Misty: A Legacy for the Ages, Misty Reunion Dinner, 16 Sep 2023; Reno NV;
Remarks by Lt Gen David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.)
“Thanks very much for that very kind introduction Shep. To say I am honored to be here is the epitome of understatement. I must be honest however, accepting the invitation to offer dinner remarks at this occasion presents me my most daunting speaking challenge.
I know who you are, and I know what you have accomplished… This is a room full of heroes…yet none will admit it. Many of you served as my commanders, mentors, and friends:
Jere Wallace was an F-15 squadron commander of mine at Kadena back in the early 1980s. Lanny Lancaster has been a confidant and source of insight—as well as great cigars and awesome wine—for decades! Don Sheppard was so full of energy and great ideas when I first met him—and still is today—he became a role model for me. I learned much from Gen McPeak serving for him when he was Chief during the military’s last roles and missions review. Gen Fogleman, whom I’ve long admired, was responsible for making me a general officer and then presided at my retirement.
And those of you whom I have not personally met are inspirations as well. Of the Misty group, seven were Killed In Action, four were prisoners of war (POWs), four still missing in action (MIA), one Medal of Honor recipient, two Air Force Chiefs of Staff, nine general officers, a Director of the Air National Guard, two astronauts, a winner of the Collier Trophy, the Bleriot medal, the Presidential Citizen’s Medal of Honor, the first to fly non-stop, unrefueled around the world, and one who ran for Congress—the last five all being one person—Dick Rutan. By any measure, the Misty’s are an exceptional group of men.
Yes, you’re a very special group of guys, but the women and family members with you are just as special—they waited, they feared, they suffered, they anticipated the blue car with bad news, they buried some and accepted the flag. Wives and family exhibited a different kind of bravery—but it was just as difficult. Thank you all for the missions that you performed!
For family and friends, the Misty mission was to act as a forward air controller (FAC) finding and marking targets with smoke rockets for bomb-laden fighters. Their role was to interdict military supplies and equipment in the southernmost area of North Vietnam. Because of the high risk, a Misty tour was defined as 60 missions, or four months.
Misty’s flew long, grueling missions under heavy fire, going back repeatedly into North Vietnam. Six Misty’s extended their tours to fly 100 missions over the North: Jonesy Jones; Dick Rutan; Charlie Summers; Lanny Lancaster; PK Robinson, and Wells Jackson. Would you six please stand?
Thank you for being standouts among a group of standouts.
Now, a wise mentor once told me that when delivering a speech, most in the audience will not remember anything you said, but they will remember how long you took to say it, so I’ll do my best to balance content with timeliness.
The history of the Air Force is unique—mention a keyword or phrase to an airman—and you’ll connect at a visceral level, no matter what the rank or generation: St. Mihiel, the Doolittle Raid, Schweinfurt, Tuskegee, MiG Alley, Thud Ridge, Linebacker II, Desert Storm, Allied Force…the list goes on.
These names embody the dedication, experiences, lessons, and sacrifice that fundamentally shaped not just airpower history, but the world as we know it. Most importantly: they represent the people who answered the call when the chips were down. Books and movies try to capture these individuals. But let’s face it—unless you were there, most will probably never really get it—all that went into the effort—the names, faces, the luck, the losses, and digging deep to meet the next challenge.
These experiences are what embody the heritage and the essence of the U.S. Air Force. For the veterans in this room, I think you know exactly what I mean, because you’ve been there. And for those reasons, “Misty” holds a very special, honored place on that list.
In the summer of 1967, say “Misty” to most Americans and they would have thought about a hit song. But at Phu Cat airbase and at 7th Air Force headquarters, it meant something totally different—a new way to take the fight to the enemy when just about everything else was falling short.
Tactics, techniques, and procedures for the Fast FAC mission didn’t exist— you had to invent them, sortie-by-sortie, through trial and error under a hail of AAA fire. And the price paid for that education was very high—a loss rate of 42 percent during the first six months of the operation.
Despite your heroics, accomplishments, and your total dedication to the operation officially designated Commando Sabre, the Misty mission was concluded without ceremony or thanks. On 12 May 1970, 7th Air Force Headquarters issued an austere teletype message declaring: “This confirms the Misty FAC program termination.”
Gentlemen, I’m here to tell you tonight, the impact and value delivered by Misty didn’t end five decades ago. That mission—what you faced, what you did, YOU are a core part of the Air Force fabric that resides in the hearts and minds of airmen throughout today’s service.
You were asked to carry burdens and tackle challenges few of us can imagine. So, when I thought about it, I really think the most fitting service I can provide is to help put the Misty legacy in context. You all know what you did—you don’t need another speaker to regale you with stories you can tell better yourselves.
But what I can offer are thoughts on where we stand today as an Air Force and how your legacy fits into that context.
The challenges facing today’s airmen—the men and women who, like you, volunteered to strap into their jets, take to the sky, and answer their nation’s call to serve—are immense.
Collectively, those of us in this room have seen a lot and been through a lot. The load this current generation is carrying promises to be just as challenging if not more so. Let me explain.
First, let’s start with the threat. The United States has faced numerous adversaries in the past. As Cold Warriors and Vietnam Veterans—you know what that means in stark terms.
Today, airmen must anticipate the following: at the top end—a surging China, and Russia on the decline; but still incredibly unstable and dangerous. In the middle lie Iran and North Korea—with aggressive nuclear ambitions and wacky leadership. Further down the line we’ve got the threat posed by non-state actors like the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and others.
The collective load this places on our airmen cannot be underestimated. They wake up every morning seeking to deter these adversaries, reassure allies, and—if necessary—fly into harm’s way against an incredibly broad array of challenges.
Yes, the world has always presented unique challenges. Well, here’s what makes this window in time even more difficult for today’s airmen.
We’re asking them to meet these demands with a set of tools and training woefully inadequate. Today, the U.S. Air Force is the smallest, the oldest, and the least ready than it’s ever been in its history—let that sink in for a minute… The world is on fire, which means these airmen are going to be called to fly into harm’s way—but they have not been provided what it’ll take to fight and win.
In fact, current plans are to reduce the size of the Air Force by another 1000 aircraft over the next five years, making it even older and smaller.
Consider that the average age of our fighter inventory exceeds thirty years. F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s were designed while Vietnam was still being fought, were first flown in the 1970s, and were produced predominantly in the 1980s. They are still the bulk of the fighter inventory in our Air Force.
These jets are physically exhausted. They’re literally being flown to the point where stringers, longerons, and bulkheads are failing. Want proof? A member of my Mitchell Institute team was one of the pilots launched on 9/11 to fly CAP over Washington DC.
The jet she was flying that day—a Block 30 F-16—was built in 1984. It helped win the Cold War, it served during Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, and took to the sky on 9/11. It went to the desert multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan…and continued to meet homeland defense requirements.
It’s wrapping up a tour at Carswell and is slated to go to Nellis as an aggressor. It isn’t supposed to retire until 2026, when over 40 years old. Nor is this a unique example. Note the F-15Cs that were withdrawn from Kadena last year— fighters that I flew there back in 1979—leaving one of our most important bases in the Pacific without a permanently assigned fighter.
The reason why? The F-15 inventory is so old, so fragile that the jets were simply worn out, and we also lacked a large enough active-duty F-15 pilot pool to keep flying them. Think China noticed that?
Nor is this just a fighter problem. The very T-38s in which many of you learned to fly are still at AETC bases taking to the sky every day. The very same B-52s that were “old” when you served—all of them predating the Cuban Missile Crisis—comprise over half the nation’s bomber inventory. But again, it’s all we’ve got.
The same holds true for tankers. The KC-135s that refueled you over Route Pack One are still in service today and predicted to be on the line for two more decades. I could continue, but you get the point.
Nor are circumstances any better when it comes to training. Today’s Air Force pilots are getting fewer and fewer flying hours. As a young Captain at Kadena in the late 70’s I and my fellow squadron mates used to joke about the abysmal flying time our potential adversary pilots were getting—now our pilots are flying less.
We’re also living in a world that’s defined by intense, aggressive change. No longer is war just about what happens in the air, on land, and at sea. Space and cyberspace have yielded new, incredibly complex dimensions that bear tremendous loads when it comes to training, organizing, and equipping.
And we can’t short these, for in the modern era, combat planes, ships, and ground vehicles simply are not viable without the mission attributes afforded by these new capabilities.
So, what happened? The answer is simple: a failure to invest and prepare. The size and capabilities of the Air Force were significantly reduced after the end of the Cold War by short-term budget choices, not long-term strategy.
Coming out of Vietnam, you and your counterparts took the challenges you faced and said: “never again.” You spoke truth to power and pushed for a totally new generation of fighters, AWACS, modern bombers, and airlifters.
You drove seismic levels of innovation with innovations like stealth and precision munitions. You also pushed for better training with programs like Red Flag and the Aggressors.
Your foresight, commitment, and determination to build tomorrow’s Air Force not only paved the way for what we used to build a war-wining air campaign for operation Desert Storm but has effectively carried the Air Force and the nation’s military ever since.
The reality is that the Air Force needed to be reset in the 1990s and early 2000s. Service leaders like Gen McPeak and Gen Fogleman knew this and that’s why they created programs like the F-22, B-2, and C-17. However, post-Cold War budget cuts saw those plans pushed aside in search of a peace dividend. As a result, the post-Vietnam aircraft inventory was forced to serve more tours on our flightlines.
Circumstances compounded in the 2000s as the nation responded to the 9/11 attacks—failing to heed the lessons of Vietnam and choosing to become entangled in two incredibly complex, messy ground occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in Vietnam, there was tremendous personal sacrifice and bravery, but at a strategic level these conflicts were seriously flawed. That’s an issue for a separate, much longer discussion.
They also cost us another cycle of modernization. In the 2010s, severe budget cuts in the form of sequestration wiped out further modernization progress and it also really decimated the training pipeline and aircraft sustainment system— we’re still feeling those hits.
So, where does that leave us now? Here’s some good news. American leaders in both parties appear to sincerely understand the scale and scope of the threat China poses our nation.
That said, while this realization is positive, it risks being a “day late and a dollar short.” I’d suggest we’re in an era comparable to what we saw before WWII—many of us can see the threat looming, but we’re not moving fast enough to prepare.
After the Cold War, the nation took a serious pause from focusing on existential national security threats for over thirty years. For 20 of those years, we were fixated on counterinsurgency conflicts of choice and so-called nation-building. I refer to this as the era of “strategic distraction.”
The Air Force was disproportionately disadvantaged during this era. For example, the Army was funded over 1.3 trillion dollars more than the Air Force post 9/11. That’s an average of 66 billion dollars a year more than the Air Force for 20 years. For 31 years in a row now, the Air Force has been funded less than the Army and the Navy.
That underinvestment broke our service. And this isn’t just an Air Force problem, for as you all know, we can’t conduct viable joint force operations without robust airpower—and it’s the Air Force that provides that.
What we saw at Kadena—with those F-15s timing out without direct backfill risks happening at units across the Air Force absent a major injection of resources to build new jets faster. We also need to ensure we’re training enough pilots, maintainers, and everyone else tied to our air and space enterprise.
Absent this, we’ll be trading airmen’s lives—asking them to fill the gap with sacrifice—for want of adequate capability and capacity. History has taught us this over and over. We owe our people better.
By the way—this is my passion and what we do at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies—we focus on articulating solutions to actualize the benefits of air and space power both within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, plus to the public at large.
Here’s what gives me hope: it’s your legacy. I see your example and your spirit in the airmen currently charged with executing the mission. One of the benefits of my job is that I get to spend a lot of time around today’s airmen. They get it.
They also know who you are—not just as names in a book, but through the values you personify. When I told our two Air Force fellows at the Mitchell Institute about this dinner, they told me what Misty means to them is inspiration and example. Here’s how:
First, leadership. It’s not just an empty term to them. From Misty 1, Bud Day, and on down throughout the organization, leadership was vital to the mission.
What it meant to be a successful Misty—to get the job done in support of the greater mission—often ran contrary to what it took to be bureaucratically successful.
We all know leadership at the wing level wasn’t always thrilled with this— that you didn’t play it safe to deliver metrics that looked good on paper, but that you flew hard to accomplish the mission in the best possible fashion.
This meant that you didn’t just follow the book—hell, there was no book… You had to invent it through trial and error under fire. This involved taking calculated risks, which sometimes delivered, and other times didn’t.
Second, innovation. I touched upon it above, but I can’t emphasize this enough. Let’s face it, by 1967, mission results were less than stellar. That year alone, airmen flew 176,000 fighter-bomber missions in South Vietnam and 108,000 in North Vietnam. B-52s flew an additional 9,700 sorties. The results were often dubious at best.
Then came Misty. By developing a new set of tactics, techniques, and procedures—flying at low altitude, high speed—jinking constantly to avoid being an easy target—you learned how to spot the enemy and effectively engage them. You used reference points like Bat Lake, Fingers Lake, and Disappearing River.
You became experts in deciphering the presence of enemy forces—whether it be a truck park, supply dump, AAA emplacement, or new path. With the click of a handheld Nikon or Pentax camera, and rapid recording of coordinates, you called up the airborne command and control center—ABCCC—who in-turn called-in strike fighters.
And with these partners inbound, you turned toward the target, often enveloped in a hail of AAA, and you unleashed the Willey Petes—and called out the famous words “hit my smoke.” And more often than not, the bad guys took a hit that counted.
To put it in modern terms—you radically shortened the kill chain, identifying targets and calling in strikes in minutes, not days or weeks as was previously the case. Nor were these results limited to the immediate battlefield, with 7th Air Force Headquarters leadership constantly seeking Misty-gathered recce as part of their daily intelligence summary with the information provided by Misty standing above the rest.
Third, courage. Gentlemen, you know what you did in this category. But for the benefit of friends and family in the audience, let me take a run at explaining this one.
Every Misty was a volunteer. Given the 22 percent loss rate from the creation of the unit in 1967 to its stand down in 1970, that speaks volumes. Misty FACs knew the odds, but they kept strapping into the jets and flying into harm’s way to get the job done.
Just to be clear…the very essence of this mission involved flying at a few thousand feet, sometimes lower, over some of the heaviest defended airspace in the world—when coming down the chute, every gun in the area was firing at you.
Jinking the jet back and forth to avoid being targeted placed immense physical stress on the crews. When a target was sighted, the crew pointed their jet directly at it and flew directly into a sustained wave of gunfire, artillery rounds, and missiles.
For those civilians in the audience, consider the odds you’d face entering a freeway at rush hour going the opposite direction, dodging oncoming cars—what the Misty’s flew was worse by an of magnitude. That takes guts. As if this were not enough, Misty crews also fought to extend their time on station—pushing well past regular calls by leadership to shorten sortie durations—with some missions lasting over 5 hours.
Fourth, dedication to each other. It’s hard to explain this one if you haven’t served in combat. It means putting yourself in harm’s way to protect your fellow airmen—whether they be in the jet with you, a wingman, or part of the bigger enterprise. To me, Misty’s most striking missions will always be the rescue combat air patrols (CAPs).
Whether it was a wingman or an unknown airman, you’d drop everything and fly into withering fire: suppressing the enemy, coordinating the Sandys and Jolly Greens, and keeping watch as long as necessary. There is no greater act of courage and dedication than putting your life on the line to save that of your comrade.
So, that’s why I have hope. For as challenging as things might be right now, the airmen who are taking to the sky today—who are answering the call to serve today and tomorrow—they understand these values. Not only do they recognize them, but they also embrace them. They know you lived up to them in the face of tremendous odds.
The Misty example sets a standard and gives them the inspiration necessary to dig deep when they’re stretched to the limit but need to get the job done. Not only for themselves, but for each other.
At the end of the day, history isn’t about dates or places on a map. It’s about people. Individuals are the ones who weave the fabric of our identity, our heritage, and our values.
Gentlemen, today’s generation of Airmen stand on your shoulders. Know that what you did, your example, your service—has found its way into cockpits around the world every day as today’s airmen answer the call, light their burners, and roar into the sky.
You are hallmarks…of leadership, innovation, courage, and dedication to one another. You are forever woven into the fabric of our American military history—and I salute you all.
So, it’s time for me to close. Do you recall that old saying? “There are old fighter pilots, and there are bold fighter pilots. But there are no old, bold fighter pilots.”
Well, tonight I’m declaring that adage extinct. Why? Because this room is rich with old, bold fighter pilots whose service to nation was way above self.
You old, bold fighter pilots—your service—your example—issues a bold charge to today’s Airmen—and your charge to them is needed more than ever today: “The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly and fight…and don’t you ever, ever, forget it!”
Thanks for the honor of sharing this evening with you, and God bless you all!”
Printed with permission from LtGen David A. Deptula, USAF(Ret.)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Super Sabre Society or its individual members.