Politics & Policy

How Five Years in the Air Force Shaped Rick Perry

Every presidential candidate wants to assure the electorate that he has a cool head in a crisis. Former Texas governor Rick Perry — once a captain in the U.S. Air Force — will have a leg up on the competition when he tells voters what he did when one of his C-130’s engines exploded in mid-flight.

The then-26-year-old Perry and his crew were flying from Bermuda back into the United States. Perry had been a captain for six months, and was less than a month away from leaving the Air Force. He remembers his crew for that flight as “inexperienced but well trained” — a second lieutenant co-pilot and a second lieutenant navigator on his first flight in the squadron.

The C-130 was about 24,000 feet above Atlanta, Georgia, when a yellow light on the instrument panel lit up, indicating a potential problem with the No. 3 engine.

“Yellow light flashed, yellow light means a possible overheat. When the yellow light stayed on, everybody puckered up. It’s when the red light goes on and stays on, about 45 seconds later — that’s an engine fire,” Perry tells National Review.

Perry says he instructed his co-pilot to begin the shutdown procedure for the engine by pulling the T-handle, which cuts the power and fuel to the No. 3 engine and dumps a substantial amount of fire retardant onto it.

“I told the loadmaster in the back of the aircraft to look out on the right to see what he could see,” Perry says. “It was a catastrophic turbine failure — a legitimate fire and legitimate disintegration of the turbine. Everything happened at once — all of that blew out the end of the engine. It looked pretty bad from that loadmaster’s view. He reverted back to being a young man. He started speaking — well, he wasn’t using proper flight protocol,” Perry recalls with a chuckle. “There was a lot of profanity.”

Perry and his crew ensured the C-130’s other three engines were working, turned into the wind, diverted to what was then Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, and landed safely.

The former governor says that the blown engine wasn’t even his most frightening experience in a cockpit. He was more scared flying in a thunderstorm over Brussels, Belgium, in 1975.

“It was a harrowing experience,” Perry says, remembering that the cockpit encountered a phenomenon pilots call “St. Elmo’s Fire” — a glowing electrical spark that lasts for several seconds or even a minute, generated by static electricity attracted to the metal of the aircraft.

“Little fuzzy balls of static electricity — you’ve probably seen it in a science project,” Perry says. “They come in different colors, this was almost a neon green. We got into the thunderstorm and it was very, very violent — the vertical-velocity indicator was pegging up and down.” The C-130 emerged from the thunderstorm and landed safely.

Rick Perry

Perry entered the Air Force in 1972, after graduating from Texas A&M. (He was unlikely to be drafted, with a draft number of 275.) He trained on much speedier jets such as T-37s and T-38s, but ended up with the unglamorous job of flying C-130s, usually hauling cargo to U.S. military bases around the world. The young pilot ended up seeing quite a bit of the Cold War world this way, spending several weeks or months stationed in the United Kingdom, West Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

During his time in Saudi Arabia, Perry visited the Aramco compound in the coastal city of Dhahran, where a lot of Americans lived and worked for what was then called the Arabian-American Oil Company and only partially owned by the Saudi Arabian government.

“It was like driving into my wife’s old hometown,” Perry recalls. “Three bedroom, two bathroom, little houses. It looked like a little suburban community, the middle of the Saudi desert. Everybody had a little green lawn. And when you visited, they would open up a closet door, and they would show you where they would make their alcoholic drinks, because alcohol was banned.”

Perry recalls he was in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, a Muslim holiday that requires fasting from sunrise to sundown.

“They weren’t in particularly good humor,” Perry remembers. Even now, other aspects of Saudi Arabia remain striking to him, as well. “As you walk downtown, I don’t even recall seeing a single female. . . . The other observation: They were just learning to drive. I don’t recall seeing a center stripe in the middle of the road, the asphalt was so new.”

Perry’s unit was periodically assigned to transport supplies to U.S. embassies and consulates in Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, but Perry didn’t fly those missions.

“That required a top-secret briefing,” Perry says. “The mission you would fly most often was Rhein-Main Air Base [in Frankfurt, West Germany] to Tempelhof in Berlin [which was divided during the Cold War].”​

Perry sees some geopolitical similarities between the state of the world in the 1970s and today — and frames himself as just the Reaganesque figure needed to usher in a dramatically different era for American stature around the globe.

Perry’s unit regularly flew disaster-relief missions. His unit flew famine relief to Chad and Mali, helped respond to flooding in the Amazon river in South America, and flew support missions for earthquake-relief efforts in Turkey.

“We trained with the Army, we trained with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st,” Perry says. “We got to do a lot of tactical missions, delivering equipment, delivering troops, airdrops. But the relief missions are the ones that I’ll always remember, that really gave me a lot of pride in being an American.”

Perry sees some geopolitical similarities between the state of the world in the 1970s and today — and frames himself as just the Reaganesque figure needed to usher in a dramatically different era for American stature around the globe.

“Carter came into office and started to hollow out the military, the economic malaise, our hostages in Iran — you see this parallel of what’s going on today,” Perry says. “A bit more than a decade later, the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet Communism was defeated because a president came along who understood how important it was to have a strong economy that in turn allows you to afford a strong military, and strong diplomatic influence in the world.”

Perry with a T-38 jet

This cycle, with national-security threats looming large in voters’ minds, Perry will cite his military service much more frequently — and point to it as one decisive edge he has over his GOP rivals. An ad from Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, features Perry telling an audience, “At this particular point I’m looking at the field, and there’s only one individual that’s ever had the uniform of this country on. That’s me, and that matters.”

(Last cycle, Ron Paul was the only other GOP candidate who served in the military besides Perry. This cycle, a pair of lower-profile possibilities, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, also served in the military.)

The question of what kind of experience is best for the GOP nominee is likely to dominate the primary debates. One of Perry’s rivals, Florida senator Marco Rubio, recently stated that “there is no way [governors will] be ready on Day One to manage U.S. foreign policy.”

Asked whether he thinks military service is a non-negotiable qualification for being president, Perry notes that the country has elected people who haven’t served. But he quickly segues from that point to the breadth of his experience as governor — and offers a glimpse of the response he’s likely to offer Rubio in future debates.

“I think most Americans would agree that that experience is priceless, and the only way you get it is by being there and doing it,” Perry concludes. “There’s not a book you can read on this.”

“You want someone who’s had executive experiences,” Perry says. “Having worn the uniform and having been a governor of a state with a substantial military force, and managing the Texas National Guard — all of that experience, you only receive that one way, and that is having been in that spot and making those decisions.”

“No one handed me a manual that says, ‘Here’s how to deal with the Space Shuttle disintegrating over your state.’ No one says, ‘Here’s how to deal with a massive influx of people from a neighboring state fleeing a major hurricane [Hurricane Katrina].’ ‘Here’s how you handle a crisis on your border with people flooding in.’ ‘Here’s how you handle a major disease [the cases of Ebola in a Dallas hospital].’”

“I think most Americans would agree that that experience is priceless, and the only way you get it is by being there and doing it,” Perry concludes. “There’s not a book you can read on this.”

—​ Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.

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