River Rats Invade Tucson

Tucson, AZ – The Red River Valley Fighter Pilots’ Association held their annual reunion in Tucson this year. Combat veterans, young and old, gathered to learn about current military operations, visit the Raytheon missile plant, hang out with the pilots at the officers’ club and tell some of the best “true” stories they could remember about their flying careers. Originally a fraternity of pilots, weapons systems operators (Air Force WSOs) and Radar Intercept Officers (Navy RIOs) formed during the Vietnam War today membership is open to any aircrew member in all services.

The organization sprang from a series of informal “tactics” conferences at Udorn and Korat, Thailand in 1967 and 1968 where pilots, WSO’s and RIO’s got together to coordinate their activities in North Vietnam and enhance their survivability while conducting the air war over Hanoi. In 1969 the founding fathers, including Col. (later B/General) Robin Olds and Col. Howard “Scrappy” Johnson, decided to organize formally and the membership requirement was simple, fly a combat mission over Hanoior Haiphong and you were eligible to join. The mission and objective of the group was to develop smart, survivable tactics in a cooperative, multi-service environment at the grass roots level without interference from the Pentagon and headquarters staffs that were flying desks and not getting shot at.

Robin Olds (L) shares stories with pilots at Davis-Monthan AFB

The River Rats adopted a second objective and that was the care and support of family members whose air warriorshadn’t or couldn’t come home. All prisoners of war (POWs) being held in North Vietnam were immediate charter, life members. Family members of those killed or missing in action (KIA or MIA) also received the moral and financial support of the River Rats who established a scholarship fund for children and spouses of any aerial combat veteran whose status was KIA, MIA or POW. The group was more inclusive than the name implies based on the variety aircrew members lost and prisoners being held which included Army helicopter door gunners, B-52 tail gunners and para-rescue team members (PJs) from the Navy and Air Force. The group took the position that being a fighter pilot was a state of mind not a duty position. If you could get shot down over North Vietnam you could be a River Rat and they would look after your family if you got killed or captured. Since 1970 the River Rats have awarded over 1,000 scholarship grants to eligible children and spouses of Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force combat crew members totaling over $1.6million.

After Vietnam, membership eligibility expanded and the organization now includes air warriors from Bosnia, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedomincluding transport and support aircraft aircrew members.This is the group that descended on an unsuspecting hotel in mid-town Tucson. Some of the Rats don’t party as hard as they used to but the patriotism, twinkle in the eye, humor, resolve and camaraderie are as strong as ever.

Raytheon manufactures air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles in Tucson and the River Rats toured the facility where the strike missiles are made. The visit included briefings on capabilities and production rates for the Tomahawk cruise missile, the JSOW GPS guided long range stand-off glide bomb, the high speed anti-radiation missile (HARM),  the infra-red and electro-optical sensor guided AGM-45 as well as the guidance and control units (GCUs) for the Paveway series of laser guided bombs.

Rats attending the reunion also did the usual fighter pilot activities of having a golf tournament, attending a retreat ceremony at Davis-Monthan’s Heritage Park (a memorial to those missing and killed in action as well as all former POWs), gathering at the officers’ club to sing fighter pilot songs and raising more money for the scholarship fund.

At the annual business meeting River Rats learned that in 2005 they, and their affiliate, the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, awarded 33 scholarships worth over $46,000, aided military families affected by Hurricane Katrina and sent needed medical supplies to military hospitals in Iraq. Today the organization stands ready to establish college scholarship endowment funds for children and spouses of aircrew members from all services killed by hostile fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. River Rats in Texas and the D.C. area also work with returning wounded soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen at Bethesda, Walter Reed and Brooke medical centers.

Major General Don Sheppard, USAF Retired, gave the key note address to end the reunion. His talk included perspectives on wars during his lifetime, his time as an F-100 Misty Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, the war in Iraq and being a CNN talking head expert commentator. Comments about CNN were insightful while the comments on Iraq were sobering.

More information on the River Rats and their activities can be found on line at www.river-rats.org.



About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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