27 September 1968 – Kuldar “Koot” Visnapuu was serving with the 174th TFS Phu Cat “Bats” in Vietnam. Lt. Kuldar Visnapuu’s had just taken off from a base in South Vietnam when his Supersabre was hit by enemy fire. He turned the plane toward the South China Sea and ejected safely, watching as his jet
Thomas Pearson McAtee
Born in St. Louis, MO, my first memories were war stories and the rigors of rationing as we shuttled around the nation to Naval Air Stations with my father. I also spent some time living with grandparents in South Bend, IN, while my father served in the Pacific. After the war, we settled in Webster Groves, MO, where I attended Catholic Parochial schools and, ultimately, St. Louis U. High, a Jesuit high school that prepared me well for an AF career. My father was a lawyer and my mother was a school teacher who later started a business in home construction (small lady telling big guys what to do).
I started flying when I was 16 and knew immediately it would be my vocation. Flying fighters was my goal. By working weekends and saving lunch money, I was able to amass enough flying time to get my private license the day I turned 17.
I went to Notre Dame for my first year of college, having flunked the eye test in my quest to enter USAFA (I learned never to play poker ‘till 3:00 o’clock in the morning the night before an eye exam). Fortunately, I recovered the next year and entered with the Class of ‘62 (a blessing in disguise). The engineering courses I took at Notre Dame helped prepare me for advanced aeronautics courses at the Academy. My favorite was the Advanced Design course. Roger Meyers and I teamed to design an intercontinental supersonic transport – beautiful and fast but, unfortunately, we discovered it ran out of gas about halfway across the Atlantic. Last minute design mods included floats and an outboard motor.
At the Academy, I played on the soccer team and learned a great deal about leadership from our coach, Arnie Arnesen. As a highly decorated P-51 pilot in the European theater during WWII, he was a perfect role model for all of us. He increased my determination to fly fighters while giving me a love for the sport. I continued to play soccer in city leagues until I was 56 years old. For excitement off the slopes, I joined the fledgling Academy Aero Club and became its first president when our spiffy T-34s showed up. It was a great little trainer and helped to prepare me for pilot training. I will never forget a sight one night under a full moon over the Academy that was covered in a glistening carpet of snow.
Pilot training at Webb AFB was a hoot (Free at last!!). Best of all, we were one of the first classes to get our hands on the hot, new T-38. Adding insult to injury, mid-way through pilot training the AF decided T-38 training was required to fly tactical fighters, which screwed RTBs who chose T-33 training bases. This is when I learned the phrase, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” My dream to fly fighters came true when I got an F-100 as my first operational assignment. I could write a book about F-100 training. In a bachelor house with seven other RTBs, we studied, flew, and partied hard. The “Lead Sled” was challenging to fly but beautiful in the air. The missions were exciting, my classmates were extraordinary and the extra-curricular activities were outstanding —- lots of fond memories.
All this prepared me for a dream career, flying a variety of front line fighters and participating in exciting activities. I had operational/training assignments in the F-100, F-4, A-7, F-104, F-15 and F-16. With 265 combat missions, I found Vietnam to be extremely challenging but it gave me a good foundation for what followed. I found time for an MS in Aerospace Engineering from the U. of Arizona, attended the USAF Test Pilot School and Fighter Weapons School and taught at both.
At the top of the list, I was privileged to be a pilot in the F-16 test program. I am especially proud of my last assignment at Fighter Weapons School as the Deputy Commander under Rip Blaisdell. Together we restructured the school into a “University” environment which has excelled ever since. In all, I flew over 4,000 hours in the airplanes I dreamed of and worked with the most capable and noble people in the world.
After my AF retirement, I went to work for General Dynamics (later Lockheed Martin). Over 17 years, I found this second career to be challenging and rewarding. Starting as an engineering manager, I learned the ropes and soon was given greater responsibilities. Our team designed F-16 upgrades that were deployed throughout the international community. I worked with some of the finest aeronautical engineers of the time who produced amazing products. Later, I became the Program Director for the AF’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft, a stealthy replacement for the F-111, and finally was involved in international program development, working with the Air Forces of Israel, UAE, Korea and Japan.
I was lucky to meet Miss Ann Leahy, a DoD school teacher, during a deployment to Misawa AB, Japan. After 49 years of bliss with my best friend, we can brag of three wonderful children, Molly, Patrick and Cathy, and eleven wonderful grandchildren. While my career has been rewarding, my greatest fortune is my family.