EGLIN AFB — Dan Cline was looking for an old friend Wednesday morning at the Air Force Armament Museum, inside the AC-130A Spectre gunship that has a prominent place on the museum grounds.
"I want to see if they still have the ASD-5 'Black Crow,' " Cline said while standing outside the museum with nearly 200 former Air Force airmen who, like himself, served with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base from 1965-74 during the Vietnam War.
For the past four years, the former 8th TFW airmen have been holding a reunion, beginning with a gathering of just six of them at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Through word of mouth and social media, the reunion has grown exponentially, according to Bill Wallace, a former Ubon airman from Massillon, Ohio, who organizes the events.
This year, the growing group decided to meet on the Emerald Coast — for the beaches, sure, but also for a chance to see the AC-130A that was at Ubon with many of them, not to mention the F-4 Phantom jets from the Vietnam era also on display.
"A lot of guys flew in that exact plane," Wallace said as he looked toward the AC-130A. Dubbed First Lady because it was the first C-130 to come off the Lockheed production line in 1953, the gunship remained in service until 1995.
Cline didn't fly in the plane, but he maintained the "Black Crow," a then-secret system that allowed U.S. aircraft to track vehicles moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that linked North Vietnam and South Vietnam to support Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.
The problem, Cline said, was that thick vegetation concealed movement along the trail. The "Black Crow" surmounted that difficulty by detecting engine noise from vehicles moving along it.
"This thing was secret; behind locked doors," Cline said.
And, improbably, considering First Lady remained in service for more than 20 years after Cline left Vietnam in 1973, the "Black Crow" was still aboard the aircraft.
"Unbelievable," Cline said as he found the ASD-5 screwed into a panel below the flight deck. "I'm just amazed that it's still here. It's fun to see it."
First Lady also brought back memories for a couple of other Ubon alumni. William White of Uvalda, Georgia, and Ronald Buzbee of Winter Haven each worked on the aircraft during separate tours in Vietnam.
For White, the reunion with the gunship wasn't particularly emotional beyond the "fondness for a great airplane."
Buzbee, though, was a bit more reflective, saying he would repeat his year in Vietnam.
"If I had to go again, I would," he said.
And while neither man ever flew aboard First Lady, both were proud that their work helped keep the plane's aircrews safe.
"We kept them healthy," Buzbee said.
Also among the airmen attending this year's reunion was John Russ, a former F-4 Phantom pilot. There are two F-4s at the Armament Museum — a fighter version and a reconnaissance version.
"It brings back a lot of good memories," Russ said.
Now living in Toledo, Ohio, Russ was at Ubon from 1972-73. He spent six months training to fly the F-4, but said it took flying several actual missions before he got used to "the speed and the Gs (gravitational forces) and think(ing) about what's coming up at me."
"It's nice to hear everybody's stories (from) when we were younger," Russ said of the reunion.
"I thought it would be more emotional," Russ added, "but it's been more interesting than I expected."
For Wallace, the growth of the reunion has been not just in numbers, but in the activities. In addition to the Armament Museum tour, this year's participants visited Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base, where a number of them had previously served. They also had an F-35 pilot as a guest speaker at their dinner earlier this week.
"The bigger we get, the more we want to see and do," Wallace said.