseater were shot down, at one point, 24 MiGs joined them in the circle. Pardo and his backseater succeeded in downing a MiG, even though while firing missiles at five different aircraft three wouldn’t guide and one wouldn’t fire. Olds shot down two and a friend of Pardo’s, leading another flight of F-4s, shot down another.
“They got one, but, we got our guys back after the war,” Pardo said. “They were up there for five and a half years, but made it out okay.”
Later, when Pardo won a $100 bet between him and one of his friends as to who would get the first MiG kill, he donated the money to an orphanage at Ubon with which he and others were involved. Their chaplain would eventually adopt one of the orphans.
Pardo ended his tour with 100 and 1/2 counter missions and 32 “freebies.”
“Freebies were when the weather was too bad in the north or you weren’t assigned to the north—maybe something was going on in Laos, and they wanted you to hit targets there,” he said. “Flying in some areas in Laos could be just as bad as in the north.”
Back in the USA
Pardo returned to the U.S. in August 1967, and balked at an assignment to the Pentagon.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “It might have been a good assignment, but not having a college degree, I didn’t figure I would go very far in the Air Force anyway. I thought I’d make all my promotions on time for my 20 years, as a reserve officer, and then I would get out.”
He says he didn’t see anyway he’d ever make a full colonel, but ended up being surprised “right at the end.” He was selected for promotion, but couldn’t accept it, because he didn’t have enough time left in the Air Force.
“You had to have two years left or a commitment as a result of a school that you were attending, or that sort of thing,” he said. “None of those things applied to me, so I couldn’t accept the promotion.”
At the personnel center in San Antonio, while on leave, Pardo came up with every excuse he could think of not to be assigned to the Pentagon. Finally, after the general he was speaking to found out he had been shot down, and realized Pardo’s determination to be in a fighter squadron and not behind a desk, he got his wish.
He was told there was an outfit in England, the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, waiting for someone just like him. Pardo was in England for three years, flying F-4s. After that, he was sent to Davis Monthan, in Tucson, Ariz.
“We had F-4s and we were running a replacement training unit and a central instructors school,” he said.
One weekend, the wing from Davis Monthan and one from Luke, a bigger base, traded places. Pardo, a lieutenant colonel, would be at Luke for his last three and a half years, first as a flight commander and later as assistant operations officer.
When all the high-ranking lieutenant colonels were promoted to colonel, new squadron commanders for every squadron at Luke were needed. At that point, Pardo became senior lieutenant colonel on the base.
Then one day, the wing’s director of operations told Pardo that although he would like to give him a squadron, he couldn’t, since he was a reservist, and the positions had to be filled by regular officers. At that moment in particular, Pardo wished he had accepted a regular commission on one of the numerous occasions it had been offered, so he could have been squadron commander for his last year.
“For some reason, I always thought there were better guys coming along, with good educations, who would make better leaders,” he explains of his reluctance to accept a regular commission.
However, he says, he later realized that combined with a good work ethic learned earlier from his father, the Air Force had taught him all he needed to know about leadership, and how to get the job done.
“I was good at what I did,” he said. “When it comes to fighting war, you need people that can get out front and lead without thinking, ‘Okay, I’m a leader. What am I going to get out of this?’ What you get out of it is getting everybody home alive. No award equals that.”
Still, Pardo said it wouldn’t have been any fun moving up the ladder, if he couldn’t have kept flying.
“Once you pin on the eagles, the pyramid starts to get pretty short as to who gets to fly and who doesn’t,” he said. “Then, once you pin on the star, it really gets skinny. If you’re a general officer, you have to be a big dog to stay in the cockpit. My thing was flying.”
Nearing his forced retirement, in 1974, Pardo was told he could have any “other” job on the base he wanted, such as being in charge of maintenance test flights.
“I said, ‘I want to go right back down to the central instructors school and teach,” he said.
Pardo was told that other guys were moving in to take his slot, but that he could take over training analysis and development, to which he replied, “What the hell is that?” The answer: he would sign off on all material written for schoolbooks, and keep the office running smoothly.
“It was funny. We were writing schoolbooks for the Germans, who were training in the F-104, for our Air Force for the F-4, and we were even writing some books for the F-105s,” he said. “We didn’t even have any F-105s!”
Most importantly, he was told he could fly as often as the powers that be put him on the schedule.
“For my last year, I flew as much as I ordinarily would have if I’d been assigned to a squadron,” he said.
Although not exactly what he wanted, Pardo said it was okay. He retired on April 1, 1974, and two weeks later, was back in the cockpit of another type of aircraft.
The Air Force had a program in which for the last six months that you were in, you could spend time looking for a job, Pardo said. Along that line, he began going through school to get his instructor’s and civilian ratings.
Also, a friend that had retired earlier told Pardo that he knew he would enjoy flying a Learjet, and should get a type rating and go into corporate flying. He urged Pardo to return to Texas.
“He thought there was going to be a job available as soon as I got out of school,” he said. “When I got there, the company had been sold and they had fired people and cut back. As long as I was there, I decided to go ahead and get the type rating.”
Back in Phoenix, Pardo began knocking on hangar doors.
“I walked in one hangar, and a guy said he’d been looking for me. He’d heard that someone had just retired from the Air Force, gone through Lear school and taken all of this training,” he said.
The man was looking for a copilot, and Pardo accepted the position. Within a month, he was co-captain. He worked for them for about 10 months, and then laid low for the next half-year or so. When a job became available in Dallas with his friend, he took it. Then, when one of his customers bought an airplane, he asked Pardo to fly for him, resulting in his first chief pilot position.
That folded after a couple of years. In 1980, Coors Brewing Company, in the process of purchasing an aircraft and setting up a flight department, hired Pardo to handle that responsibility and serve as chief pilot.
After acquiring a Lear 35 and hiring Rowdy Yates as co-captain, the flight department expanded further with a Lear 55, and the additions of pilots Milt Swanson (now a captain for the Anschutz Corporation), Cathy Kleegle and John Alexander, and a mechanic. The team would become known as one of the premier flight departments in the area.
“We tried to do things right,” Pardo said. “We were always training, working harder to be better.”
Pardo flew everybody from the Coors family to high-level management, sales people, mechanics and accident investigators. Flying the family was a pleasure. Flying Holly Coors, “a great lady” appointed by President Reagan as a U.S. ambassador, sometimes meant flying with a U.S. State Department flag.
“When we flew her in the Lear 55 to D.C., we’d land, open the window, stick the flag out, and taxi in,” Pardo said. “When they shut us down, we had the flag framed and gave it to her.”
When Joe Coors Jr. bought a helicopter, which he piloted, Pardo told him he thought he should learn to “speak helicopter.”
“He sent me to helicopter school for my sixtieth birthday,” Pardo said. He also liked working for Coors for another reason.
“When I went to work there, one-third of the work force was ex-military,” he said.
In 1992, the brewery disbanded the flight department.
“We were tight,” he said. “It was devastating; we just couldn’t believe it was happening to us.”
Pardo says that while in the middle of discussions to sell the airplanes, the technical side of the house got involved. Joe Coors Jr. was within about three months of becoming co-president of ACX Technologies, Inc., spun off in 1992 as a holding company for all of Coors’ non-beer businesses. He reasoned that an aircraft would be needed to visit manufacturing plants in hard-to-reach areas. ACX bought Coors’ Lear 35, and Pardo and Yates went to work for the company. The others were laid off. Four years later, ACX placed their aircraft under management with Centennial Airport-based Mayo Aviation. Yates returned to Wichita to go back to work for Flight Safety International as an instructor, but Pardo continued to fly for Joe Coors Jr.
With a little extra time on his hands, he became acquainted with William Mayo III, who eventually asked the pilot to fly for Mayo part time. Pardo did just that, and soon his part time job was more like working full time.
“That was great,” he said.
One of the freelance pilot’s new customers was Tom Bailey, the founder of Janus (one of the nation’s top-performing mutual fund families) and until recently, the CEO of that company. After flying with the pilot a few times, Bailey began requesting Pardo specifically for flights.
About the time that Pardo was to retire, Bailey decided to purchase an aircraft, and asked Pardo to help him and to set up a flight department. Pardo and his wife Kathryn discussed it, and agreed that he would spend approximately the next year getting the department established.
In the last months of that year, Yates arrived to be trained as Pardo’s replacement as chief pilot for Viper Aviation, based at Signature Flight Support at Centennial Airport. Then, on June 29, 2002, families, friends and colleagues of the two men gathered for a “Bye Bob, Howdy Rowdy” celebration. Pardo and Yates swapped tales, often becoming emotional in the process. In a tribute to Pardo, Yates related the rest of the story of the relationship between Pardo and Aman.
He told how, years later, Pardo heard that Aman was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and enlisted the help of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association (River Rats) to found the Earl Aman Foundation to provide Aman with a voice synthesizer, computer and motorized wheelchair and van to help make his life more comfortable. (Aman succumbed to the disease in 1998, but the foundation continues to fund medical assistance for other members of the River Rats.)
Hugging his wife and with tears in his eyes, Pardo reflected on his time spent with those gathered, which included the old Coors crew in its entirety, as well as several River Rats. He also warned Kathryn that although retiring, his flying days weren’t over. Pardo and Yates had already worked out a deal where, over the next year, Pardo would fly when needed. In fact, he was in the air the following week.
“When he or Andy need to take a vacation, I’ll come up and fly, or when they have to go to flight training, flight safety, whatever,” he said. “That’s three whole months right there.”
Returning to “God’s Country”
A “devout Texan,” Pardo says he spent 20 years in the Air Force for the United States as a whole, but particularly for Texas.
It’s been years since Pardo kept track of what day it was by when he took his malaria pills. Counting the days, months and years the old-fashioned way, with a calendar, he’ll tell you that too many years had passed—over 50—since he lived in “God’s Country.”
“I left home a week after my high school graduation, and haven’t been back there to live since,” he tearfully said at the party. “It’s time to go home.”
Days later, Pardo waded through boxes of memorabilia, at the home he was vacating in Golden, Colo., while Kathryn also prepared to move to College Station, Texas.
As for the blissful couple, Bob and Kathryn Arnold met in 1991, while he was in Austin celebrating the fiftieth wedding anniversary of an aunt and uncle. Pardo’s brother and his wife had known Kathryn since she was a little girl, and invited her to a small family gathering.
“Kathryn had never met any of the family and he wanted her to meet us,” Pardo said. “Of course, my mother and father were already gone, but all the brothers and sisters were there. The fireworks started immediately that afternoon. She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, absolutely.”
Once Pardo was back in Denver, phone bills mounted; they saw each other whenever possible. Marriage was soon discussed, and a date was set near the anniversary of the day they met.
“I guess the telephone bills just got totally out of hand,” he said. “We moved that date up.”
The next plan was for summer or spring, preferably on Pardo’s birthday, but that didn’t completely work out. They got married three days before his birthday in 1992.
Kathy had worked for an insurance organization in Texas.
“When she came up here, I was hoping she would just be a housewife,” he said. “But she got hired to be the executive assistant to the president of Coors Aluminum. For the last couple of years or so, she’s had her hands full looking after me.”
That job includes sorting through requests for Pardo to speak for military gatherings, as well as for organizations such as the Rotary and Lions clubs.
He prefers speaking to military groups, and has spoken at the U.S. Air Force Academy a couple of times.
“I like going to fighter squadrons, meeting all the young guys and gals,” he said.
Being the namesake of “Pardo’s Push” has provided unique opportunities. When told they would be presented the Silver Star, they were also told they could decide who would present it, including the president at that time. Pardo said he was sure the president was busy, but he and Wayne agreed the presenter needed to be a fighter pilot. They chose Wayne’s current boss in the Air Force, Gen. Chuck Horner.
“He’s a four star, a fighter pilot and was in Vietnam,” Pardo said. “He ran Desert Storm for the Air Force.”
Horner did the honors in 1989, at Wayne’s base. In addition, Pardo got a bonus—a ride in an F-16. Then, a few years ago on his birthday, he spoke at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and once again rode in an F-4 Phantom.
No matter how busy he is, Pardo finds time each year to attend the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association’s annual reunion. He explains how the group, organized in 1967, which includes about 3,500, came into being.
“A couple of wing commanders got to talking to one another and saying, ‘Hey, things are messy up north. We have to get together, learn each other’s tactics, and figure out what each is doing, because we’re working together every day,'” he said. “Col. Olds and a few of his guys got together with another wing commander.”
Yes, Pardo said, the rumors are true. Before discussing serious issues, the men had a BIG party.
“When Olds and everybody arrived from Ubon, they had five elephants there for them to ride over to the officer’s club,” he said. “But they also definitely had a serious meeting. They had a tactics conference, and started ironing out some details. Since we flew over the Red River Valley in North Vietnam, they decided to call it the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association.”
Retirement will most likely give Pardo more time to exercise his passion for golf, and he might even return to college. But definitely, even though he isn’t trying to break any record for hours in the air, he’s looking for flying opportunities to be found in Texas.
“We have airplanes in Texas,” he says with a grin. “All I have to do is find one. If things work out like I hope they will, we’ll have a small airplane available sooner or later. Maybe that will satisfy my need to fly. We’ll wait and see.”