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Pararescueman traces father's footsteps

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England -- Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, looks at a picture of his father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., in an album at the Royal Air Force’s No. 1 Squadron, Jan. 11. Sergeant Distelzweig visited RAF Cottesmore to view the Harrier aircraft his father flew in the 1970 as an exchange pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England -- Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, looks at a picture of his father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., in an album at the Royal Air Force’s No. 1 Squadron, Jan. 11. Sergeant Distelzweig visited RAF Cottesmore to view the Harrier aircraft his father flew in the 1970 as an exchange pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England – Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, looks in the cockpit of a Harrier jet Jan. 11. The aircraft was similar to ones his father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., flew during his time as an exchange pilot with the RAF in 1970. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England – Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, looks in the cockpit of a Harrier jet Jan. 11. The aircraft was similar to ones his father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., flew during his time as an exchange pilot with the RAF in 1970. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England – Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, and his wife, Eve, pose with a picture of Sergeant Distelzweig’s father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., in front of a Royal Air Force Harrier jet Jan. 11. Captain Distelzweig was a decorated pilot who perished in an aircraft accident in 1970 while serving as an exchange pilot with the RAF. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE COTTESMORE, England – Master Sgt. Louis Distelzweig, a pararescueman with the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, and his wife, Eve, pose with a picture of Sergeant Distelzweig’s father, Capt. Louis Distelzweig Jr., in front of a Royal Air Force Harrier jet Jan. 11. Captain Distelzweig was a decorated pilot who perished in an aircraft accident in 1970 while serving as an exchange pilot with the RAF. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Dobrydney)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- Five-year old Louis Distelzweig was looking forward to his father coming home from work, maybe playing on the swing set in the yard, when he heard something. Something wrong.

"My sisters and I were upstairs, and I heard my mom crying. I came down and asked her why," recalled the now grown master sergeant. "Of course, at that age, I didn't really understand. It didn't really hit me that we were never going to see him again until his funeral."

The funeral would be for Sergeant Distelzweig's father, Capt. Louis V. Distelzweig Jr. A decorated F-100 pilot, Captain Distelzweig was stationed at RAF Wittering as part of an exchange program with the Royal Air Force. The assignment to No. 1 Squadron flying Harrier jets was a welcome change after two back-to-back tours in Vietnam.

However, one day in 1970, shortly after takeoff, Captain Distelzweig's plane experienced a mechanical failure. He attempted to eject, but in doing so the plane inverted and crashed.

Captain Distelzweig died on impact.

In the years following his father's death, Sergeant Distelzweig followed in his father's footsteps and chose the military as a career. Rather than become a fighter pilot though; his interest was in special operations. After speaking to Army, Navy and Marine Corps recruiters, his Air Force recruiter put him in contact with a pararescue instructor.

"The following day I signed on the dotted line. My class started with 27 guys and three of us graduated," said Sergeant Distelzweig. Today, he is the 48th Operations Group chief of pararescue standards and evaluations.

Sergeant Distelzweig's wife, Eve, said she considers it no accident that her husband went into the pararescue field.

"It's not a coincidence he dedicated his life to saving others," she said.

When he found out he would return to the United Kingdom after more than 35 years, Sergeant Distelzweig knew what he wanted to do.

"I was going to go [to No. 1 Squadron] or at least make contact with them to check out my dad's old squadron and have them show me the Harriers," he said.

However, when he first arrived, Sergeant Distelzweig immediately found himself preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Soon after his return, he found out No. 1 Squadron would be shut down as part of U.K. defense restructuring.

"It pushed me to act on this right away," he said.

While No. 1 Squadron was based at RAF Wittering in Captain Distelzweig's time, today they are based at nearby RAF Cottesmore. When Sergeant Distelzweig arrived for his visit on Jan. 11, he and his wife were given a tour of the Harrier jets by Capt. Andrew Tenenbaum, an American exchange pilot just as Sergeant Distelsweig's father was.

"It's something we've been doing for 30-plus years that builds up good ties between the two nations," said Captain Tenenbaum of the exchange program, noting Sergeant Distelzweig's father would have been one of the program's first participants.

For the first time, Sergeant Distelzweig was able to climb in the cockpit of the plane his father flew.

"I saw them as a kid, but at that time you're more into playing. All planes are pretty much the same to a 5-year old," he said.

Following the tour of the hangar, an even bigger surprise awaited Sergeant Distelzweig. No. 1 Squadron had existed in one form or another since the turn of the last century and in that time amassed a copious amount of records and memorabilia.

"People can come back and read the diaries and find out what happened to their loved ones," said Royal Air Force Pilot Officer Cameron Macleod, who also accompanied the Distelzweig's during their visit. Several Britons have come to No. 1 Squadron to view the records, Pilot Officer Macleod said, but Sergeant Distelsweig was one of the few Americans to visit.

In an album documenting the early 1970s, among yellowed news clippings and sketches were several pictures of Captain Distelzweig, and even one of him and his wife at an official dinner.

"There were photos of him that even I don't have," marveled Sergeant Distelzweig. Since the album was too large and fragile to photocopy, Mrs. Distelzweig snapped photos of several of the pages.

"My mother will be real appreciative of that," said Sergeant Distelzweig.

Even more intriguing was a declassified flight log, recording every activity the squadron undertook, including Captain Distelzweig's accident. Sergeant Distelzweig read the account of the accident out loud as Captain Tenenbaum explained some of the technical details of why the accident was fatal.

"What they told my mother and what actually happened were probably two different things," said Sergeant Distelzweig. "It would have been done for the benefit of the family."

Sergeant Distelzweig came to No. 1 Squadron to take a personal tour of a Harrier unit and maybe find a bit of closure for his father. However, seeing long-lost photos of him and reading the hitherto unknown account of his final flight gave more closure than he could have hoped to find when he first contacted the squadron.

"It was way more than I expected, especially this," he said, pointing to the log book.