Texas Air National Guard Lt. George W. Bush was eager to fly fighter jets and settled into the role nicely, filling out the image with a fast sports car, a Houston bachelor pad and a brisk social life. The recent Yale graduate also was a quick study, excelling at high-speed aerial maneuvers and thinking on his feet, fellow pilots said.
But after several years of impressing his instructors at Houston's Ellington Field, Bush suddenly decided to drop it all in 1972. After hundreds of hours at the helm of an F-102 interceptor and declaring that he wanted to make flying a lifetime pursuit, Bush opted out, skipped a required flight medical exam, and left the state.
President Bush's service in the Air National Guard more than 30 years ago has sparked renewed political controversy as Democratic critics have said in recent days that Bush shirked his duty when he left Texas and transferred to a Guard unit in Alabama. On Feb. 13, the White House released hundreds of pages from Bush's military records to try to quell the critics.
Why Bush decided to stop flying has been another question left unanswered as the president's critics parse his National Guard record. And the papers shed no new light on why the ambitious pilot decided to give up his wings.
But Air National Guard pilots who served with Bush say his quick exit allowed him to pursue a career in politics, as he decided there was no future in flying an aircraft that was losing favor to more versatile fighter jets. Other Air National Guard officials said Bush followed a not-unusual path for young professionals who could not dedicate the time to the rigors of flying as they neared the end of their service commitments.
"We were phasing out his equipment at the time, and he would have had to train for six to nine months to get into the new aircraft," said Maurice H. Udell, of Friendswood, Tex., who was Bush's flight instructor. "He had a full-time job outside of the Guard, and people often left to pursue their jobs elsewhere. He was not disciplined. There was no incident."
The records show only that Bush was suspended from flying for failing to take a required flight physical. Although many pilots would be crushed to lose their wings -- a former high-ranking Guard official said people have committed suicide because of it -- Bush just walked away.
"Anybody that is lucky enough to get the wings, you just don't walk away and don't take a physical," said one former Guard official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There should have been eyebrows raised, and I'm sure there were."
But retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald W. Shepperd, who was director of the Air National Guard until 1998, said missing a flight physical happens with many part-time pilots. Shepperd said he once did not take an annual flight physical and was grounded.
"It's not a big deal," Shepperd said. "You're grounded, and you take it again. As a longtime commander, I saw this happen on a regular basis."
Another former director of the Air National Guard, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., said some "squadron jocks" such as Bush drop their flight status when civilian careers take precedence. Flying a fighter jet is risky, Weaver said, and commanders want pilots to be dedicated to the training.
Weaver, who said he read Bush's military records after they were released, said Bush's service hours began to flag in 1972. Weaver said Guardsmen who were not willing to actively participate were considered a liability.
"We wanted people in the Guard who weren't going to waste our time and money," said Weaver, who was director until 2002. "With Bush's interest waning, I can see the conversations, because I've had them myself: 'You've got to make a decision here. We'd be wasting taxpayer money by keeping you flying.' "
Weaver said he questions why Bush did not take his physical, however, because "military aviators take their physicals because that's a basic requirement of being an aviator."
Udell said Bush did not submit to the exam because he was planning to stop flying, which is also what White House spokesmen have said. There would be no reason to take the physical if Bush intended to go to a unit where he could not fly. Bush was going to Alabama to work on a political campaign, and Alabama's Air National Guard did not have the F-102s Bush flew.
In 1972, the F-102 Delta Dagger was being phased out of Vietnam service because it was deemed less useful than the new F-4 Phantom II, a jet doubling as a bomber and an air-to-air fighter. The F-102, an interceptor designed in the 1950s to thwart Soviet bombers, was being replaced at National Guard bases and was pushing trained pilots into different assignments. Bush's Texas unit was transitioning to the F-101B, an entirely different aircraft.
Bush, with about two years left on his service commitment, was looking to move on, the pilots said, and that meant dropping flying altogether.
"He was pretty active up until he left for Alabama," said Dean A. Roome of Bartlett, Tex., who lived in a two-bedroom Houston apartment with Bush in 1969-70. "I guess he got directed toward the political arena, and he might have just had so much of an involvement in that that it interfered with his flying."
In "A Charge to Keep," his 1999 autobiography, Bush did not specifically address his decision to give up his wings, but he did write about leaving the National Guard. When he applied to Harvard Business School in 1973, Bush wrote, he had to take stock of his life.
"I was almost finished with my commitment . . . , and was no longer flying because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter," he wrote. "I had learned to fly jets and acquired a good education; I had not yet settled on a path in life."
William Campenni, 63, of Herndon, who was at Ellington with Bush, said the transition to new fighters meant many pilots were forced to make a similar decision: Learn to fly a new aircraft or move on. Campenni also flew F-102s.
"People like me were becoming excess, the same thing Bush was facing," Campenni said. "If there was no airplane for me, I'd sit down for a few months. I'd read safety magazines and manuals."
The early 1970s was a time when Bush was living what Roome called the "Tom Cruise" time of his life -- driving a fast car, flying fighter jets and dating many women. That lifestyle has raised concerns that perhaps Bush neglected his duty or ran into trouble. Nothing in the records supports that theory, and Roome and Udell said nothing of the sort occurred.
Udell, the flight instructor, said Bush once showed interest in volunteering for a program that would have sent him to Vietnam, called "Palace Alert."
Udell said Bush approached him in 1970 and asked him about Vietnam. Udell, who had just returned from a tour, said Bush asked him how he could get into the program, but Udell discouraged him.
"He said he wanted to participate in volunteering himself," Udell said. "He didn't have enough time and experience. . . . There was no way in hell he could go over there and do it. I told him it was not possible."