Many years ago, a 12-year-old Rick Goddard was riding a ski lift up a snowy hill in Utah when he heard the unmistakable roar of a jet engine.
He felt chills as an Air Force F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet zoomed down the valley below and hurdled toward him up the ski slope at hundreds of miles an hour. Astonishingly, the boy could actually see the pilot in the cockpit as he buzzed low over the mountain.
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” Goddard — now a retired Air Force major general — told CNN last week. “There was no doubt that I wanted to fly an F-100 and I wanted to do what that pilot was able to do.”
And that’s exactly what happened. By the time he was 24, Goddard was flying F-100s in combat during the Vietnam War.
The Super Sabre wasn’t just any jet. It was the first of the Century Series — six innovative warplanes designed to be faster, smarter and nuclear.
Sixty-four years ago — on May 25, 1953 — the F-100 made its maiden flight — the first US Air Force fighter designed to fly faster than the speed of sound during level flight.
In the span of just a few years, the F-100 was followed by other “100” jets — the F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105 and F-106 — all extraordinary in their own way.
The RF-101 was the first USAF reconnaissance jet that could fly faster than the speed of sound at level flight.
The F-102 was the first operational fighter designed with a delta-shaped wing.
The F-104 flew so high and fast that NASA used a modified version to train astronauts.
The F-105 could carry a heavier bomb load than a much larger World War-II-era B-17 bomber.
The F-106 was so fast it set a world speed record of more than 1,500 mph.
“They were an important evolution in fighter capability,” said Michael Rowland, curator of the Museum of Aviation near Warner Robins, Georgia. “They all pushed the limits of the available technology. In fact, the F-106 was still in service into the late ’80s.”
‘My titanium mistress’
All this new technology was being driven by rising Cold War tensions. But it was a hot war in Vietnam that put Goddard in the cockpit of a Super Sabre in 1968 and ’69.
“I called it my titanium mistress, because you depended on it to work exactly as it was designed,” said Goddard. “You depended on your crew chief to make sure everything worked as it should.”
Goddard flew about 180 of his 226 F-100 combat missions in the “titanium mistress,” he said, including support missions where he dropped bombs and used other weapons to support troops fighting on the ground. He also conducted bombing and strafing missions aimed at disrupting enemy supply lines along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Executing bombing runs in the F-100 required “a tremendous mathematical operation in your head,” Goddard said. “You had to determine if your dive angle, drift, altitude and air speed were correct at the moment you released your bombs. All that had to be done in your brain.”
Century Series jets were designed to carry nuclear weapons. But Goddard said his nuke training for the F-100 wasn’t extreme and he never flew one armed with nukes.
“We were aware of the systems that were there, how they would operate and how we would use them, but because were involved in traditional conflict we never really got too much into that,” he said. “A number of airplanes in Europe were configured for that role.”
During one mission, Goddard flew through heavy fire while destroying enemy anti-aircraft positions, for which he was awarded the Silver Star — something he’s proud of, but doesn’t really like to reflect on it. “Lots of other folks have done marvelous acts of bravery in every way,” Goddard said, “but there was never anybody there to report it.”
‘Friends who didn’t come home’
The Defense Department counts 1,785 US Air Force battle deaths during the Vietnam War era. “We lost some very good friends who didn’t come home,” Goddard said.
Now 72, Goddard has been retired since 2000, living in Statham, Georgia, but also serving as a vice president at Mercer University and running unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in 2008.
Over the years, he’s become more thankful that his “titanium mistress” helped keep him alive during combat.
“I began to think I owed that airplane a lot,” Goddard said.
The feeling prompted him to commission an artist to paint a portrait of his Super Sabre. The artist put Goddard in touch with someone whose hobbies included tracking F-100s via their tail numbers.
The tail number for Goddard’s plane led him to Cape Cod’s Otis Air National Guard Base, where he found it displayed outdoors on a pole — being battered by bitter New England winters. “I couldn’t just let it just sit in the cold in Massachusetts,” he said.
He enlisted help from the Museum of Aviation, where he’d once served. Now, months later, the museum has restored Goddard’s old Super Sabre.
“People who have flown these machines in combat have literally risked their lives in them and have survived really crazy things,” said Rowland, the museum curator. “There is an emotional attachment that’s beyond the understanding of somebody like me, who has not been in combat.”
Goddard’s plane will officially be unveiled as a new museum exhibit on June 8.
“It never balked; it never said, ‘I can’t do this,'” Goddard said. “It took some hits and it still brought me home. So, I owe that airplane to sit somewhere where it can be admired and respected.”
Now that the old jet is restored and protected from the elements, Goddard may have finally paid his debt to his titanium mistress.