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The search for ‘886’: Retired Air Force pilot visits Reno to see the jet he flew in the 1960s

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The Uber driver stopped in front of the Nevada Air National Guard’s main gate headquarters on a chilly yet sunny morning. In the background, the faint sounds of jets taking off in the background from the Reno airport pierced the tranquility of a late winter morning.

A Vietnam War veteran and his two sons peered out the small car’s window; their necks craned upward to see an RF-4C (886) reconnaissance fighter jet permanently balancing on a pedestal with its nose directed toward snow-capped Slide Mountain.

“I’m speechless,” said retired U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Alexander P. Turner Jr. as he looked up to see the magnificent jet. “I’m looking at a granddaughter for the first time. There she is, and the guys have her dressed up so pretty.”

Homecoming for an RF-4C pilot

This was a homecoming, albeit short, for Turner, who had flown the same RF-4C (886) almost 60 years ago. Turner, a captain in the 1960s, picked up the new jet from the McDonald Douglas factory in St. Louis, Missouri, and flew it with another airman to Mountain Home Air Force Base, about 40 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho, near the Snake River.

“I went to St. Louis, and I signed for it,” Turner said, flanked by members of the Nevada Air National Guard and his two sons sitting at a large table in a conference room. “I flew it for five years … that was my baby. It had my name on it, but we were assigned the same airplane we went to the factory to get.”

Turner, who now lives near Langley Air Force Base in Virginia,  said Mountain Home, a base that sprung up during World War II as a bomber training installation, was changing from Strategic Air Command (SAC) to Tactical Air Command (TAC). The original crews assigned to Mountain Home picked up their own planes, described as a “front seater and back seater.” Turner, a Virginia native, was assigned to Mountain Home from 1965-1970 after spending a tour in Southeast Asia.

Two new squadrons were assigned to Mountain Home, one for RF-4Cs and the other for the four-propeller C-130 Hercules transport plane.

Turner, who served in the military for 26 years and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel, said two-person crews traveled to St. Louis to fly the RF-4C back to Idaho in 1966. After spending the previous two years overseas, Turner figured he was due a nice, new aircraft. He grinned before continuing.

“I had already done my tour in ‘64 and ‘65 before the air activities really got started,” he pointed out.

Turner said Fletcher Cook, the other pilot accompanying him to St. Louis, was tasked with certifying the jet and conducting the tests.

“The two of us had to develop all the level routes (for the RF-4C),” Turner explained. 

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Alexander Turner, second from left, stands underneath an RF-4C (886) he flew in the late 1960s. He and his two sons visited the Nevada Air National Guard base in March. Retired Brig. Gen. Williams Burks of Nevada, left, flew in the same jet as a navigator during Desert Storm in 1991. From left are Burks, Alexander Turner, retired Col. Bryan Turner, Retired Lt. Col. Jeff Zupon and Alex Turner III. Steve Ranson / NNG
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Alexander Turner, second from left, stands underneath an RF-4C (886) he flew in the late 1960s. He and his two sons visited the Nevada Air National Guard base in March. Retired Brig. Gen. Williams Burks of Nevada, left, flew in the same jet as a navigator during Desert Storm in 1991. From left are Burks, Alexander Turner, retired Col. Bryan Turner, Retired Lt. Col. Jeff Zupon and Alex Turner III. Steve Ranson / NNG

The jet’s fate 

After he had retired from the military, Turner remembered seeing the jet displayed in a book about the RF-4s. His eldest son knew his father retained a love and fascination with the jet, and about two decades ago, he began to snoop through books to find the fate of 886.

“I looked at the tail number and where jets go —  boneyard, boneyard, boneyard,” Alex Turner, III explained. “Then I saw 886 was with the Nevada Air Guard. I tracked it down and discovered it was here (in Reno).” 

Turner’s sons printed a photo of the jet and presented it to him for his 70th birthday. Despite efforts by the Turner family, finding the jet’s location was unknown until 2000. Retired Col. Bryan Turner, stationed in Germany and flying F-16s, had a Nevada tie. His squadron mate, Jeff Zupon, a former Nevada Air National pilot, told him 886 had served in Desert Storm.

Zupon met the Turners at the Nevada Air National. Guard base to renew old acquaintances and pose for a few photographs with the Virginia visitors.

The years rapidly passed, though, without the Turners heading to the West, but that changed in March when the family stopped first in Reno for a few days to stay overnight and visit the air base before leaving for Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, where Bryan’s son was stationed.

“This is long overdue,” Bryan said of the trip to Reno, where his father could see the jet he flew in the late 1960s.

“Yes, this is long overdue,” his father quickly replied.

Bryan Turner said the trip had to coincide with his work schedule and his father’s.

“He’s a world traveler,” Bryan Turner said.” He just got back from the Far East four days ago. He goes there every winter.” 

Much planning went into the trip to Nevada. Bryan Turner said the trip had to coincide with his work schedule and his son’s availability at Nellis.

“We’re making this a big road trip,” he laughed. “We’ll see Las Vegas and head back home.” 

They hope a return trip doesn’t take as long to plan.

A desire to fly

The love for flying, however, developed years before when Alexander Turner was a high-school student. While sitting in his English class and looking out the window, he remembered a jet that flew by the school.

“This thing came past the school,” Alexander Turner recalled. “This thing came by like a spaceship with wings on it. That was my introduction to jet aircraft.”

The teenager was immediately hooked. He attended college and enrolled in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), graduating four years later before reporting to Whiteman AFB in rural Missouri and Kessler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, and then to the now-decommissioned Laredo (Texas) AFB for F-86 jet training. Alexander Turner said half the pilots were assigned to the Strategic Air Command, and the other half attended fighter pilot training. When volunteers were needed to fly in Vietnam, his hand went up. No hesitation.

“The Air Force asked for 10 volunteers on a Wednesday, and we had departed on a Saturday for Southeast Asia,” Alexander Turner recalled. 

The hot, humid, steamy weather quickly greeted the pilots as they arrived at Da Nang, along the Vietnamese coast bordering the East China Sea. Alexander Turner learned their unit’s mission quickly. The pilots trained to rescue their fellow downed pilots who were flying the F-101s Voodoo supersonic jet fighters.

“The 101s impressed me,” Alexander Turner said. “Those guys were flying low and fast.”

After the months quickly passed and Alexander Turner was ready to depart Vietnam for the States, he expressed a desire to fly a different type of aircraft. 

“They asked me what I wanted to do,” the pilot said. “I wanted to fly ‘RECCY’ (reconnaissance). At the time, Mountain Home was transferring to SAC.”

The change represented a major milestone in Alexander Turner’s career. It took him from humid Vietnam to the dry, hilly terrain of southern Idaho midway between Twin Falls and Boise, where he was assigned to a composite command air wing. That left two F-4 wing squadrons, a C-130 squadron and one RF squadron. Alexander Turner said that was the new concept, resulting in a nine-month transition to procure the new reconnaissance jets. 

Pilot Fletcher Cook and Alexander Turner certified the jet and tested it.

“The two of us had to develop all the low-level routes,” he added. 

When the big day arrived for pilots to fly the jet from St. Louis to Mountain Home, Alexander Turner said many airmen were waiting for the two-person crew. The transition to the jets took some time, and in the meantime, Cook and Alexander Turner flew from Boise to Kirkland AFB every other week to fly and stay current with the RF-4C and then fly back to Mountain Home until the Air Force completed its transition. 

Being from Virginia and assigned to Idaho also presented another challenge for the young pilot. Although he experienced cold weather in Virginia, nothing compared to the fresh-crisp air and Idaho’s low winter temperatures. During his short trip to Reno, Alexander Turner was reminded by his guests that Reno experiences the same type of weather during the winter months. The distant snow-capped Slide Mountain and Mount Rose visually displayed the retired pilot’s memories.

“This is the way I envisioned Reno … with all the snow!”

When the Turners pulled up to the main gate at the Nevada Air National Guard, Alex Turner III grew quiet.

“I got out of the car. I’m speechless like looking at dad for the first time,” Alex Turner III described. 

The same feeling fell over his 90-year-old father.

“For five years, it was my life. I love that thing right there,” the combat pilot added. 

More than a half-century since Alexander Turner flew in and out of Mountain Home AFB, he vividly remembers the Idaho weather.

“It was cold,” the Vietnam War veteran recalled, telling his sons and members of the Air Guard that  Reno’s weather is similar to Mountain Home’s Snake River Valley. “But it was with the wind coming down the valley like a howling hurricane.”

Like a proud father, Alexander Turner said it was his responsibility to ensure “886” was not damaged because of the weather. The crew conducted daily inspections and reported the status to their commander. 

“Every day, we had to be combat-ready,” he said. 

On a cold night nearing midnight, Alexander Turner said 886’s crew hooked up a plastic canopy measuring 12 feet by 12-feet to thwart the wind, and then the crew would keep warm by drinking hot chocolate behind it. The Air Force pilot said the wing commander, though, told the crew they couldn’t bring a private car on the tarmac, but he liked the idea of hot chocolate and ensured the men on the flight line they could have hot cocoa and coffee to sustain them through the cold chill of an Idaho night.

When the Turners and Nevada Air National Guard personnel mingled at the RF-4C display near the front gate, the Vietnam vet kept looking upward at the jet’s sleekness and beauty.

“Everyone loved to fly it, but I got to fly it quite a bit,” he pointed out. “I had at least 500 hours. When a mission came up, I’d do an instrument check.”

Bryan, left, and Alexander Turner tour a C-130 at the Nevada Air National Guard base in March. They and Alex Turner III were in Reno to visit the same jet Alexander Turner flew in the late 1960s at Mountain Home (Idaho) Air Force Base.
Bryan, left, and Alexander Turner tour a C-130 at the Nevada Air National Guard base in March. They and Alex Turner III were in Reno to visit the same jet Alexander Turner flew in the late 1960s at Mountain Home (Idaho) Air Force Base. Steve Ranson / NNG

Commonality among pilots

Alexander Turner and Brig. Gen. (retired) William “Bill” Burks, who served as the state’s adjutant general before he retired in 2021, each flew the same 886 aircraft. The jet had been transferred from the Air Force to the Nevada Air National Guard before 1990 when units were called up before Desert Shield.

Burks enlisted in the Nevada Air National Guard after earning a degree in accounting from the University of Nevada, Reno. His military career with the Air Guard began in 1977 when he was selected to attend navigator training for the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Reno. 

Burks said the thought of speeding across the horizon appealed to him: “It’s like having the fastest car on the block, and you don’t have to buy the gas.”

A master navigator, Burks compiled more than 2,000 flying hours and is a veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Storm with 29 combat sorties. He told the Turners of his experience with the 886, one of two Nevada Air Guard RF-4C Phantoms that arrived in theater weeks before Desert Storm began on Jan. 15, 1991.

Burks and other airmen were assigned to Bahrain’s Shaikh Isa Air Base in December 1990. Once in country, they flew their RF-4C Phantoms in support of Desert Storm, which began with a massive bombing campaign on Jan. 16, 1991. Burks said the Nevada group, which deployed as a unit, relieved Alabama.

“At the time, there were only six reconnaissance units left,” recalled Burks, who was responsible for using the camera on the targets below. 

The 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group flew during the daytime over Iraq and Kuwait, primarily looking for Republican Guard units. Pilots also flew high over Baghdad and the adjacent countryside looking for rocket fuel and chemical weapons plants and both command and communications centers. 

Military records show the Nevada RF-4Cs took more than 300,000 feet of film that produced more than 19,000 prints of targets.

“No one unit was stripped of aircraft,” Burks said.

Once Desert Storm hostilities ended, the two Nevada RF-4C jets returned to Reno.

Pains of war remain

Alexander Turner said he has no regrets flying jets in the Air Force, but the deaths of fellow aviators who were prisoners of war in North Vietnam still weigh heavily on him. Memories of those who died in Vietnam are still as vivid today as they were in the 1960s.

“Let me tell you of a fellow pilot, Ed (Atterbury),” he said.” Ed was one of two pilots who escaped from the Hanoi Hilton.”

Sarcastically named for the hotel chain, the Hanoi Hilton was a prison that housed American naval and air force pilots who were captured and transported to the prison cells.

Alexander Turner said Atterbury was captured, but his captors severely punished the aviator. He also told of another aviator held captive and unmercifully punished.

“They fed him dry rice, and him gave him water. The rice blew his stomach open (excessive water caused the stomach to rupture),” Turner said, his voice growing shaky.

The retired pilot’s final days, years, and memories are there for Alexander Turner. After a tour of a hangar and walk-through inside the familiar C-130, he could’ve stayed longer if not for the flight to Las Vegas. The image of 886 will be long-lasting, though.

“The airplane sitting out on that pedestal represents some great Americans. Trust me,” Alexander Turner insisted. “You couldn’t have picked a better symbol for who you guys and ladies are.”

A Nevada Air National guardsman gives a tour aboard a C-130 to, from left, Alex II, Bryan and Alexander Turner. The Turners were in Reno in March so Alexander could see the same RF-4C reconnaissance jet he flew at Mountain Home (Idaho) Air Force Base in the late 1960s. Another squadron consisted of the C-130s. Steve Ranson / NNG
A Nevada Air National guardsman gives a tour aboard a C-130 to, from left, Alex II, Bryan and Alexander Turner. The Turners were in Reno in March so Alexander could see the same RF-4C reconnaissance jet he flew at Mountain Home (Idaho) Air Force Base in the late 1960s. Another squadron consisted of the C-130s. Steve Ranson / NNG
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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