Former Madhatter visits Lakenheath

  • Published
  • By 1st. Lt. Nick Norgaard
  • 492nd Fighter Squadron
A frequently heard toast in the 492nd Figther Squadron is, "Once a Bolar...always a Bolar!" Recently the squadron hosted an opportunity to practice what they preach. Lt. Col. (ret.) Walter Burkett visited the 492nd FS for the first time since he was a Bolar in the late 1950s. He brought with him some great stories of what the Air Force was like back then as well as his personal collection of 492nd memorabilia, which he graciously donated to the squadron.

During Colonel Burkett's visit to RAF Lakenheath, current 492nd squadron members were given some unique insight into what life in a fighter squadron was like 50 years ago, while the colonel was able to see how fast-paced Liberty Wing operations are today.

The Air Force has changed significantly since then, 2nd Lt. Burkett joined the 492nd Fighter Bomber Squadron in 1956. "Then, less than 10 years old, the Air Force was a relatively new service; the Korean War had ended and the 492nd was based in Chaumont, France," Colonel Burkett recalls.

He was amazed at the technological advancements made over the last 50 years, particularly after his tour of the F-15E simulator and a short trip around the flightline. Young officers and enlisted gathered around him eagerly to hear his comments on how far aviation had gone--from the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903, to the jet fighters the colonel flew in the 1950s, then to the quantum leaps in technology today's modern Air Force.

Colonel Burkett challenged the Madhatters to look to the next era of aviation, asking, "The next question is, what does the next 50 years have in store for our service?"

Squadron members also learned about how different the safety culture of the Air Force was, at a time when aircraft were far less complicated, but the U.S. was heavily involved in the throes of the Cold War.

"When I was in the 492nd, pilots had very few rules dictating what they could or could not do. Unfortunately, too many people lost their lives and many jets crashed in preventable accidents," Colonel Burkett said.

He was learning to fly the F-86 at Nellis AFB, Nev. just prior to arriving in France and remembers when jets crashed at the rate of about one per week.

"Every once in a while you'd see black smoke on the horizon and realize another jet crashed," the Colonel recalled. "They say that flight safety rules are written in blood, meaning it took the deaths of many aviators before us to develop the safety rules we have today."

Of course, not everything has changed since 1956. One thing still the same is the fondness a person has for their first operational fighter squadron, as evident as Colonel Burkett toured the 492nd FS and saw pictures of his squadron mates on the wall, remembering what a special time it was. He shared stories of his commander, Skinny Innis, a veritable legend in the fighter community, and also recounted tales about his good friend, Sid Wright, who gained notoriety for taking pictures of Rome while descending under his parachute after an emergency ejection on his way back from a deployment to Tunisia, said Colonel Burkett. Sid Wright went on to command the 492nd FBS years later.

The visit concluded with a ceremony where Colonel Burkett donated squadron memorabilia he had saved for 50 years.

"His heartfelt generosity, to pass on the heritage of a proud squadron past to those looking to its future, was indeed memorable, and the articles will have a hallowed place in the squadron and wing history corners," said Lt. Col. James McGovern, 492nd FS commander at the time of the visit.

But the stories that took every eager listener back an age were even better, and although things could never be more different between 1956 and 2006, some things never change. "Once a Bolar...always a Bolar!"