Broken wings

Published 1:55 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


In the spring of 1969, boisterous joking and kidding filled an aircraft hangar at Reese Air Force Base, Texas. “Listen up, guys, here’s the deal. I want the photo of your section of Class 69-06 taken with all 26 of you future pilots forming three horizontal lines,” the military photographer said. Good natured grumbling broke out among the section known for their attitude. “Sounds like my high school’s football team photo,” someone muttered. Several men laughed in agreement. More laughing ensued. The section leader, Capt. Dick Iannacone, interrupted, “C’mon, guys, we’re about to graduate – and this photo will be in our yearbook.” He nodded toward the photographer. “Give the man a break. He’s just doing his job.” Immediately the student pilots, all wearing flight suits, waited for further instruction and allowed the photographer to position them. With the supersonic T-38 Talon as their impressive background, three horizontal lines quickly formed. The tallest stood in back; officers of medium-height knelt to form the middle; the shortest sat cross-legged in front with their helmets forming an extra row on the ground.

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Each officer also had his photo taken outside on the flight line standing by or near a T-38 Talon. These photos, plus a lot of candid shots taken during the year, were for inclusion in the yearbook, appropriately titled “The HA HA,” a classic 69-06 title. The two sectional photos combined showed 53 pilots presumed to graduate and receive their silver pilot’s wings in early June. Eighty-four officers, who hoped to become Air Force pilots had arrived at Reese on April 1, 1968. In the ensuing months, 31 of them either had not possessed skills necessary to learn to fly, or they were medically eliminated earlier in the program.

About six weeks before the new pilots were to graduate, those who had successfully made it through the entire year and learned to efficiently fly three types of aircraft, the T-41, T-37 and the supersonic T-38 Talon, severe chest pains plagued one of the presumed graduates. The lieutenant told the flight surgeon his pain felt as if someone had squeezed him tightly around his chest. Baffled, the flight surgeon at Reese sent Lt. Tom Latino to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, for six days. 

Specialists at BAMC diagnosed him with an inflammation of the sac around the heart. Pericarditis. When we spoke by phone, I heard terrible pain in Tom’s voice.

He soon came home to Lubbock for two weeks, then off he flew (commercial) to the Air Force’s (then) flagship medical facility and Level 1 trauma center, Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force Base, also in San Antonio. Tom went through more extensive blood and physical tests. Two weeks later he took a phone call in the hallway. “Lt. Latino?” said a male voice from the 3500th Flying Training Wing personnel office. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” Knowing what was coming, Tom swallowed hard. “Since the cause of your Pericarditis cannot be determined, you have been medically eliminated from pilot training. When you get back to Reese, you’ll need to come to the personnel office and choose a new career field.”

“I understand, sir. I appreciate the call.” The news felt even more official when someone from the Wing called. Tom had checked every box of training except for flying the T-38 in four-ship formation. Now he’d never have the chance. He wasn’t crushed as were many of his squadron mates who had earlier been eliminated. Stoic and disciplined, Tom Latino took it like the grown man he had already become. He told me later that all many of his classmates had ever wanted to do was fly, but he was just eager to start training for a new career field.

In the decades that have followed and after he stopped piloting the T-38, Tom never had a recurrence of Pericarditis … until he took his third COVID booster injection. Dr. Bonnie presumes that pulling G’s while flying (and some component of that COVID shot) caused Tom’s Pericarditis to flare and had created the same excruciating pain. A steroid injection and bed rest for a few days took care of the pain.

After Tom came back from San Antonio, he went to personnel and chose his next career field: communications/electronics. The next class he could get into for initial training was not until January of 1970. In the meantime, he was assigned to the 3500th Flying Training Wing headquarters, where he worked in the office of the wing commander.

Being eliminated from flight training meant Tom lost his flight pay. The only paying job I ever had growing up were the five years I wrote a weekly teen column for this newspaper. I scanned Lubbock’s paper to find a job for the next few months. I interviewed and was hired by Furr’s Cafeteria as a server in the buffet line. The manager treated me like his long-lost daughter. I loved working there.

“Bonnie?!?” I looked across the line one Sunday and made eye contact with a middle-aged woman dressed in a pink suit and matching frilly hat. I recognized her from Officers Wives Club functions. I nodded to her husband, who I knew to be a lieutenant colonel and a staff-officer in Class 69-06.

“Bonnie! What are YOU doing here?”

“Good afternoon. Tom was medically eliminated from pilot training,” silent code for “He lost his flight pay.”  I added with a smile, “Which vegetables would you like today?” silent code for “Move along now.”

The only embarrassment I felt was for her rudeness.