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Brent Parsons
07/31/2014 1:02 PM
Sutter Creek native and long-time Westover Field Airport Manager Dave Richards stands in front of his collection of memorabilia from his many years of flying, for the US Air Force and on his own. Photo courtesy of Brent Parsons

There are several local highway locations where the interaction of cloud, sun and foothills can combine to create a distracting vista. For me, those spots include: Martell on Highway 49, above the converted auto dealerships; the descent on 49 into Jackson, near the roadside rest; and, on Ridge Road, where the churches and vines live together. I’ve pulled off the road when I thought quickly enough and conditions allowed, but more often I just catch what I can on the move. Occasionally, I turn around. To be visually tempted so close to home reminds me how beautiful home is.

Dave Richards pulls off Ridge Road at one of my spots — into his driveway. He then travels a short distance through a vineyard to his nestled home. He can enjoy what I try to take in on the move whenever he feels like looking through his wall of windows. Dave was in my store recently, and I invited myself for an interview. We had to schedule around the conflicts of a retired man. My first suggested time conflicted with his meeting at Mule Creek Prison as chairman of the Citizenry Advisory Board and the second with his Jackson Lions secretarial obligation. We found an opening and sat at his bar that, on the wall behind, had airplane models and a real tail hook. It helps to know something about aviation or to be interested in it if you really want to get Dave talking. I barely qualified. My dad was the navigator on a B-17 until he was shot down, and I spent a couple of formative years at Nellis AFB when just a tyke. I built models and tried to fly them, but did better with the rubber-band-powered gliders that required only the stamina to wind the prop. Dave tried to not talk over my head, but he needed the planes on the wall to keep me connected with the ones he flew.

Dave’s Amador roots are about as deep as a non-native American’s can be. His mom’s father was born in Butte City in 1858. That birthplace survives as the façade of a store south of Jackson. His grandparents had a grocery store in Sutter Creek. It is pictured in the early photographs as C.E. Richards, with an IGA emblem. It occupied the beautifully ornate building where Village Realty is today. They don’t build stores like that anymore. Now a box with an orange racing stripe will do.

The Richards family controlled most of the block. The Ratto Theater next door was owned by his mother’s uncle. Dave’s mom worked the ticket booth and his dad the projector as teens. He grew up in a house off Spanish Street, below the cemetery. That house was demolished and replaced by his brother a few years back. His grandparents were down the street near Hayden, where his son now lives. He said grandpa buried his prohibition booze next door in the vacant lot that is still vacant.

Dave attended the same two Sutter Creek schools that his parents did before heading to San Jose State, where he earned a BS in aeronautics in 1959. He remembers playing on the Women’s Club tennis courts down where Mahoney Mill meets Spanish Street and swimming in the flushing dam up the creek, off Eureka. I asked how a small-town country boy got fixated on flight. He said he always liked airplanes and kites, but the obsession probably started with his dad, Tilden.

“Dad went away to the Boeing Aeronautical School, in Oakland,” Dave told me, “but I think he got homesick. He returned and bought Oneto’s Garage, across from the city auditorium, with Rommie Oneto. They ran it for many years. I joined the National Guard in high school and we bought an airplane together in 1956, a yellow 1946 Luscombe. We flew out of Westover Field. The plane is still alive and well in Reno.” (Dave would love to have it back, but it’s not for sale.)

I wondered how planes lasted so long. He explained, “It is actually pretty simple technology. My 1962 Bonanza is using the same systems, like magnetos and carburetors, which were developed for planes flying in 1936.” I doubt the similarity held with the attack aircraft he flew off carriers.

A navy recruiter visited the San Jose campus in Dave’s senior year. He passed the tests and, after graduation, went off to flight school in Pensacola. He finished basic training with eight carrier landings to his credit. He elaborated on the importance of that number, “Pilots will do anything to chalk up another landing. Your total is a status symbol. At reunions, you get respect, no matter what a jerk you might be, if your number is big.” Dave ended up with over 400. All the slots for jets were taken, so Dave opted for the S2, a carrier-based subchaser. He finished advanced training in January of 1961 with eight more carrier landings and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet Airborne Early Warning Squadron 11. He flew the WF2 for two ten-month deployments — off the USS Ticonderoga and the Kitty Hawk. He transitioned to the state-of-the-art E2A “Hawkeye” in October of 1963. He showed me the model.

Dave asked for a transfer to the naval air base at Point Mugu in Ventura County where, according to his connections, if he stayed in the Navy one more year, he could fly any jet he wanted. He continued to fly the E2A, but also got checked out on 10 jets. He returned to the Pacific Fleet, flying the pick of the litter, the A6A Intruder — an all-weather attack bomber. The plane had a crew of two and carried 22 500-pound bombs, a bigger payload than my dad’s B-17, which had a crew of 10. I noted that the war in Vietnam was red-hot in 1969. That was added incentive for me to attend college. I asked if he was happy to be going where the action was. “No, I was hoping for an Eastern assignment,” he recalled, “maybe the peaceful Mediterranean, but I was sent to the Constellation for ten months. We had a carrier off the coasts of both Vietnams for the duration of the war. The Constellation was the northern one at the time.”

Dave had prepared an outline that summarized his career. I asked about the description of his combat assignment, “Bombed night and day, most of targets were east of Vietnam.” “What was the target? Laos?” I remembered some controversy within that controversial conflict about a widening war. Dave answered, “Yes, the targets were along the Ho Chi Min Trail, which entered Laos on its way to the south. The campaign was a sensitive one. The war was gaining in unpopularity and a perceived expansion would not have helped the cause.”

What about losses? His squadron had 12 planes and 22 crews. “We didn’t lose a single plane in my 10 months.”

How was that was possible? “Just good luck or incredibly good and evasive flying?”

I didn’t think John McCain went down alone. Dave explained. “Nixon tried several different bombing strategies, perhaps politically motivated, during the course of the war. He bombed the bleep out of the North, took a couple of years off and then bombed the bleep out of them again. In the end, the strategies didn’t work. I was fortunate to be there when North Vietnamese airspace was off limits. We had to cross right over the DMZ to our eastern targets. Most of the losses occurred when the bombing campaigns were hitting the North.”

When I asked what the combat missions were like, I sensed what appeared to be a little adrenaline rush. “We were either given specific targets, like suspected convoys, troop concentrations, or fuel and ammo depots or the freedom to hunt for trucks in daylight or lights on the trail at night. The best proof of a productive hit (destructive from the other perspective) were secondary explosions.” Dave liked the sport of the hunt best. They could not return with any of their 22 bombs on board and had to drop them somewhere, no matter what. “We usually unloaded the extras on Xepon, because they were always shooting at us when we flew over.” I wondered about the cost of destroying perhaps a truck but that was the asymmetrical nature of the war. AK47’s in the jungle held their own against the most powerful weapons in the world. Dave couldn’t worry about that. He was doing what he was trained and ordered to do. In September of 1970, Dave was transferred to Kingsville, Texas, as a training officer. He met Susan and they married in February. After two years, he took what he refers to as “one of the best billets ever” — a squadron command at Subic Bay, in the Philippines. He had 13 officers, 120 enlisted men, three S2’s and nine A4’s under his command. He enjoyed the assignment for 30 months.

His last assignment was back in Southern California, at the Pacific Missile Center, where he was a key player in the development and testing of the Tomahawk cruise missile, maybe the most lethal arrow in our quiver today. Dave launched the first Tomahawk from an A6 in 1976. He plotted the 800-mile route for the sea-launched tests off San Clemente Island to the target in Utah. He escorted the test flights in his chase plane. He gave me a video to watch, produced by General Dynamics. Dave is there and it is his voice transmitting from the plane videoing the missile in flight. In 1976, Susan and Dave returned to build their dream house on the 7 1/2 acres that they bought in 1972. Like his father, he got homesick. He lost Susan to cancer in 2000. He and Mary found each other three years later. In 2011, Dave was honored as a Wright Brothers Master Pilot. There have only been 2,835 awarded out of the 600,000 that have flown. Fifty years of flawless flying is a lofty bar to fly over.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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