Vietnam War pilot and plane reunited after 50 years

A combat veteran matches the tail number on a plane in an East Tennessee museum to the one he flew in Vietnam

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — War pilots earn accolades for the number of planes they shoot down and for successful bombing runs to snuff out enemy troops, but Tony Wylie takes pride in his combat “saves.”

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“I wanted to be involved not just in shooting, but I wanted to be instrumental in helping to get people back from harm’s way,” said combat veteran Tony Wylie.

He flew dozens of risky search-and-rescue missions and spent almost three decades as a pilot across two wars that included Operation Desert Storm and Vietnam. During his combat tour in Southeast Asia flying attack dive bombers known as the A-1 Skyraider, the retired colonel received the military’s highest award for heroism in the sky, The Distinguished Flying Cross.

“It’s a beautiful award and it signifies some level of participation,” said Wylie with a smile. 

The Skyraider was a key tool Wylie used to save Americans in trouble. Now, one of the 1950s-era planes he flew on several missions is on display at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation in Sevierville at the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport: Tail Number AF 39-665 — nicknamed “Lieutenant America.” 

“He’s patched most of the bullet holes, so it’s not really authentic,” Wylie remarked while admiring the restored plane. 

Wylie said a friend happened to notice the Skyraider at the museum and emailed him about it wondering if it was one of the planes he flew. He checked his flight log, and found he flew it on five different occasions.

On one of his 230 missions at war, a piece of the plane deflected a spatula-sized bullet that was aimed at his cockpit. 

“I was hit by a 37m shell in the gun barrel, but it hit the gun barrel instead of my head, so I thought that was really good,” he said.

“Really good” falls dramatically short of describing the skills the military credits Wylie for using to save the lives of others.

He is one of the original nine founders of the recently created Distinguished Flying Cross chapter in East Tennessee. In the hierarchy of military medals the DFC ranks 4th highest.

“I’ve always thought a lot of that particular medal,” said Wylie.

Receiving one DFC is the achievement of a lifetime for most recipients. In the 95-year history of that award, the record awarded to one person is 13. Tony Wylie received nine.

Reflecting on his years of service, the now 78-year old decorated pilot is matter-of-fact when asked how he would sum up his military experience. 

“I was able to do, what I wanted to do.”

In addition to our on-camera interview, Tony Wylie took time to answer the following 10 questions about the impact of his military service on his life.

What one person influenced you most in life?

The reality is no one person can take the blame for how I turned out.  When I was growing up many people in the community had very positive impacts.

Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?

I feel no need to be honored, and I would like to be respected the same as any other citizen.

How can people thank you for your service?

By respecting the flag and honoring our American traditions.

How do you honor your fellow service men and women?

By respecting the flag and honoring our American traditions.

How do you think this generation of military men and women is different or similar to yours?

The modern military has had to face war without end or victory… Sad.  I think that would be very difficult to deal with. Current events have been especially disturbing.

What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?

I think most of the things learned in the military transfer well to the life of an individual citizen.

Does your family have a history of military service?

Would you encourage younger generations in your family to join the service?

Without changes in the current military, I would not advise any of my six grandchildren to serve in the military.

How has your opinion of war changed?

When I first went to war, it was an adventure and a chance to assist my fellow combatants in escaping death at the hands of an enemy. I think war should be fought the way FDR did. Go to win or go home.

How did your military experience shape your faith?

I have always felt that fate controls all events. As in the title of an old flying book “Fate is the Hunter.”

Note: The Boxer 22B SAR, which we talked a lot about, was not the only DFC I was awarded while flying in SEA.

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