Funeral flyovers squeezed by sequester, but fighter ace “Boots” Blesse gets a final salute

The shadows of the fighter jets streaked across Arlington National Cemetery on Friday as mourners laid to rest legendary Air Force general Frederick C. “Boots” Blesse.

Overhead, four gray F-15s roared across a cloudless blue sky, and one pulled out of formation and shot upward, signifying a departed pilot.

It was a majestic salute. But because of “sequestration” budget cuts, Blesse, who died in the fall at 91, might be one of the few getting such an honor this year.

The Air Force has decided that it will no longer do public flyovers at graduations, air shows, sporting events and funerals. That decision went into effect March 1. The Pentagon issued a similar decree for all services, effective April 1.

But the Air Force and the Pentagon allow special consideration for funerals. And Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry O. Spencer approved funeral flyovers Friday for Blesse and for Maj. Lucas Gruenther, who was killed in a training crash Jan. 28 and was being buried in Colorado.


Maj. General Frederick Corbin “Boots” Blesse (National Museum of the Air Force)

Wendy Varhegyi, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the service normally would do flyovers at about 1,000 public events a year.

In addition, it would fly over 100 to 150 funerals a year.

Varhegyi said the exception was made for Blesse because of his long and distinguished career, and an Air Force unit had previously volunteered for the flyover.

The exception was made for Gruenther because he was killed on active duty and a unit had previously volunteered for his flyover as well, she said.

Blesse, who retired in 1975 as deputy inspector general of the U.S. Air Force, was chiefly known as a crack fighter pilot. He had flown more than 200combat missions during two tours of duty in the Korean War in the 1950s.

Most of his missions there were in F-80 and F-86 jet aircraft, according to an Air Force biography.

During his second tour, he was credited with shooting down 10, perhaps 11, enemy aircraft and damaging three others. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for downing two enemy jets during one mission in September 1952.

When he came home to the United States that October, he was the leading Air Force jet ace.

Blesse then served at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he was a jet fighter gunnery instructor and squadron commander. He also penned a short but famous fighter tactics book, “No Guts, No Glory.”

It included lessons such as: “Keep the aircraft you are attacking in sight. Once you spot him you can’t take your eyes off him for one second or you’ll come back as one of the many who had him cold and let him slip away.”

“Guts will do for skill but not consistently.”

“When in doubt — attack!”

During the Vietnam War, Blesse flew 150 combat missions over Vietnam and Laos.

He retired as a major general and died Oct. 31 in Melbourne, Fla. His cremated remains were buried Friday amid a stiff, cold wind, music from an Air Force band and a rifle salute.

Gruenther, 33, who was stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was killed on a night training mission when his F-16 crashed into the Adriatic Sea, according to the Air Force. He had more than 400 combat hours flying in the war in Afghanistan.

His funeral was held several hours after Blesse’s at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs. Gruenther had attended the academy and was buried in the academy cemetery Friday morning, the school said.

A formation of four F-16s flew over his ceremony, and one, signifying “the missing man,” broke off in salute.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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