Jim Latham was shot down and beaten up pretty good near Dong Hoi in 1972, but Saturday, in front of more than 200,000 awestruck Americans, he came shrieking out of the azure over Andrews Air Force Base, shrieking in his red, white and blue T-38 Talon, shrieking to a halt on the tarmac. The song "This Is My Country" played as he bounced: blond, blue-eyed and tan, the perfect picture of clean and confident United States miliary might.
He is a Thunderbird, a member of the U.S. Air Force flight demonstration team that came to Andrews Saturday as part of this week's celebration of Armed Forces Day. It is a team that sets the hearts of big and little boys a-thumping with the mad desire to be fighter pilots, to fly the F-15 or F-16 over, say, Iran and shoot, should the situation arise, five Migs straight out of the air.
"I'd love to do that," says Latham.
The Thunderbirds are eight in number, the hand-picked cream of the Air Force. All have been fighter pilots, all wouldn't do anything else, and all know that over the years 12 of 130 Thunderbirds have died, most of them in sizzling funeral pyres of molten metal.
And most would have flown the secret mission to Iran, as Latham puts it, "in a heartbeat."
"I think every fighter pilot would have been just gritting his teeth to get in there," says Latham, grinning and maybe even gritting a little. "Hell, yes, I would have flown."
They are the sort of men that have, according to writer Tom Wolfe, the unspoken "right stuff" -- "the idea . . . that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment -- and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite . . ."
In the absence of a war and combat, these sorts of men wind up as Thunderbirds. Sure, you're not dog-fighting, but you're an Air Force celebrity in white, a public relations and recruitment ambassador who travels to bases across America, giving shows to hundreds and hundreds of thousands.
But most of all, you get to fly. That's it. Fly.
"After 20 years of marriage, I'll never understand it," sighs Sylvia Cherry, the wife of a former Thunderbird at Andrews on Saturday. "I'll just never understand it. They eat, live, breathe and drink flying."
Latham arrived at Andrews about 1 p.m. the day of the show, with half an hour to kill before the required briefing session. His white jump suit had the Thunderbird emblem on the right side and "Capt. Jim Latham -- #3" on the left.
He is a pediatrician's son from Shawnee Mission, Kans., an affluent suburb of Kansas City.He swam competitively during high school and then college at Kansas State University. He is toothy, lean, clean-cut, unflinchingly polite, the husband of a woman named Sue and the father of two girls, all of whom you expect to look every bit as wonderfully and hopeless all-American as he does.
This is how he wound up flying fighter planes:
"In college, all males had to take ROTC," he begins, "so I was signing up for my classes my freshman year, and the last booth I went to was the ROTC booth. Well, there were two lines -- one for the Army and one for Air Force. I went over to the short line, which was the Army line. Then I saw a guy I went to high school with standing in the front of the Air Force line and he said to me, 'Don't do that, you'll have to sleep in a tent and carry a gun and fight in the mud.'"
But Latham told him the Air Force line was too long, to which his high school buddy replied: "'Tell you what -- I'll let you cut in line.'"
"Well," finishes Latham, "that's how I got in the Air Force."
A little later, a fraternity brother gave him a ride in a Cessna, and after that, after just one short flight, Latham was hooked. He knew the Air Force would teach him to fly, so that's where he stayed.
Then came Vietnam. On Oct. 5, 1972, he was flying his Phantom over Dong Hoi in the southern part of North Vietnam on a "fast FAC" -- or Forward Air Control -- mission, looking for enemy fighters.He was hit by anti-aircraft artillery, and his right wing came off, so he ejected and was immediately taken prisoner. He tried to escape once, with two broken legs, by crawling three miles towards the ocean and a boat.
"But then the sun came up, and they saw me," he says. "I swam out in the ocean a ways, but then they started plinking at me, so I gave up." He was beaten, transferred to the "Hanoi Hilton," then another prison. In March 1973, he was among the last of the POWs to come home.
Since then, he's been stationed in New Mexico and Alaska, and now Las Vegas, the home base of the Thunderbirds.
But the briefing. It's time for the briefing, time to get himself "mentally right and mentally up" for the half-hour show of precision flying that leaves him drenched afterwards. It is time to concentrate on the maneuvers that are done by feel and instinct, done by exact pressure on the stick and coupled with perfect timing.
"We're talking about split fractions of a second," he says. "The consequences of making a major mistake at the wrong time will -- "
"Kill you?" somebody asks.
"-- have catastrophic effects," he finishes. Whether or not he hates the words "kill" or "crash" or "burn to death," he nonetheless doesn't use them.
After the hour-long briefing comes the patriotic pomp and hoopla beginning the show. The day is brilliantly sunny and breezy and as the Thunderbird pilots strut in perfect formation to their T-38s, "Esprit de Corps" booming from the loudspeakers, America seems, if not a fine mirage, then a grand vision indeed.
The pilots stand in front of their planes, each with wings 6 inches at the thickest point and noses you can fit your palm over. They are basic Air Force training planes, but the Thunderbirds have painted each 6-ton baby sparkling red, white and blue. They are pretty.
Then with a collective "Heh!" the pilots are off, running just like in the movies, toward their cockpits. The planes zoom down the runway, sending squiggling heat waves from the concrete.
The show is full of rods and arches and planes sometimes flying just 3 feet from each other as they turn upside-down or dive toward earth or look as if they're absolutely going to come smashing into each other but in the last minute, whew, they don't. The Thunderbirds have done this for 27 years, for an estimated 142 million people.
And the crowds love them.
"I think they're real heroes," says Chris Boylan, 13, of Clinton, Md. "I think they're more heroes than President Carter."
"I wanna drive a Thunderbird," says vincent Reynolds, 13, of Dell City, Va.
These two are in the mob of autograph hounds afterward. It takes an hour as Latham signs one after another. The debriefing session takes two. The entire show has been videotaped and the crew goes over every maneuver, getting grades on each one. The show itself is given a grade of 1 (out of 5, 1 being the best). Latham calls this an "average" score, 1-plus being the perfect mark they all strive for.
After the debriefing session, he sits back with a Lite beer in the small room. Flying as a Thunderbird, he's said earlier, "is just something different to do." What he really wants is the F-4 again someday, or better yet, the F-15 or F-16.
"Flying fighters is the greatest thing there is in this world," he's said earlier. And now, over the beer:
"It's not the idea of killing a guy," he explains. "It's the idea of his plane, of blow that son-of-a-b---- away."