Take Me to the Pilot

Ronald Dean’s townhouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, is a museum of his Air Force service during the Vietnam War.

The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) computer programming professor may have spent more than 20 years working for Verizon and other telephone companies since leaving the military, but one can tell from his home ‘s environment that his Air Force years were his proudest.

There’s the frame with the military patches and medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross he received for saving his airplane and crew in a harrowing flight over the Pacific near Guam. More on that later.

In his living room on a shelf next to the couch is a model of a C-123, the first plane he flew in Vietnam. And ascending the stairs―in a timeline of his military career―are pictures of planes he flew while in the Air Force: The Cessna 172, the twin-engine T-37 jet, the T-38 supersonic jet, the C-123 supply plane and the KC-135 tanker he was flying during the incident that earned him his Distinguished Flying Cross.

Around his townhouse is artwork he collected in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. And high on one wall is a wood carving of the Air Force wings awarded every new pilot.

He looked at it for a few seconds and said, “For a pilot, those wings are the most important thing they get.”

Born in Washington, DC and raised in Kensington, Maryland, Dean’s Air Force career began when he entered the University of Maryland in 1964 and was enlisted into the mandatory ROTC training. He said he always wanted to be a pilot and, even before he graduated with a second lieutenant’s commission in the Air Force, he had learned to fly by taking private lessons on a Cherokee 140 at the Beltsville, Maryland, Airport.

Immediately on graduating, he was sent to Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas. In the one year of pilot training there, he worked through the Cessna, the T-37 and the T-38 before graduating―one of only 40 members from the original class of 80 who made it through flight school. Then it was off to Vietnam, where he was assigned to fly the C-123.

Pointing to the model on the shelf, he said, “It was a bastardized plane. When Vietnam started, the Air Force realized it did not have anything that could fly supplies into the jungle.”

The C-123 started life as a glider in World War II, he said. The Air Force put a couple of reciprocating engines on it and gave it the mission of flying cargo to supply artillery bases.  It could land anywhere there was a piece of flat land.

“That was the most fun flying I ever did, flying the C-123,” he said, even though, at one point, an AK-47 round shot by an enemy soldier pierced his plane within a quarter-inch of a vital steerage control.  He has kept the slug as a souvenir.

After a year in Vietnam, he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, flying the KC-135 tankers that were―and still are―used to refuel the huge B-52 strategic bombers.

The bombers were developed to strike targets deep within the Soviet Union and could not return to base without refueling.  During the Vietnam War, the big planes were used around the clock to rain conventional bombs on targets.

Many of the bombers were based at Andersen AFB on Guam, and that’s where Dean was sent in 1972. Now a captain, he was assigned to refuel the bombers, which could not take off with a full load of fuel because the bomb payload was so heavy that a fuel-laden plane could not get airborne.

“We would rendezvous with them 30 or 45 minutes later so they could refuel,” he said.  “Flights of B-52s and KC 135 tankers took off every hour around the clock. So we might have a 1:00 a.m. flight one night, then a 2:00 a.m. flight the next night, 3:00 a.m. the next.”

It was on one of those flights―on Oct. 10, 1972―that the trouble began.

“I had just taken off and we were at a maximum gross weight with fuel,” Dean recalled.  “All of a sudden I noticed the instruments on one of my four engines was showing electrical problems.  And then it just quit.  With all of that fuel, we could not climb.”

Jettisoning the fuel, Dean started to head back to base. With one of the right engines out, he did not want to make right turns into the dead-engine side of the aircraft. And a strong crosswind coming from the right side of the aircraft made the landing challenging at best.

“If I didn’t like the approach, I couldn’t go around again,” he said.  “Every member of the four-man crew had a piece of the action.  Luckily we made it down.”

His Distinguished Flying Cross citation summed it up this way:

“Only through fully professional flying techniques and skill was the aircraft and its crew safely recovered thereby averting a major aircraft and crew loss. The professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty displayed by Captain Dean reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

When Dean transitioned from the Air Force in 1973, he found that commercial airlines were downsizing, and he could not get the pilot’s position he sought.  He augmented his education with business degrees and became a manager in the telephone industry for AT&T, Bell Atlantic and Verizon, where he taught employees to use the UNIX and Shell computer operating systems.

It was a skill sought after by UMUC as the use of UNIX and Shell spread throughout business and industry. In 1995, he joined the faculty as an adjunct teaching undergraduate on-site classes, and as the university developed online classes, he modified his courses to fit the new teaching model.

Dean said he teaches because he enjoys working with all his students―and gives each of them his phone number. He added that the veterans and active service personnel in his classes are “ideal students.”

“They are disciplined,” he said. “I give out assignments, and they do the work. I had a student on a submarine. I had one in a war zone while taking it online, and he went silent.  I found out he was on patrol.  I said, ‘for goodness sakes, let me know so I don’t worry about you.’”