Retired Air Force Col. Fred Claussen wore a wide smile Sunday at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale as — for the first time in 46 years — he climbed into the cockpit of the F-105 Thunderchief that he had flown during the Vietnam War.
His thrill at the reunion persisted, even as he relayed stories of his most terrifying days of flying amid unrelenting gunfire, and the sobering hourlong solitude of return flights after bomb-dropping missions over Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Sunday, his joy at seeing the plane, named for his daughter, faltered only when he spoke of the day he had to part with it after flying more than 100 combat missions over about 10 months. The memory abruptly brought his hands to his face as he allowed himself a moment to weep.
“I looked back at the airplane and said, ‘Christie, you gave me one hell of a ride,’ ” he choked, wiping his eyes.
Claussen, 74, was the last fighter pilot ever to fly that Republic F-105D jet in combat, said museum officials, who arranged the reunion. In October 1970 he flew it back to the United States from Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in central Thailand.
The Thunderbird was one of more than 830 of that model built by Republic Aircraft at the same hanger that is now the Airpower Museum, where the plane is on permanent loan from the U.S. Air Force Museum.
The Lutz, Florida, resident brought his family, including daughter, Chris Brandley, 49, of Keller, Texas — the namesake for the cherished aircraft — as well as his granddaughter Maddison Brandley, 17, and wife of 28 years, Sunny Claussen, 55, along for the reunion with a plane that he said was once an extension of his own body.
Claussen, who is a retired fleet manager, presented museum officials with the flight suit he wore in combat and discussed the horrors of war and what it had done to him.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t wait to go out and fly combat again,” he said. “If I went out on a mission and didn’t get shot at, I felt disappointed. That sounds kind of strange, but that’s just how it was. We knew we were the best fighter pilots in the world and we thought we were invincible. . . . You might say we were all insane.”
That invincibility coexisted, incongruently, with an awareness that they could die any day.
He explained that fighter pilots at Takhli had $50 set aside at their regular bar so their fellow pilots could drink on them the next day, should that be their turn to die.
Fred Claussen realized years later that he had post-traumatic stress disorder that he said he has since dealt with, though dreams of flying and emergency cockpit ejections still persist.
The likelihood of death was never more apparent to Claussen than on Sept. 23, 1970, when he saved the life of a fellow pilot after the man’s plane took a hit and it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t make it to the nearest landing site.
Claussen watched from his cockpit as his friend’s burning plane lost pieces of molten metal, finally urging the man to, “eject, eject, eject!” He circled overhead, drawing closer and shooting off potential enemies as the other pilot drifted to the ground unconscious, dangling from a bullet hole-ridden parachute.
Rapidly losing fuel, he called in the location so a helicopter team could rescue the man. Claussen received his second Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the man’s life.
“Fighter pilots are a different breed,” said his wife, Sunny Claussen, who is an occupational therapist at James A. Haley Hospital in Tampa. “They have amazing self control. I had been married to this man for 25 years [at that point], and I didn’t realize he was going through PTSD. . . . He would dream every night. He’s flying every single night. And, one day I asked him, ‘Is your flying fun?’ and he said, ‘No, when I’m flying, 95 percent of the time it’s bad.’ ”
She said she realized she rarely sees fighter pilots in her own work at the VA. “It’s so exclusive,” she said. “No one knows what their experience was.”
Fred Claussen agreed, saying that fighter pilots are trained to be cool under pressure and keep emotions in check. Only other fighter pilots can truly understand the experience.
Once home, he struggled to cope without the adrenaline rush. His best friend from the Air Force committed suicide two weeks after returning from the war. The pain of PTSD was compounded by the treatment of military personnel returning from the Vietnam War. Claussen said his wing commander called the pilots aside during their welcome home party to warn about demonstrators at the gate.
“They called me a pig, a baby killer, threw eggs at my car as I left out the gate,” he said, his eyes filling with tears again. “I was just very disappointed in the American people, that they recognized us that way. . . . In my mind and my family’s mind, I was a hero. I did what I was asked to do. And that was enough for me.”