Living Legend Tanker pilot recalls high-flying career
When he was 23 years old, Billy Batson got his wings.
For the next years, Batson, who grew up in Fayetteville, flew all over the world -- the Azores, the Arctic, Europe, Southeast Asia -- flying tankers that refuel planes in midair. He has refueled jets that patrolled the borders of the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, refueled fighter jets during the Vietnam War, and in 1979, when 52 U.S. embassy staff were taken hostage in Tehran, was in charge of air refueling training and tactics in preparation for the rescue attempt.
"It was high adventure," Batson said.
Col. Batson, who lives on Beaver Lake, is now considered a Living Legend by the U.S. Air Force for a career that started with KC-97 propellor-driven tankers in which he logged 1,500 hours, and included 5,000 hours in the KC-135 jet tanker. He retired in April 14, 1980, just days before Operation Eagle Claw was launched, but clearly remembers the challenges that the night-time desert operation presented.
"We had to develop new tactics," he said.
Batson was director of the air refueling tanker division of Strategic Air Command at the time. The challenges: The KC-135, a jet, was going to be used to refuel AC and MC 130s, prop-driven aircraft. The initial airspeed for refueling required the tankers to be near stall speed and the 130s at near top speed, he said. As the tanker offloaded fuel and became lighter, the 130s became heavier and were power limited, thus requiring the aircraft to descend while in contact to allow the prop-driven C130s to maintain airspeed -- a procedure called tobaggoning.
"This was extremelly hazardous because of the necessity to fly at low altitudes across parts of the Mideast to avoid radar detection," Batson said. "Adding to the risk was the necessity to maintian radio and radar silence and no external wing tip or navigation lights. The crews of both aircraft wore night vision devices."
The kidnapping occurred on Nov. 4, 1979. Crews started rehearsing that month. Training pilots was one of Batson's jobs throughout his Air Force career. The three things he always said a pilot needs to understand survive: you've got limits, the airplane has limits and they aren't always the same. There's also the adage about old pilots or bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.
"I'm an old pilot," he said.
Born in Fort Smith in 1934, Batson grew up in Fayetteville, where his father owned the Idle Hours Recreation Parlor on the square and his mother owned Beulah Lee's Beauty Shop on Dixon Street. Back then, you had to be 18 years old to enter a pool hall in Arkansas, Batson said, but his father let him play when the hall was closed on Sundays. When he was in high school, Batson and his friends would frequent a rival establishment during the week.
"At noon, we'd go to the G & R Cafe for a burger, then play snooker at Roger's Pool Hall," Batson said.
Graduating from Fayetteville High School in 1951, he attended the University of Arkansas, where male students were required to take two years of Reserve Officer Training Corps. Batson pursed a business degree, but took advanced R.O.T.C. his junior and senior years. When he graduated in 1955, he was named a distinguished military graduate, and with the draft in effect, postpone his business career and signed up for a three-year stint in the Air Force.
"I never intended to make the Air Force a career," he said.
He started pilot training at Mirana AB in Tucson, choosing tankers because the training was three months as opposed to 18 for fighter pilots. He then trained on B-25s at Vance AFB Enid, Okla., and in July of 1957, got his wings and was assigned to Aircon Refueling at the Strategic Air Command at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. In 1961, he was made an aircraft commander at 27 years old.
"I was one of the youngest in the SAC," he said.
When the Whiteman airfield closed, he and 40 other pilots were sent to Roswell, N.M. to train in KC135s before going to Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico. They had been there three weeks when the Cuban missile crisis struck. Batson remembers being called to the officers' club, where men were sitting behind tables with stacks of money on them. Not having any air time in the KC-135s, the Whiteman pilots were told to return to their former base. When they pointed out that Whiteman was a missile base and had no aircraft, they were told to go to their next base, which was not possible.
"They told us to go home and call in every day at noon," Batson said. "We got an off-base allowance. For a while, we thought war wasn't that bad."
But soon the student pilots were used as co-pilots, so he had the distinction of being on nuclear alert in an airplane that he hadn't yet flown.
After Ramey, he was transferred to Westover, Mass., where he was the personal pilot for Gen. Horace Wade and other commanders of the 8th Air Force. The next year, the entire wing was deployed to Southeast Asia. Batson flew refueling tankers out of Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Ching Chong Khang in Taiwan, and U-Tapao in Thailand. While he wasn't in combat, flying tankers was dangerous, with the most risk at take-off, Batson said. That's when the tankers are at maximum weight-- 285,000 pounds, of which 175,000 pounds was fuel.
"It was hairy sometimes, but you couldn't afford to be scared," he said.
At the time, tanker pilots wore parachutes; later, the impossibility of surviving a crash led to abandoning them, he said. Cross-winds caused two crashes during his tours in SE Asia, one with 40 people aboard. Batson had six engine failures on his second tour, he said, but only one during take-off. The runway at Kadena was 12,000 feet.
"On take-off roll, you'd rotate and barely clear the approach lights," he said.
After being sent stateside to Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., he returned to Vietnam as a war crimes investigator at MAC- Vietnam in Saigon. He worked on 17 cases, and was the principal investigator on seven, including one involving an Army helicopter that shot up five fishing boats in Kien Yangn Province. The military accepted blame and compensated the relatives of the 11 men killed.
"I remember paying off a little Vietnamese woman," he said. "She lost a husband and two sons."
During his two tours in Southeast Asia, Batson flew more than 200 combat support missions, refueling B-52s and fighter jets.
He missed three of four Christmas during that time, he said, and during his 13 years in the Air Force, remembers spending only three Christmas at home with his family.
"Our only Christmas tradition was that we never celebrated Christmas on Christmas day," he said.
But that pales in comparison to what men, women and families in the military have experienced in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said.
His family was back together when Batson was assigned to Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., working on weapons systems concepts. Promoted to Lt. Col., he attended Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., where he graduated with distinction, and was assigned the command of the 380th Air Force Squadron at Plattsburg AFB in northern New York.
At Plattsburgh, a young captain, Art Lichte, was one of the top Aircraft Commanders in Batson's squadron. In 2009, Lichte became the commander of Air Mobility Command as a four-star general, the first tanker pilot to achieve this level.
"He still calls me 'sir'" Batson said.
In 1977, Batson was promoted to colonel, transferred to S.A.C. headquarters in 1978, and in 1979, when an air refueling tanker division was created, Batson became its first director, responsible for all air refueling and air refueling training in the Air Force, with a staff of 30. The position gave him special security clearances.
"Part of my group was in the Black World," he said, referring to military and government intelligence.
As division director, Batson was read into the plans to rescue the hostages, a long shot that the military kept secret. Right before the decision was made to go, Batson got a civilian job offer. Calling a commanding officer, he was told there was no way it was going to go, so accepted the offer. The attempt was made 10 days later, on April 24, 1980, but was aborted after the first night. None of the refueling tankers except one left Egypt, he said, and that was by mistake. Someone told him afterwards that there could have been three miracles, and the operation still wouldn't have worked.
"They lost eight guys," he said. "I knew some of them."
When he retired from the Air Force in 1980, Batson had logged 6,500 hours in the air, a lot for a military pilot, although not for a commercial pilot, he said. He took a marketing job with a military software company in Omaha, and did consider buying a plane, but realized he didn't have enough time to fly regularly. In 1985, he and spouse Susie Batson bought the Redbud Manor Bed and Breakfast in Eureka Springs, which they ran for five years. They now own Susie's Bodacious Bungalow. Batson also serves on the board of Community First Bank, was a Berryville Airport commissioner and involved in the Western Carroll County Community Development Program.
"I painted six houses," he said.
In 2009, the Air Mobility Command under the command of Gen. Lichte started bringing together pilots for "Living Legends" seminars. Batson led a team of retired air refueling crew who presented a seminar on Operation Eagle Claw to Air Mobility Command Headquarters staff and to the Airlift Tanker convention in Nashville.
"I was proud to be chosen," he said of the honor.