30-year veteran Navy pilot had several close calls in the air
ELKINS — A 30-year Navy veteran performed hundreds of flights throughout his career as a military pilot, including flying during the Vietnam War.
Edward John Thaubald III, 86, retired as a captain in the United States Navy in 1985 after three decades of service to the country.
Thaubald said he signed up for the U.S. Navy Flight Program after returning home for a visit from Duke University, where he was going to school, and hearing from his father that the draft board had called to inform him he would be drafted the next month.
His flying career started on day one, because after signing up for the program, Thaubald said he took roughly three hours of tests and was immediately taken to the sky.
“At noon, I finished the last test. I picked up my jacket again and started out the door but the lieutenant commander over there says ‘Where you going?’ and I said, ‘Well, I finished all the tests, I thought I’d go back home,'” Thaubald said. “‘Nope, get your jacket, we’re going flying.’ He put me in a twin engine Beechcraft, we took off, got up to 1,000 feet and he handed it to me and said ‘Here, you drive.’ I got through that part, came back and he landed the aircraft, of course, because I didn’t have any flying experience.”
Later in his career, Thaubald was doing fighter pilot training in Key West, Florida, when he had his first harrowing experience. While training, he lost an engine in his plane while over the water and was forced to eject from the aircraft.
“I went down to Key West, that’s where the training was for the F3H. We were flying practice training along the coast, there is not much to be done on dry land. So, we were circling over the bay down there at Key West. The airplane I had suddenly sounded like it had about 1,000 canaries in a big truck, all sealed up and they were all chirping at once,” Thaubald said. “I looked down at the gauges and, sure enough, the RPM’s were down and the engine was not performing so I tried to fix it by reducing the power back to idle.”
He added he attempted stopping and re-starting the engine several times, to no avail, until the engine wouldn’t relight, turning him into a “glider.”
“At this time, I’m 300 feet over the bay. All in one motion I came off that stick like a jack rabbit, reached up and grabbed the handle, put an ejection flag over my face and I went through the canopy. I didn’t jettison the canopy because I didn’t have time. I went through the canopy,” he said. “My first thought after I was in the air was fear because I had my eyes shut and my visor down because I didn’t want to get any canopy in my face. I felt a little tug and I knew what that was. That little tug stabilizes the seat that you’re in because you are all over the sky in that seat because you are strapped to it. I felt another little tug and I knew what that was, that’s the bigger parachute that’s pulls my parachute out, which it did, and when I felt that, I thought ‘Ah, good.'”
Thaubald said once he hit the water, he got himself detached from the parachute before getting himself into a one-man raft he had with him, firing a tracer shot from his .38 caliber sidearm and being rescued by helicopter pilots. Outside of cuts to his hands from the canopy, Thaubald was unharmed.
He added that incident was the only time he had to “bail out” in his 30-year career.
“I had a couple close calls but that was my only survival one,” he said.
Thaubald later experienced a second “close call” while a member of the oldest squadron in the U.S. Navy and based out of Jacksonville, Florida, when he was given inaccurate navigation coordinates while flying to Rome and nearly running out of gas over the downtown area.
“They sent us to Rome — three airplanes — the other two guys and me. Each of us had a controller on the ship. The guy I got sent me the wrong way. He was the new guy and didn’t know what the hell he was doing with compass reading and what not. He was supposed to have a guy behind him watching what he did and they didn’t put one behind him,” Thaubald said. “I’m getting fed up because I should probably be seeing Rome by now but don’t know how far I am from it. I call and the ship wouldn’t answer me, the guy who was supposed to be picking us up wouldn’t answer me and I’m starting to get peeved. … When I got ahold of someone I was told ‘Rome is 80 miles to your east,’ and that sucker sent me west.”
He explained they were trained to jettison from the aircraft when they get down to 500 pounds of fuel – roughly 75 gallons. He added when he got turned around and could see Rome, he was almost on empty.
“I’m passing over Rome and I say, ‘Don’t quit now, if you quit now you will be the damnedest headline from the New York Post to the San Francisco Chronicle — Navy pilot abandons aircraft into the Vatican.’ That is what went through my mind. Can you imagine that? With my luck I would bail out and put the thing through the front door,” Thaubald said.
When he landed at Rome International Airport he was down to one gallon of fuel and noted while he was trying to safely land the aircraft, forgot to contact airport officials that he was incoming.
“I never called Rome International Airport. This was after 11:30 at night. I never called to Rome International, I don’t know if they had any airliners around and I don’t really give a (expletive) to tell you the truth,” he said. “I was just focused on the blue lights and if anyone was coming this way they were going to get a hell of a surprise. I didn’t ask to land, I didn’t ask for anything.”
He said non-combat situations like this are difficult because you don’t expect them while you plan for combat situations.
“That was my other harrowing experience during my time,” he said. “These were non-combat things, you don’t expect them.”
Thaubald was also involved in several flight missions during the Vietnam War. He added while flying through the Mediterranean, Libyan fighter planes would make passes on Navy pilots and President Ronald Reagan gave them the OK to fire upon them.
“When Ronald Reagan came in as president, we were over Libya in the Mediterranean and that little (expletive) that ran Libya sent airplanes out from the coast and they would make high speed passes on us. We didn’t like that. for obvious reasons. so when Reagan came in, somebody said ‘Mr. President, the Navy is getting ready to go and they will be over in the Mediterranean,'” Thaubald said. “Somebody else chimed in and said ‘That’s a little dicey every now and then off Libya.’ Reagan asked why and they said ‘Well, this guy sends a couple of fighter planes out and they make runs on us. Suddenly they will come out of the clouds or out of the blue. We are just minding our business down here and here comes these guys down on us.'”
He added Reagan asked what the international rule was on this, which officials looked up and discovered it said they could be fired upon.
“It says if you are a foreign aircraft, going against another foreign aircraft that doesn’t know you are there, and you make a pass on them, then you are paid for,” Thaubald said. “What happened was, we were coming through the Mediterranean, doing flight operations and minding our business, and these guys popped out all at once, came down, made a pass on our fighter aircraft and they shot them out of the sky. Got in a dog fight and they took them. They didn’t send anymore out.”
Thaubald was awarded with a chief petty officer pin at the Chief’s Club, a distinction he said was rumored to have only taken place one time before him.
“They pinned a chief petty officers emblem on me. In my 30 years in the Navy I heard a big rumor, one time years before, that that had happened to somebody. I didn’t know him so it didn’t mean much to me but I didn’t know what that really meant,” he said. “They said we have been in several squadrons several times and you’ve got the smoothest-running atmosphere we’ve ever been in. I consider that high praise. Where possible, I would wear that on my shirt above all the ribbons I’ve got.”
An Elkins native, Thaubald has three children — two sons, Edward John Thaubald IV and William Lee Thaubald, and one daughter, Jamie Rush Thaubald. He also has two grandchildren.