30 September 1966 – LtCol Walter “Mel” Fowler’s F-100 #553502 is hit in the engine by gunfire over SVN. He came close to capture or death by closely advancing Viet Cong before his wingman suppressed the advancing VC and he was picked up from the rice paddy by an Army Helo. Fowler was serving with
David J. Sullivan
Early on, David knew he wanted to become an aviator, and after graduation from Suitland High School in the District with the class of 1955, and after briefly attending the U.S. Naval Academy and University of Maryland, he enlisted in the Air Force. He completed Basic Training at Lackland AFB, TX, and entered the Aviation Cadet Program at Bartow AFB, FL, in June 1959. He successfully completed the Program at Vance AFB, OK, graduating as a Slick Wing 2nd Lieutenant with the Class of 60-H. And, importantly, he was third in his class, high enough to choose his follow-on assignment—and proudly, David chose the F-100 “Super Sabre.” He then completed advanced flying and operational training schools in the F-100 at Luke AFB, AZ, and Nellis AFB, NV, respectively by May 1961.
Then came his first operational assignment to the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) at Misawa AB, Japan, on 24 Jun 1961. The squadron was operated both as an Air Defense unit and a Cold War nuclear deterrent. The former mission was over the Japanese and South Korean airspaces, but the latter mission required the nuke alert to be stood from Kunsan AB in South Korea because the Japanese constitution rules out nuclear weapons in their territory. Consequently, the squadron’s aircraft, aircrews, and maintainers were rotated between Misawa and Kunsan periodically to maintain nuke alert with relatively fresh personnel and equipment.
Next came a stateside tour with the 430th TFS at Cannon AFB, NM, beginning on 27 May 1963. This squadron made frequent overseas deployments, literally around the world, including combat in the Vietnam War after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident on 2 August 1964. David’s combat records show 34 out-of-country missions between Nov 64-Jan 65 while TDY in the SEA theater.
On 26 Sep 1965, then with substantial F-100 experience, including combat, David was assigned to the 4510th Combat Crew Training Wing (CCTW) at Luke AFB, the “schoolhouse” for F-100 training courses. And after completing the in-house Instructor Training Course, David went to work as a certified Instructor Pilot with the 4515th CCTS.
After two years as a Schoolhouse IP at Luke, David was advised that it was his turn to put in a full year PCS tour in SEA. On 18 Sep 1967, he was assigned to the 37th TFW, and he found himself in the 612th TFS at Phu Cat AB, RVN (Republic of Vietnam). This proved “providential” because the leadership in that chain of command was one of the very best at that time. More specifically, the squadron commander was Lt Col Ray Kleber, and the wing commander was Col William Evans. Under the guidance of these two stalwarts, David was appointed “C” Flight Commander on 23 Jan 1968.
This was followed by the welcome appointment, by the President, of Captain David J. Sullivan to the Regular Air Force, announced by letter on 5 Aug 1968. Fatefully, David’s “promotion” to Flight Commander came exactly eight days before the Tet Offensive, after which the intensiveness of the war went sky high, and the F-100’s sortie rates rose proportionally, mostly in support of “troops in contact.” Of note, during this period was the battle of Dak To in November 1967. This pace continued until the end of David’s year-long tour in Sep 1968.
Without reservation, David considered this period spent in the preparation and execution of combat missions to be the highlight of his Air Force career. Following his tour, David’s service continued for several more years in various capacities which allowed him to utilize and share his previous experience.
Upon his return stateside from the 612th TFS “Nam” tour in Aug 1968, David found himself in the world of the Army, first as a Bergstrom AFB 602 DASS Forward Air Controller operating first at Operating Location 1 (OL 1) at Fort Hood, TX, and then at OL 3 at Fort Riley, KS, and finally under the 4467th Tactical Air Support Group at Bergstrom AFB as the Air Liaison Officer for the 1st Brigade at Fort Riley. His Fort Riley experience was rewarding because many of the Army personnel on base learned firsthand the value of good air support. As a result, he was invited to actively participate in several training maneuvers, stateside and abroad, until the end of this tour in Feb 1970, when he found his way back to Luke AFB.
There, at Luke, the new A-7D “Corsair II” was coming into service and David was hoping to be assigned to the first training squadron for that new single-seat, single-engine fighter … but it was not to be. Instead, he spent a year and a half closing out the F-100 training at Luke until he finally moved on to Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, to where the A-7D program had moved. Finally, David got into the seat of the new A-7D and completed his conversion training. And after David checked out as an Instructor Pilot in the new fighter (Nickname SLUF), he remained at Davis-Monthan.
During this period, the USAF allowed David the opportunity to complete his college degree at the University of Tampa, FL, where he received a B.S. in Industrial Engineering in 1976. Upon his return to Davis-Monthan, David served in several capacities (including Flight Commander, Assistant Operations Officer, and Wing Staff of the 355th TFW) until his retirement, effective on 31 May 1979. He had proudly worn the Air Force Blue for 20 years, 2 months and 29 days.
Civilian Career and Beyond
After USAF retirement, Dave worked as a flight instructor for Flight Safety and then in 1981 received a job offer from Learjet, both located in Tucson. Learjet moved their flight department to Wichita, KS, in the late ’80s where he met his wife, Patti, in 1990. Dave’s career at Learjet was no less distinguished than his military career. He was type rated in all the Lear products and flew customers and potential customers all over the world as a Marketing Demonstration Pilot. His primary role was to assist the sales staff in demonstrating the capabilities of the aircraft to potential buyers. Oftentimes this meant flying into very small airfields in remote locations where a customer’s business might be located. Oftentimes, when a particularly challenging assignment came forth, Dave was selected for that demo because it was known that Dave would find a way to meet the customer’s needs while making it look easy.
He was also tasked with training new owners and/or their pilots. He enjoyed being back in the role of instructor and made quick friends with fellow aviators across the globe. With the limited range of the aircraft, flight planning was also a crucial skill needed to navigate longer trips and allow for appropriate stopping points to refuel. As you can imagine, many of the customers he worked with were high profile personalities and required special “handling.” Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the famous NASCAR driver, was so fond of Dave that every year when Dale’s chief pilot took leave, he demanded that Learjet send “Super Dave” (as he called him) to fill in.
Dave especially loved the comradery of other pilots. During his working years and for several years after his retirement from Learjet in 2005, he received phone calls from pilots all over the world who would contact Dave for help with a tricky flight plan or to get his take on the best approach to a remote location, etc. He was always most willing to share his experience and expertise with these less experienced pilots.
After retirement, Dave worked independently as a part-time contract pilot. He decided enough was enough and fully retired after a year or so. Following that decision, he and Patti did what they both loved and traveled extensively throughout the US and Europe. Sometimes enjoying lazy trips to the Caribbean islands, sometimes touring museums and art galleries in major US and European cities and on some trips they simply enjoyed the beautiful scenery and wildlife in our National Parks. One of the things that made Dave such a wonderful travel partner was how easily he could fit in and be content, whether in a beer joint in Montana or a 5-star restaurant in London. It didn’t matter … he loved the adventure, the opportunity to learn new things and enjoyed the varied experiences that only travel can offer. When his health prevented further travels, Dave and Patti made the most of it and enjoyed quiet times together watching movies, reading, doing puzzles and eating well. A quiet man who loved his country and his family, David Sullivan truly exemplified a life well lived.