The Focused Flying Ace

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the November 2020 Issue

Focused Flying Ace

“Flying an airplane is fun—until you get shot at.”

Retired Colonel Charles “Chuck” DeBellevue has clear memories of the 220 combat missions he flew as a Weapons Systems Officer during the Vietnam War. Each flight upward meant that an enemy plane was on the move. “And I knew that each pilot was hunting me down and trying to kill me.” 

Before each mission, DeBellevue’s team was briefed, and then the eight-person squadron headed straight into action. “You psych yourself up, get the airplane off the ground, and head straight to the gas tanker. We’d get an initial radar reading on what the enemy was doing, but we couldn’t rely on that, we had to know where we were on the map. Then, we went into combat configuration. I was in the lead airplane, heading us to the enemy, but the guys carrying the bombs were the critical assets.”

DeBellevue was ultimately part of six “kill” missions in 1972, earning him the rare military title of Flying Ace and a Congressional Gold Medal. His squadron, the famed Triple Nickle, downed a record number of MiGs, Russian fighter planes, in Southeast Asia. 

He described the mission in which his squadron shot down their second and third enemy planes. “We were up against vintage Korean War planes, which were deadly in the right hands. Our missile hit the first one right behind the canopy. It cut that airplane in two, and it burned on both ends. Twenty seconds later, the second airplane blew up. That fight took 1 minute and 29 seconds from the time we saw the planes as black specks on a white cloud.”  

During his 550 combat hours, DeBellevue was sent to Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, where no squadron had gone before. “You could smell the fear when they told us where we were going. At the end of the briefing, they said, ‘We’ve been waiting on this a long time, and you may not be coming home.’ We knew we would, though, because we had absolute confidence in our team. We’d studied, we knew how to handle the stress, and each pilot had the singular focus to do his part perfectly. Nothing outside the cockpit was important,” DeBellevue said, “So it was not helpful the time a Miss America show came through while we were getting ready for a mission. I did not need gorgeous women distracting me before a mission.”  

Now, DeBellevue, who lives in Edmond, speaks to both Air Force recruits and high school students about the importance of setting goals and focusing to achieve them. “These people are going to replace my generation, so we need young people to become leaders to keep this great country around.”  

He reminds his audiences that courage is a lot of things, and preparation is key. “When the Twin Towers came down on 9-11, look at how many trained people, like police and firefighters, were going up to help as the building was coming down, because those people dedicated their lives to someone else,” DeBellevue said. “Flying is inherently risky, and during war it was deadly—and we knew it, but we also volunteered for the it. I slept good at night because I knew I was paying back a debt I had incurred by being a citizen of this great country.”

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