‘Gunfighter’ vet shares AF past

Retired Col. Ronald Lord, former Air Force fighter pilot, sits in a room in his home Oct. 26 where memorabilia of his flying career is displayed. During his Air Force career, Lord flew F-100s, F-8s, and F-4s.

Retired Col. Ronald Lord, former Air Force fighter pilot, sits in a room in his home Oct. 26 where memorabilia of his flying career is displayed. During his Air Force career, Lord flew F-100s, F-8s, and F-4s.

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Arizona --

Three enemy MiGs swooped low beneath him, screaming out to intercept the U.S. Navy A-4 fighter-bombers who were unloading their payload of explosives on Kep Air Field in North Vietnam. Flying in F-8 Crusaders as fighter protection for the A-4s, he was tasked to defend them at all cost. He quickly radioed his wingman, the leader of his flight, and notified him of the presence of the enemy fighters. His wingman responded, and swiftly maneuvered his F-8 to line up a target. Moments later, an air-to-air missile streaked out from beneath the aircraft, and closed in on the targeted MiG until it flew directly into the enemy’s tailpipe. The MiG exploded, its wings falling away and its cockpit tumbling forward, blown away from the rest of the aircraft. Another MiG flew past, hot on the tail of an A-4 that had finished dropping its ordnance and had turned to escape the combat zone.

 

Retired Col. Ronald Lord describes the dogfight in an animated manner. Looking forward with a steely eyed gaze, stoking the flow of a memory as clear as it was on the day that it happened, he recalls his turn to attack the enemy. His eyes widen and his hands mimic the motions of the aircraft as they flew past each other.

 

“I called over to the A-4 pilot and told him, ‘Eagle-4 has the MiG, just keep jinking,’” Lord said. “I flew down and got behind the MiG and my radar started beeping, but I didn’t know if the radar was looking at the MiG or the A-4, so I couldn’t shoot a missile.”

 

Lord realized that he had to go manual and invoke the weapon for which the F-8 was nicknamed, “The Last of the Gunfighters.” Lord increased his speed and closed the distance with the MiG as he switched to his Crusader’s 20-millimeter cannon.

 

Although Lord joined the Air Force in 1956 and became a fighter pilot trained to fly F-100 Super Sabres, something he had always wanted to do ever since watching P-51 Mustangs land from his front porch as a child, he had managed to work his way into the Navy-Air Force pilot exchange program, where he spent nine months aboard an aircraft carrier. Before this, he was in the Army exchange program as a forward air controller on the ground with the 4th Infantry Division.

 

“Nobody from the Air Force wanted to go hang out with the Army back in those days, so the exchange program was promising that you could go to any assignment you wanted afterward,” Lord said. “I had always wanted to fly planes off a carrier, so when my assignment was close to over, I called and asked for a Navy assignment.”

 

Lord was assigned to VF-211, which was flying off the USS Bon Homme Richard, an Essex-class aircraft carrier, when his squadron flew the May 1, 1967, sortie against Kep Air Field that pitted him against his MiG foe.

 

“I fired my 20 mike-mikes, my cannon, and watched as the tracers flew past and across the front of the MiG,” Lord said. “The MiG pilot clearly saw the tracers because he immediately broke off his pursuit, and that’s when I started chasing him.”

 

The MiG dived hard, “right down into the dirt,” as Lord terms it, descending to between 300 and 500 feet at over 400 miles per hour.

“One of the things we were briefed on was that the MiG could turn faster at slower speeds than our F-8s,” Lord said. “I turned hard with him and lined him up as long as I could and started shooting at him. I was close enough to see his cloth helmet through his cockpit. I could see pieces of the airplane coming off both the fuselage and the wing as my rounds hit him, and at the last minute I saw this fire coming out of his tail and I thought, ‘Oh man! I really got this guy!’ Turns out, this was a MiG-17D with an afterburner and he was just accelerating.”

 

Lord quickly realized that he was being outturned, and broke away from the MiG for a moment to dodge a mountaintop. When he had reacquired the MiG, it was jetting away toward enemy defenses.

 

“I came back around behind him, but he had already accelerated out and was going toward what they called the Northeast Railway,” he said. “Back in those days, you never wanted to fly over that thing because it was loaded with anti-aircraft flak guns, and the general advice given in regard to it was to stay away from it. The MiG was still breaking up and releasing a few parts as he flew away, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to see if he crashed. It was accounted as ‘probable’ when I got back to the carrier.”

 

Lord was both dismayed and overjoyed.

 

“I felt a little embarrassed about it because I only damaged it,” Lord recorded in his May 1 diary entry, while on the same page exclaiming, “I wished I could have been with Georgie Girl to celebrate!”

Georgie Girl was the nickname he had given his wife, Georgia Lord, now married 52 years.

 

“It’s very interesting,” Georgia said. “We met during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had gone down to Florida to interview for a job in Daytona Beach, and I got it, but it wasn’t going to start for six months. My friend, who lived on McCoy Air Force Base with her husband, said, ‘Why don’t you come stay with me?’”

 

Georgia and her friend had gone to the club one night, in the midst of the Crisis. The base had flown out their B-52 bombers and flown in F-100 fighters. Many of those fighter pilots were also in the club that night, including Lord.

 

“The base was invaded by fighter pilots who all thought they were going to war, so you can imagine what the atmosphere was like,” Georgia said. “Ron’s friends pointed me out on the dance floor and asked him, because he was known to be very picky about what he liked in women, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with that lady?’”

 

Lord’s friends proceeded onto the dance floor, entertained Georgia, and brought her over to meet Lord. The two of them danced, went for a drink, and got to know each other.

 

“A few weeks later, he proposed,” Georgia said, laughing.

 

To Lord’s surprise, his ambitions, at the time and throughout their marriage, always were OK with his wife.

 

“We had four kids and she accommodated my desire to go to war and do what I, as a fighter pilot, had always wanted to do,” Lord said with a smile.

 

Lord would later return the favor as a supporting spouse, letting the career spotlight pass from him to Georgia, who is today the mayor of the city of Goodyear. In addition to their four children, Lord and Georgia have four grandchildren, and one great granddaughter.

 

After his stint with the Navy, Lord returned to the Air Force and continued to fly over Vietnam in the F-100. In all, Lord flew around 300 combat missions. After the war, he went on to fly a variety of fighter aircraft, including the F-4 Phantom, in assignments ranging from Japan to Italy. He also spent a tour at the Pentagon as a Foreign Military Sales Training Program Officer, served four years as the U.S. Air Force Attaché to the American embassy in Bonn, Germany, and served four years as the chief of staff for the director of operations and intelligence at Allied Forces Central Europe Headquarters.

 

In 1986, after 30 years of service, Lord retired from the U.S. Air Force. He said throughout his career he had one central thought.

 

“I wanted to make sure I was good at what I did and have a heck of a time doing it,” Lord said. “I have no regrets.”