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My immune system apparently had no resistance to daydreaming about flying. As a kid in the ‘50s, I found myself thinking about flying pretty much all the time. Some neighborhood kids had dads or uncles who flew during the war. Stories about flying exploits were not hard to come by. What could be more fascinating to a kid?

As luck would have it, (and I attribute much in my life to luck) a friend had an uncle who had trained aerial gunners. He had a few model aircraft–both German and Japanese types–that must have been used for silhouette recognition training. We glommed onto them and that led us to start building model airplanes when we could cadge our parents into buying them.

Another family connection was a participant in the Ground Observer Corps (GOC). That got us, as grade school kids, our own GOC wings and we spent Saturdays in the top of City Hall in Champaign, Illinois scanning the skies and alerting the trackers in Terre Haute, Indiana by phone every time a Piper Cub droned through nearby skies. Radar was still making its way into civilian aviation. That led to our Airplane Spotters Club in his grandmother’s garden house where we made models and read about airplanes in Popular Mechanics and Flying Magazine. We both had subscriptions that our magazine door-to-door selling got us. We even got to visit the local general aviation airstrip!

My Dad’s time in the Army in Italy led to his staying in the Army Reserve. That allowed him Base Commissary access to Chanute Air Force Base (AFB) south of town in Rantoul which gave me the chance to see even more planes…military planes! Chanute was decommissioned almost 40 years ago. Time apparently likes flying, too.

As time went by in my life, I still held onto my fascination with flying. When I started college, ROTC was mandatory for the first two years. I chose Air Force ROTC. An interest in military history convinced me that if I had any non-infantry options I would take them. As college in the mid-1960s moved along, our involvement in Vietnam began to ramp up. The draft was scooping up people my age from sea to shining sea. I decided to stay in ROTC and get a commission to keep the draft at bay and because it helped pay for my junior and senior years at Oklahoma University. But it did commit me to four years of active duty after college. Most of my friends were in ROTC for similar reasons, although they were spread throughout the other branches.

Occasionally, I had the chance to go flying with friends who had their licenses. I never turned down an opportunity. I also knew that my eyesight was not going to permit any chance of becoming a military pilot. Oh, well. One day at a time.

When I graduated and got my 2nd lieutenant bars, I also got the results of my Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT). The AFOQT is pretty much an aptitude test to help the Air Force decide what job specialty fit a person’s knowledge and skillset inclinations. My results let me know that my Air Force Specialty Number would be 1744A, Weapons Controller. At the time, I had no idea what a Weapons Controller was, but it involved using radar to control aircraft that were carrying weapons.

I knew about NORAD and knew people who had gone to the Air Force Academy when it was brand new and near the NORAD Center deep in a nearby mountain. The vision working inside a mountain, or of spending time at the arctic circle scanning for Russian bombers, left me cold (pun is unavoidable).

During cadet training in southern Alabama, we visited a monstrous NORAD blockhouse and saw controllers at work. This was interesting because it had to do with actual airplanes on the other end of the radios. But hearing stories of frostbitten boredom at Alaskan NORAD facilities was like…well…yikes!

Then I got orders. I was assigned to Tactical Air Command which sounded better than Strategic Air Command (SAC) that ran the NORAD operations.  I still had no idea what I’d be doing, but I received orders to report to Tyndall AFB in Florida. There I learned how to use the radar and radio gear to run intercepts. It turns out that SAC is designed to handle problems that come our way and TAC goes to where the problems are, like Vietnam.

After Tyndall, I was on to Shaw AFB in South Carolina and subject to more intercept training. This time the training was with actual aircraft rather than the computer-generated targets and interceptors at the Tyndall training facility. I was excited about getting closer to the actual flying part of the Air Force and getting to chat with guys in flight suits at the Officer’s Club stag bar. Some, like Karl King, who flew HH-43 Huskies had already been to Vietnam. The future was getting clearer and closer.

I participated in a couple of flights in the HH-43. This “cross training” involved looking for fish schooling in Lake Marion and vectoring in another pilot in a fishing boat to catch the fish. We called it Forward Boat Control.

What came next were temporary duty assignments (TDYs) and I was back in Florida for Ground Combat School. This training consisted of two weeks of hiking through the pine forests with empty guns and going to Escape and Evasion lectures.  That was followed by Counterinsurgency School. Here we learned, among other things, that we weren’t going to be taught the language of the people we were going to help and/or fight.

I was able to eventually go home to Memphis to visit family. By now, we had to be ready for deployment because that’s what Tactical Control Squadrons do is deploy to areas needing weapons control radar sites. Part of this duty was keeping the Composite Air Strike Force (CASF) bags with us. One of the bags included cold weather gear in case trouble broke out in Antarctica and one was equipped with hot weather gear for everywhere else in the world. CASF bags were in the trunk for my trip to Memphis. Not long after returning to Memphis, and while chatting with mom and dad, the phone rings, “Get back to Shaw immediately. We are loading up the radar site and will be deploying to the Middle East.”


When I arrived back at Shaw, C-130s were already loaded with our supplies.

I arrived back at Shaw AFB after driving straight through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. C-130s with all our equipment were on the runway. I headed to the flight line with my summer CASF bag. Then the order came through, “Stand down. It’s over.”  If the Six-Day War had gone to seven, I’d have been enroute within the next hour.

As the nation’s military involvement in Vietnam continued to expand, despite the publicly stated interest in “seeking no wider war” I decided to volunteer for duty. The characterizations of what was going on over there were all over the place. I thought that I would like to see for myself what was happening and use the training I had been given to assist the people in the cockpits doing the heavy lifting.

Two months later, I was on my way to Vietnam. After a month at the 620th Tactical Control Squadron radar site on Monkey Mountain overlooking the harbor at Danang and the South China Sea, I was reassigned to Detachment 1 of the 620th TCS – AKA, Waterboy Control. My call sign was “Waterboy 15”. This site was on the sprawling Dong Ha Combat base that was headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division. The DMZ was just seven miles north and Khe Sanh was just 25 miles west. The neighborhood included Quang Tri to the south, Cam Lo to the west, Con Thien to the northwest and a host of places that would see near constant combat activity as 1967 transitioned into 1968.

The new year brought almost continuous shelling from NVA artillery north of the DMZ, the siege of Khe Sanh, and the endless attacks on Con Thien. In the northern I-Corps, TET was just another day at the office.

As all this unfolded outside the operations center while inside, we coordinated refuelings all day, every day. It was like running intercepts, except that we got to control the target as well as the interceptors. The tactical aircraft would takeoff without full fuel to make it possible to carry a full bomb load. They needed to gas up on the way to their targets and refuel on the way home after hitting their targets. Tankers were always on station over the South China Sea and orbited over Laos as well to refuel aircraft based in Thailand.

We worked with strike aircraft, forward air controllers, the tankers, recon aircraft, C-47 gunships, cargo aircraft of all types, helicopters, AC-121 AWACS planes, B-52s, Navy planes, Marine planes, Army planes, and USAF planes. If it flew, we worked with it. So, I got to talk to pilots all day, every day! And I got to fly on all kinds of airplanes as extra duties evolved.  But the reality of the horror of war was also there. All day, every day. All night, every night.

The upside was that I had to learn about communications, weather, flight planning, air traffic control and just about everything a pilot needs to know except how to operate a plane. The Airplane Spotters Club on steroids!

After a year of this adventure, I was sent back to Florida, but Eglin AFB this time. I trained new controllers and worked on testing a new radar system that included the range and azimuth scanning and height finding operations in a single antenna. This would end the need for the rocking chair height finders we had used overseas.

The Florida panhandle was fun in the sun. I rehabbed an old cabin cruiser and went out into the Gulf of Mexico a few times to do some snorkel diving. Naturally, the USAF decided to send me to New Mexico. What???  Aside from a few reservoirs, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of water so I sold the boat.

The radar I was working with in New Mexico was the same one I had been involved with in testing at Eglin. Turned out that my feeling about it not being ready for deployment was accurate. It wasn’t. I had little to do at Cannon AFB. I took the opportunity to road trip around New Mexico and west Texas. I liked what I saw and enjoyed the history. But the real kicker was learning about the base flying club. I joined the club and soon had enough hours in the club’s Piper 140 and 235 to get my license. Finally!  At last, I was a pilot!

That was more than a half century ago and I’ve loved every chance I’ve had to fly since. I flew on the government’s dime for awhile and learned about Cessnas. I rented planes when the resources permitte, and finally bought an old plane – a 1972 Socata Rallye Minerva.

Socata Rallye Minerva

I finally bought a 1972 Socata Rallye Minerva.

My flying is pretty much for the experience of flight rather than simply a way to get from point A to point B. I’ve taken a number of long cross countries, but most of the time I just mill around the skies of New Mexico marveling at the amazing topography. While I never earned an instrument rating, I had to upgrade to a high performance endorsement since my old Socata Rallye has over 200 horsepower. In the Rallye’s case, performance is STOL rather than speed. It’s perfect for small town and back country fly-ins.

The point is that I’m living my boyhood dream every time I slide the canopy closed and fire up the Rallye. Lucky me!


I’m living my boyhood dream.

Lanny Tonning
Latest posts by Lanny Tonning (see all)
11 replies
  1. David Tyler
    David Tyler says:

    Thanks! You made me smile. A few more years down the road, and you could have flown as an airborne controller on E-3s, but you still had a helluva career, and you have my gratitude for serving in Vietnam. I truly do understand the desire to “fly for the sake of flying” — long ago, I would ride along on 9-hr B-52 training missions just to do it. Later, as a deployed E-3 flight engineer in Saudi Arabia, I would sometimes ride along with the KC-135 crews just to watch them refuel our AWACS birds from the boomer’s pod.

  2. Rich
    Rich says:

    Great story! I enjoyed it very much. While I did not serve, I had family members who did, and have had the chance to work with many during my civilian time with the Air Force. I’m not sure the current generation could do what you and they did. Thank you for your service.

  3. RichR
    RichR says:

    My Dad would share Italian Campaign stories if pestered…learned what not to do from watching him snort at war movies…one of which had troops cheering the arrival of friendly strafers, when asked he said they were as likely to strafe friendlies as enemy…made sure I remembered that when later copying 9-lines!

  4. Peter Rearick
    Peter Rearick says:

    Great story, and not so different from my own, though I was a child of the 60s and 70s.

    As a retired C-130 crew chief and flight engineer, I have to point out that the picture caption is wrong, that’s a C-123.

  5. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I, too, spent some time in AFROTC. Vietnam was a nightmare for so many, even those that didn’t serve, but waited and prayed for a safe return if loved ones. For me aviation has been a part of my life since a grass strip on our farm was occupied by former members of the WWII military and those that shared the love of flight. Thank you for sharing your story!!

  6. Mark Gugisberg
    Mark Gugisberg says:

    Lonny, Waterboy 30, from the exact same time frame, sends his greetings. He thinks you were on exact opposite shifts, so met each other only twice a day, at turnover, and didn’t spend the watch hours together. I can send you his return thoughts if you email me.

    He came out of the Air Force, we were at University together two years, and I went into the Navy for 4 active and 23 Reserve, Intelligence.

  7. Richard Barnes
    Richard Barnes says:

    I sent you a email to the address my friend Mark Gugisberg sent me. Maybe it went to your junk mail folder.
    I spent the better part of a year at “Waterboy Control” from 6/15/1967 to 6/15/ 1968. Would love to touch base with you, remind ourselves how much “fun” we had at Waterboy primary 269.6. “Check standard altimeter 29.92, noses cold.”


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