Maybe is was the smell of jet fuel, or the noise of the flight line, or perhaps it was just something about seeing other airmen in their military uniforms hurrying about their duty. Whatever it was, it hooked Gary W. Thompson into rejoining the Air Force after a prolonged break in service and a later date with destiny.
“When the economy collapsed in 1983, I came out to the Portland Air Base to see if there might be some job openings so I could find at least part time work as a drill status guardsman,” said Thompson.
As luck would have it, he found a slot working in the aircraft maintenance squadron, and within a few months he was hired full time into an active-duty position.
Slender in build, with a full flock of brownish-blond hair and an easygoing disposition, Thompson’s folky yet professional manner started to open doors for him at the Portland Air National Guard Base.
It was then that Staff Sgt. Doug Jenkins, a co-worker, with the 142nd Fighter Interceptor Group, Portland Air National Guard Base, and told Thompson about a program where he could trade his tool box for aviator wings as a weapons system officer flying in the F-4.
With just two weeks to spare before he would be past the cut off age to fly in the F-4, Thompson found himself at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., and attending fighter lead-in school in the fall of 1984.
More than just a job, the calling to return to serve in the guard would put Thompson on the path to earn a unique honor, after finishing more than 15-months of grueling training, and eventually win the “Top Shooter” award at the William Tell weapons meet in 1988.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but when I joined the Air Guard, I got a winning lottery ticket,” said Thompson.
The biennial air-to-air interceptor meet held at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., would be the final appearance for the F-4 Phantom II in these competitions. Just as 1st Lt. Thompson was fine-tuning his proficiencies in the F-4, the Air Force decided to phase out the airframe and rely solely on the F-15 Eagle as the primary air-to-air fighter asset.
The 142nd team was seeking back-to-back honors at the William Tell meet, having sent a veteran duo of Capt. Larry Kemp and Maj. Tom Tutt to the 1986 event where they won the overall event.
“The unit decided it would be fitting to send our youngest aviators to fly the oldest planes one last time against the best of the best in the Air Force,” said Thompson.
“There was this feeling in the Air Force fighter community that our win in 1986 was a fluke,” said Mike Allegre, a public affairs sergeant who covered the meets as a reporter for the 142nd FIG.
The United States World Wide Weapons meet in 1988 began in late August with over a dozen teams from active-duty, Reserve and Guard units assembled for the honor of winning the Top Gun award.
A majority of the weapons used were AIM-7 missiles and AIM-9 sidewinders as well as the guns for dogfighting.
“The competition was 12 day’s long, but Dave McKinney and I jumped to an early lead, and by the fourth day we had flown all our sorties and held first place,” said Thompson.
The duo had to watch and wait as other teams battled it out to match their score over the next week of competition.
“I still remember, at the end of each day when the results were updated, we had our photo taken in front of the leader board, as we still were in first place, but expecting to drop in the standings as the week went on,” said Thompson.
But that never happened. McKinney and Thompson’s lead held up for the next eight nerve-racking days to beat everyone in the F-4 field.
“We knew how talented and skilled our team was going into the 1988 competition,” said Allegre.
Allegre recalled the confidence among the unit when it came to the distinctive skills of an F-4 weapon system officer; otherwise known as a “WIZO,” had developed from years of training with the systems.
“It was a widely held belief that a WIZO, marking the scope with a grease pencil, could still do a better job than an F-15 with all the new stuff they had,” he said.
“It never occurred to us that we had a chance to win, but Dave McKinney was able to score using our mounted on board guns during the contest, which proved to be a difference maker,” said Thompson.
“He was one of our best navigators, and his aircraft maintenance background only helped him with the F-4 (Westinghouse) radar systems,” said Steven D. Gregg, Brig. General, the Oregon Air National Guard commander, Joint Forces Headquarters, Salem, Ore.
Gregg and Thompson were young officers when they both began training in the F-4 program with the Oregon Air Guard in the mid 1980’s.
Gary had the drive to stick with all the months of training,
Airsickness issues, and knowing in the back of his mind the F-4 would be going away, along with his job as a weapons officer, said Gregg.
After the F-4C models from the 142nd were finally retired, the unit began flying the F-15A/B Eagles. Thompson would later command both the Logistical Readiness Squadron and the Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, at the Portland Air National Guard Base.
“When I think about everything Gary has accomplished, one of my proudest moments as a commander was during our phase I and II inspection in 2006,” said Gregg.
As the maintenance commander, his squadron had every jet pass the Inspector General with a 100 percent score, which is almost unheard of in the Air Force, Gregg said.
“Being in the Air Force has always just ticked with Gary,” said Gary Thompson’s wife, Susan Thompson.
Yet now as Lt. Col. Thompson reflects on his career and retires after 34 years of military service, he still remains sentimental about his unique achievement during his brief period as an aviator.
“The Air National Guard is one of the best kept secrets in the military and a great way to serve our country,” said Thompson.
Two of Gary and Susan’s sons; Jason and Joshua are now members of the Oregon Air Guard and following in their father’s footsteps.
On some levels it will be hard for Gary to retire and leave behind the relationships and sense of kinfolk he has formed with so many people in the unit, said Susan Thompson.
“Yet though every challenge our family motto has always been, Together we are stronger,” she said.