Capt. Jack HudspethCapt. Jack Hudspeth at ease behind the controls of a C-130 transport plane.

Big Sky’s Capt. Jack

Air Force vet recalls taking fire in Vietnam
Veterans Day to be observed Nov. 11-12

Men were being drafted into the Vietnam War during the time Big Sky resident Jack Hudspeth was attending college at Mississippi State University in the mid-60s. Students pursuing degrees were allowed to defer from the draft, but even then the war made its way into Hudspeth’s life. 

Later, the college draft deferment went away, “So anybody was liable to get drafted,” said Hudspeth. “But I had determined before I’d graduated from high school that I wanted to join the service.”

Mississippi State, being a land-grant college, required Hudspeth to join the Reserve Officer Training Corps for his first two years of schooling. Hudspeth stayed the course, continuing to advance in ROTC where he found his real passion—flying. Through ROTC and while still attending university, Hudspeth trained to be a private pilot. 

But as soon as he graduated, and was also commissioned into the military, Hudspeth immediately received his draft notice. 

“I had to have my mother go to the draft board to show them the orders that I was already in the military, or else I was going to be drafted,” he remembered.

Soon after Hudspeth dove straight into pilot training. He’d been aiming to get into aviation since he was a teenager, and figured the best way to do that was to get into the military. 

“A lot of other people I knew didn’t necessarily lean towards flying, and went into the Navy or Intelligence, but they didn’t have a choice. I had the interest already and I did what I wanted to do, which was to join the Air Force and learn how to fly,” he said.

Hudspeth graduated from pilot training in 1969, trained to fly a C130 transport airplane. He was shipped over to Ching Chuan Kang Air Base in Taiwan for two years, but the whole purpose was to go to Vietnam. 

“At that time, they didn’t want to have a whole lot of people stationed in Vietnam,” Hudspeth explained. “They had a number, like 500,000 that they wanted there, and couldn’t go over it. But they did it, by sending us TDY (temporary duty assignment).”

So from Taiwan Hudspeth would fly to Vietnam for two weeks, head back to Taiwan for a week, and back again for two weeks for a period of 18 months as opposed to a year-long commitment solely in Vietnam. If he’d chosen an airplane different than the C-130, like say, a larger, C-141 jet, he could have been given a stateside assignment. But after one year the men in those jets were put into helicopters, said Hudspeth, then sent straight to Vietnam. 

“I decided I didn’t want to do that, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to fly helicopters first of all. Not my cup of tea,” Hudspeth said of his decision to fly transport C-130s. “And it turned out to be a good idea because it’s a versatile airplane. They started making them in 1955 and they’re still making them today.”

During his 18 months serving abroad in the Vietnam War, Hudspeth flew numerous transport missions, bringing cargo from one military base to another. That cargo was anything from food to guns, ammo and so on.

“We also carried DOAs (dead on arrivals) killed in action, in body bags,” said Hudspeth, speaking slower and lighter as he described that unfortunate cargo. “One of our cargo missions may have been that. We were losing quite a few people, 56,000 I think in Vietnam during that period of time, and we had to move them from one location to the next to get them back to the U.S.” 

After that year and a half, Hudspeth was stationed in North Carolina at Pope Air Force Base. A little over a year later, as the North Vietnamese began taking over the country, Hudspeth was called back to duty over Vietnam. He had been previously trained to come in “low and slow” to drop cargo if landing wasn’t an option. But in March 1972, during a mission just like that, one plane in a three-plane mission was shot down and another lost two engines.

“So after that we didn’t do that procedure anymore,” Hudspeth explained. “We started dropping from high altitude, 10,000 feet and above, which is a little above what your 23 mm anti-aircraft gun could shoot. So they sent us back over because we had a radar we could use to target an exact point on the ground where we would drop and resupply that way, within 100 yards.”

Those were some of the more dangerous missions Hudspeth recalls:n “When we went back over to Vietnam in 1972, and started dropping from high altitude, as we were flying along I saw this debris coming up at me. It was the 23 mm bursting, right below us. You had a big cloud of smoke, where a bomb had blown up. It got pretty close.” 

Hudspeth also remembered returning from a mission with holes in the airplane. 

In all, it turned into a three-month mission for Hudspeth, ending around the time President Richard Nixon’s Operation Linebacker began sending in B-52s to bomb North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in late January 1973, around the time Hudspeth ended his time in the service.

He then worked as a draftsman for a while, but wanted to get back into the Air Force and his passion, flying. He did just that, joining a reserve unit at Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base in 1974. 

“And the only thing they had was helicopters,” Hudspeth said, chuckling. “So guess what, I went and got trained to fly rescue helicopters, picking up downed fighter pilots with the help of para-rescue jumpers.” 

Later on, he moved to Selfridge Air Base in Michigan where he got back to flying his first love, C-130s, continuing combat rescue operations, this time flying the planes that re-fueled the rescue helicopters on long missions.

Those rescue missions could be daunting. 

“If you were doing a dark night, overwater hoist, hovering in a helicopter about 40 to 50 feet up, it was tricky,” Hudspeth said.

In 1979, Hudspeth started his 30-year career as a commercial airline pilot. But he continued with C-130 rescue missions as part of the reserves back in Florida, taking part in the shuttle mission rescue when the space shuttle Challenger exploded at Cape Canaveral. C-130s and helicopters were kept on at nearby Patrick Air Force Base in case a disaster like that were to happen again. Hudspeth worked via the Reserves at that base for some time.

Hudspeth spent the last three years of his Air Force career back in helicopters, taking units over to Kuwait for three months after the first Gulf War back in 1994. Units were using night vision goggles to provide rescue to fighter pilots as well as refueling at night.

He retired as a U.S. commercial pilot in 2005 when age limits required him to do so. But with pilot blood still flowing in his veins, Hudspeth continued his career over in Europe where age rules allowed him to fly until 2010. That’s around the time he officially relocated to Big Sky, enjoying his time skiing and golfing.

A few years ago, Hudspeth joined the American Legion Post 99 in Big Sky, invited by his friend Dick Allgood, who was also in the Air Force back in the 70s. He said he’s enjoyed being a part of the veterans service organization, which recently wrapped up its popular bingo event that raised funds for the group’s civic projects—which range from funding Constitution-themed student oratorical competitions to hands-on government experiences for local youths.

If anyone’s looking for an opportunity to meet Hudspeth and his Legion crew, they’ll be part of the annual Veterans Day Assembly at Lone Peak High School on Nov. 12 at 2 p.m., as well as at the community appreciation bingo event sponsored by the Legion on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at around 6:15 p.m. at the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill.

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