April 8, 2013 — At the time Arthur Lichte was unaware of what a Lockheed EC-121 “Warning Star” was, but he knew his posting to McClellan Air Force Base, California, was fortuitous. Being a native New Yorker, the young officer was eager to go to the sunny and beautiful west coast. He figured that whatever an EC-121 was it would be fun to fly.
The future general’s initial greeting at McClellan was not exactly what he expected. Gen. Lichte recalled, “When I arrived on station and was in processing and going around meeting people a lieutenant colonel jumped all over me. The older officer said, “I don’t know why they keep sending us second lieutenants! Don’t they know this is an old weapon system and it will be phased out soon?” Startled, novice Lichte did not know what to make of the man’s passionate outburst. The experienced superior then broke a smile. Gen. Lichte recalled, “The lieutenant colonel told me they told him that when he arrived there 20 years ago.” The general added, “That lieutenant colonel became a great friend and mentor.”
Then Second Lieutenant Lichte would soon learn the greatness of the EC-121. He found that the people he met who flew the type loved it. Until the Vietnam conflict, the primary mission of EC-121s was to provide complementary early warning radar coverage to the Pacific and Atlantic barriers. The crews would fly orbits some 300 miles offshore of the continental United States creating “Contiguous Barriers.” Their coverages overlapped those of land-based early warning radars.
EC-121s also operated extensively over Southeast Asia between April 16, 1965, and June 1, 1974. Notably, they flew in support of Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Linebacker I, and Operation Linebacker II. The National Museum of the U. S. Air Force site states the following: “In Southeast Asia, these unarmed radar aircraft aided in downing enemy planes, directed U.S. aircraft to aerial refueling tankers, and guided rescue planes to downed pilots.” Notably, on October 24, 1967, an EC-121 flying over the Gulf of Tonkin “guided a U.S. fighter into position to destroy a MiG-21. This action marked the first time a weapons controller aboard an airborne radar aircraft had ever directed a successful attack on an enemy plane.” Thus, Gen. Lichte and his colleagues were bringing theoretical concepts to practical fruition.
The general reminisced about the first time he saw one of the military Constellations. Her nose proudly jutted forth from the graceful humped fuselage. The lady’s triple tail provided distinction, and the four engines distinctively protruded from the long wings. He emphasized that although the plane was approaching “the sunset” of its operational life, she “was a mature woman of refined distinction.”
Learning to fly the elderly aircraft presented some difficulties. Gen. Lichte explained, “The Connie was an interesting plane to fly.” He continued, “First of all, it was pretty old. After coming out of pilot training with Cessna T-37 Tweet and Northrop T-38 Talon jet time, I had to learn a lot about props and how piston engines worked.” The general found that the Lockheeds’ “controls were pretty heavy compared to other aircraft, and the instrument cross check was challenging.” Qualifying his statements, he interjected that, “Of course, this was the first big, multi-engine aircraft I had flown. That in itself was a pretty steep learning curve.”
Gen. Lichte noted, “The Connie was unique in the way it taxied because of the landing gear design. You could come on and off the step, which was another position for the landing gear. Sometimes it made the airplane lurch when one gear went ‘UP’ on the step and the other didn’t or vice versa. Due to its age, we seemed to have a lot of emergencies.” The general amusingly recalled, “It was often said that if God wanted the EC-121 to fly with four engines He would have put five engines on it because we frequently had one shut down.”
The general flew several models (D, T, & G) of the C/EC-121. “The C-121G,” Gen. Lichte said, “was configured to carry passengers. We used them for training. It was logical to do so because by utilizing that model we didn’t have to fly the radar equipment around and risk damage from all the touch and go landings.”
Gen. Lichte commented on the radar capabilities of the EC-121. “The plane had height finding radar as well as regular radar. I was not a radar expert, but I know the equipment was aged and very difficult for the technicians to maintain.” He added, “The electronic systems did the job for their time, but when the new Boeing E-3 came on board it was a welcome addition for our Air Force.” The turbojet-powered E-3 provided increased speed. The type also eliminated the ongoing problems with the troublesome Wright R-3350 reciprocating engines. The general remarked, “These failed all too often and required considerable maintenance.”
Addressing a question seeking information about typical missions, Gen. Lichte stated, “Typical missions in the states were going up on station and orbiting for hours at a time. We were waiting for the Russians to fly over the horizon in their Tupolev TU-95 Bear turboprop reconnaissance bombers.” The general continued, “We also had a mission down off the coast of Florida. The task was to watch for any fighters or other aircraft coming out of Cuba. We would track them.”
Gen. Lichte distinctly recalled special missions involving the Commander in Chief: “In particular we were called upon when President Nixon would go to Florida to visit his friend Charles “Bebe” Rebozo. Nixon would go to Miami, and we would be protecting the border.”
The general explained that he flew over Southeast Asia circa 1972. Based at Korat Air Base, Thailand, his EC-121 provided aerial support. Gen. Lichte described his first combat mission: “I remember flying out of Korat Royal Thai Air Base. There was a lot of excitement, and I was dealing with nervousness. We got all our briefings that morning and checked out all our combat survival gear. At last we were ready to go.” The general continued, “Captain Buddy Gregory was the aircraft commander that day and I was in the co-pilot seat. The EC-121 charged down the runway and lifted off the runway. We were on our way! While cruising to our designated patrol area, and shortly after the plane crossed over the border of Laos, an engine failed. Therefore, we had to return to base.” For the crew the experience was anti-climatic. The general concluded, “After all the anticipation of a combat mission, it turned into an emergency abort. We were back on the ground within a couple of hours.”
Gen. Lichte added, “Shortly after I began my first tour, there was a peace agreement and there was a halt in the war effort. However, we resumed flying again as the truce was broken, but we didn’t fly too much longer before the mission ended. After that we ferried the planes back home.”
Another incident that remains etched in the general’s mind is a flight out of Keflavik, Iceland. He recalled the events. “We were up running intercepts on two Bears. After the F-4s intercepted them, the fighter pilots took pictures of the Soviet airplane and returned to base. Meanwhile, we maintained our station. All of a sudden one of the turboprop Bears intercepted us. The faster aircraft flew up on our right wing. It was pretty amazing because we never saw it coming.”
Over the years Gen. Lichte served with the 552nd AEW&C Wing, and in both the 963rd and 964th Airborne Warning and Control Squadrons. The general misses the EC-121. He said, “It has been a long time, but I still remember her well. I do miss flying the airplane. I always hoped that I would find a Connie that was still flying and have an opportunity to fly the gregarious lady one more time. I have climbed aboard a few at various museums across the country. Every time I still get the same feelings, remember the smells, and think of the great people I flew with back in the early 70s.”
After leaving the outmoded C-121 behind, Gen. Lichte piloted Boeing KC-135 tankers and many other mobility types. Prior to retiring in 2010, he attained the rank of Commander of Air Mobility Command and accumulated more than 5,000 hours of flying time.
C-121s retired through the Air National Guard in 1973. The last EC-121 left the USAF Reserve’s inventory in 1978. However, the USN flew a single modified EW version until 1982.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star
Lockheed C-121 Constellation
Cessna T-37 Tweet
Northrop T-38 Talon
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear