John Lawler (64-66)

From the BIA Comm Center, 9/4/14

Our “Oberguru”, Berliner Phil Adams, asked me to write a synopsis of my military and civilian working life to kick off the “Military Assignments” forum. Here ya go:

During my senior year in high school, I came to the realization that I really wasn’t focused enough to waste time and money going to college, so I decided to spend four years in the military to “grow up”. In early October following HS graduation in 1962 (couldn’t miss a summer of fun with my buddies!) I took a little trip to Lackland AFB to begin my “adult life”. It was my very first airplane flight, and the venerable DC-6 – from its smoky startup machinations through its rumbling, three-stop journey to San Antonio – must have impressed me (more about that later.) While at Lackland, I (like most of you) was screened for training as a linguist. I arrived in Syracuse in early January, 1963 and immediately set to work… learning to drink too much beer! (And – oh, by the way – to learn a bit of Russian as well.) By the time I arrived in Berlin with about eight other “Jeeps” in April, 1964, I was ready to put both of my newly-learned skills to work.

Assignment as a 203 to Baker Trick at HBE was pretty normal and I enjoyed the camaraderie, German Bier and the work (except for mids). Somewhere along the line, TSGT Jim Waddell must have been impressed by my demeanor and invited me to join his “Team” of analysts working one week from 0900 to 1900 and then one from 1900 to whenever the last analysis report was finished (sometimes that would be the next morning, sometimes – in the winter months – as soon as 1930!) That gave me the chance to work with all the Tricks. It also gave me more opportunity to ride my BMW R26 all over Berlin and, on short breaks, to take it on the Duty Train to explore “The Zone”.  A midnight spill in the middle of the cobblestoned Nollendorf Platz gave me a little time in a cast and time to reflect on my hitherto aimless life. 

I must have been starting to mature a bit because I began taking University of Maryland courses and (surprise, surprise!) met the love of my life, Johanna, a lovely Berlinerin and the Education Officer’s secretary. We were married on 1 April, 1966 (yes, April Fools’ Day!), just six weeks after our first date!

Sometime in May, the 6912th woke up to the realization that I had married “an alien” (even though we had correctly submitted all the USAF paperwork and gone through the commanding officer’s personal, pre-marriage office visit). I went to work in HBE one morning to find out that I wouldn’t be allowed to go up the elevator to the super-secret spaces! Instead, I was to spend my time supervising newly-arrived personnel as they mopped up the squadron and barracks. On a Wednesday in late June, the Air Force gave me orders for an “early-out” and I was told to depart that Friday for McGuire AFB in my home state of NJ for honorable discharge! Talk about a scramble! Johanna was already scheduled to pick up her Green Card at the US Consulate that Friday, but it was too late to get anything organized for us to travel to the States together. We also had to divest ourselves of her household furniture, etc. We actually donated her piano to the 6912th Ready Room and a squad of guys came to the apartment to move it to HBE. On Friday I flew out of Tempelhof and Johanna took a taxi to the consulate for her entry permit. She was able to get a flight to the States on the following Monday, so it all worked out.

Newly married, freshly discharged and with a vague plan in mind to go to college, I took the suggestion of a buddy from California to go to school out there. California offered veterans an immediate California residency to attend college. We spent a year in Azusa where I attended Citrus Jr. College and spent all of $10 a semester for tuition! By then I had amassed two years of college credit and transferred to the University of California, Berkeley to finish my degree – at the princely sum of $80 per semester tuition! What a deal!

By the time I graduated in December, 1968 (with a BA in German, thanks to my lovely in-home tutor), I had finally figured out what I wanted to do for a career – fly airplanes! (See? That DC-6 experience started something!) I had heard that the airlines had hired a classmate who had graduated the previous May. He had been flying home with a new degree in accounting when he had seen an ad in United Airlines magazine saying that pilots were needed – no experience necessary! He applied and was accepted with the proviso that he pay for his own training. That sounded like a good deal to me, so I inquired and was told that quota had been filled and the deal was off. However, if I would get my own flight training plus 1,000 hours of flight experience, I could get a job as a United Airlines pilot. So, off I went to use some savings (and the residual GI Bill money) to pay for civilian flight training at FlightSafety International in California. I soon became a flight instructor and, two years later, had my coveted 1,000 hours of flight time! Back to United – only to be told that I now needed 2,500 hours of multi-engine experience! Damn! Timing is everything!

While I was still working as a flight instructor and pondering how to get into the airlines before going over their age limit, one of my students, a Naval Officer from the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station, told me the Navy was looking for pilots. So, off I went to take their entry test. The recruiters said, “Wow! Great score! And 1,000 hours of pilot experience! How old are you, kid?” When I answered, “Twenty eight”, their faces fell. Turned out that the cutoff age for Navy pilot training was 26 ½ ! But then they saw that I had served almost four years in the Air Force and they excitedly told me that they could grant a waiver for previous time served – but not for pilot because of the age limit – only for Naval Flight Officer, the guy in the back seat. After due consideration, I realized that the career would be the same, just not at the aircraft’s controls and, since I had been flying as an instructor like that anyway, what the heck?

In April, 1972, I entered officer training at Pensacola, FL and received my commission as an Ensign, USN. The training for Naval Flight Officer (the pilot’s best friend!) was relatively easy for me and I graduated number two in my class and had my pick of assignments. I chose the Navy’s hottest carrier-based fighter of the era, the F-4 Phantom, and joined my first squadron just as it was returning from a Viet Nam combat deployment. The squadron and I then completed a six-month build-up for our next deployment, which turned out to be to the Mediterranean (as was every one of my subsequent carrier-based deployments ).

Three years later, and “salty” with over 300 aircraft carrier landings (a Double Centurion on the USS Forrestal and one of the very first Centurions on the brand-new USS Nimitz – cool patches on your flight jacket mean everything!), I went to my first shore duty; in Naples, Italy as an Admiral’s Aide. That was a great experience and a fun-filled two years of adventure in Europe were the rewards for some stressful, hard work for “the Boss”. Another reward was my follow-on assignment to train in the then-new F-14 Tomcat!

The F-14 was a super piece of equipment and a couple of hundred carrier landings later, I was a master of my little universe. During the three years with my next fighter squadron we made history by challenging Khaddafi’s “Line of Death” across the Gulf of Sidra. My pilot (my CO) and I led the first flight of two F-14’s to intercept the Libyan fighters attempting an approach to our carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. I acquired the two bogies on my radar, and then directed the wingman to “hook” them from his left while we “hooked” them from our right. The CO and I rolled in on the Libyan fighter pilot’s wing as he was concentrating only straight ahead of him. When he caught us out of the corner of his vision, he immediately snap-rolled away from us toward his wingman, only to see that our wingman had positioned his Tomcat in his buddy’s six o’clock position – in missile range! The leader snap-rolled back to wings level and very nervously looked at us. When we both gave him a friendly wave, we could actually see his shoulders relax! We gave him the hand signal to reverse his flight course and to head home, which he happily did. No shots were fired that time (but the following year, the Navy shot down two Libyan fighters when one of them spotted the approaching F-14’s, fired one of his missiles – and both he and his wingman were immediately “splashed”!)

My reward for my nine years of good work to that point was a two-year early promotion to LCDR (equivalent to USAF Major) and an assignment as an instructor in the F-14 training squadron in Virginia Beach (where we had been living during both of my squadron tours of duty). Being an instructor in a high-performance jet is “interesting”. Imagine taking a newly-winged young man with a couple hundred hours of total experience into the air to teach him how to stay out of trouble in a 60,000 pound (but extremely nimble – capable of sustaining over 7 G’s) aircraft with enough thrust in afterburner to get a young pilot into a lot of trouble! Oh, the stories I could tell (and you probably wouldn’t believe!)

After surviving that tour of duty, I became the Officer in Charge of a unit that circumnavigated South America, operating with each South American Navy in turn. That was a wonderful operational and cultural experience. We got the chance to visit so many exotic ports of call, cross the Equator (another sea story!), transit the fjords of Chile’s West Coast (where, at some points, the fjord was only a few miles wide, had 12,000 ft mountains with glaciers on one side, 6,000 ft of water under the keel and another range of 6,000 ft mountains on the other side – spectacular!), and to round Cape Horn. By the way, the King Crab in Punta Arenas is fantastic!

By then, I was getting to be a bit “senior” for yet another flying job and I transitioned through the Armed Forces Staff College to take assignments in Belgium as a NATO Staff Officer and in Stuttgart, Germany as the Assistant Chief of European Foreign Military Sales. After finishing those extremely interesting, and socially rewarding assignments, as well as having been promoted to CDR (equivalent to USAF LtCol), I decided to retire at age 46 with 23 years of total USAF/USN service in order to start a second career. 

Wonder of wonders, the airlines happened to be so desperate for new pilots that they were beginning to hire “old guys” like myself! So, maybe the old airline-pilot dream could actually come true! I made application to FlightSafety International (my civilian flight training alma mater, since relocated from CA to FL) to renew my flight instructor credentials. Off we went from Stuttgart to Vero Beach, Florida where I not only became a CFI again, but added the CFII (instrument instructor) and MEI (multi-engine instructor). FlightSafety immediately hired me and I began what I assumed would be a one-year position until some airline took me aboard. Remember the “timing is everything” mantra? Sure enough, while I was logging even more pilot hours, the airlines again went into a recession-driven hiring freeze! Damn and blast! Can’t a guy get a break?!

Two and a half years later, I was recruited away from FlightSafety by Norfolk State University in Virginia to help start and manage their new Aviation Degree Program, which included full flight training. By that time in my life (I was 49), the airline dream was getting a little jaded and I also discovered that I had fallen in love with flight instructing – there’s something magical in seeing a student pilot suddenly “get it” and, when that light bulb goes off over their heads, I discovered it invariably made my day.

University faculty members normally have to have one degree higher than the level they’re teaching. So, thirty years after having earned my BA, I earned my MAS (Masters in Aeronautical Science) through Embry-Riddle University. I suppose that I had “finally” matured, because I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a 4.0!

Unfortunately, after a few years, NSU got a new president who couldn’t be bothered to understand what flight training was doing on “her” liberal arts campus! The Aviation Program was abandoned and FlightSafety, who had been trying to entice me back to their Florida operation for the entire six years I had been in Virginia, offered me the position of Assistant Chief Pilot and Director of Academics. (See the link:   Click on the line “Let the Adventure Begin” found under “FlightSafety Academy” in the left column – I was piloting the multi-engine training aircraft seen in all the air-to-air shots.)

After returning to our newly-built home in Vero Beach, Johanna and I settled in to grow old together in comfort. I finally, fully retired in 2006 at age 62 and we have been enjoying eight months of each year in our Florida home while spending  time between June and October in Europe. We discovered that we could afford to travel by exchanging our home for other family homes in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, England and Ireland. You can see us at:, Advanced Search, Property ID 13788.

Somehow, my life worked out far better than I planned. After more than five decades of adventure, I can really say, “Life is great!”

© 2014, The Berlin Island Association

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