April 8, 2013 | Polk City, Florida, USA. At the time Arthur Lichte was unaware of what a Lockheed EC-121 “Warning Star” was, but he knew his posting to McClellan Air Force Base, California, was fortuitous. Being a native New Yorker, the young officer was eager to go to the sunny and beautiful west coast. He figured that whatever an EC-121 was it would be fun to fly.
The future general’s initial greeting at McClellan was not exactly what he expected. Gen. Lichte recalled, “When I arrived on station and was in processing and going around meeting people a lieutenant colonel jumped all over me. The older officer said, “I don’t know why they keep sending us second lieutenants! Don’t they know this is an old weapon system and it will be phased out soon?” Startled, novice Lichte did not know what to make of the man’s passionate outburst. The experienced superior then broke a smile. Gen. Lichte recalled, “The lieutenant colonel told me they told him that when he arrived there 20 years ago.” The general added, “That lieutenant colonel became a great friend and mentor.”
Then Second Lieutenant Lichte would soon learn the greatness of the EC-121. He found that the people he met who flew the type loved it. Until the Vietnam conflict, the primary mission of EC-121s was to provide complementary early warning radar coverage to the Pacific and Atlantic barriers. The crews would fly orbits some 300 miles offshore of the continental United States creating “Contiguous Barriers.” Their coverages overlapped those of land-based early warning radars.
EC-121s also operated extensively over Southeast Asia between April 16, 1965, and June 1, 1974. Notably, they flew in support of Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Linebacker I, and Operation Linebacker II. The National Museum of the U. S. Air Force site states the following: “In Southeast Asia, these unarmed radar aircraft aided in downing enemy planes, directed U.S. aircraft to aerial refueling tankers, and guided rescue planes to downed pilots.” Notably, on October 24, 1967, an EC-121 flying over the Gulf of Tonkin “guided a U.S. fighter into position to destroy a MiG-21. This action marked the first time a weapons controller aboard an airborne radar aircraft had ever directed a successful attack on an enemy plane.” Thus, Gen. Lichte and his colleagues were bringing theoretical concepts to practical fruition.
The general reminisced about the first time he saw one of the military Constellations. Her nose proudly jutted forth from the graceful humped fuselage. The lady’s triple tail provided distinction, and the four engines distinctively protruded from the long wings. He emphasized that although the plane was approaching “the sunset” of its operational life, she “was a mature woman of refined distinction.”
Learning to fly the elderly aircraft presented some difficulties. Gen. Lichte explained, “The Connie was an interesting plane to fly.” He continued, “First of all, it was pretty old. After coming out of pilot training with Cessna T-37 Tweet and Northrop T-38 Talon jet time, I had to learn a lot about props and how piston engines worked.” The general found that the Lockheeds’ “controls were pretty heavy compared to other aircraft, and the instrument cross check was challenging.” Qualifying his statements, he interjected that, “Of course, this was the first big, multi-engine aircraft I had flown. That in itself was a pretty steep learning curve.”
Gen. Lichte noted, “The Connie was unique in the way it taxied because of the landing gear design. You could come on and off the step, which was another position for the landing gear. Sometimes it made the airplane lurch when one gear went ‘UP’ on the step and the other didn’t or vice versa. Due to its age, we seemed to have a lot of emergencies.”
The general amusingly recalled, “It was often said that if God wanted the EC-121 to fly with four engines He would have put five engines on it because we frequently had one shut down.”
The general flew several models (D, T, & G) of the C/EC-121. “The C-121G,” Gen. Lichte said, “was configured to carry passengers. We used them for training. It was logical to do so because by utilizing that model we didn’t have to fly the radar equipment around and risk damage from all the touch and go landings.”
Gen. Lichte commented on the radar capabilities of the EC-121. “The plane had height finding radar as well as regular radar. I was not a radar expert, but I know the equipment was aged and very difficult for the technicians to maintain.” He added, “The electronic systems did the job for their time, but when the new Boeing E-3 came on board it was a welcome addition for our Air Force.” The turbojet-powered E-3 provided increased speed. The type also eliminated the ongoing problems with the troublesome Wright R-3350 reciprocating engines. The general remarked, “These failed all too often and required considerable maintenance.”
Addressing a question seeking information about typical missions, Gen. Lichte stated, “Typical missions in the states were going up on station and orbiting for hours at a time. We were waiting for the Russians to fly over the horizon in their Tupolev TU-95 Bear turboprop reconnaissance bombers.” The general continued, “We also had a mission down off the coast of Florida. The task was to watch for any fighters or other aircraft coming out of Cuba. We would track them.”
Gen. Lichte distinctly recalled special missions involving the Commander in Chief: “In particular we were called upon when President Nixon would go to Florida to visit his friend Charles “Bebe” Rebozo. Nixon would go to Miami, and we would be protecting the border.”
The general explained that he flew over Southeast Asia circa 1972. Based at Korat Air Base, Thailand, his EC-121 provided aerial support. Gen. Lichte described his first combat mission: “I remember flying out of Korat Royal Thai Air Base. There was a lot of excitement, and I was dealing with nervousness. We got all our briefings that morning and checked out all our combat survival gear. At last we were ready to go.” The general continued, “Captain Buddy Gregory was the aircraft commander that day and I was in the co-pilot seat. The EC-121 charged down the runway and lifted off the runway. We were on our way! While cruising to our designated patrol area, and shortly after the plane crossed over the border of Laos, an engine failed. Therefore, we had to return to base.” For the crew the experience was anti-climatic. The general concluded, “After all the anticipation of a combat mission, it turned into an emergency abort. We were back on the ground within a couple of hours.”
Gen. Lichte added, “Shortly after I began my first tour, there was a peace agreement and there was a halt in the war effort. However, we resumed flying again as the truce was broken, but we didn’t fly too much longer before the mission ended. After that we ferried the planes back home.”
Another incident that remains etched in the general’s mind is a flight out of Keflavik, Iceland. He recalled the events. “We were up running intercepts on two Bears. After the F-4s intercepted them, the fighter pilots took pictures of the Soviet airplane and returned to base. Meanwhile, we maintained our station. All of a sudden one of the turboprop Bears intercepted us. The faster aircraft flew up on our right wing. It was pretty amazing because we never saw it coming.”
Over the years Gen. Lichte served with the 552nd AEW&C Wing, and in both the 963rd and 964th Airborne Warning and Control Squadrons. The general misses the EC-121. He said, “It has been a long time, but I still remember her well. I do miss flying the airplane. I always hoped that I would find a Connie that was still flying and have an opportunity to fly the gregarious lady one more time. I have climbed aboard a few at various museums across the country. Every time I still get the same feelings, remember the smells, and think of the great people I flew with back in the early 70s.”
After leaving the outmoded C-121 behind, Gen. Lichte piloted Boeing KC-135 tankers and many other mobility types. Prior to retiring in 2010, he attained the rank of Commander of Air Mobility Command and accumulated more than 5,000 hours of flying time.
C-121s retired through the Air National Guard in 1973.
The last EC-121 left the USAF Reserve’s inventory in 1978. However, the USN flew a single modified EW version until 1982.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks General Lichte for his cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star
Lockheed C-121 Constellation
Cessna T-37 Tweet
Northrop T-38 Talon
Tupolev Tu-95 Bear
Responses from readers:
Bill Koch says:
04/09/2013 at 16:14
A good story. I flew on the Connie as a Navigator and the General’s comment about the smell was interesting. I visited the Connie at Peterson AFB in Colorado and that was my same comment, smells the same. A beautiful airplane and if you ever flew on it, nothing could ever take its place. I also remember him from our Connie days. I was either a Major or Lt Col and he was a 2nd Lieutenent and I could call him Art. How times have changed.
Jim Bleecker, MSGT USAF RET. says:
04/09/2013 at 17:08
I flew connies from 1962 through 1975 at McClellan. Nice to see any story about the old bird (plane, not General). Also see and . Lots of info on the 121s out there.
Martin L. Church says:
04/09/2013 at 21:27
Martin L. Church, CMSGT, USAF, Retired
Very interesting trip back down “Memory Lane.” As the general said, if they want 4 engines turning, they would have installed 5 engines on it. On our way to Japan back in the 50s, we were “stuck” at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, fir 3 days for an engine change that blew out after leaving Travis AFB, Ca. Thanks you General Lichte for the renewal of some good memories of yesteryear.
Robert J Fitzsimmons says:
04/10/2013 at 14:53
A big thank you to the General for his story about the EC-121. I flew with VW-13 and VW-11 out of Argentia, Newfoundland from 1956-58 as a airborne radar controller. I keep my memories of the Willy Victor alive by volunteering to restore connies in museums. From 2000 to 2005, I worked on 141311 at the former Chanute AFB in Rantoul, IL with the Willy Victor Group, then from 2006-present I am part of Naval Aircraft Restoration Foundation working on 141297 at Robins AFB museum in Warner robins, GA. It keeps me in contact with old friends and flight crew mates. Like they say, “Best three engine airplane ever built”.
Gerald Hartley says:
04/12/2013 at 12:46
Flew the Connies (as a Flight Engineer) from 1968-74. Flew out of Iceland, Flordia, Korea, off Vietnam coast and out of Thailand. Never got the coverage they deserved.
Pete Siegel says:
04/14/2013 at 23:38
The Connie is the only bird that looks like it is flying when it’s on the ground. I had friends who flew as “the Secret Squirrels” on missions out of Khorat, Itazuke, and Kwangju. Some also flew on the Willie Victors of VQ-1 out of Atsugi. There’s nothing like the sights and sounds of a 121 roaring down the runway with rumble of those engines and blue flame blowing out of the exhaust stacks.
JR Hafer says:
04/15/2013 at 08:32
The Lockheed Constellation L-1049 is the first commercial airliner I ever flew on at the age of 17 and I guess that’s why the “Connie” is so special to me.
John this is a very good article and I commend you on it. You are an “Award winning” Aviation writer for that very reason; you are thorough, accurate, painstaking and consistant. There is no other aircraft, in its class, that has captured the hearts of so many than the “Connie”, it is sad there are so few left, that is why it is essential we keep writing stories like this one for folks to remember the importance of historical 20th century aircraft and the men who flew them…
Richard Kelly says:
10/07/2013 at 22:31
I was a 963rd weapons controller and deployed to Korat four times in 72 and 73 and then became a training officer in the 4759th. My last Korat missions were over Cambodia. On one of those missions I put two marine F-4’s on a basket ball tanker. They were appreciative due to the bad weather that night. Lead said we gave them more help than their own Marines! Since they had air to air, I thought it might be good to have friends in the area.
Great memories. Iceland deployment not so much—and the there we the Thursday night calls for Family Man.
Mike Carbonneau says:
07/09/2014 at 01:19
As a “scope dope” flying on the Connie’s out of Florida in the late 60’s, this article brought back all the smells, noise and pure visual elegance of quite possibly the greatest aircraft ever produced! Thanks for the trip!
Lynn McAtee. (Old 22nd MAS FE) says:
09/05/2015 at 03:49
So good to hear another Connie aviator praise the old girl. I spent 1970 thru 74 with the 963rd as FE. and was on the bird out of Keflavik when the TU 95 pulled up on our wing. Scared the K++p out of us, as they seemed to just appear suddenly. Interesting that they had to deploy gear and flaps to stay beside us. The vibration from that aircraft was unbelievable because of their counter-rotating dual props. We could feel the vibration while they were alongside. Many many great memories from all the “Popular” places we went. Keflavik, KwangJu, Korat and “Other” interesting places. Like the time we had to land at DaNang with an engine out and were parked between the ammo dump and the fuel storage area. Sweet deal.
George Thomas says:
02/02/2016 at 13:48
Great article and down memory lane. I was a propeller tech stationed at McClellan from 1970 to 1973. Worked in the phase hangers and out on the flight line when needed. Did two TDY’s the Korahat Thialand island hopping to Wake island, Guam and such. A wonderful time in my life as being young. Was mentored by some of the best Sgt’s and Commanders.