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thedrifter
04-25-09, 08:40 AM
Saturday, Apr 25, 2009
Posted on Sat, Apr. 25, 2009
Veteran, teen honor Medal of Honor winner in Fort Worth


By CHRIS VAUGHN
cvaughn@star-telegram.com
Jake Buck had never sat in a cockpit before. Charlie Yates has 12,000 hours of piloting.

But when the two went up together from the airport outside Roanoke recently, it is not clear which one enjoyed it more, the 14-year-old eighth-grader or the former Vietnam combat pilot.

Each of them, separated by so many years and life experiences, had one thing in common — Jake’s grandfather, an Air Force forward air controller who lost his life in 1972 and earned the Medal of Honor. "It was overwhelming to me," Yates said of taking Jake on his "discovery flight."

Whether by coincidence or providence, Jake’s family and Yates live only 15 miles away and met each other through the Fort Worth-based OV-10 Bronco Association, a nonprofit organization of forward air controllers.

The association and its museum at Meacham Airport will welcome a few thousand guests and a few dozen former forward air controllers today to the annual Cowtown Warbird Roundup, which will feature more than 60 combat aircraft.

Yates will be there, and so will Jake’s family, who relish the opportunity to meet with men who knew Air Force Capt. Steven Bennett, who was born in Palestine went on to become the most decorated OV-10 pilot of Vietnam.

Forward air controllers have always been a tiny community in the military, but that world of pilots has gotten even smaller because of the development of GPS-programmed bombs and crystal-clear gun cameras. In Vietnam, though, the pilots in their low and slow airplanes were crucial.

When Bennett died, his only child, Angela Bennett-Engele was 2 years old.

Because of his deployments to Southeast Asia, she only spent about eight months of her life with him, and has not a single memory to hold onto.

She heard family stories about him but began to notice as she got older that the stories depicted a saint more than a real man.

"I knew he couldn’t be perfect," she said.

When she moved back to North Texas about 12 years ago, she happened to move back to the place where her father’s pilot community organized.

The OV-10 association, formed in Colleyville in 1997, operates the Veterans Memorial Air Park at Meacham Airport in north Fort Worth.

"Once I moved here, I got involved with the OV-10 group," Bennett-Engele said. "I met many guys who knew him and flew with him and went through flight training with him. It was important for me to know how he was with the guys. Through them, I’ve gotten to know my dad."

Whether because the passage of time has faded memories or because of sensitivities because she is his daughter, it has been difficult, she said, to get the pilots to share anything negative about him. But she did learn that he was a practical joker, a side of him that her family knew nothing about.

It was through the OV-10 association that Bennett-Engele met Yates, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and retired Delta Air Lines captain. Yates is now the chief pilot at Marcair in Roanoke.

Yates never knew Bennett. He checked into Bennett’s old squadron, the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron in Da Nang in September 1972, less than three months after Bennett’s death.

"As a young lieutenant coming into the squadron, he was legendary," Yates said. "I grew up in his shadow, knowing what he did."

Jake has also grown up with the legacy of his grandfather’s deeds. He was a youngster when he went to the christening of a military sealift ship named for his grandfather, and he has shaken hands with grown men who talk gloriously of his grandfather.

He has wanted to be a pilot for much of his life, in part because of his grandfather, he said.

He isn’t sure he can qualify for the military because of asthma, but he hasn’t lost the desire.

His mother hopes it is not because he feels he has something to live up to.

"It would be hard for me to see him go into the military," she said. "That’s scary for me. But I’ve told him that if it is truly his passion, I will support him all the way. I’ve also told him that if he’s worried about my dad, he’d be proud of him if he was digging ditches."

When Yates and Jake took off on their flight, they flew around Denton County, performed a touch-and-go landing at Alliance Airport, even rolled in on a few fake targets, "just like his grandfather would have done it," Yates said.

While Bennett’s widow sat in the back seat crying, Jake impressed Yates with his control of the plane. "His joy and enthusiasm was incredible," Yates said. "He was not timid."

Medal of Honor
Air Force Capt. Steven Bennett’s squadron of forward observers would fly their planes over contested areas, calling in naval artillery on enemy positions. For the most part, Air Force pilots flew the aircraft and Marines served as back-seat spotters.

On June 29, 1972, Bennett and his back-seater, Marine Capt. Michael Brown, saw a large group of North Vietnamese attacking a much-smaller group of U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops near Quang Tri. No fighters were available, and naval artillery wouldn’t shell because everyone was too close.

So Bennett started strafing runs over the North Vietnamese with the plane’s machine guns. On his fifth low-altitude pass and just as the North Vietnamese began withdrawing, a surface-to-air missile struck his plane, destroying the left engine and starting a fire. Bennett wanted to eject both of them, but Brown’s parachute was damaged from shrapnel, and ejecting meant he would not survive.

Bennett chose to ditch the aircraft in the Gulf of Tonkin to give Brown a chance to survive. But in doing so, he sealed his own fate. No OV-10 pilot had ever survived an emergency landing on water.

Brown survived and now lives in Richardson. Bennett is buried in a cemetery in Lafayette, La. His widow and daughter were presented with the Medal of Honor by Vice President Gerald Ford on Aug. 8, 1974, the day before President Richard Nixon resigned.

Ellie